role call

J. Smith-Cameron Answers Every Question We Have About Harriet the Spy

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

In the small but mighty subgroup of “films featuring misfit preteen girls whose precociousness frequently leads to trouble,” there is Little Women, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Matilda, and, for the Nickelodeon generation specifically, Harriet the Spy, a genre-defying movie (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 introduced a world of viewers to the joys of tomato-and-mayo sandwiches. When Harriet, based on a 1964 Louise Fitzhugh novel of the same name, was released in 1996, it was a moderate success at the box office, earning a total of $26 million on a $12 million budget. VHS consumers will remember the orange-clamshell release featuring two Rugrats episodes (the pilot of Hey Arnold! was shown ahead of the movie in theaters), a relic of its home viewing popularity. Critics, though, were less effusive, with most praising Trachtenberg and co-star Rosie O’Donnell’s performances but criticizing its slow pacing and lack of a real plot (harsh, but fair).

Twenty-five years after the movie hit theaters, we called up J. Smith-Cameron, the veteran actress (and current Succession star) who played Violetta Welsch, Harriet’s mother, to parse through the story they ended up filming and everything that happened behind the scenes, too. Cameron spoke to Vulture — a day before leaving for Italy to film scenes for the HBO hit later documented on her Instagram (and in the pages of New York Magazine) — about impressing O’Donnell 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 remember from your audition?
So the first screenplay was written by Theresa Rebek, who I really admired a lot, and I think she then was replaced and it was rewritten between the time I auditioned and got there. So when I first read my audition scenes, Mrs. Welch was sort of stuck up, and she talked to Harriet like an adult. She was kind of arch. And I thought I gave a very funny audition doing that, not pulling the punches of that.

Then when I got the script, it was all different and she was much more warm and fuzzy. And Harriet was spunky but not — you know how in the book, Harriet is an oddball? She’s like Lynda Barry or Fran Lebowitz in child form. And Rosie O’Donnell’s Golly is also a very, very specific character in the book. They’re all oddballs in the book. And this was sort of like a brighter, sunnier [version]. So it was a bit schizophrenic for me in my mind because I had gotten the part reading some version in between the book and what it ended up as.

But when I saw the movie, I was very proud of it. I thought it was really great and really charming and had a really fresh look … yet it was slightly confusing because it didn’t quite feel like the book. It had its own little universe that was very true to itself, and very fresh and funny and sweet, but just a different tone. I have a real fondness for it, and it was a really magical time.

It sounds like you were a big fan of the book originally.
Yes, I was. There’s a lot about the book that just immediately gets your attention when you read it. It almost doesn’t read like a children’s book. You know what I mean? It’s not a child’s world, exactly. It’s kind of droll … Harriet’s very snarky, but it came out of her being precocious and an only child. In New York, children are sort of sophisticated in a way, and yet there’s something provincial about them because they can’t go anywhere and be wowed by any place they visit because they’ve already been in New York. And as someone who didn’t grow up in New York, I remember marveling at it, that a kid could be that blunt or that frank on her own.

How did the adaptation’s change in tone feel to you, once you saw the movie?
I almost think of it as two separate things. There’s the novel I loved, and the characters I loved from the novel, and then our movie, which I also loved, but was not Harriet the Spy, exactly. So I feel like it was a charming movie, but in my mind, it’s very different from the book. But both things can exist. And in a way, you’d almost rather that. If you really loved the book, it’s almost like, don’t try to be the book. Do your own thing. And that’s sort of what they did.

I read that the movie was filmed in Toronto, despite being a classic New York story. 
It’s such a New York story! I still feel that there may be another version of Harriet the Spy that’s really shot in New York. Because it’s such a classic, it could be done again and again.

I remember that we stayed in this cool hotel in Toronto. There were people I knew from another cast, maybe two other casts, in the hotel, too. I remember Courtney Vance was there — I had gone way back with Courtney, I had known him in my early 20s — and I remember hanging out with him a little bit in the hotel. It was just a very festive, jolly time. And I remember being very impressed by all the local Canadian actors. They had all these really crème de la crème character actors who were Canadian in Harriet, all of whom were, I thought, wonderful.

Most of your scenes in the film were with Michelle Trachtenberg, who was only 10 when she started filming but was already a child star thanks to The Adventures of Pete & Pete. What was it like working with her? 
She was this very appealing, bubbly, very beautiful child star from Nickelodeon. And she was feeling her oats, but not in an obnoxious way. It was like everything was taking off for her. But she was sweet about it. And I just remember her taking it very seriously. A true professional. She and I kind of rediscovered each other on Twitter a few years ago. She was so sweet and bubbly in the messages, again.

