Funny lady Jenn Harris on singing serial killers, doomed ballerinas and Carol Burnett
It’s a fine line between downtown kitsch and clever parody and SILENCE! The Musical stays on the right side of that line. With song titles like “Put The Fucking Lotion In The Basket” and “If I Could Smell Her Cunt” it could easily play to the lowest common denominator. But leading lady Jenn Harris does for Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling what Carol Burnett once did for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – zeroes in on what made the original so appealing in the first place. Harris may play Foster’s southern rube accent to the hilt, but she gets even more laughs from her deadpan send-up of Foster’s intensity. And just as Bette and Joan adored Carol’s impressions, Harris has won the approval of two-time Oscar-winning actress Foster, who snuck in to see the show and sent her a letter of congratulations.
There’s no doubt that things are heating up in her world, but she’s keeping it in check as she shakes off her pre-show jitters in her East Village dressing room. “It’s not like I got cast in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the very next day was on the cover of Interview magazine,” she says. “But am I blowing up in the downtown gay scene? Absolutely! And I kinda like that better anyway.” She may be a straight woman, but what she’s found in the gay scene is acceptance. “Gay men take me very seriously and see me as a whole person. And that frees me up to be myself.”
Being a quirky woman, she notes, can make it difficult to find your place. “With men it’s more acceptable to be out there, be different, be weird. But for women to be extroverted in most communities it’s still taboo. And the truth is, I’m not a weird person. I’m just doing my thing.”
The statement speaks volumes on how far she’s come from her uptight childhood. Born to blue collar parents in rural Illinois, she was a driven, serious kid. “Playing every sport and getting good grades was a very big deal for me growing up. I put a lot of pressure on myself.” Then a high school turn as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls revealed a natural talent for showmanship. More importantly, it allowed her to finally let go: “I felt comfortable on stage in a way I never had before.”
In a twist on the old cliché, it was her parents who pushed her away from pre-med. She shakes her head as she remembers. “It sounds made up, but they had to convince me that I could always come back for the medical degree if the whole acting thing didn’t work out.”
Off-stage she’s still that meticulous, type-A girl from her youth, “hyper-organizing everything,” but the minute she hits the boards all that need for control goes away. “I’m messy up there. I don’t feel right if I hold anything back, there’s just no point in living that way.”
"'It’s not like I got cast in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the very next day was on the cover of Interview magazine. No. But am I blowing up in the downtown gay scene? Absolutely!' -- Jenn Harris, on her growing popularity"
That fearlessness is also on full display every month at Joe’s Pub where she performs in the hipster cabaret show Our Hit Parade. Watch the outlandish clips on YouTube and you’ll see why she calls the show her greatest source of inspiration. “I will never give it up, it’s like a muscle for me.” This is where she learned to just let it all hang out and trust her instincts. “I don’t question myself anymore, or if people are gonna like it, or if what I’m doing is right. I just do it.”
Last winter she landed on the New York Magazine “The Approval Matrix” for her send-up of Natalie Portman’s doomed ballerina from Black Swan – itself already a camp classic. Along with her cohorts at the QWAN Company they were able to get laughs just playing the source material straight – well, almost straight. Men played many of the female parts. “When they’re dropping gold like self-mutilation and lesbian seduction all we have to do is show up and commit.”
Her first leading role in the feature film, Gayby, about a straight woman teaming up with her gay best friend to have a baby is starting to heat up the film festival circuit. So what’s the dream? “Sometimes I feel like what I’m looking for isn’t out there yet, I need to create it.” Then again, “I look at The Carol Burnett Show and that’s what I love. I want to be on TV. Fuck it, I’m gonna say it. I do.”
But for now, she’s having the time of her life thriving in a part tailor made for her wry eccentricity. With an open run at P.S. 122 and a soundtrack CD signing and performance at Barnes & Noble, the wacky little musical has grown up. Director Jonathan Demme brought the original The Silence of the Lambs crew and couldn’t stop raving. “You never know who’s gonna show up backstage,” Harris says. “We’ve had everyone from Josh Groban to James Earl Jones – which was everything!” Turning to her hairstylist, she asks, “Who was that woman I called an asshole?”
“Oh yeah, I called Joan Rivers an asshole. She said something really funny and I called her an asshole. She was so great.”
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