The actress that Columbus residents remember as a girl growing up in the community is the polar opposite of the character she plays in a TV western.
Figure this: Chasten Harmon, who grew up in a close-knit, well-respected Columbus family, emphatically portrays the resolute Bessie Louvin, a prostitute secretly abandoned at birth by her philandering, white father, the town sheriff. She stars in the new, grand 1930s Western “Damnation” at 10 p.m. Thursdays on the USA Network (past episodes are available online).
The 2003 Columbus East High School graduate calls the complex role of the scrappy-and-strong character “my first big TV gig ever.” And she’s making something of a big splash in the role seemingly as far from her roots and reality as possible.
But Harmon, offering thoughts in a recent email chat, figures that perhaps she and Bessie probably share more similarities than many viewers may realize.
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“I think it’s important to be yourself and not conform, and I’m sure Bessie believes that, too,” she said. “I definitely believe myself to be resourceful and unusually perceptive.”
Those latter traits are qualities that TV critics especially have highlighted about Bessie. Raised in an orphanage, she’s a literate, well-read character who plays a key role as something of a makeshift secretary and driver to the illiterate loner Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green). The cowboy, one of two central characters in the show, comes to Holden, Iowa, in 1931 to stop local farmers’ unionization plans.
“With Bessie, and I think with every character in this world, isolation and family relationships play a big factor,” Harmon said.
“Now, I have great family relationships, so that part I had to do some exploration on in order to access. But I think everyone can relate to feeling isolated and unseen in a world with so many people.”
Viewers apparently relate to Harmon’s Bessie.
“Love how the women on #DamnationTV are as focused as the men on their individual missions” wrote one female fan of the show on Harmon’s Twitter feed recently.
The actress and singer’s last major project was as a devil-may-care barfly in the movie “Paterson” released in late 2016. But her background includes stage work such as the role of Eponine in a nationwide tour of the 25th anniversary of “Les Miserables” in 2012.
“It’s an intense process to interact with a character for half a year,” she said of the TV series filming in Calgary, Alberta in Canada. “You are constantly exploring new material and treading new territory so nothing is predictable.
“It’s not like (theater) where everything is repetitive and you have to figure out how to keep it fresh. A lot of my work is done subconsciously, so it happens when it happens.”
Harmon’s Facebook page currently overflows with congratulations from friends and followers watching “Damnation.” Among those admiring her work is older sister Marja Harmon, who laughingly mentioned that she texts her rising-star sibling about Bessie’s every move during the show as Marja watches. Also, local singer and actress Janie Gordon, a longtime family friend of the Harmons who calls Bessie “an incredible role for Chasten,” remembers her prediction about Chasten Harmon years ago.
“I told her mother, ‘This kid is going to be on TV,’” Gordon said of Chasten, whom she worked with as a vocal teacher. “Chasten was one of those people who could have walked onto the set of something like ‘The Cosby Show’ back then as one of the Huxtable kids and been good (from the beginning).
“There’s a certain energy that you get from someone. And she always has had that energy.”
Chasten Harmon looks at what she considers her biggest risk.
“I’m sure I’ll look back 10 years from now and have many more stories to tell,” she said. “But I would say leaving the business for three years to go to Yale School of Drama for my master’s in fine arts (degree, earned in 2015) has been that so far. Who knows what life has in store next?”
For now, Harmon said she is resting as she alternates residential time between New York and Los Angeles because of the industry’s demands. She refers to her continuing sideline business, Plush Armour, featuring her handmade, knitted sweaters, scarves and other items, as her “hobby with benefits — and such a joy.” She boasts customers worldwide.
Yet, she holds most dearly to something parents Tom and Mary Harmon of Columbus gave her as she grew and dreamed.
“They have never once along the way questioned my sister and I’s desire to pursue the performance arts,” Chasten Harmon said. “That is so rare. I have few colleagues who can say the same.
“It was always yes, and what do you need from me? The fact that they gave us the space and resources to explore and pursue our dreams, I believe, gave us courage. Courage can go a long way in life. (It is) a priceless gift I will always be grateful for.”
Current role: As bright and bold prostitute Bessie Louvin in the 1930s Western “Damnation” on USA Network. The show airs at 10 p.m. Thursdays (and previous episodes are available online).
Education: 2003 Columbus East High School graduate. Bachelor’s of fine arts in acting from New York University. Master’s in fine arts in acting from Yale University.
Experience: Includes being a member of the Tony-Award-winning Broadway cast of “Hair!” and the nationally touring 25th anniversary of “Les Miserables.” Her first major film was “Paterson” from last year.
Parents: Tom and Mary Harmon of Columbus.
Sibling: Fellow actress and singer Marja Harmon, who just appared earlier this month with the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic.