Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Two Wheels, Eight Legs... An interview with Harley Jane Kozak

I sat in the waiting room. The therapist had said she wouldn't be that much longer, and as I waited more people started to come in and sit around the circle. I had never done anything like this before, I had relied on patches and willpower to give up smoking, but this was something else... My fear of those eight legged little monsters had ruled my life for the past 40 years and now was the time to tackle it. 

The group had been recommended by a friend, who'd told me that  they brought in actual spiders to crawl on you! If I could do that, well then... It would be a bloody miracle.  

I started biting my nails, a horrible habit, but what the hell - I wasn't infecting my lungs any more, I was tackling this...and, hell, there were always false nails, right? I made a mental note to call my manicurist after the meeting.

After a few minutes the group leader popped his head round the door and said they were going to be late, apparently the Sex Addicts had gotten accidentally mixed in with the Claustrophobes and there was all kinds of trouble. I sighed and smiled knowingly at the woman beside me. I hadn't really looked around yet, but I'd expected it to be the same old crowd, a mixture of nervous wimps like me and a couple of burly men who were embarrassed by their irrational fears. There was always one of those. Doing a double take though, I realised I knew who the woman beside me was, at least I knew she looked familiar. I glanced quickly at her name tag, it read "Harley". I knew it! I bloody knew it! It was Harley Jane Kozak... Oh my God!

Harley Jane Kozak (born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on January the 28th, 1957) is an American actress and author.
Kozak starred in movies such as Parenthood (1989), Arachnophobia (1990),  
Necessary Roughness (1991), All I Want for Christmas (1991), The Favor (1994), Magic in the Water (1995) and the soap operas Texas (from November 1981 to December 1982 as Brette Wheeler), Guiding Light (from 1983 to 1985 and a one-day voiceover in February 1990, as both Annabelle Sims Reardon and Annabelle's deceased mother, in 1983 flashbacks, Annie Sims) and Santa Barbara (from 1985 to 1986 and again in 1989, as former nun, Mary Duvall McCormick). 
In Santa Barbara her character died in an accident where a giant neon letter "C" toppled on top of her during an argument atop the Capwell hotel. Viewers were so angry over Mary's death that they started a letter-writing campaign demanding for her reappearance. The show received such huge amounts of letters that eventually they admitted their mistake and asked Kozak to come back. She declined the offer since she was already working with other projects and she was proud of the unusual way her character had made her exit. 

And here she was... in an Arachnophobes meeting? Maybe appearing in "Arachnophobia" had scared her as much as it had me? And I only watched it!

I smiled again and introduced myself,  and we got chatting:

So Jane, what made you want to be an actress and writer? If you weren’t either of these, what do you think you would be? 
"Well, the fast answer would be...God. Or Destiny. Or just my nature. Whatever you like to call it. From a very early age, telling stories through writing, or by acting in plays, was fun. Obsessively fun. And even though I was socially shy, I felt free on the stage or on the page. And if I weren’t any of these, I imagine I’d be a frustrated something else, longing to act or write."   

I heard you worked as a waitress before making it in movies, this seems a natural progression
for actors! Did you serve, meet or even work with anyone who helped your career? 
"It’s true, I was a waitress for about 8 years, starting when I was still in high school. I was—I hope this doesn’t sound immodest—a very good waitress. But although I made great friends, some of them lifelong, no, none of them led to any Big Breaks. My best waitress memory was waiting on Tennessee Williams and William Borroughs. They ordered chilli."

So Harley... That isn't your real name is it?
"In the early 80’s I was living with a guy in a loft in New York City and the guy parked his motorcycle in the living room and one night, inspiration struck. Yes, I named myself after his motorcycle and legally changed it a few months later. It just seemed like the right thing to do."

I thought about my apartment and my past partners who left things in my living room, maybe it wouldn't be so cool if I named myself 'Garfield Coffee Mug' or 'Dirty Old socks'.

Now I knew Harley was a mum of 3, so the next question was easy... 
How do you find working and being a mum? I know you’ve had to pull out of jobs due to pregnancy?
"When I became pregnant with my first child, I was a series regular on an hour drama and they asked me to sit it out because they really didn’t want my character pregnant. That was a gift for me, because it let me go home, be pregnant, finish my first novel—and get paid for it."

