Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy: An Oral History of the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

GIF: Warner Bros.
GIF: Warner Bros.

It’s a tale as old as time: Girl meets girl. Girl likes girl. Girl and girl go on an epic crime spree and beat up the Joker and Batman in the process. That’s the way that Gotham City’s resident bad girls, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, first entered each other’s lives in the 1993 episode of Batman: The Animated Series “Harley and Ivy.” Written by Harley’s creator, Paul Dini, that one-off adventure provided the cornerstone for what has become one of the most popular (and widely shipped) relationships in the DC Universe. “It was fun to give Poison Ivy a friend because she has never had one,” Dini says about his initial decision to pair the Joker’s No. 1 fan with the flame-haired eco-terrorist who clouds men’s minds with her svelte figure and plant-based pheromones. “She’d had underlings and people she mind-controlled, but she never had anybody who accepted her for who she is.”

Dini may have written that friendship into the script, but it took actresses Arleen Sorkin and Diane Pershing — who voiced Harley and Ivy, respectively — to bring it to life onscreen. Although their characters had separately tangled with Batman prior to “Harley and Ivy,” this marked their first direct collaboration onscreen and in the recording booth. As Dini remembers, they understood the dynamic of the characters’ mentor/pupil relationship right away: “Poison Ivy’s the strong one, and she encourages Harley, the rather insecure one,” he says. “Diane and Arleen played off each other so well. If they had not worked together — if their voices had not gelled — I doubt we would have done another story with those characters.”

Related: Which Female Friendship on TV Was Your Favorite Growing Up?

Instead, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn become a go-to pairing on Batman: The Animated Series as well as subsequent cartoons set within the DC Animated Universe, including The New Batman Adventures, Gotham Girls, and Static Shock. And when Harley Quinn made the leap from cartoons to comic books in the late ’90s, she rekindled her friendship with Poison Ivy on the page, even moving in with her best bud.

Recently, their friendship has taken an overt turn for the romantic, with the duo sharing an overdue lip-lock in an issue of the DC title Bombshells, published earlier this year. The fact that Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn became the breakout star of this summer’s blockbuster Suicide Squad has also fueled speculation that we might see Harley and Ivy immortalized on the big screen one day. With the future looking bright for the red-hot couple, we asked Dini, Sorkin, and Pershing to take us back to 1993 and tell us how this beautiful friendship began.

GIF: Warner Bros.
GIF: Warner Bros.

Arleen Sorkin: Paul Dini was home sick watching Days of Our Lives, which I was on at the time. I had just seen The Princess Bride and went to our executive producers asking if we could do an episode where it was like the characters were in a fairy tale. The costume designer dressed me as a kind of harlequin. Paul saw that, and when he went back to work, he told them that he wanted to bring me on Batman: TAS. I had no idea what the character would be when I went in; I saw the dialogue on the page and thought, “I could talk like this.” So I did it, and they were so impressed with me. It wasn’t hard for me at all, but don’t tell anybody! [Laughs]

Diane Pershing: Being cast as Poison Ivy was a lovely bit of serendipity. I had been cast to do a guest role on Batman: TAS, and Andrea Romano — the wonderful voice director for all the DC shows — said to me, “Can you stay after? I want to talk to you.” She said that they had this character, Poison Ivy, and they had cast an actress who I believe was a fairly big name. She had been unable to do it, so she asked if I would like to audition. I looked at a picture of the character, and I went, “Oh, God. She’s Tinker Bell after the hormones hit!” [Laughs] She looked very sexy but also had this edge of intelligence and a sort of anger underneath. I have this sexy voice that I’ve used for cosmetic commercials and things like that, so I auditioned and got the part.

Sorkin: I was so impressed with everyone I got to work with on the early episodes. I mean, to work with Mark Hamill [who voiced the Joker] — I would sometimes forget that I was in the room with him! Everyone else would usually sit in the recording booth with headphones on, but Mark would stand up and act the role out. And Kevin Conroy made being Batman seem effortless. I don’t know if it was actually effortless to him, but he made it look that way.

Pershing: At that time, I wasn’t really a comics person, so it was Andrea and Paul who really helped me find the character. They were big fans [of Poison Ivy] and so encouraging. They left me alone unless they needed me to be a little tougher, a little louder, or a little more forceful.

Harley Quinn meets Poison Ivy for the very first time. (GIF: Warner Bros.)
Harley Quinn meets Poison Ivy for the very first time. (GIF: Warner Bros.)

Paul Dini: We had established Harley Quinn as an accomplice to the Joker who was also crushing on him and found herself in the middle of this weird relationship being at the beck and call of his every whim. We wanted to stretch her and make her a stronger character, so to have her leave him and go off on her own was a story I wanted to tell for a while. It just made sense to pair her up with Poison Ivy, because she was the strongest contrast to Harley. She’s very tough and takes no crap from men. It seemed like there was a friendship to make between them.

