The funniest scene in Licorice Pizza is shot in a close-up on Harriet Sansom Harris that’s so tight, you can almost smell her cigarette. Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age ode to the seventies-era San Fernando Valley revolves around the relationship between 15-year-old actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and 25-year-old photography assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim). Haim’s scintillating debut performance, Bradley Cooper’s and Sean Penn’s explosive cameos, and a certain sequence involving a high-speed moving truck meandering backward through the Hollywood Hills at night are rightfully regarded as Licorice Pizza’s high points (while its lowest involve two controversial, racist scenes in which John Michael Higgins imitates a Japanese accent).
But it’s Harris, born and raised in Fort Worth, who steals the entire film with just one scene. The character actor behind Bebe Glazer on Frasier and Felicia Tilman on Desperate Housewives portrays Mary Grady, Valentine’s acting agent. She interviews Alana as a potential client in her standout scene. Anderson based Mary Grady on the real Hollywood child talent agent of the same name, but Harris says she didn’t do too much research, as “there wasn’t so much to discover.”
“I’ve met a lot of agents,” she says. “I wasn’t given the whole script, just my part. But it seemed to me like I was here to witness [Alana’s] ascendancy. The kid with the career is possibly on the way out. He’s brought her into my lair, and I’m going to see if she has any potential.”
Harris brings the unhinged Mary to life with a panache that you just can’t take your eyes off. She spends the first part of the discussion listening to Alana’s exaggerated array of talents. When she does respond, it’s with unpredictable edge and intensity. Harris pivots masterfully throughout her few minutes on the screen, from power and seriousness when discussing Alana’s potential career to one line—”No, no, no”—with a new delivery for each syllable.
“She’s making fantastically ridiculous [claims] about how she can do all of these things. And I keep sort of giving her home truths,” explains Harris. “That made for a really fun dynamic in the scene. It was just so much fun. Cooper and Alana were so available and adorable. We were all on a mission to try and have fun.”
Harris has received praise for her performance on social media and in reviews, so it’s especially exhilarating when she tells me that she almost turned the role down. With the COVID-19 pandemic decimating the film, theater, and television industries, Harris decided to bunker down in the Massachusetts woods with her partner, Matt Sullivan.
Then, in the summer of 2020, she received a text message from her agent saying Anderson had written a part in Licorice Pizza that he thought she’d be perfect for. “I just thought, ‘Oh my God. I’m living in the middle of the woods. I haven’t even seen a person in weeks.’ It just seemed highly unlikely.”
But because of her past working relationship with Anderson, Harris couldn’t resist giving the scene a read. Back in 1998, she had read for a small role in Magnolia, which she recalls as simply a “really fun day.” She wasn’t cast, but Harris clearly left an impression.
Nearly twenty years later, when Anderson was making 2017’s Phantom Thread, he cast Harris as drunken heiress Barbara Rose. “I loved the part so much,” says Harris, who only appears in four scenes in the film. “Paul just makes you feel alive on set. Like you’re a necessary ingredient. He is such a great writer. He gives you the essential stuff. The writing tells you what he wants.”
Ultimately, it was Anderson’s writing, and the appeal of collaborating with him as a director again, that convinced Harris to fly to California during a pandemic and spend just one day on set shooting her scene as Mary.
“They were very sweet and gave me some time to think about it. I just thought, ‘Well, if this is the last job I have, if this is going to be it—because who knows what’s gonna happen with [COVID]—I really want it to be with him.’ ”