He’s getting ready to turn 59 next week, and has spent more than half his life as a stage and screen actor. And during an impressive career in which he’s played the good (The Right Stuff), the bad (Pollock) and the hideously ugly (A History of Violence), four-time Academy Award nominee Ed Harris has no regrets.
Unless you count the time he said no to Stanley Kubrick. In doing so, it might have cost him his best chance to win that coveted Golden Boy.
The recipient of the 2009 Mayor's Career Achievement Award for Acting at the 32nd Starz Denver Film Festival on November 13 was reluctant to reveal many juicy details about himself or his fellow actors during “An Evening With Ed Harris” at the King Center.
Yet throughout an interview and Q&A that followed a 30-minute highlight reel of some of his formidable performances, Harris was surprisingly chatty for a guy who rarely appears on the talk show circuit.
Robert Knott, his friend, occasional co-writer (Appaloosa) and fellow actor (Pollock) was the interviewer during this onstage conversation, but had little work to do as Harris covered many significant aspects and defining moments of his life.
It took a question from the audience, though, to get the star to spill the beans about The One He Let Get Away.
Not that Harris seemed to mind that he passed up the chance to play that rotten-to-the-Corps senior drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. In fact, Harris needed Knott to refresh his memory when he was asked if there was a role he turned down that he regretted.
“I don’t really regret turning it down, but it’s notable. You remember, I think the fella won an Oscar for it,” Harris said, struggling to come up with the answer. “Uh … Oh God!”
After briefly (and privately) conferring with Knott, Harris returned to his seat. “You remember Full Metal Jacket,” he said. “The Stanley Kubrick picture. Stanley Kubrick wanted me to play that sergeant fellow, who was played by a real Army guy (R. Lee Ermey). I don’t remember what was going on with me at that time, I think I’d just finished something, but I said no to him. I remember I was sitting in our kitchen. He called me on the phone.
“I must not have met him. And he asked me if I wanted to do it. And I said no. I had to explain, have a little bit of explanation, and there was a pause. And he says, ‘You’re kidding me.’
“And I said, ‘No, I’ve thought about it.’ Anyway, I never worked with Kubrick; that was the one chance I had; but I don’t think I could have done a better job than the fellow who did it; I don’t really regret that I didn’t do it; I regret that I didn’t work with Kubrick.”
The audience excused the fact that some of Harris’ facts were as faulty as his memory. Although Ermey was nominated for a Golden Globe as best supporting actor in 1988, he neither won nor was nominated for an Oscar that year. Looking back at the winner (Sean Connery for The Untouchables) and other nominees (Albert Brooks, Broadcast News; Denzel Washington, Cry Freedom; Vincent Gardenia, Moonstruck; and Morgan Freeman, Street Smart) in the supporting category, perhaps he should have.
And just imagine what Harris would have done with the part. With those steely blue eyes and an ability to express manic rage, the man known for his explosive performances in Glengarry Glen Ross, The Human Stain and Gone Baby Gone, could have taken Hartman to off-the-chart psychotic levels. No wonder Kubrick couldn’t believe his ears.
Yet Harris seems content with the road he’s taken, long after setting the bar so high for himself by portraying astronaut/All-American hero John Glenn in The Right Stuff in 1983. The Oscar nominations didn’t come until much later.
Playing tortured artist Jackson Pollock, a guy Harris said was “even more screwed up than I ever was,” the nominee missed his only chance to win best actor when Russell Crowe was chosen for Gladiator in 2001. The others – Apollo 13 in 1996, The Truman Show in 1999 and The Hours in 2003 – were for supporting roles. Still, not bad for a kid whose high school pegged him to become a forest ranger.
Harris was a small – “and not particularly fast” – athlete from New Jersey who gave up a football career at Columbia University and caught the acting bug after attending two plays – Man of La Mancha and Tartuffe in the early 1970s at the Southwest Repertory Theater in Norman, Oklahoma.
When he played King Arthur in Camelot at the Jewel Box Theater in Oklahoma City, it was the roar of the crowd that provided that “aha” moment. “It was a purely ecstatic experience for me that lasted about 10 minutes, 15 minutes, where I was like … blown away,” Harris recalled. “I said, ‘I guess I gotta do this.’ … The thing is … you spend the rest of your life trying to get back to that.”
