'Suspiria': Why the Original Horror Star Came Out of Retirement for a Cameo
"I was more than willing to do whatever it is he had to offer."
In the new horror film Suspiria from Amazon Studios and director Luca Guadagnino, Dakota Johnson plays Susie Bannion, an Ohio woman who studies abroad at an elite school in Berlin. But in the original Italian classic from Dario Argento, Susie was played by Jessica Harper, who emerges out of a 16-year retirement from the cinema to play a supporting role in the reboot.
Horror buffs reunite with Harper when she appears in the film as Anke, a Jewish German woman who speaks fluent Deustch. But when Harper accepted the role that was personally offered by Guadagnino (“He had me at hello,” Harper recalls), there was just one problem: Harper didn’t speak German.
“I know Luca and [screenwriter] David [Kajganich] were interested in having me in the movie because it would be such a fun reference to the original,” Harper tells Inverse. “It occurred to them that I could do Anke. But they were concerned that I would need to do the part in German.”
The 69-year-old Harper, who still has fond memories of working on the original over 40 years ago in Italy over a four-month period (where she learned Italian quite naturally), gleefully took up the challenge.
“I was more than willing to do whatever it is he had to offer,” she says.
In order to be fluent in time for filming, Harper took the shortest route possible that didn’t involve signing downloading Rosetta Stone. Instead, she paid a visit to the Berlitz School of Languages, where she recorded a German teacher reading her entire script, which she recorded using her smartphone for her to play back ad nauseam.
“By no means did I learn an entire language,” Harper explains. “I took the script to Berlitz. I sat down with the teacher and had him read it through with me. I recorded on my iPhone his reading of the script. I listened to it over, and over, and over again until I memorized it and spoke it properly.”
Harper doesn’t speak German now, “only as much German as it takes to prepare for this role. That was the process.”
In (the new) Suspiria, Anke appears at a crucial moment for Dr. Josef Klemperer (played in heavy prosthetics by Tilda Swinton).
“It’s a very tragic story,” Harper says. “It’s about a very powerful love story interrupted much too early. And in the case of the man in the relationship, it’s never resolved. He goes through his life mourning over whom he’s lost. It was very, I believe, a touching, emotional core that runs through the center of the movie, gives it a kind of poignancy.”
The role of Anke was invented by Guadagnino and Kajganich, and wasn’t present in Argento’s original. As one of the only people in the film who worked with both directors, Harper says they both share “powerful and specific visions” but differ in styles.
“These movies are extremely different,” she says. “What makes them different is their visions of a piece of material. They’re different people in how they see things. That makes them both masterful in what they do.”
After a long career that included 1979’s throwback horror flick The Evictors and 1980’s Stardust Memories, it was 2002’s sci-fi blockbuster Minority Report when audiences last saw Harper on the big screen. (She appeared in one episode of Crossing Jordan in 2005 and the TNT drama Proof in 2015.)
Quietly retiring from Hollywood, Harper spent most of the 2000s writing children’s books, like I Like Where I Am in 2004 and A Place Called Kindergarten in 2008. In 2010, she released The Crabby Cook, a humorous collection of recipes with anecdotes from her life that reveal the origins to her meals made for picky eaters like (yes really) Jack Nicholson. She blogs frequently.
Now, Harper is working in a totally new medium: Podcasting.
“I’m a big listener,” Harper says. “I am fascinated with people using sound creatively to create stories and unusual artistic pieces. I’ve heard a lot of podcasts but I’ve never heard a memoir.”
The ten-episode podcast, which stars Harper’s five actual siblings playing themselves, recounts her troubled childhood that culminates in the reveal of a dark family secret that Harper and her siblings only learned of recently.
“It’s a childhood story that takes us through college,” explains Harper. “It’s in the 1950s and 1960s growing up in the midwest. I have five siblings. We had a very difficult father. There’s a deep secret in our family none of us discovered until recently. A history of racism that informed our lives.”
Winnetka premieres in February, while snippets will begin releasing as early as November 2, the same day Suspiria is released nationwide.
“I thought it was an absolute miracle,” says Harper on her return to the screen. “To be able to be in a new version 40 years after is like a career coming full circle, which rarely happens this way. I felt it was a great gift.”
Suspiria is now playing in New York and L.A. It will be released everywhere on November 2.