Pershing: Every time that Poison Ivy had appeared on the series before, she mainly interacted with other characters, like Batman and Commissioner Gordon, as the “sexy woman.” In this case, she was playing off another antagonist. I’m a feminist, so Paul’s script was right up my alley in the sense that I knew what I could bring to it. Ivy’s the alpha person in the relationship, and Harley is clingy, needy, and looking for approval. It was a classic combination. I remember at the time thinking that this relationship was important for Poison Ivy, because she didn’t have friends. So even when Harley screwed up, she would be like, “It’s OK.” Friendship is just a common human need, isn’t it?

GIF: Warner Bros.
GIF: Warner Bros.

Sorkin: I didn’t know the character of Poison Ivy before that episode, but I loved the relationship [Paul wrote]. And the way Diane played the role was so impressive. It was so fun to record scenes with her.

Pershing: Upon meeting Arleen, I thought, “Yep, I like you.” She’s a darling woman, and we had a lot of friends in common. We fell into the roles right away; she was in character, and I was in character. And Paul had written a brilliant script. On a lot of cartoons, you have to try to make what the writer has put on the page come alive, because it’s not quite there. In this case, the writing was absolutely superb, so it was easy to do.

Dini: I recall that episode as being a very easy record; both Arlene and Diane had played their respective characters many times in the past, so fitting them together was very easy. If there were any notes, we gave it to them as we were recording, or we gave them to Andrea, who was really the one who would disseminate the notes from the producers and writers to the actors. We would usually do a very simple read-through to familiarize the actors with the script, which we would also record in case we got something really good there. Then we would record the episode once and go through it again for pickups if there was any section that we thought needed redoing.

Pershing: I don’t remember the details of what Andrea told me to do for “Harley and Ivy.” The biggest thing at any particular point was just to ease up on the sexy voice and let Ivy’s fierce intelligence come through. Sometimes you’d have to redo a line because you blew out a microphone yelling or whatever. I remember that when Arleen would say her lines, I’d look up and see that she was as involved in her character as I was in mine. We were really acting together, and it was a joy.

GIF: Warner Bros.
GIF: Warner Bros.

Dini: Diane just got that script; it gave her a chance to play something other than just the femme fatale or the man destroyer. It was more like, “What are you doing, Harley? Why are you with that guy?” It was a change of pace from the scripts that we were writing for Batman: TAS and a real change of pace from a lot of scripts being done in animation in general at that point. The focus on female characters was something that hadn’t really existed in traditional superhero shows. “Harley and Ivy” was a trendsetter in that way; it showed what could be done with two villainesses who are not usually designed to be all that sympathetic, but in this case they are. You’re really pulling for them, and you don’t want to see them fail. And Batman isn’t a hero in the episode so much as he’s a traffic cop, pulling apart Harley, the Joker, and Ivy, and keeping them all straight.

Pershing: A lot of the time, evil women have no real point of view except to be evil women. Both Harley and Ivy had real motivation for the characters and their anger. The Joker was treating Harley like a piece of dirt and a servant, and Poison Ivy was trying to save this planet that everybody’s destroying. Those are understandable motivations, even though the characters are a little destructive.

GIF: Warner Bros.
GIF: Warner Bros.

Dini: The chemistry between Diane and Arleen was definitely a reason to return to that relationship between Harley and Ivy. I would write for them in the Batman: TAS comic books; we did a holiday story not long after “Harley and Ivy” in the comic book that had the two of them in it, and then we animated it a couple of years later. [That episode, “Holiday Knights,” aired in 1997 on The New Batman Adventures.] It was fun to go back to that relationship knowing how Diane and Arleen would play off each other.

Sorkin: I think that we made a really good combination. It was fun to do those scenes with Diane. I was blown away by her talent. Paul would say to me, “You know, I think I could spin off that relationship with the two girls.” And I thought, “I bet he could.”

Dini: I still write the characters occasionally for animation, and the nature of the beast is that their relationship is much more like it was in the “Harley and Ivy” episode. In animation, you can’t really go to the place [where they are in the comics]. But I’m all for it. I think their relationship in the comics is progressive, and the sort of thing that needs to be in comics. It’s fun to show that even the bad girls can be nice to each other, and there can be love and affection between them. Nowadays, I see them as very much equals. Harley has progressed in her personal development, and I don’t think that she’s as needy or as lost as when she first linked up with Poison Ivy. It’s actually a much stronger relationship between them now, because it involves personal choice.

Pershing: I don’t feel that much ownership of Poison Ivy because other actresses have played her onscreen, and voiced her in later animated iterations. So I don’t know really anything about where she and Harley have gone [recently]. Am I bad because I’m not keeping up? Again, it’s not my bailiwick, you know? I get fan letters all the time, which is nice. Then they want a picture of me, and I say, “No, you really don’t. I’m a middle-aged actress, not Poison Ivy.” [Laughs]

Batman: The Animated Series is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Read more of our TV’s Best Female Friendships interviews:

From ‘Buffy’ to ‘Once’: Jane Espenson on Creating TV’s Best Female Friends

‘Sex and the City’ Producers and Real-Life Best Friends Talk Toughest Writers’ Room Debate

‘Girlfriends’ Creator Mara Brock Akil Talks the Real Secret of Black Women on TV

‘Designing Women’ at 30: A Tribute to the Four ‘Man-Loving Feminists’ Who Changed TV