Jeremy O. Harris scales the heights at Soho House New York

Jeremy O. Harris scales the heights at Soho House New York | Soho House

As one of the most important literary voices of his generation, he has the world at his feet. Paul Flynn meets the playwright and Soho House member in Manhattan

Tuesday 23 May 2023 By Paul Flynn Photography by Justin French Creative production by Juliette Clarke Styling by Mobolaji Dawodu Hair by Karen K Makeup by Ayaka Nihei Nails by Leanne Woodley Shot at Soho House New York

In the back of an Uber, hurtling through the final hours of Paris Fashion Week, the esteemed and disruptive playwright Jeremy O. Harris is reflecting back on his first crowning moment. At the 2021 Tony Awards, Harris’s Broadway debut, Slave Play, was nominated for an unprecedented 12 awards. ‘Iconic,’ he notes. Tony Kushner, the previous recipient of the most Tony nominations for a single play for Angels In America, was the first audience member to lead a standing ovation while Slave Play was still in preview at The New York Theatre Workshop. ‘To get that stamp of approval from one of my idols – one of the people who taught me to write the way I write – was very cool.’ 

Harris is a forthright, infectious, clever communicator, in life as on stage. He is blessed with usefully clashing characteristics: the resourceful wit of those who came from nothing and the robust confidence of an Ivy League education. Harris was born in Martinsville, Virginia, and educated at Yale. He is at the vanguard of capital ‘B’ Black and capital ‘Q’ Queer thought, injecting a new forcefield of energy and enterprise into New York’s wilfully static, conservative theatre industry. Both facets unlock a corner of his artistry – Harris makes theatre uniquely appealing for those who might not automatically consider themselves ‘theatre people’. And, as well as his prodigious storytelling gift, he is enormously good fun. 

Jeremy O. Harris scales the heights at Soho House New York | Soho House

Fashion loves Harris. He is the only playwright in living memory to have modelled for Gucci and simultaneously held an editorial title at the Warhol-founded Interview magazine. At the 2021 Tonys, he wore custom couture Schiaparelli by Daniel Roseberry. ‘That was supposed to be my f**k-you dress,’ he says with a smile. He didn’t expect to win anything. ‘My chest was exposed. It was a crop-top. I’m wearing a corset. Everything about it was about me being c**ty-c**ty-c**ty-c**ty.’ He repeats the ultimate modern New York superlative with the same rhythmic precision Beyoncé uses on her whip-smart Renaissance album track, ‘Pure/Honey’. ‘It was about: I look so good that it doesn’t matter whether I win or lose, because I’m going to be written about tomorrow anyway.’ 

Harris’s dates for the evening were his mum, his high-school literature teacher (‘who completely redirected my life’) and his then-10-year-old niece. ‘All the women that inspire me,’ he adds. His niece picked a Schiaparelli piece of her own to wear. ‘How many 10-year-olds get to do that? It was such a nepo baby journey and I loved it.’ ‘Nepo baby’ is media shorthand for the (recently maligned) offspring of famous parents, who get a premature leg-up the fame ladder. ‘Honestly, nepo kids deserve rights too!’ By now, Harris is howling laughing. ‘Like, listen, she didn’t ask to be born into a family with a famous uncle playwright. But it happened.’ 

This is the way conversations with Jeremy O. Harris track. You start on one subject, then he will take you on a sharp hairpin bend around an unexpected corner. As with most topics, on the nepo babies brouhaha, Harris is well worth listening to. ‘It’s a very complicated thing,’ he says. ‘As someone who is class-conscious, it is horrific that classism has affected our world to the extent that it has. But it’s very easy to hyper-focus on people who are on television or in the media as being the height of all cultural references that capitalism has wrought.’ He’s a thoughtful, circuitous conversationalist. ‘I don’t know that a kid who’s mum was a playwright or a Downtown artist is necessarily the height of our country’s social ills.’ He sighs. ‘The people that I’m more anxious about are the people whose families have wealth that is invisible: whose dads are in finance or banking; who have millions and millions of dollars and then have kids who go on to film school or art school and never have to account for the fact that they don’t have to pay rent.’ 


