Where: backstage at the Public Theater. 6 pm.
Ed Harris is currently starring in the highly-anticipated new play by Sam Shepard called Simpatico. Though he has not appeared on stage in New York in many years, he does enjoy being back in town for this important piece.
“I like New York. It’s an exciting place to be. I’ve done a lot of theater in L.A., but L.A. is so spread out geographically that it doesn’t generate the same kind of excitement. The stage in New York and just the city itself is a treat.” He then lets out a relaxed sigh, “For a short period of time.”
Shepard also directs his own play (which is commonplace in film, but almost unheard of in theater) and receives glowing praise from Harris.
“Sam is great. We haven’t worked together since Fool For Love, which was in ’83. On a working level, as well as a personal level, it’s been a really good time. He’s a good director, and he’s good with actors. He’s patient and very relaxed. He gives you a lot of freedom even though they’re his words that he’s written. In the general way of working in terms of exploration, Sam’s great about talking about not getting too cerebral about things or analyzing things too much, and not getting too philosophical about the script or what’s happening with the character. He wants you to trust the words of the script and let your instincts lead you to places.”
If you don’t get a chance to catch Ed Harris in this very limited run at the Public Theater in the next few weeks, you can look forward to seeing him next year as we all are used to seeing him—on the big screen.
“I did a picture called Just Cause with Sean Connery. I don’t have that big a role, but it was a really good part. I play this nutty guy on death row. Actually, I think I did better work on that than I have on anything in terms of film. I felt real good about it. Then I worked on Apollo 13, which is a big Hollywood movie with Tom Hanks and a bunch of people. They were both fun, and they were relatively short stints so I wasn’t away from my family that much.”
In addition to these films, Harris also has a bunch of film projects of his own that are in various stages of development. The two with the most buzz at the moment are a new collaboration with an old friend who gave him his first starring role, and the other is a screen adaptation of one of his favorite stage roles.
“The project is called Native Tongue. I’ve got George Romero involved with that. We’ve been at a standstill for a while, so we hope to get together in a couple of weeks. We have a script. It’s pretty good, but we need to work on it a little bit and see what happens.” Harris smiles and then lets out a big laugh. “All these things take years!
“But Scar I’ve pretty much put to bed. It’s sleeping peacefully. I think it was just meant to be a play. I had a couple of people working on the screenplay, and I didn’t have the time to get into it as a writer.
“I finally realized that it was a piece that was so dear to me personally because of the character and the play. My desire to do it as a film was to be able to spend more time with this character, but just because the character is interesting doesn’t mean that the piece itself functions in terms of a screenplay. We might revisit it someday, but not right now.”
Harris finds it important to develop and work on projects of his own rather than wait for offers to come in because at his current status in Hollywood, the parts he wants to play are either non-existent, or given to only a handful of movie stars.
“The number one thing I’d love to be in is a film that I consider to be a really fine piece of work in all aspects. I’ve done some things that I’ve felt good about. Things that had resonance, that seemed to strike a chord in people. The projects of my own that I’m trying to develop will probably be out in some little theater for two weeks and disappear. It’s more the desire to do the piece of work.
“There was a period of time a few years back when I was much more frustrated about being offered certain roles in the Hollywood industry and not being considered A-list. Whatever the fuck that is, but I’ve backed off from that. I still feel I can hold a candle to anybody in terms of the work. I might not have as big a name as some people, but that’s not within my control. It’s just not something it’ll do me any good to think about.
“I’ve done my work for the last however many years, and that’s what I’m known for doing. I don’t feel I’ll ever be out of work, so I’m not worried about that. It’s more the opportunities to work with the best people on the best projects, and feeling that I deserve as much of a shot as anybody else. So there is some thought given to sustaining a career and making choices that keep you visible to the powers that be that continue to make movies, but those people change all the time. It’s ridiculous because you’ve got young businessmen making creative decisions, who don’t know a fuck about making films. They’ll hire a director, and then cut the film by executive committee, and the director won’t edit his own movie. It’s pretty silly, but there’s always going to be something to bitch about. I’d rather spend my energies concentrating on what I want to do as opposed to what I can’t do, or wish I could do, or blah-blah-blah.
“If you look at some of the films I’ve made like Walker, they’re out there. To Kill A Priest and A Flash Of Green are not mainstream movies, but then you could ask me about Needful Things and Milk Money. But actually, Milk Money was a comedy, which I had never done on film. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do that. Since I’m not a big star, I do what I can do,” Harris chuckles.
“You can’t help but be seduced by the Hollywood business, but I’ve always tried to hold on to some personal instinct in terms of the things I do. But a lot of times you’ll read a script, and you’ll think it has possibilities, and it turns out really bad. Some people just don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know how to make a film, or they don’t know how to work with actors. Their intention is simply to make a film so they can make another one.
“It’s pitiful because you don’t know that going into it. There are a lot of actors out there, and everybody wants to work. Somebody can talk a good game and seemingly be excited about a project and talk about it in a way that makes sense. Then once you’re there on the set, you realize this person doesn’t have a fucking clue. Their mentality is just ‘I want to be a director.’”
Even though Ed Harris has been in dozens of films in the past decade or more, audiences still look back to one of his very first roles—as John Glenn in The Right Stuff—with a fondness usually reserved for larger-than-life fictional characters as opposed to a portrayal of a real-life astronaut.
“It was pretty exciting. I was glad to get casted in the role, I remember. I knew it was a good project, and it was the first major film I was in. I worked real hard on it, and I was just trying to do a good job playing Glenn.
“I remember I was shocked when my face was on the cover of Newsweek because they had a big article about the movie. But after that I did Under Fire, Alamo Bay, Places In The Heart, Sweet Dreams. None of those movies were very successful in terms of box office, so it wasn’t like The Right Stuff catapulted me anywhere in terms of being in demand.
“But if anybody recognizes me, they say The Right Stuff and that was twelve years ago. That’s kind of funny actually. A lot of times you’ll get stopped by people, and they go, ‘Hey, I know you! You’re an actor, right?’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’ And they say, ‘What have you done?’”
TH: They stop you, and they don’t even know your name?!
EH: I say, “Well, why don’t you figure it out?”
TH: Good comeback.
EH: Or “I don’t know. You want me to sit here and list eighteen films I’ve done?”
TH: Just have your resume ready for ‘em. (laughs)
EH: I should carry a card around in my pocket or something. (pretends to pull a card out of his jacket pocket and hands it over) Here!
TH: (takes the “card” and pretends to read it) Oh! You’re that guy! I thought you were the other guy.
EH: (laughs) It’s not such a big deal really. Most people are cool. You just blow ‘em off if they’re idiots.
TH: Absolutely! It’s nice to meet someone who’s also smart enough to know that dealing with idiots is a waste of your precious time.
EH: This is true. (smiles) All of us bright people know that.
“But I don’t go to the movie theater where a movie of mine is playing and sit in the audience and watch it. I don’t know if it’s so much that I don’t like to see myself, but I just usually don’t. I will see a screening, but I’d rather go see something else. Occasionally, if something’s on the TV, I might check out some of it. But just to watch the film is a little strange because I can’t help but look at my work.
“It feels a little bit narcissistic sometimes. You’re going, ‘Oh! That was really good,’” Harris mocks in a jolly tone. “You’re either patting yourself on the back, or you’re seeing stuff that you knew then you could have done better,” he laughs. “There’s no reason to watch it again.”
Harris is also one half of one of the most solid and admired marriages in Hollywood, and he and his wife, the acclaimed actress Amy Madigan, pride themselves on never exploiting their relationship for the sake of publicity.
“It’s more of the fact that we both care about our work. We both enjoy acting, and that’s what’s important to us. That’s what it’s about, so it stays on that level. We just don’t put ourselves out there in any other capacity because we don’t want to hype it or take advantage of it because you get some notoriety or some attention. We’ve been together since ’81, and we’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re doing pretty good.
“There’s a certain need or desire people have to be famous. I don’t quite understand what that is though. Any kind of ‘fame’ that comes my way I hope it’s because of the work I do, and that’s the only thing I try to concentrate on. I think sometimes I could probably do more PR, but I don’t believe in hype. I’ll talk about projects when they’re coming out or if I’m doing something that I care about. You do act for the public. You don’t act for yourself. So to totally shun that, or to not have yourself be available in any way for that, seems a little strange to me.”
It is unfortunate that because of the more serious and dramatic roles that Ed Harris plays, audiences do not get the opportunity to witness the wry sense of humor and playfulness he displays in conversation. On the topic of life, he speaks of gratitude and meaning with equal amounts of gravitas and humor.
“Well, number one, I love that I have a life!” Harris laughs heartily, and then turns reflective. “In terms of being put on this earth, that’s a pretty good gift. I try not to take that for granted. I love my family, and I love my friends. I love nature. Life is still full of possibilities, and I don’t mean just work. I try not to close myself off. I try to stay loose and see what happens. As you get older, you also can’t help but have a sense of a growing responsibility for your actions. I look back on the last twenty years--and not that I would do anything differently—but certain things along the way, you question your decisions.”
Harris is quiet for a moment and shrugs, “Then again, we are who we are. I don’t how much you can really change. You’re just a product of your folks and your genes and your environment. If you have a desire to change or to do something drastic, that’s probably part of who you are too. Change happens. We all live our lives, however we do it.” A small smirk starts to rise on his face, but instead, he bursts into a big, mischievous grin and proclaims, “Then we die, and that’s it.” - AAA
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