And do your kids ever go on set with you?
"I have acted a few times since, and yes, my kids once or twice went on the set with me, but honestly, I took about 15 years off to be a mom and a novelist. I was very happy in my acting career in my single days, but I’d never have been able to raise kids with the kind of schedule I had then."

Do any of them have acting aspirations? 
"So far my kids have expressed little interest in acting, which is fine. A relief, even. For one thing, I’m way too lazy to be a stage mom. For another, it’s just not the easiest lifestyle. There’s a lot of rejection. It’s one thing for me to be rejected; I can take it. But watch my kids go through that? Horrors!"

You write, you act on TV as well as in film.. What do you prefer? 
"Apples and oranges. Impossible to say, really. They all have their up-sides."

You’d been in some iconic 80's comedy/romantic comedy movies such as ‘When Harry met Sally’ and ‘Parenthood’, bit of a jump from that to a horror/thriller (albeit a comedic version). Was it easy transition? What do you prefer?  
"Actually, my very first film was a horror movie (The House on Sorority Row) my first play was an opera (Dido and Aneas) and my first TV show was a soap. Every part is its own thing and we actors adore the variety. When Harry Met Sally was such a tiny part—just one scene—that it wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as Parenthood. But it was an iconic film (they both were) so I’m proud to have been a part of it. Some of my best acting and most fun has been in dumb films so it’s hard to pick “favourites” –  one film had the most wonderful co-stars, another had the greatest director, one had the most exotic location, one was filmed during an especially happy year in my life, in one I got to work with wolves, one had the best-written dialogue, one had a genius cinematographer, etc. etc."

Now, we’ve heard so many rumours about Steve Martin, (Whom I think is a comedy genius) but what was he really like to work with? A bit of a diva? 
"Not a diva at all, but a rather shy man unless he knows you well. He has a lot of dignity, which is not what you might expect, given the wild and crazy guys he plays. I think he was less comfortable being recognized (constantly!) in public than many stars."

And I have to ask about the lovely Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, what were they like? 
"Both really wonderful and generous and made me feel very welcome. When you only work one day on a movie set, you feel like a visitor to someone else’s home, but they were extremely hospitable."

Would you like to have your novels adapted into movies? If so, what roles would you like best? 
"YES! YES! I have kids to put through college. If you mean, what roles would I play, the answer is none. I never seem to remember to write myself parts in my books. I’m way too old for the heroine (Wollie, in my series books.) I suppose I could play Wollie’s mother."

When you write, does your acting background make it easier to write dialogue? 
"Definitely. It’s the most obvious advantage of being in both worlds. I act out my dialogue all the time and constantly mess with it until it feels natural to me-the-actress."

Did you ever meet Robin Williams? What a tragic loss… It must be such a pressurised industry? I used to work in post-production and that was tough enough, but I can’t imagine what incredible pressure it is being judged for every move you make. 
"I auditioned once with him and remember him as the kindest person imaginable. He was a huge star, of course, and I was a complete nobody, but he treated me as an equal. It’s hard to overstate what that means to an actor in an audition. I don’t even remember the part – some small part in Awakenings, I think (which of course I didn’t get). But I’ll never forget him. It is a tragic loss. And yes, it’s a lot of pressure to be a star of his magnitude, and there’s no doubt that fame derails people all the time, but in Robin’s case I assume he was dealing with depression. And depression that serious can affect anyone, in any profession, at any age."

Actually, I thought, what is it like being famous? 
"I am honoured that you think of me as famous, but I promise you, if you came over for dinner and said that, my 3 kids would look at you and say, “why are you asking her?” I can shop for food and pick up the drycleaning and walk the dogs all over the neighbourhood. I’m pretty sure Brad Pitt can’t do that. He’s famous. I’m just...an actor. And a writer. Which is much better in terms of sanity... and picking up drycleaning."

Now I couldn't put it off any longer, I had to ask about the film Arachnophobia (1990), I just had to. I took a very deep breath and started. 

I bet you have lots of people telling you their ‘I was so terrified at Arachnophobia’ stories. My favourite is the one my husband tells - he is not at all scared of spiders – He was 18 when the film came out and went to see it with friends and a bag of rubber bands. During each spider scene they would launch their bands into the audience; there were screams, cries and people jumping out of their seats! Rod and his friends found it hilarious, until they were forcibly asked to leave. Still a great story though! 
"Wow—very creative, your husband. That’s actually the best story I’ve heard, although reportedly some poor woman fainted in some theatre and had to be taken away by ambulance the week the movie came out."