Jeremy O. Harris scales the heights at Soho House New York | Soho House

Jacket, £2,630, and trousers, £1,270, both Gucci. Boots, Harris’s own. Watch (worn throughout), vintage Rolex. Sunglasses and jewellery (worn throughout), all Harris’s own. 

Jeremy O. Harris scales the heights at Soho House New York | Soho House

Jacket, £2,450, Gucci. Trousers, approx £998, Nanushka. Shoes and socks, Harris’s own. 

As a child in Martinsville, Harris was hyper aware of how the class system operates in reverse. ‘It’s a city where the nicest restaurant is an Applebee’s.’ He intends to write about the demolition of his hometown one day. ‘It was once a significant, thriving furniture town that had some of the best factories in the country. When NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] happened, all the factories closed down. So, in the 1990s, I saw this vibrant working-class community become bereft of any culture or finances. Now we have the highest per capita opioid rates of any city in America. That’s just where I’m from.’ 

In this regard, why shouldn’t his little niece get to wear Schiaparelli, too? Where there is robust, blunt-talking analysis, there is usually a humorous payoff with Harris. ‘Besides, I’m more interested in the nepo babies who are flops. There are so many people who had wildly famous mums and dads who you never hear from again after they do one movie, because they were not talented. I mean, yes, Zoë Kravitz’s parents are famous. But Zoë is stunning. Being that charismatic is not something you’re born with.’ 

Our conversational rollercoaster backshifts to the night of the Tonys. In the end, Harris’s assumption of Slave Play winning in none of its 12 nominated categories proved correct. He wasn’t concerned. Slave Play was hardly typical Broadway fair. The story of three interracial couples undergoing ‘Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy’ due to the Black partners no longer finding their white partners sexually attractive was hardly set up to travel across Middle America with the mellifluous commercial ease of Moulin Rouge! or Jagged Little Pill. 

Jeremy O. Harris scales the heights at Soho House New York | Soho House
Jeremy O. Harris scales the heights at Soho House New York | Soho House

‘I don’t think you can antagonise the establishment and then say, “Why didn’t they give me an award?”’ 

‘My play was very much a play that was negging or antagonising the establishment,’ he qualifies. ‘So, I don’t think that you can antagonise the establishment and then say, “Oh, but why didn’t they give me an award?”’ Harris had a blast that night, regardless. ‘I told my mom early on, “We’re not winning and that’s going to be OK.” It’s more punk to walk away with nothing. Suddenly, I feel like Beyoncé and Renaissance. It doesn’t need to win. She’s Beyoncé. It’s way more punk to be Beyoncé and perfect every time and still lose the big award.’ 

Harris feels like a more natural attendee of the Grammys than the Tonys. His rockstar demeanour is part of what makes him such a breathtaking addition to the storytelling canon. But don’t let that distract you from the punctiliousness of his theatre methodology. ‘I’m a child of the underground and the experimental,’ he says. ‘So, I guess in that way I do say, f**k the orthodoxy. But dramaturgically my plays are pretty classic. I’m a structuralist. I’m constantly dissecting and reimagining Aristotelian practices inside my work. There’s a unity of time and space in Slave Play that I’ve seen very rarely from the type of play that I did. I wanted to make something that felt like a Porsche: it looks really sickening and complex on the outside, but you go on the inside and its very much ready to run fast.’ The engine is purring. ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ 

Last year, his London debut, a staging of Daddy – the first play he wrote as part of his masters qualification at Yale – wowed audiences that looked more like nightclubbers at an east London queer nightclub than gentrified patrons of the West End, while selling out the Almeida. Daddy untangled the power dynamic of another interracial queer relationship, between Franklin and Andre, with brisk energy, a swimming pool and cunning use of George Michael’s ‘Father Figure’ at the end of the first act. 

