Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall 1990

An Ozarks Woman In The Movies

An interview with Tess Harper

Academy award-nominated actress Tess Harper grew up in the Ozarks. Born in the small town of Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, she attended Arkansas State University, Beebe; and Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield. She now lives in Beverly Hills, California, but frequently returns to visit. She says that her experiences in the Ozarks and her memories of Ozarkers influence her work as an actress.

Harper is best known for her portrayal of Rosa Lee, the strong young widow in her first film, Tender Mercies, in which she starred opposite Robert Duvall, and for her role as Chick in Crimes of the Heart for which she received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.

Guest Editor Julie Bloodworth visited Tess Harper on location in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where she was working on the feature film, Man in the Moon.

OZW: You got your career start in Texas. What led to your being cast in Tender Mercies?

Tess: I had moved to Dallas, primarily because I didn't have the guts to move to New York or L.A. Dallas had an active theater and acting community and there were also a lot of films being shot in Texas at that time as well as a lot of commercials and industrials. That adds up to money for acting. I had hit thirty and I knew that I either had to go to graduate school or redirect my life in some way. So I thought, Well, what the heck, I'll give it three years in Dallas.

The first year and a half I was there, I did dinner theater and I did commercials for IBM and banks all over that area. One day after taking an acting class with a casting director, I got a call from her saying that she was casting this film called Tender Mercies, that Robert Duvall was going to be in it, and that an Australian was going to direct it. She said she would like the director to meet me. He was Australian, and he didn't know he couldn't cast the lead of a film out of Dallas, Texas. All the circumstances were right, and I was prepared; I had been acting all this time. The amazing thing about Tender Mercies was that I just knew those people so well.

OZW: Rosa Lee, the character you played in Tender Mercies, is a young widow who's deeply rooted in traditional values. Did you connect with her in that respect?

Tess: In some ways, it was the road not taken. I actually patterned that woman on two things. One was my father, who is extremely stoic and is not well-equipped to verbalize how he feels, like a lot of men of his generation. It doesn't mean he feels any less; it means that he doesn't articulate how he feels. He believes you accept what life has to offer. The character in Tender Mercies has had some sad things happen to her in her life, and she accepts that they were sad and goes on.

The other thing I patterned her on was a line in the Bible during Jesus' life as a young boy when he did extraordinary things. The line is something to the effect of, "And Mary watched these things and kept them in her heart." In other words, she just observed and took it in. And I thought,"That's just what Rosa Lee does." Rosa Lee is the best-written example of Christian grace I have seen--a non-judgmental, accepting human being who has values that she believes in and lives by, but who doesn't ring a bell above her head saying, "Look at me being wonderful." She is comfortable in her surroundings. She's an observer of other people, but without judging them because she realizes she does not have the facility or the wisdom or the godliness to judge what other people do. That's a remarkable trait, and very few people have it.

OZW: Almost on the opposite end of the scale is Chick the Stick, the character in Crimes of the Heart for which you received an Oscar nomination. Do you think she might come from the same environment as Rosa Lee?

Tess: Absolutely. They both came from the same environment, but Chick feels that she has a greater understanding than almost anyone and therefore is in a position to know what is right and to dictate that to everyone around her. Also, Chick has very strong social criteria of how the family should behave in public and what will embarass the family. She will beat the drum and badger everyone else into trying to get in a straight little line. She also is jealous and vindictive. But in a lot of ways, I think Chick is absolutely right. Her three cousins are the embarassment of the family.

It's important to Chick that people know she's well-connected in the community, that she's joined the right club, and that she's doing the right thing. Chick has never had an editorial pause in her brain process, so that anything she thinks goes directly out of her mouth. I've used family examples for that trait, too, none of whom I would like to identify, not being a complete fool.

I think Chick is more a product of the Deep South where social structure is so important. Beth Henley, who wrote Grimes of the Heart, came out of the Deep South. Horton Foote, the author of Tender Mercies, wrote about East Texas people who in many ways have a lot in common with Ozarkers in that a lot of them are of Scotch-Irish descent. They probably came across the Mississippi River about the same time.

OZW: You grew up in the town of Mammoth Spring, Arkansas. How do you remember the town?

Tess: Looking back, it was kind of a Norman Rockwellish childhood. The doors weren't locked; everyone knew everyone; everyone was related to everyone. The people in town had families that had been there for four or five generations. I really got a strong sense of who I was and how I fit into the family structure. Maybe I had even more of a sense of how I fit into the family structure than of who I was individually, for family was extremely important.

I remember going to fish-fries and making homemade ice cream in the summertime and one of my aunts played the piano, and one of my uncles played the fiddle, and they sang; that kind of pre-radio entertainment the community actually provided for itself.

OZW: How did growing up in this Norman Rockwell environment influence your political and social beliefs?

Tess: I guess if you are an individualist, you protect that part of you. My home town is not an area of extreme ethnic or cultural diversity so I had no preconceived notions about what other people were; but I also didn't seem to have any fear of people who were different. A lot of us children of the fifties and sixties got so much information over the television and the radio that we were more connected to the outside world than the generations before us. I've always had an intense curiosity about what's over the next hill.

OZW: Did you read a lot?

