In “Retired,” the fifth episode in the delightful second season of Hacks, Susan Essig (Harriet Sansom Harris), a comedy rival from Deborah Vance’s college days, says, “Well, sometimes they use guest actors for levity.” This phrase perfectly describes yet only scratches the surface of the comedic talent that Harriet Sansom Harris brings to this role and the many others across film, television, and theater throughout her career.
Recently, audiences may remember Harris from her pitch-perfect collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson. After making her drunken entrance as Barbara Rose in Phantom Thread and her electric scene as Mary Grady, the talent agent in Licorice Pizza, I found that I can always count on Harris to surprise me and make a film even more memorable.
After a decades-long career in television, notably playing the unscrupulous Bebe Glazer on Frasier and the eccentric Felicia Tilman on Desperate Housewives, Harris earned her first Emmy nomination this year for her performance in Hacks. From her hilarious line deliveries to her subtle, poignant scenes with Jean Smart, Harris once again proves that she’s an actor we can count on to not only bring that levity to her scenes but also show the power and potential of a guest-starring role. I was excited to speak with Harris recently about her reputation as a scene stealer, collaborating with Jean Smart, and how it feels to be nominated for her first Emmy.
Sophia Ciminello: Thank you so much for joining me today, Harriet.
Harriet Sansom Harris: Thank you for wanting to talk.
SC: Of course, and congratulations on your Emmy nomination!
HSH: Thank you very much! It’s very unexpected and very sweet, and it was a nice thing to happen.
SC: And you’ve had such a fantastic career in TV, from Frasier to The X-Files to Desperate Housewives. How does it feel to be nominated for your first Emmy? How did you find out?
HSH: I was in rehearsal for a workshop we were doing in New York, and we had to have COVID nurses in the room with us to monitor and make sure we were doing things properly. He congratulated me, and I assumed it was to say, “I’m so glad you didn’t get COVID on your day off.” (laughs). So, I thought it was either that or because I’d gotten through a scene without making a mistake in my lines. But he said, “no, you’ve been nominated for an Emmy.” So, I thought that was very nice. And he said, “don’t people call you?” and I said, “Well, I guess they will. My agents know I’m at rehearsal, so…” But that’s how I found out.
SC: (laughs) Much better to find out that you were nominated for an Emmy than to find out you have COVID, I’m sure.
HSH: (laughs) Oh yes, yeah, particularly for this show.
SC: So, how did you become involved in this episode of Hacks?
HSH: I’m not quite sure how it happened. I think maybe the producers of Hacks, either Paul or Lucia or Jen or somebody, knew who I was because it came first like an offer, then it became an offer. It was, “Do you want to do it?” and I thought, “Well, sure. Why wouldn’t I want to do it?” But they couldn’t let me see any pages or anything, and I thought, “Well, how would I know if I wanted to do it?” But I had heard a lot about the show, and I think Jean is just terrific, and I’d heard how funny the show was, so I said yes.
They sent me a little snippet, and I thought, “oh, this would be a really fun character.” I was in Mexico at the time, and then I went home and started watching it. I had just gotten access to HBO, having gotten a new phone that came with HBO Max, and I fell in love with the show. I love the writing. I love the character so much. It’s smart and funny, and I’m so glad they wanted me, and I’m glad I said yes because it was a blast.
SC:I’m glad you said yes too. The character you play, Susan Essig, is one of Deborah Vance’s comedy rivals from her past, and even though she’s retired from comedy, she’s quite funny. What drew you to this character?
HSH: Well, I like the idea that people can want the same thing at one point in their life, and an event comes up. Deb thinks it’s one thing. Susan knows it’s another thing that happened that took her down another path. It was really Paul who said after the first scene we’d done, “She’s really still got to be a comedian. She’s really got to have that in her.” And I thought maybe it would only come out every once in a while. So the success of it is due not only to the writing but also his direction and, of course, having a wonderful partner like Jean.
SC: Speaking of the writing, you have some amazing lines. I’ll highlight, “I should go help that bitch,” when you’re in the shoe department. I love that one.
HSH: (laughs) Oh, yeah. Many of my friends who waited tables said, “Oh my God.” If I could add and subtract, I would’ve waited tables too, but there would’ve been a fiasco. So, I haven’t done that part of the service industry.
SC: (laughs). Oh my god, that’s great. Do you have room for improvisation in an episode like this?
HSH: I didn’t improvise, but I think maybe actors who are trained in stand-up or improvisation do. But improv, for me, is something that I’ve done in rehearsal when there’s been a huge amount of time and directors have wanted to explore what happened the moment before a scene, not usually what happens after because if the scenes were written, a whole other event would happen. One summer, I was in a play with Michael Patrick King, who’s an insanely funny person. He had a play that was largely improvised in the room but also largely scripted by Michael.
So that was lots of fun. The saying yes to everything aspect of improv I really enjoyed. But no, I don’t say lines that aren’t scripted. And if I do, it’s a mistake. I really do try to stay with what’s written because somebody spent a lot more time with it than I have.
SC: The writing in this show really is so good, that I think you were just able to put your own spin on the character.