Jeremy O. Harris scales the heights at Soho House New York | Soho House

Above: Shirt, approx £520, and trousers, £455, both Bode. Socks and shoes, Harris’s own. 

Harris is currently filming a documentary, expected to debut at the film festivals this summer, loosely based around his writing process. The process is throwing up some startling realisations about why he writes fiction. ‘One of the things I’ve learned is that all of my characters are me,’ he says. He’s had the thought in passing before, ‘but started to feel it deeply now. There’s something exhilarating about that knowledge. What that teaches me about myself is my unknowable vulnerability. I want to keep mining those: I like that my unknowable vulnerabilities make people uncomfortable, because that discomfort is something that they say silently to themselves; that they don’t want to see or say out loud.’ 

He says that the content of his documentary is still the subject of some secrecy. I suggest that secrecy is not something a gregarious and open-armed communicator like Harris would find naturally comfortable. Quite the contrary, he protests. ‘I’m quite good at it, actually. You know, I am one of maybe five, 10 people on Earth who knows what’s going to happen in season three of Euphoria.’ 

Harris has been a consultant on his old friend Sam Levinson’s HBO series – a magical address to American youth in the age of opioids – since the beginning. As such, he’s in a unique position to comment on exactly where it went right. ‘The magic that, despite what the internet thinks it knows about Sam Levinson, and they think they know a lot, he and his wife Ashley, his production partner Kevin and everyone else involved in the show create a lovely home for people to be their best selves.’ 

Harris and Levinson first met in New York, when they were struggling through their early twenties to get their storytelling voices heard. He points to the crucial casting choices of Euphoria as another example of how the show has become such a lightning rod for contemporary screen culture. ‘We now know that Zendaya is one of the great actresses of our generation,’ he says. ‘But I think that even I would have questioned, early on in the casting process, whether she would have been able to show the range she has in this series. This is a girl who doesn’t go out to clubs. This is a girl who goes to work and goes home to play with her dog. It’s hard to imagine that actress is able to play a heroin-addicted teenager with the level of complexity she does. Sam saw that early on.’ 



Jeremy O. Harris scales the heights at Soho House New York | Soho House

£655, and trousers, £700 both Bode. Socks, Harris’s own 

Jeremy O. Harris scales the heights at Soho House New York | Soho House

Jacket, £645, Homme Plissé Issey Miyake. Top, approx £534, Nanushka 

He describes his involvement in the show as ‘family sh*t. I’ve known Sam since I was 22 years old.’ Harris is now in his early thirties. ‘[Sam had] only made one film that I really liked, called Another Happy Day – which everyone should see, by the way. He was just hanging in New York. He and I would hang out together. I would pitch him my ideas and let him read early scripts, and he would pitch me his and let me read his early scripts. I trusted him a lot and he trusted me a lot to tell each other the truth about what we were writing. And a lot of that truth was, “I f**king love this”. That’s really lovely.’ 

Levinson is just a small corner of Harris’s impeccable New York contact book: a generation who came to smash what went before and carve a new aesthetic according to their version of the world. His associated network is now the building blocks for a new New York, post-pandemic. ‘It’s very kind to say,’ he says, unusually demure. ‘I’m attracted to talented people and I think that like attracts like, you know. I feel very lucky that because I am so social, I’m able to really celebrate and be in a community with some really f**king talented and outstandingly unique individuals. If I meet you at a dinner and we vibe, I will go to bat for you until the end of time. If you need a place to stay, I will open my home to you, much to the chagrin and frustration of my fiancée, who is an only child and does not like our apartment being a hostel for complex communities. But it’s true.’ 

In this regard, Jeremy O. Harris is playing to a classic rulebook when it comes to becoming one of the literary greats of our time. To become mythological, one must understand how myths are made. ‘You read Susan Sontag’s journals,’ he notes, as his Uber finds its destination. ‘You read Truman Capote’s diaries; James Baldwin’s diaries. These are people who stay part of the historical narrative, the canon, forever, just because they listened deeply and opened their homes to others. Whenever I read about those people, I think, I want to be one of those people.’

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