On impressing Rosie O’Donnell along with her theater credit, hanging with Courtney B. Vance in Canada, and the enduring brilliance of the Harriet costumes.
Picture-Illustration: Vulture; Picture by Paramount Footage

Within the small however mighty subgroup of “films featuring misfit preteen girls whose precociousness frequently leads to trouble,” there’s Little Girls, The Secret Backyard, A Little Princess, Matilda, and, for the Nickelodeon era particularly, Harriet the Spy, a genre-defying film (is it comedy? a drama? a spy caper?) that put then-10-year-old Michelle Trachtenberg on the map, showcased ’90s New York in all its rose-colored glory, and launched a world of viewers to the thrill of tomato-and-mayo sandwiches. When Harriet, based mostly on a 1964 Louise Fitzhugh novel of the identical identify, was launched in 1996, it was a reasonable success on the field workplace, incomes a complete of $26 million on a $12 million price range. VHS shoppers will keep in mind the orange-clamshell launch that includes two Rugrats episodes (the pilot of Hey Arnold! was proven forward of the film in theaters), a relic of its house viewing recognition. Critics, although, had been much less effusive, with most praising Trachtenberg and co-star Rosie O’Donnell’s performances however criticizing its slow pacing and lack of a real plot (harsh, however truthful).

Twenty-five years after the film hit theaters, we referred to as up J. Smith-Cameron, the veteran actress (and present Succession star) who performed Violetta Welsch, Harriet’s mom, to parse by the story they ended up filming and the whole lot that occurred behind the scenes, too. Cameron spoke to Vulture — a day earlier than leaving for Italy to movie scenes for the HBO hit later documented on her Instagram (and within the pages of New York Journal) — about impressing O’Donnell along with her Broadway bona fides, hanging out with Courtney B. Vance in Toronto, and the enduring brilliance of the Harriet costume design.

What do you keep in mind out of your audition?
So the primary screenplay was written by Theresa Rebek, who I actually admired lots, and I feel she then was changed and it was rewritten between the time I auditioned and bought there. So after I first learn my audition scenes, Mrs. Welch was form of caught up, and he or she talked to Harriet like an grownup. She was form of arch. And I believed I gave a really humorous audition doing that, not pulling the punches of that.

Then after I bought the script, it was all totally different and he or she was way more heat and fuzzy. And Harriet was spunky however not — you know the way within the e book, Harriet is an oddball? She’s like Lynda Barry or Fran Lebowitz in baby type. And Rosie O’Donnell’s Golly can be a really, very particular character within the e book. They’re all oddballs within the e book. And this was form of like a brighter, sunnier [version]. So it was a bit schizophrenic for me in my thoughts as a result of I had gotten the half studying some model in between the e book and what it ended up as.

However after I noticed the film, I used to be very pleased with it. I believed it was actually nice and actually charming and had a extremely recent look … but it was barely complicated as a result of it didn’t fairly really feel just like the e book. It had its personal little universe that was very true to itself, and really recent and humorous and candy, however only a totally different tone. I’ve an actual fondness for it, and it was a extremely magical time.

It sounds such as you had been a giant fan of the e book initially.
Sure, I used to be. There’s lots concerning the e book that simply instantly will get your consideration while you learn it. It nearly doesn’t learn like a kids’s e book. You recognize what I imply? It’s not a toddler’s world, precisely. It’s form of droll … Harriet’s very snarky, nevertheless it got here out of her being precocious and an solely baby. In New York, kids are form of subtle in a means, and but there’s one thing provincial about them as a result of they’ll’t go anyplace and be wowed by anyplace they go to as a result of they’ve already been in New York. And as somebody who didn’t develop up in New York, I keep in mind marveling at it, {that a} child might be that blunt or that frank on her personal.

How did the difference’s change in tone really feel to you, when you noticed the film?
I nearly consider it as two separate issues. There’s the novel I cherished, and the characters I cherished from the novel, after which our film, which I additionally cherished, however was not Harriet the Spy, precisely. So I really feel prefer it was a captivating film, however in my thoughts, it’s very totally different from the e book. However each issues can exist. And in a means, you’d nearly relatively that. When you actually cherished the e book, it’s nearly like, don’t attempt to be the e book. Do your individual factor. And that’s form of what they did.

I learn that the film was filmed in Toronto, regardless of being a traditional New York story. 
It’s such a New York story! I nonetheless really feel that there could also be one other model of Harriet the Spy that’s actually shot in New York. As a result of it’s such a traditional, it might be performed time and again.

I keep in mind that we stayed on this cool lodge in Toronto. There have been folks I knew from one other forged, perhaps two different casts, within the lodge, too. I keep in mind Courtney Vance was there — I had gone means again with Courtney, I had identified him in my early 20s — and I keep in mind hanging out with him slightly bit within the lodge. It was only a very festive, jolly time. And I keep in mind being very impressed by all of the native Canadian actors. They’d all these actually crème de la crème character actors who had been Canadian in Harriet, all of whom had been, I believed, fantastic.

Most of your scenes within the movie had been with Michelle Trachtenberg, who was solely 10 when she began filming however was already a toddler star due to The Adventures of Pete & Pete. What was it like working along with her? 
She was this very interesting, bubbly, very lovely baby star from Nickelodeon. And she or he was feeling her oats, however not in an obnoxious means. It was like the whole lot was taking off for her. However she was candy about it. And I simply keep in mind her taking it very critically. A real skilled. She and I form of rediscovered one another on Twitter just a few years in the past. She was so candy and bubbly within the messages, once more.