Tess: I was a pale child with extremely sensitive skin, which meant that if I played in the weeds I got chigger bites and tick bites; or I would be sunburned beyond recognition and have water blisters. So, yes, I spent a great deal of my youth on the front porch swing reading. I was very much in love with the stories I would read, and I'd actually take little fantasy trips into the pages of the literature.

And television fascinated me. You would have to pull me away from it, and if I had fifty cents to go to the matinee on Saturday or Sunday, I would go.

OZW: Do you think there's a connection between that kind of childhood escapism, which you obviously enjoyed, and what you're doing now?

Tess: I've always wondered what other people were like. I've always had a longing to step into someone else's shoes and try to understand what they see and how they interpret their set of facts because it's all subjective. I find it fascinating that you can put two people, even siblings, in a given situation, and they're going to perceive the same facts differently; their memories will be different. It's a very individual thing. And that appeals to me in acting.

OZW: Growing up in the Ozarks, did you have many theatrical experiences?

Tess: When I was a little child, I was under the mistaken impression that I could sing, and I was encouraged because I had the guts to stand up and sing "Oh, My Papa" to the P.T.A. I remember, as a very young child, singing"Tammy, Tammy, Tammy's in Love" and "Oh, My Papa," and maybe even taking a stab at the national anthem. If they needed an idiot to volunteer for something like that, I was front and center. My early fantasies were always about performance. I wanted to be a ballet dancer. Well, that was kind of hard in Mammoth Spring because there wasn't a ballet teacher within forty miles. I would have liked to have been a musician, but there was only one music teacher and she played at the Baptist church. Now I'm sure she played very well, but that type of piano playing didn't seem to appeal to me .There were three of us in the fourth grade who would sing "Teen Angel" for anybody at the drop of a hat. I got the high notes.

I didn't see any plays actually performed, although I started reading plays. I had an exceptional English teacher in high school who saw my interest in literature, and had what you would now call a gifted reading program for about four of us. We could eat the books so fast that she guided us toward reading plays. At first I thought, Well, this is silly reading, and then I realized my imagination could take hold reading a play even more because things weren't spelled out for me. I didn't start truly doing work in theater until I went to college. OZW: You've worked with the Big Sister organization. What led to your interest in Big Sisters?

Tess: I was a big sister in Houston. I'd quit doing professional theater for a while because I thought there was no way to make a decent living at it and continued to give most of my energy to a non-professional theater group. I had quite a bit of time on my hands and a friend said, "You should think about getting involved in the community." I really enjoyed Big Sisters.

OZW: Why? What did you get out of the experience?

Tess: At that time, most people I knew were professional women with no children, or single people with no children. It was one of the first times in my life where I wasn't surrounded by children; I always had kids on my hip from the time I was twelve. I also have a degree in Education. I liked the idea of one-on-one involvement with a child. Big Sisters takes about four hours a week, so I wasn't going to change anyone's life drastically, but I hoped to give a kid from a depressed socio-economic background a chance.

The child that I had was this lovely little girl; she was ten years old. She and her younger brother and sister lived with their grandmother who had cataracts and couldn't do for the children. It was the grandmother who called the Big Sister organization. This little girl, because she was the oldest of the siblings, didn't have a chance to be a little girl and to be young and not be responsible for someone else, except when she was with me. Big Sisters gets the kids out of their world for awhile; it gives them a break, and it gives them a chance to look around and see options that they may not be aware of. Their little minds just soak it up like a sponge, and I think ultimately it gives them a good sense about themselves and is good for their self esteem.

OZW: You did some traveling children's theater in Texas. Why was that type of theater satisfying for you?

Tess: I was performing! We were doing mostly folktales, good-to-great literature, for these kids. Their imaginations are so open. You can put a box on the floor and say, "This is Cinderella's castle," and in their minds, it becomes Cinderella's castle. You don't have to be literal with children, and they enjoy it so much. I particularly liked visiting the schools for hearing-im-paired and deaf children because we had to learn a little signing and it was a different way to communicate. It was really exciting. It was also exhausting.

OZW: When you visit the Ozarks now, do you see it differently than the way you did when you lived there?

Tess: I think I have a greater respect for the area. I get frustrated with some elements of that society, but then I think some elements of that society are fairly frustrated with me. I think I worry about it like I worry about the whole heartland of America. Young people grow up there, try desperately to find ways to stay there and raise their families, but can't come up with a way to do it, so they have to leave. Some economies can't support everyone who wants to stay, but it would be nice if they could.

I remember the Ozarks as being a fairly pristine place. We used to drink out of the creeks when I was growing up there and nobody got sick, and now people can't do that. All the problems of the outside world are there now--it's not a protected frontier the way it was. That's both good and bad. The women only two generations back in my family were pioneer women. They lived under pioneer conditions, and they raised their children under pioneer conditions. There's a certain strength in that that I don't think our generation has. I value that. I value the fact that so many of those people were as tough and eh-during as the rocks that make up the hills of the Ozarks.

OZW: How do you envision your life had you never left the Ozarks?

Tess: I don't think I would have been happy staying there. If I could have gone out, at some point, and done some of the things I wanted to do and then come back, I think I would have been happy. I had very little regard for the area as a teenager, but I have a much greater regard for it now, looking back into it. It's a beautiful, beautiful part of America. Sometimes I have wonderful fantasies of building a Icg cabin retreat there and going back and writing the great mediocre American novel. Maybe someday, I will.

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