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No Trouble with Harry:
An Interview with French Stewart

September 10, 1999
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the September 10-16, 1999 issue of Pitch Weekly. ........................................................................................................

Starring in a popular TV sitcom can be a blessing and a curse. The role can offer an actor instant recognition but can also doom him to play the same role for the rest of his career.

French Stewart has appeared in dozens of plays, such as A Comedy of Errors and Richard III, and in movies like Stargate, Broken Arrow and Leaving Las Vegas. Still, most people know him for playing the amusingly maladroit space alien Harry Solomon in 3rd Rock From the Sun.

“It was always designed to be a fish out of water comedy,” says Stewart during an interview in Los Angeles. “There’s always someplace you can put Harry where the audience can see it coming. The situation itself isn’t exactly hysterical. But if you put Harry in an IRS office, you know that he’s going to screw it up. It’s sort of gratifying every time as long as you keep putting him in different situations. They’ve been pretty successful with doing that.”

According to Stewart, Harry has actually given him the chance to play other roles. “With all these independent films floating around, you’ve got a good chance of somebody with a small budget letting you do something new. Getting pegged into one thing is really not that much of a problem. I think if it had been 10 or 15 years ago, that’s it. You’re going to be Gilligan or Squiggy. Good luck to you and enjoy. Quite frankly that would have been fine with me, but it’s nice to know with cable and independent films there are a lot of opportunities, even if you’ve got just a marginal name. I’ve been able to go back and do theatre. A lot of times people will come down and see something because (speaking in a deep, goofy voice) ‘Yo. Yo. It’s Harry,’ and it’s not what they wanted. Sometimes it’s not what they expected, but they enjoy it,” he explains.

In the new movie Love Stinks, Stewart plays a more earthbound role, Seth Winnick, a successful TV sitcom writer and producer who falls for a gorgeous woman (Bridgette Wilson) hellbent for marriage. “I liked the story. I thought the script was funny. It’s just shooting for pure entertainment. There’s not a lot of moral points that we’re trying to make. It’s fart scenes and pure sort of date fun,” he says.

When asked if Love Stinks offered him a chance to do anything that would be inconceivable on 3rd Rock From the Sun, he pauses for a second and replies, “Kissing a woman and actually being taken seriously.” He adds, “I think playing something more of an actual person who could exist outside of a farcical situation is enjoyable.”

It also gave Stewart the chance to poke fun at his old boss, former NBC President Warren Littlefield. In a couple of scenes, Littlefield plays an eccentric network executive. “It was great,” Stewart says. “He’s a great sport. All he had to do was show up and be Warren Littlefield. He had his job at the time where he says, ‘I’m glad you didn’t go to NBC because it’s so over for those guys.’ He was the one who pitched the line.”

Keeping up the levity proved to be a challenge when a joke about John F. Kennedy Jr. seemed out of place after the magazine publisher died unexpectedly. Stewart’s co-star Tyra Banks had to go back and re-dub her line. “The line was a description of how (Wilson’s character) was dating JFK types. Suddenly, it’s so recent it takes on this morose weight. I did a play right after the O.J. (Simpson) car chase. We did a show the next day, and there’s a line that says, ‘Where’s the O.J.?’ Nobody saw it coming, and somebody said it. The air just went out of the room. There’s a tragic miscalculation,” he chuckles.

If the goal of Love Stinks is simple, broad humor, Stewart says the film does make some valid observations about relationships and how some people place an undue importance on matrimony. He says, “I’ve run into a lot of people for whom (marriage) was their priority. A lot of times women have to give guys deadlines because if it’s left to the guys, they’re not going to do it. They’ll just sort of drift. ‘Maybe next year. Maybe next year.’” He stops for a second, “I’ve been really lucky with my relationships. I’ve been golden, far, anyway.” He raises his hand as if he wants to show off his wedding band. While his character may shy from walking down the aisle, Stewart has been married to actress Katherine La Nasa (Backtrack) since May of last year.

The actor also states that working on a movie requires a similar sense of commitment. “Making a movie is usually about a year. You’re filming it for a couple of months, you’re looping (dubbing) it and promoting it. A lot of times when you do something serious, you have to live with that. Even if you’re not ‘Mr. Method,’ it still seeps into things. I’m so susceptible to input that I have to (be careful with) the movies that I watch and the books that I read. Otherwise, I could get into a funk. I try to keep things up,” he says.

That’s not to say he doesn’t appreciate more serious subjects. He has worked as an AIDS educator and now helps raise money for research. He recalls, “I was going from school to school for Kaiser Permanente. At the end of five years, if you’re doing three shows a day filling the auditoriums, that’s over a million kids. A lot of times they’ll give you grief. You’re 18, you don’t want some HIV show (he takes on the tone of an obsequious instructor) ‘trying to speak to you in your language.’ You do a question and answer period afterwards, and that’s where they surface. They come up, and their stories are amazing. It burns you out because you meet people, and they’re gone.”

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