Harriet the Spy got here out in 1996, the identical yr as The Rosie O’Donnell Present debuted. How was having Rosie as a co-star?
Golly [in the movie] was utterly totally different from the character within the e book, however Rosie was so recreation and really pure and ebullient within the half. Despite the fact that it was very totally different, I believed it labored. It was the primary time I bought to know Rosie, and I keep in mind that she had seen me in performs, and he or she was very obsessed with working with me. After which at one level within the make-up trailer, I keep in mind her telling me that she thought I seemed like Patti LuPone, which I’d by no means heard earlier than, so I used to be form of thrilled by it. She was simply very heat and pleasant.

After which the subsequent yr after it got here out, I feel in ’97 or ’98, I used to be on this play referred to as As Bees in Honey Drown, and it was form of a giant hit Off Broadway, and I had this actual tour-de-force half. And I keep in mind on [O’Donnell’s] discuss present, her speaking about it and saying, “Oh my friend J. Smith-Cameron is fantastic in that play, what did you think of it?” And she or he’s speaking to Russell Crowe, and it wasn’t his form of play. However he did say he thought I used to be definitely worth the value of admission.

You’ve a fantastic scene with Rosie early on, when Mrs. Welsch tells her she’s been fired after taking Harriet out into the town with out her dad and mom’ information.
Oh, gosh. I want I remembered it higher. I do keep in mind it was very chilly and I used to be in a night robe. That was nice.

Do you continue to keep up a correspondence with Rosie in any respect? 
I do, as a result of Rosie’s so political, too, and so outspoken. I had contacted her to be a part of some marches and stuff like that. So we form of stayed in contact on social media, principally. As a result of nobody was actually in contact in actual life for some time.

You additionally had a fantastic dynamic with Robert Pleasure, who performed Harriet’s dad, Ben Welsch.
I’d identified however by no means labored with him, and he’s form of a legend within the New York theater world and the movie world. I form of seemed as much as him … he’s like a star in my thoughts, this actually distinctive, cool actor.

I keep in mind a scene with Bob and Michelle the place we’re form of coping with her, and we had this repartee, and I had such pleasure working with Bob and this charming child. I feel Bob and I each felt slightly bit like we had been straddling the e book characters and the best way the entire film was form of conceived. I felt like we had been each attempting to be slightly bit buttoned-up and starchy, and I believed that labored out okay.

Considered one of my favourite issues about Harriet is that she’s the uncommon younger feminine character who’s not good — the truth is, she’s form of an asshole, typically. She alienates her mates and writes such imply issues about them.
Completely. She’s a beyotch. She actually is. She’s form of slightly monster. She’s form of grouchy, and you may infer that she’s bought an entire “this is a sophisticated kid that’s younger than her inner life” factor. She’s nonetheless gotta work out issues. She’s assumed a sophistication and maturity that she doesn’t have but. And that’s such a New York-y factor, you recognize?

The film had a feminine director, Bronwen Hughes, which was a reasonably large deal for the time, and nonetheless is. 
It was actually thrilling to have a feminine director, so I actually appreciated that. Bronwen was like Puck or one thing. She was similar to the Pied Piper, energetic. She was the proper particular person to direct that film. Very a lot her personal particular person and really inventive and genuine and energetic.

I learn an interview with Vanessa Lee Chester, who performed Harriet’s buddy Janie, the place she stated she remembered the director all the time dancing and enjoying music on set to maintain the children energized. What was it like working with so many baby actors?
I like working with youngsters, and I’ve performed a mother a lot in my profession that that occurs lots. And showbiz youngsters are normally slightly totally different than different youngsters, however these youngsters had been the nicest model of that, in case you can learn between the traces there. I believed all the child performers had been improbable.

On a special notice, after I rewatched the film, I spotted that the garments, by costume designer Donna Zakowska, are improbable. Those ’90s sweaters!
I keep in mind being so impressed along with her, and I believed that she dressed us so significantly. I had satin fits that felt like they had been nearly a callback to the unique period the e book is written in, and different issues that had been very of the second, so she was form of bridging the e book and the flavour of the film, which had a special world to it.

After which I used to be on the premiere for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, again each time that was — the previous few years, I don’t learn about you, however I couldn’t let you know the time when it was — I keep in mind seeing [Zakowska] and being so knocked out watching the garments in Maisel. And after I noticed it was the girl from Harriet the Spy who’d performed the garments, I used to be like, that is sensible.

Okay, we have to speak about these tomato sandwiches.
The tomato sandwiches! Hear, I’ll have you recognize that I purchased a tomato from a farm stand driving into the Hamptons yesterday, and I went, “I’m gonna have a Harriet the Spy tomato sandwich.”

With mayo?
Yeah! I imply, it’s hilarious. However I used to be the odd child who favored tomato sandwiches after I was little, too.

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Douglas Petrie co-wrote the script.

Vance appeared in The Preacher’s Spouse the identical yr that Harriet was in theaters.

The grownup Canadian actors included Sally Cahill as a maid, Jackie Richardson as Janie’s mom, and Robert Pleasure as Harriet’s father.

Smith-Cameron made her Broadway debut in 1982 in Crimes of the Coronary heart. She has appeared in lots of Broadway and Off Broadway performs since then.

Smith-Cameron performed Alexa, a con artist, in a job that earned her an Obie Award, a Drama Desk nomination, and an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination.

Harriett was Hughe’s directorial debut, which she adopted up with Forces of Nature.


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