By Matthew Jacobs – 2nd February 2023
Celebrities tend to be cagey about the strategies behind their career moves, but not Debbie Harry. She wanted to act, so she made it happen. Harry’s movie stardom got a tentative start with 1978’s The Foreigner and 1980’s Union City but really came together when Videodrome opened in 1983. She found a creative match in David Cronenberg, Hollywood’s weirdest new director, who’d established his own provocative reputation thanks to Shivers and Scanners. Of course Harry’s breakout role was every bit as cool and edgy as the New Wave persona she’d developed with Blondie.
In Videodrome, Cronenberg cast Harry as Nicki Brand, a Toronto radio host with a fetish for danger. When she meets Max Renn (James Woods), the president of an underground TV station specializing in lurid S&M programming, he introduces her to the eponymous mindfuck wherein anonymous people are tortured and murdered. Aroused, Nicki decides to audition for Videodrome herself. The film frames her as a sort of Hitchcock blonde — aside from the fact that Harry darkened her hair for the role, much to Cronenberg’s dismay.
If you watch Harry’s talk-show appearances from 1983, you’ll see how comfortable she felt with Cronenberg’s scandalizing sensibilities. She still is, and calls him a “scientist” who anticipated a world mediated by interactive technology. Forty years after Videodrome’s release, in the midst of a Blondie resurgence that earned the group a Grammy nomination for the retrospective box set Against All Odds: 1974-1982, Harry talked to Vulture about her movie ambitions, the “question mark” that is Nicki Brand, and how Cronenberg’s set differed from that of John Waters, who gave Harry her other most famous role, Hairspray.
You’d done a few movies at this point, but Videodrome was very much your breakthrough movie moment. Had you been actively looking to start acting?
Yes, I had. I had gone on a lot of meetings with casting directors, and I had read for things. I was dragging myself around Hollywood, going to studios and offices and meeting as many people as I could. I did have different personal agents at the time, but Cronenberg contacted me about this. I guess he had a visual idea, so that suited me fine. The only thing that happened was, for some bizarre thinking process, I thought that I should not have blonde hair, that I shouldn’t be Blondie in this picture. So I went to a more natural auburn-brown color, and I arrived in Canada and he said, “Well, your hair is not blonde,” because he had envisioned this character having blonde hair.
I was going to ask whether it was your idea to dye your hair. I’d assumed it was coming more from Cronenberg saying, “I want a separation between your music persona and the character you’re playing here.”
It was really just the opposite. I think he was really shocked and disappointed. I thought it was good for the character, and it helped me to be that character. I think had I faced every day with the same blonde hair it would have been a little bit different for me.
Do you think Nicki would be different with blonde hair than she was with auburn hair?
No, I don’t think so. For me, it really was just something to help me do the performance. I had been so firmly entrenched in the Blondie persona. In a way, I’d created the character of Blondie, so this was another person. It worked out in the long run, but there were a few sticky moments when I got there.
But he didn’t ask you to dye it back.
No, we talked about it and I just said exactly what I’m saying to you, that I wanted to separate it. He respected that, which I think is wonderful.
You said you’d been reading for parts and taking meetings. The internet says you were considered for Blade Runner and Tron. Are those true?
Yes. I think I may have actually done something with Tron, just a voice thing. I don’t know if I was ever going to be cast to be onscreen for that. I don’t really remember exactly what Tron was except that it was inside a video game, right? Something like that. Other than Videodrome, the one that sticks in my mind as a real chance to develop a character was Hairspray.
Of course. When you and Cronenberg first got together about this, what did you initially make of Nicki? And what were your conversations with him like? She has this stillness about her. She’s very self-possessed and a little inexpressive, but she transcends what could be a femme-fatale archetype.
Honestly, I don’t think we had a lot of deep conversations about the character and what I wanted to do with her or who I felt she was. It was really quite simple, just going along with what he had written. I think he knew exactly what he wanted. It sounds simplistic, but because the character was not described clearly, it was a combination of things that were happening. It was Cronenberg’s reputation, and it was the scary layout of “Well, what is this station that nobody can find and if you watch it you’re condemned to being a victim of this video world?”
There was a question that we did have: “What was she? Was she real, or was she just a projection?” There was no term for virtual characters, so that’s what we were dealing with: putting a label on what she was. But she sort of came in and out. I think Jimmy Woods was fearless. He’s fearless and aggressive, and that really worked for his character and for setting up my character.
What label did you end up landing on for her? Is she the 1983 version of virtual?
There was no reference. I think we just went away with her being a question mark.
You mentioned James Woods. He has a bit of a reputation. I spoke to Kathleen Turner a few years ago, and she told me he was not a nice man when they worked together. How did you find James Woods during this experience?
He was fine with me. I don’t know what year Kathleen Turner worked with him.
Much later than you did. That was The Virgin Suicides in ’99.
I think I caught him at a good time because he was a hoot. He was funny. He cracked jokes and did funny things on camera. He was very into it. He was always making a lot of suggestions about how to shoot a scene, and I think in some cases it was a little bit annoying for David because he knew what he wanted. But he was just contributing. I didn’t have any real problem with Jimmy. He always made me laugh.
Okay, good. After you read the script, what was your reaction to the amount of nudity that would be required of you?
I didn’t really have a problem with it. I think I felt pretty good about how I looked, and I didn’t think there was extreme nudity anyway. I mean, everything was very suggested. It went along with everything else that was being suggested in terms of the horror and the weirdness. David wrote so many things in that script that are commonplace today. It’s amazing. He was so far ahead of his time. He’s really quite a genius.
Videodrome sits at this nexus. You talked at the time about Marshall McLuhan’s influence on the movie. His ideas had been digested into the mainstream, and yet it’s depicting this hyper-virtual, hyper-filtered reality that we live in now. It makes you think, what was going through Cronenberg’s mind as he was conceptualizing this?
