BWW Interview: Valerie Harper Talks New Film & Not Letting Life Slip By
She was given months to live. So now, five years later after being diagnosed with an incurable disease, Valerie Harper isn't letting life slip by.
"I am feeling good today," Harper, 78, tells BroadwayWorld's Leigh Scheps by phone. The actress most famous for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern on the Mary Tyler Moore Show is starring in a new short film, My Mom and the Girl, which recently qualified for Academy Award consideration.
In 2013, doctors told Harper she only had three months to live. "My husband watches me very carefully," she reveals. "The support has been incredible. I married a great guy and it's working well." New medication may be helping, Harper explains. "It's a breakthrough of a new pill. It's better than what I am taking - which is still working. I haven't had any bad thing happen for the last five to six months."
Harper's demeanor is upbeat as she boasts about her first film since her grim cancer diagnosis. The story of My Mom and the Girl is pulled from the life experiences of its writer, producer and director, Susie Singer Carter. It's based on her mother, Norma Holzer, who suffers from Alzheimer's. Singer Carter's first choice to play her mother was Harper. "Some people are wired with positivity from head to toe and that's Valerie," Singer Carter says. "That's why I gravitate towards her."
To get into character, Harper went to meet Norma. "When I met her, I saw a connection and I know why Susie picked me." She also watched videos of Norma before and after her Alzheimer's diagnosis. "When [Harper] walks away [in the film], it's as if she is channeling [my mother] from head to toe. It's uncanny," Singer Carter says of Harper's portrayal.
Over the years Harper's been honored with four Emmy Awards for her role as Rhoda on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Her Broadway resume includes a 2010 Tony Award nomination for her performance as Tallulah Bankhead in Looped. "I had to drop my voice lower," she recalls of the character. "I had tapes of her talking to friends. She loved bourbon and she always had it with her. She was an interesting woman, had a filthy mouth and I had to get into that."
Harper first got her start as a dancer on Broadway in shows including Li'l Abner and Take Me Along in 1959. "I went to an audition. It was [for] a replacement [part]. I was in it for the last six months," she remembers of her Broadway debut in Li'l Abner. "Then they asked me to go to Vegas. We were the first Broadway show to do Vegas. I had my 19th birthday on the train."
Asked whether there is any other role Harper wants to pursue in her career: "Not really," she admits. "I don't have a role that I have my eye on."
But she is developing a TV series with Susie Singer Carter. In the meantime, the two also have their eye on the Oscar nominations when they officially come out in January now that the short film qualified for Academy award consideration. The first rounds of nominations begin October 5th. "[The film] shines a light on a conversation we need to have about Alzheimer's. We hope it gets the recognition for that honestly."
"Whatever happens, who cares," Harper adds. After all, it's Harper's health that matters the most.