HSH: Yeah. I feel like they probably hire people they think will bring something strong and who won’t need to be led but who certainly can take direction. So, I think that’s where somebody wants you to take your spin on it. They’re hiring you to show up with something. And if it’s not what they want, then they ask you to modify it. But that’s pretty much how it is with the jobs I’ve gotten. They write it; they know that they want either exactly what they think I have to offer or think, “Let’s just see what she’ll do,” and then re-engineer it if it’s not what they want.
SC: When I saw you on this episode of Hacks, I was so excited because I know that from your great roles in Phantom Thread and Licorice Pizza, even when you are in just a scene or two, you always really pack a punch with your performance. Does your process differ when you have limited screen time to help the audience get to know your character?
HSH: Well, I think Paul is a fabulous writer. So, Licorice Pizza, all of that, it was just gold to me, and Phantom Thread too. So, I stuck to what he had written, and then he does leave the camera rolling, so you usually do come up with stuff then, and usually, to make him laugh because otherwise, he won’t call cut, I think (laughs).
And he’s so much fun to work with that you’ll have lots of confidence in your ideas, and that’s the very best kind of director, and I think Paul Downs was like that too. He knew what he wanted, so he had a lot of confidence in the actors he’d chosen. So, he’s a lot of fun to work with too.
I think the smaller the part is, the better it’s written. Then you end up with a little jewel. It’s like a little present that somebody’s given you. And you do look at them differently than if you have a huge arc as a character because you think, “What do I have to deliver right now? How am I acting upon Jean Smart in this instance or the kids in Licorice Pizza?” My purpose is to either obstruct or help something, so it really does narrow that aperture of what you’re supposed to be doing. The same thing in Phantom Thread, is really to upset Woodcock. Just to really mess with him, I think.
SC: (laughs) Well, I think you really succeeded in upsetting him as Barbara Rose.
HSH: (laughs) Thank you.
SC: Of course. So, you mentioned Jean Smart earlier and working with her. I loved watching you two play off of each other; it was definitely a highlight of the season. I know you’d previously worked with her in The Man Who Came to Dinner, so what was it like to work with her again?
HSH: It’s lovely. Jean’s such an open, warm, and friendly person. This may be her mantle: the busiest woman in the show biz right now. But she’s still so personable and lovely and welcoming, a great host on the set, and it was just lovely to see her. We’d been very busy in The Man Who Came to Dinner, and that came together pretty quickly. It wasn’t a long run, and we both had really big parts, so there wasn’t a lot of palling around, but I loved being on stage. And our storylines, although they intersected, we didn’t have a lot of scenes–no scenes together, I don’t think. So, it’s not like I know Jean well, but I admire her so much. She’s just terrific. So, I thought it would be fun. Having not had a lot of scenes with Jean in this play, I thought it would be lovely to spend some time with her as an actress. And it was. She’s just great.
SC: That’s so good to hear. This episode, I think, really highlights what the show does well. You have a good balance of comedic moments with these hard truths that Deborah usually ends up learning by the end of the episode. And I love that moment that you have with her when Deborah reveals what she did, and your character just says, “You think that’s why I quit? It’s not why.” I think it’s a wake-up call for her, but I like that this character reveals that there is another path, that there was another choice.
You’ve been acting for a long time in theater, TV, and film. Have you always felt that this was just something you had to do? Did you feel there was just something that made you do it and stick with it?
HSH: It was something I really wanted to do when I was younger, and I’d say the more I do it, the more I feel like I have to do it. But it wasn’t so much of a need when I started. Like many actors, I was a shy kid, and it did help me come out of myself; I could see that that was therapeutic, and I probably would have an easier time if I were a little bit less reserved. But I don’t think I recognized it as a need so much as, “I think I’m good at this. I think I have a place here, and I would like to explore this.” But the need to do it, I think, came later, in my forties probably. That’s when I really thought, “This is a great way to spend your life.” It’s just fabulous. If it’s for you and if you find joy in it, then it’s a great way to spend your life.
SC: Absolutely. Well, that’s a great way, I think, to wrap up our conversation. I would love to know if you can share what you’re working on next.
HSH: Well, I just finished this play. I’ve got something I’m going to do for Audible, and I have a miniseries I’m doing, but I don’t know if I’m actually allowed to say anything about what the titles of these things are. But I just did a play called When Playwrights Kill, and I think they’re trying to get that to have a longer life somewhere in New York here, maybe next year.
SC: That’s great. I’ll definitely have to go see it when it’s here.
HSH: Yeah, it’s pretty funny.
SC: Oh good. Well thank you so much for talking with me today. I’m such a fan of your work so it was great to talk with you today.
HSH: Oh thank you so much Sophia.
SC: Of course, and good luck with The Emmys!
HSH: Oh yeah, right! (laughs)
SC: (laughs) Right!
HSH: (laughs) yeah, thank you, thank you, that’s very sweet of you, thanks.
Harriet Sansom Harris is Emmy-nominated in the category of Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for the episode “Retired” from Hacks, which is currently streaming on HBO Max.