What was the audition process like? What did you have to do? 
"I probably read a scene or two and had a nice chat with Frank Marshall, the director. He asked if I had a problem with spiders, and I said, no, and that was that."

What was it like filming with the spiders? 
"It was fine. The scene at the end where they’re all over the house? A good portion of those were plastic. And many of the shots were done without the actors, and edited to look like we’re all there together. It wasn’t that challenging, frankly."

Did they have ‘stunt’ spiders? I know they have people providing the spiders; did you have to be careful not to actually hurt them? 
"I don’t believe spiders are truly trainable, so I don’t think there were any star or stunt spiders. Except for the animatronic ones. Also, they had people assigned just to the spiders. Wranglers. It was a highly professional set—a Steven Spielberg production—and it was a point of honour not to hurt any spiders. I don’t think I ever touched them in the film; at most I just shared some shots with them."

Did you have a stunt double, or did you do your own stunts? 
"I have a vague memory of the burning house scene at the end that required a stunt double—running away from the fire, I think. It wasn’t much of a stunt, but it’s not a badge of courage to do your own stunts and usually you’re not given a choice. They hire one for you when they think it’s necessary (unless it’s a low-budget, non-union film, and then—good luck.) If a star is injured in a stunt, the production would have to shut down or film around him/her, which can be wildly expensive. Also, stunt people are well-trained and very talented, so why use an amateur (the actor)? It doesn’t make economic sense. And the actor is usually paid more than the stunt people and it’s not a good use of the actor’s working hours—using stunt people is a bargain. Also, I have a great respect for stunt people and wouldn’t want to deprive them of work." 

What was Jeff Daniels like? He seems so lovely... and John Goodman? 
"Both fantastic. Just what you’d expect. Wonderful actors, great guys."

How on earth do you get yourself prepared for a role like that?! 
"It was pretty easy. I was just your basic wife and mother, confronted by killer spiders."

Were any of the cast scared? 
"I don’t think so. If they were, they probably kept it to themselves. We had spider tutorials and very talented spider wranglers and so it wasn’t like the arachnids took over the set.  I remember them as being very well-behaved. Although, when they got cold, they’d curl up and refuse to move. Very unprofessional."

We laughed about how ill I was when I first watched the movie and asked...

...and you?
"I am so sorry to have made you ill. And no, I’m happy to say I’m okay with spiders. It’s rodents I can’t stand. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I just don’t like them. Except for Mickey and Minnie Mouse. They’re okay."

Was all the fear acting then?! 

Ok... I thought, this was getting weird, so she wasn't really scared of spiders?? But just as I was about to broach the subject of why she was here the group leader came in, all smiles and apologies for his lateness. he sat on the other side of me and looked very friendly, but he didn't seem to have any spiders with him? Maybe they came in later I thought.

We were asked to stand up and introduce ourselves, as I was sitting beside him I was asked to go first. I tentatively rose out of my chair and stated my name, then started telling the tale of my childhood and how my brother had put a spider down my dress and how this lead to years of fear and terror at the very mention of them. I went on and on about how I was bitten by one once and my hand swelled up, and waxed lyrical about how that made it some way a logical fear and so I shouldn't really be blamed for it...

It was only after about 10 minutes of going on and on, that I noted that a few, if not all of the other people in the room looked confused. I looked at Harley who was looking as confused as the others if not more so. I also noted in her hand her new book. This was confusing...

Then it hit me, I hadn't had I? Oh lord please say I hadn't? I quickly pulled the course timetable out of my back pocket and checked the schedule. 

"Is this room B15?" I asked the guy, "Arachnophobes Anonymous?"  

"This is D15," he replied "Creative Writing. Special guest speaker Harley Jane Kozak" 

My cheeks burned red and I looked back at Harley. She smiled at me with kind eyes but the damage had been done, I grinned with embarrassment, apologised for my mistake and started making my way out of the room. Then I suddenly thought...come on! One more question, nothing could make this worse! I turned back to Harley and asked, 'So if a crazy load of man eating spiders did attack your town… Do you think you could handle it???' To which she answered with a grin...
"YES! YES! BRING THEM ON! I’m ready!"

And so was I! As long as I could find room B15 that was...

For more information on Harley, go to: 


  1. Harley Jane Kozak28 August 2014 at 03:37

    That may be my favorite interview of all time!