One Mississippi's Noah Harpster Talks About The Challenges Of Acting In Someone Else's Autobiography
One of those challenges: wearing full Civil War regalia in the Texas sun without fainting.
As I finish typing this on Sunday night, Noah Harpster is most likely at an Emmys afterparty, helping to celebrate the two statues Transparent's team took home this year. (He and his writing partner, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, are supervising producers on the show.) But Harpster has an extensive background in acting as well, and last year he happily set his laptop aside for a few months to play the role of Remy on One Mississippi, the semi-autobiographical Amazon series co-created by beloved deadpan comic Tig Notaro and superstar screenwriter Diablo Cody. I called him up to find out more about his journey -- not just figurative but also literal, since One Mississippi was filmed throughout the South.
How did this role come about for you? Was it through Amazon or did you already know some of the people involved?
Well, I wish I had a better story, but the reality is I just auditioned. I met Tig very briefly. She was in a couple of episodes of Transparent that I produced and wrote, and so I'd met her, but very briefly. I just thought she didn't even know who I was, really. Then I auditioned and then I came for a callback and it was just me and Tig reading and it was awesome. Immediately I felt like she was my sister.
It certainly feels that way in the show, yeah.
We read some scenes and we improvised a little bit and it just was in [casting director] Cami Patton's office and it just felt kind of amazing. But I wish I had a better story for you.
I'm curious, has this been an acting challenge for you, because it's really based on Tig's life? I was watching it with my wife, and she's read Tig's autobiography [I'm Just A Person], so she was pointing out all the details, like, "Okay, that really happened, that didn't really happen." There was clearly a lot of stuff in this show that's really based on her experience, and in your role, you're helping to illustrate truths about her own story. So I'm wondering, is that a different kind of acting to be doing than just in a conventional fictional role?
Yeah, I think there's an added pressure because you're dealing with not only the stakes of the scene but also the stakes of real people's lives and the circumstances that they've really gone through. There's a certain added pressure to that to...I don't know if I'd say "get it right," but you want to do it justice. You want to make sure that you're not coming up short.
Did you get a chance to meet Tig's real-life brother?
I did not meet him, no. A lot of her family came out when we were shooting the pilot in Mississippi and in New Orleans but he was not there. I've heard a lot about him and he seems like a wonderful guy. He lives in, I believe, Denver and is a sports radio personality. He seems like a really great guy. I think Tig said the pilot was about 85% factual, and I think from that point on it just sort of gets exponentially more fictional, and starts pulling from some of the writers' lives and writers' room pitches and stuff like that. It's not completely beholden to facts the way her book was.
I don't think the real Remy is in -- actually, I know he's not in a Civil War reenactment club. That's something that just came up [from the writers], and there's also no Vicky the Keg. Those things are not part of her real brother's life.
Did Tig spend a fair amount of time talking with you and John [Rothman, the actor who plays Bill, Tig and Remy's stepfather] about how she saw her family dynamic and how she wanted it to come across, or was it just kind of "Here's the script, and you find it"?
A little of both. I mean, I think we were allowed to bring our own instincts and our own take on the material. Certainly in the writers' room they spent a lot of time talking about those things. Tig acted almost as a curator because she obviously has a ton of work to do on the show as an actor as well. A lot of the time she just needed to lock into her character and play the scene. [But] there were moments where she would pop out and say, "This jacket is a little wrong or this..." Just like, all throughout the filming you could see her brain working and almost curating the day. She was never invasive and never demanded anything. You could see that she was scanning the day with an artist's eye, making sure that everything felt real and felt authentic unless it was meant to be surreal or one of those pop-out hallucination moments. There was a real strong mandate from Tig to never be making fun of people in Mississippi or Mississippi. There's no silly accents. For her it's really about the authenticity first.
You mentioned that from the moment that you sat down with Tig it felt like she was your sister, and that certainly comes across on the show. The chemistry on the show with you and her and John Rothman is just fantastic. Did that continue to develop over the course of filming?
Yeah, I think John's performance is pretty amazing. There were scenes and moments where Tig and I just really lost our shit, just trying to keep it together. There's one scene in particular where Bill comes in and yells at us for goofing off and...not taking this seriously. Then Richie Montgomery, who's playing our real dad, Mick, he's a good old boy. He's actually an actor from New Orleans and he's so amazing. He's coming in with his flip phone and talking about the Dixie Mafia and we just...
...this already sounds awesome.
We had this moment where Tig and I were looking at them, like, "These are the two men that we had to guide us through the world." No wonder we're barely holding it together.
In that moment we just...I just got the giggles. I mean like really got the giggles, like church giggles. I think it was one of the truest moments that we've had because those actors are so good and Tig and I just had to look up and watch them and realize no wonder these characters are so jacked, you know?
Was there opportunity for any improv? Like you mentioned that Tig was kind of curating the day; did she ever jump out and say, "Hey, let's change this a little bit while we're doing it"?
I think there's a small amount of wiggle room at all times. These scripts were written, this is in no way an improvised show. We were working with Nicole Holofcener and Ken Kwapis and Shira Piven and those are all dream directors. There was always a willingness to play and to try new things. For the most part we stuck to the script, but everyone was always open to hearing ideas. It's a very, very gentle, very happy place to work. It really was.
You obviously had a large acting background before this, but the last several years you've been doing a lot of writing and of course producing on Transparent. I'm wondering, coming into this show, did you have your writer-producer brain on or were you able to just focus on the acting?
