“Suspiria” actress Jessica Harper vividly remembers the foreboding commercials depicting a family melted away by a nuclear explosion and her father’s makeshift shelter in her podcast “Winnetka.”
She also remembers her family’s rush preparing for Christmas every year and her parents’ late-night efforts to wrap gifts for her and her five other siblings.
History, family and secrets are all tackled in her 10-episode memoir podcast which takes listeners back in time when America was at a crossroads and when she grew up in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka.
Harper, 69, has been acting since the 1970s, appearing in multiple films and television shows. Her most recent appearance was in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of “Suspiria,” a supernatural horror film about an American ballet student discovering dark secrets at a German dance academy. She was also in the original 1977 version directed by Dario Argento.
In the original version, Harper starred as the protagonist. In the remake, she has a supporting role.
However, “Winnetka” is Harper’s personal project. Full episodes will be released starting Feb. 4, but story excerpts are now available.
The Phoenix received early access to “Winnetka” and spoke with Harper about the podcast.
Although Harper’s a first-time podcaster, her show doesn’t sound novice. She said she studied longform and narrative podcasts including Serial and This American Life to learn how to tell a story for the medium.
She said “Winnetka” is a project three years in the making. As someone who enjoys listening to podcasts and audiobooks, Harper said she wanted to have her own creative project to work on between acting jobs.
From there, she had to decide what her podcast would be about.
“Somebody suggested, ‘Why don’t you do a podcast about your family?’” she said. “I wasn’t sure at all that that would be interesting but I started working on it anyway, and … I found that there was a very interesting story in my history that I wanted to explore.”
Listeners will hear an array of intimate stories from her childhood, from her brothers’ stealing sprees to the funny nicknames granted to her and her siblings. All this insight leads up to larger revelations about her family history, and music and vocals sung by Harper help paint her narration.
Harper said one of her favorite stories to share on the podcast was about her family’s bad luck having pets in the house.
“We loved animals, we loved pets and we kept trying to have pets in our house but they would all die one after the next,” she said. “My sister dropped the goldfish down the drain; the bunnies froze in the backyard. My brother brought home a chinchilla and he, by mistake, jumped off the bed and landed on the chinchilla squishing it … We just had this black thumb with regard to pets.”
This story along with several other anecdotes are supported by voices from her family members.
She also shares hardships her family faced — particularly when her father returned from World War II with post-traumatic stress disorder. Harper said this affected his parenting — he hit his children and had a temper.
Harper said looking back gave her a unique perspective.
“It seems like you know when you’re that young, it seems almost like another person you’re thinking about in a way,” she said.
Although “Winnetka” takes place in a time before most college students were born, Harper said listeners of any age can connect to elements of the story.
“It’s a family story and it’s a story that takes place in the ‘50s and ‘60s so it’s really a baby boomer story,” she said. “But on the other hand, there are these elements of it that are timeless.”
“Winnetka” will be available on podcast streaming platforms Feb. 4.