In The Wings: Chatting with The Body of an American star Harry Smith

Getting to know Philly's brightest theater talents.

Philly expat Harry Smith, now starring in The Body of an American at the Wilma Theater, talks about the notorious opening night parties at the Wilma, falling in love with a Bucks County gal, and balancing more than 20 characters in his latest show. 

harry smith actor philadelphia

My name … is Harry Smith. My mother claims I was named after Shakespeare’s Henry V (“Cry God for Harry etc”) but my father says it was Cockney music hall legend Harry Champion.

I am … an actor, currently appearing in The Body of an American at the Wilma Theater. It’s about war reporter Paul Watson and his relationship with playwright Dan O’Brien. I’m playing Dan.

On opening night … I can be found dancing (badly) to Wham! Thanks to our brilliant front-of-house manager, Javier, the Wilma’s opening night parties are legendary (or possibly notorious).

My favorite moment in The Body of an American is  when the lights come up for the first time. There are two actors in the show (myself and the absurdly talented Ian Merrill Peakes) and we never leave the stage. So it’s like strapping yourself into a roller coaster; there’s no turning back.

TK | Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Harry Smith and costar Ian Merrill Peakes in The Body of an American | Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

You play a lot of characters in this show. How many? I lost count at 20. Though in one sense we’re just Dan and Paul telling a story, and inhabiting the different characters that appear in the story.

What’s it like trying to stay in character when you have so many personalities to balance? One thing we worked on a lot for this production was dialect. We had a great dialect coach and are using Somalian, Inuit and South African dialects, to name a few.

You’re British. What brought you to Philly? My wife is from Bucks County, and we came to Philly so she could go to school. We didn’t think we’d be staying, but we fell in love with the city.

Why did you fall in love? Who wouldn’t? I love it here. It’s one of the few cities I’ve been to in the states that is genuinely walkable. It feels like a European city in many ways.

What was your first show in Philadelphia? Pumpgirl, with Inis Nua Theatre Company. They produce plays from the U.K. and Ireland, so I felt right at home straight away.

My first stage kiss … was with a girl I really fancied. We had these prop newspapers all over the set, and during a break I had absentmindedly filled every entry in a crossword puzzle with her name. She noticed it in the scene right before we were supposed to kiss. It was pretty awkward.

My surprising celebrity crush is … Claire Danes. It’s not really a surprise, but ever since My So Called Life there’s been nobody else.

harry smithWho’s the most famous person you’ve ever met? I filmed a scene with John Malkovich last year (for NBC’s Crossbones). He was incredibly focused on set. He gave 100 percent on every take, even when the camera wasn’t on him. It was pretty humbling, and definitely made me up my game.

The last time I dined out in Philadelphia, I ate … at the Broad Street Diner at Broad and Ellsworth. It’s open 24 hours and we’ve just moved in round the corner, so now I can eat breakfast at midnight every day.

The best show I saw in Philly recently … was QED at the Lantern Theater Company. I’m a huge geek and I love plays about maths and science. Plus Peter DeLaurier is one of my favourite Philly actors. (Read our Q&A with DeLaurier here.)

The best thing about Philadelphia’s theater scene is … the sense of community. People are really happy for each other’s successes and share a belief that a rising tide floats all boats.

The Body of an American plays at the Wilma Theater through February 1st. More information and tickets can be found here.