At first I really did because I was coming off of really two years straight on Transparent. We didn't take a break. We shot Season 2, then went right in to the writers' room for Season 3, then into shooting Season 3. Then I had four days off --
-- wow --
-- between wrapping Season 3 of Transparent and starting day one of One Mississippi. There was a moment where I had to...I had to look at the script in a different way. I just had to consciously say, "Look, this is... " It was actually quite freeing because it was like, "Look, none of these things are your concern. Your concern is to learn your lines and to be real and truthful and to feel." And that was it. I just got to act. It was very freeing.
So it felt like it was being well-handled. Because of Tig being new to TV and this being kind of an experimental thing, it could have been possible that you might have felt like, "Oh, this is going off the rails a little bit. I need to put my producer hat on and correct it." But it seems like that didn't happen.
That did not happen. [One Mississippi executive producer] Blair Breard produces all of Louie, and just came off of Better Things for Pamela Adlon. Erin O'Malley just did New Girl. These people know what they're doing. Kate Robin is an amazing playwright and showrunner coming off of The Affair and Six Feet Under. These women are really sharp and really knew what they were doing. I never felt like anything was out of control or I needed to step in in any way. It was like, "Oh, I'm just going to be an actor."
Speaking of that, there are a lot of big voices in this; there's the producers that you mentioned, there's Louis C.K., there's Diablo Cody, you've got Nicole Holofcener directing and yet the combination of all that, the result just feels so simple and pure. Like an independent film from a single voice. Were you kind of privy to how all of these people worked together to make something so simple?
Everyone you mentioned yes, except for Louis and Diablo. I didn't really--
You didn't really get to see their contributions?
That was before the pilot. Their influence is coming from the outside in; they weren't there on the day-to-day. I think they got notes from those people. Shooting the pilot, Nicole Holofcener and Tig were really the ones who set the tone. They were up in the bar after shooting, really talking about the next day, and I think that simplicity came, I mean in my opinion, from those two in the pilot and really stripping away and saying, "What is this about?" Then Kate Robin came on after the pilot, but she's a showrunner. She really created and maintained the tone for the rest of the season and was there every day and really listening to the scene and making sure that-- There were a couple times where she'd be watching, the scene was just going in a different way, and she'd come in and be like, "Remember what we're doing here." She was the one that sort of held the emotion for the show.
What was it like to film in these places which are not necessarily the most common places to film a TV show? You were in, what, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, is that right?
Yeah. We shot the pilot in New Orleans and then in Pass Christian, Mississippi which is where Tig grew up. It's her hometown, which is this really charming seaside town on the Gulf of Mexico. It's not at all what you'd think Mississippi looks like. It's big, beautiful homes, on the water. It was largely wiped out by Katrina. There are a lot of homes that have been rebuilt but a lot of lots that just have collapsed houses or were just left vacant. It's a really interesting town. And the nice people.
That makes a very interesting visual landscape.
Then the show, the actual series, we shot at Sunset Gower [Studios] in Los Angeles. We were here for several weeks and then we went to Galveston and shot. I think I was there for a little less than two weeks, all of our exteriors and the parade and Civil War stuff was all shot there. It was hot as hell there. It was really, really hot and humid. I spent a large part of that time in a Civil War--
Civil War regalia?
Yeah. It was a little game called, "Don't faint in the middle of the scene."
What time of year were you filming?
We were filming in July.
Oh, man. July in Texas.
Yeah, in July. Yeah. I'd never been to Galveston, it's a really interesting town. It's sort of spooky. It's where Robert Durst was hiding out. Where he was dressing as a woman and killed and chopped up his neighbor. I guess, allegedly. Allegedly! There's that history, there's all kinds of weird ghost stories floating around that town. It was a fun place to hang out.
Okay, two last questions. First of all, what's one of the TV shows that was most formative for you in developing your voice as a writer and an actor?
The first time I saw The Sopranos it blew my mind. Not that I'm saying I write anything like The Sopranos; I wish I did. That show blew my mind. I felt like they were the most flawed, most likable people who did horrible things. I just couldn't believe that they were on television, you know? I just couldn't believe it. I like all the great TV shows. I think Cheers, when I was a kid.
Oh yeah, for me, too.
Same thing, actually. It's a half-hour comedy but I don't know if you remember the pilot of Cheers but it really started off as an alcoholic who owns a bar.
Yeah. It started off very grounded for sure.
Very grounded and very real and a little kid comes in and tries to buy beer with his military ID but he's clearly like fifteen. Sam, you could see the look on his face, it was so real. Like, this kid. I don't know. I love that show but I also love Magnum, P.I. and Knight Rider and The Cosby Show. Those were the formative shows.
And what are some of your favorite shows at the moment?
Fargo. I also really love Baskets right now. The Atlanta pilot, the first episode of Atlanta I thought was amazing. And [The People Vs. O.J. Simpson] is amazing. For me, O.J. was a little bit like watching a drag show where it's started and you're like, "Oh, my god. This is so fun." There's this music playing and everyone's wearing shiny clothes. I feel like everyone's a little drunk and then all of the sudden a woman comes out and starts singing and you're like, "Holy shit, this woman can really sing." Like this is legit talent. And it just hooked me in a way that no show has in a long time. Then it has something to say, too. I just thought it was kind of a...I think Fargo and O.J. were just the big achievements o this last television season. Of course, Transparent, I have to [recuse] myself from voting for that. [late email addition:] The other show I love right now is Catastrophe.