He has a great interest in science and technology and is fascinated by these things. Transformation is part of all of his films. I really love A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Those are pretty straight-ahead mystery crime dramas, but really interesting about the human element and personality. All of those characters are into making some kind of metamorphosis. There are a lot of components to Cronenberg.
I assume you did not actually burn a cigarette on your chest.
Well, I have scars. [Laughs.] But no, I did not. The whole thing was special effects. I mean, why would they hire Rick BakerMakeup effects artist Rick Baker won seven Oscars for his effects work, including An American Werewolf in London, The Nutty Professor, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He retired after Maleficent in 2014. ? And the other guy I worked with was Dick SmithThe late, great Dick Smith is best known for makeup effects in The Godfather, The Exorcist, Amadeus, and Death Becomes Her. He also collaborated with Cronenberg on 1981’s Scanners. . They didn’t want me to have to fly all the way to California to do some kind of application — I can’t remember whether it was a hand or a head or something. He had a little studio in his basement over here in New Jersey, and he had the head from The Exorcist, when she spins her head around. His little studio was full of all that stuff. He was Rick Baker’s mentor.
As far as the burning goes, it was special effects. You bring the cigarette down and they cut, and then they create the wound. I don’t think they had enough insurance for the real thing.
And what about Nicki’s murder sequence on the Videodrome set? We don’t see a ton of it in the film, but what was that room like and how much did you actually shoot?
That was pretty major. That set they created was orange clay.
On the walls?
Yeah, because they had to do the thing with the water, so they decided to make a clay torture-chamber room. But I came back after that. I’m back on TV talking about “long live the new flesh.” It’s all these different layers of thinking. It’s just a big mind game, really.
My understanding is that you guys started this without an ending. Cronenberg apparently shot a few different options. Can you talk about what that process was like?
We knew that there really was no ending. My script didn’t have an ending. We kept asking, “What’s the ending? What’s it gonna be?” You know, actors, right? “Oh God, where are the pages?!” We just didn’t know and went along like that. He resolved his issues and was able to combine different elements from different possibilities. I don’t remember reading alternate endings because I wasn’t really given any.
So your experience just involved one ending?
As far as I know. That’s the thing — we may have shot scenes that were potentials and he never used them. It’s been a while since I did it, and I don’t have my scripts to verify any of this. I could go look for them. I know I saved them. Sorry. Should I run out and get them?
Well, I would love to look at them, but that’s okay. You did say at the time, “Nicki doesn’t carry the story; she doesn’t have enough screen time to make a difference.” Maybe you were being humble, but I wonder if you feel differently about it now. There is nothing without Nicki’s arrival in the movie and the way everything happens around her.
I was probably just pissed off because I didn’t have more screen time. But now, with experience and wisdom, and realizing that in Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lecter is only onscreen for 15 minutes, how could I complain? I was just being a bitch that day, I suppose. But it’s hard to separate because he didn’t want us to see the dailies. For me, I would have preferred to actually see my performance to shape a few things perhaps. I think he didn’t really trust me or he wanted it to be sort of disassociated somehow. He wanted me to play it very calm so that he would have that for the character without having to write it or explain it. I don’t know. When you’re looking back on these things, it seems so much more complicated and in depth, but we just sort of did it.
Videodrome didn’t make a ton of money, but it’s become a huge cult movie in its own right. Your next really big role, as you said, was Hairspray about five years later. What sort of movie opportunities come your way after Videodrome?
Not too many. I’d been waving my name around occasionally for Blade Runner and a couple of things like that, which was very wonderful, one of my favorite pictures. But I was touring so much with Blondie that it was virtually impossible for me to step out of that. It really was a circus. We would do an album, and we would go out for up to six months all over the world. We were working really fast and traveling a lot, and then we would come back and do another album. So if I was to break up that schedule, I think the record company would have been a little put out. But that was then. In today’s world, taking a singer out of their usual schedule and putting them in a film is considered a really good avenue. At that point, it wasn’t.
That’s interesting. I have to assume a John Waters set feels very different from a David Cronenberg set.
Gee, I don’t know where you got an idea like that. That’s ridiculous. No, the Hairspray set was so much fun. Those kids and that music and all of that dancing? It was great. Nobody wanted it to be over. When he said, “Okay, it’s a wrap,” everybody went, “Oh no!”
How long did it take every day for you to get Velma’s hair ready?
Well, there were wigs. I think the big blow-up wig was a little bit more because there were about five or six wigs pinned to a chicken-wire frame. All I can equate it with is those big headpieces the showgirls used to wear in Vegas. Maybe they still do, I don’t know. They take a little bit of balancing. But the primary wig, which I call the question mark because it sort of went over to the side, was really easy.
Any other defining Videodrome memories that stick out to you? Anything you’ve wanted to be asked about it over the years?
I think because it was so uniquely Cronenberg it was very sneaky in that it would get really into you. It really etched into your brain. All of a sudden, if you were back home and not working, something would just stir it and you’d have this almost physical reaction. I thought that was kind of special. That’s what he does. That’s why people sometimes find it hard to watch his movies. Some people couldn’t watch Videodrome.
Did you sense that the movie was controversial as it was opening?
Well, he was right on the mark with it because it was just about the time when S&M and sexuality were coming out of the closet in film. There weren’t so many censors cutting things back.
I was watching some of the old talk shows you did at the time, and so many TV hosts were telling you how strange the movie was. You could tell people didn’t know how to talk about it, especially the stodgy, older male talk-show hosts in Britain.
Yeah, because they’d been sitting in their little room watching blue movies and all kinds of forbidden fruit for their entire lives.