Acting made Harris feel comfortable in the world before it became an obsession. “I don’t know how many of you, a lot of us, you develop certain social skills where you meet somebody that you don’t know and you don’t break out in a sweat; that took awhile for me,” he said.
He looks back fondly on those early acting days in towns along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains such as Pasadena and Sierra Madre, paying $25 a month in rent. And his appearances in Places in the Heart and Alamo Bay with Amy Madigan, another brilliant actor whom he married in 1983, were times when “we genuinely had fun. … A lot of things in your life that you remember as being joyous … it’s something about it, who you were with, the time of your life, how you felt, the overall kind of experience of it, brings you joy to think about it.”
While he continues to get meaty parts in films, including playing a homeless father (above) in Touching Home, which was shown last week at the Denver Film Festival, and 2010 releases What’s Wrong With Virginia (in a cast that includes Madigan, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Roberts) and Peter Weir’s escaping Siberia saga, The Way Back, the play seems to be the thing for Harris these days.
With his 16-year-old daughter Lily a year and a half away from finishing school, Harris said he plans to devote more time to the stage “in the second half of my life … my career; I like to pretend like I have another half (of my life).”
It was Lily’s reaction to seeing her dad perform in Neil LaBute’s one-man play, Wrecks, in 2006 at New York’s Public Theater that provided Harris with a much-needed jump-start.
“She’d never seen me – neither my wife Amy nor myself on stage. I remember I was in the dressing room … and she just ran as hard as she could and leaped into my arms and said, ‘Dad, I’m so proud of you.’ That made it all worthwhile,” Harris said, howling with glee at the thought of finally earning his daughter’s admiration.
Harris plans to return to the stage in February, although this time it will be in Los Angeles. Performing Shakespeare and “some classical kind of things” are also on his radar and he wants to keep working as long as he stays healthy. He sounds less hopeful about maintaining a steady schedule on the movie lot, despite the fact he has appeared in more than 50 films, including two he directed – Pollock and Appaloosa.
Citing Weir and Agnieszka Holland (Copying Beethoven, The Third Miracle) as the only film directors who have truly challenged him, Harris said many of the others rarely “feel confident enough in their own knowledge or ability to confront you in that way or to help you in that way.”
Although he refuses to name names, Harris also doesn’t have patience for what he calls “bubble” actors. “They act in their own bubble,” he explained. “They could be really accomplished … and very famous … and actually quite good at what they do. But you could be in a chimpanzee suit next to them, they wouldn’t care. They’d do the same thing. That’s not very much fun to work with that kind of person.”
Make no mistake, though. Harris is still passionate about acting. Asked how young performers can make a name for themselves, Harris showed off his most animated side, putting to shame the majority of guests giving inspirational lectures to those students on Inside the Actors Studio.
“What you do is get as good as you can get,” Harris said in a rapid-fire delivery. “That’s what you do. You find places to act; it’s about learning about it; it’s about learning the finest little details; it’s about paying attention to your body and your voice and your soul and your breath. And observing other people and looking at art and appreciating the days that you have on this planet and all kinds of wonderful things; and if you’re not looking towards improving or learning as an artist, or somebody who wants to be an actor, in the best sense, then what are you doing? It’s like, if you get good enough, they’ll find you. That’s one way of looking at it.”
Earlier that night, after accepting the award presented by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Harris introduced character actor John Ashton, then regaled the crowd with another story about his reckless youth. In 1981, he and Ashton performed in True West, Sam Shepard’s play about two feuding brothers looking to reconnect. Realizing he had locked his keys in the dressing room after everyone else had departed, Harris rammed a hanging clothes cart through the door and “got in a little trouble for that.”
Moral of the story?
“What I’m trying to say is I really enjoy what I do,” Harris said, causing the crowd to laugh uproariously. “Not that kind of stuff. I don’t do that so much anymore; I really don’t. I behave myself, I try to; I have fun in more wholesome ways. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I hope to do it for another 30.”
And he’ll probably never need to be reminded again. Sometimes it’s a no-no to “Just Say No.”
For more photos of “An Evening With Ed Harris,” go to Flickr.