Harriet the Spy came out in 1996, the same year as The Rosie O’Donnell Show debuted. How was having Rosie as a co-star?
Golly [in the movie] was completely different from the character in the book, but Rosie was so game and very natural and ebullient in the part. Even though it was very different, I thought it worked. It was the first time I got to know Rosie, and I remember that she had seen me in plays, and she was very enthusiastic about working with me. And then at one point in the makeup trailer, I remember her telling me that she thought I looked like Patti LuPone, which I’d never heard before, so I was kind of thrilled by it. She was just very warm and friendly.

And then the next year after it came out, I think in ’97 or ’98, I was in this play called As Bees in Honey Drown, and it was kind of a big hit Off Broadway, and I had this real tour-de-force part. And I remember on [O’Donnell’s] talk show, her talking about it and saying, “Oh my friend J. Smith-Cameron is fantastic in that play, what did you think of it?” And she’s talking to Russell Crowe, and it wasn’t his kind of play. But he did say he thought I was worth the price of admission.

You have a great scene with Rosie early on, when Mrs. Welsch tells her she’s been fired after taking Harriet out into the city without her parents’ knowledge.
Oh, gosh. I wish I remembered it better. I do remember it was very cold and I was in an evening gown. That was great.

Do you still keep in touch with Rosie at all? 
I do, because Rosie’s so political, too, and so outspoken. I had contacted her to be part of some marches and stuff like that. So we kind of stayed in touch on social media, basically. Because no one was really in touch in real life for a while.

You also had a great dynamic with Robert Joy, who played Harriet’s dad, Ben Welsch.
I’d known but never worked with him, and he’s sort of a legend in the New York theater world and the film world. I kind of looked up to him … he’s like a star in my mind, this really unique, cool actor.

I remember a scene with Bob and Michelle where we’re kind of dealing with her, and we had this repartee, and I had such joy working with Bob and this charming kid. I think Bob and I both felt a little bit like we were straddling the book characters and the way the whole movie was kind of conceived. I felt like we were both trying to be a little bit buttoned-up and starchy, and I thought that worked out okay.

One of my favorite things about Harriet is that she’s the rare young female character who’s not nice — in fact, she’s kind of an asshole, sometimes. She alienates her friends and writes such mean things about them.
Totally. She’s a beyotch. She really is. She’s sort of a little monster. She’s sort of grouchy, and you can infer that she’s got a whole “this is a sophisticated kid that’s younger than her inner life” thing. She’s still gotta work out things. She’s assumed a sophistication and maturity that she doesn’t have yet. And that’s such a New York-y thing, you know?

The movie had a female director, Bronwen Hughes, which was a pretty big deal for the time, and still is. 
It was really exciting to have a female director, so I really appreciated that. Bronwen was like Puck or something. She was just like the Pied Piper, energetic. She was the perfect person to direct that movie. Very much her own person and very creative and authentic and full of life.

I read an interview with Vanessa Lee Chester, who played Harriet’s friend Janie, where she said she remembered the director always dancing and playing music on set to keep the kids energized. What was it like working with so many child actors?
I like working with kids, and I’ve played a mom so much in my career that that happens a lot. And showbiz kids are usually a little different than other kids, but those kids were the nicest version of that, if you can read between the lines there. I thought all the kid performers were fantastic.

On a different note, when I rewatched the movie, I realized that the clothes, by costume designer Donna Zakowska, are fantastic. Those ’90s sweaters!
I remember being so impressed with her, and I thought that she dressed us so particularly. I had satin suits that felt like they were almost a callback to the original era the book is written in, and other things that were very of the moment, so she was kind of bridging the book and the flavor of the movie, which had a different world to it.

And then I was at the premiere for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, back whenever that was — the last few years, I don’t know about you, but I could not tell you the time when it was — I remember seeing [Zakowska] and being so knocked out watching the clothes in Maisel. And when I saw it was the lady from Harriet the Spy who’d done the clothes, I was like, that makes sense.

Okay, we need to talk about those tomato sandwiches.
The tomato sandwiches! Listen, I’ll have you know that I bought 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 mean, it’s hilarious. But I was the odd kid who liked tomato sandwiches when I was little, too.

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Douglas Petrie co-wrote the script. Vance appeared in The Preacher’s Wife the same year that Harriet was in theaters. The adult Canadian actors included Sally Cahill as a maid, Jackie Richardson as Janie’s mother, and Robert Joy as Harriet’s father. Smith-Cameron made her Broadway debut in 1982 in Crimes of the Heart. She has appeared in many Broadway and Off Broadway plays since then. Smith-Cameron played Alexa, a con artist, in a role 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 followed up with Forces of Nature.
J. Smith-Cameron Answers Every Harriet the Spy Question