Paint Them Ready for Anything

Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

When Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden were nominated for Oscars for their roles in “Pollock,” Harris’ labor of love, which he spent 10 years trying to make, one could almost hear a collective cheer going up in Hollywood.

With his chiseled features and piercing blue eyes, the 50-year-old Harris has been a respected and much-sought-after actor in the film industry for two decades, but has never climbed into the ranks of Hollywood’s leading men like a Harrison Ford or a Mel Gibson. Still, his performances have often electrified audiences, and he has twice received Oscar nominations for best supporting actor--once as the mysterious director in “The Truman Show” (1998) and earlier as a NASA mission control flight director in “Apollo 13" (1995).

The stage-trained Harden, 41, is the daughter of a U.S. Navy captain who made her feature debut as a gun-toting, poker-faced moll in “Miller’s Crossing.” She’s gone on to work on films like “Space Cowboys” and “Meet Joe Black.”

Now these two working actors, who first met while performing on the New York stage in 1994 in Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico,” find themselves front and center at Hollywood’s biggest dance. Harris has been nominated for best actor, while Harden is nominated for best supporting actress.


In “Pollock,” Harris’ first directorial effort, he plays the self-destructive Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. Harden plays his wife, Lee Krasner, whose efforts to promote her husband’s career often stymied her own growth as an artist.

On a recent blustery day in Santa Monica, the two sat down to chat about the Oscar spotlight. As in the film, they seem a good team.

Question: Ed, do you have any advice to give to Marcia Gay, since this is her first Oscar nomination?

Harris: Practice sitting down and pick a name, not your own, of the five people in your category and practice hearing that name read as the recipient of the awards.

Harden: What does that do?

Harris: You are used to not hearing your own name, so you are not incredibly disappointed if they don’t call you.

Harden: [laughing] It’s true!

Harris: [to Marcia Gay] Do you know what you are wearing [to the Oscars] yet?


Harden: No, I have no idea. I’ve had commands from the captain, my father. He’s suggested that I wear something champagne-colored and strapless, and [said,] “By God [you’ve] got what it takes to hold it up!” I said to him, “Dad, I didn’t realize you and the boys were so passionate about haute couture on the 7th Fleet.” I mean, give me a break! He drew me a sketch of the dress, and it was like a designer sketch because his hand shakes [from Parkinson’s] a little bit. It was this really great sketch.

Q: [to Harris] How different is this Academy Awards for you from the previous two?

Harris: It’s different because it’s my film. Our film. But it’s this film that I worked really hard on and feel responsible for. It’s almost like being surrounded by, I don’t know, something comfortable, something good. I feel so good about the movie that I feel very free, no matter what happens at this thing. I really do. It’s filled me up.

Q: Do we put too much weight on winning an Oscar?


Harris: I think totally. It’s a very conflicting thing because, yeah, of course you want one. I can’t say I wouldn’t want to win, you know what I mean? Yet, on the other hand, I know that in terms of my life and my work, it’s just a [expletive] statue. It’s like the golden calf or something. I don’t worship the thing. I think some people do.

Harden: Someone said, “Oh, Marcia, you get to be princess for a day.” I said, “Honey, I don’t want to be a princess. I want to be a queen"--and [joking] God knows I have enough friends who are queens who are telling me what to do. In that way, it is heady and you enjoy the ride and the recognition. You get to be queen for the day.

Harris: I wouldn’t mind going through my whole life not getting [an Oscar] and people going, “Well, he should have.” I’ve always felt like an underdog in this business anyway. I don’t know what to think about it. I know if my name were called, I would be very excited. The only problem is I don’t have enough time to thank all the people I’d want to thank.

Harden: I had an idea that one should have a dress made and it should have embroidered on it every single name of every person who ever did anything for you that you would want to thank, and there at the very end on the train would be “Mom and Dad.”


Q: Ed, you’ve walked up that red carpet before. What’s it like?

Harris: It’s great because [the press] will be talking to you and then Nicole Kidman will come walking up behind you and then it’s like, “See you.” It’s one of those type of deals.

Harden: It’s a big party, and why go if you’re going to be sitting there being snooty about the idea of the Oscar? Maybe it’s fashionable to put the whole thing down, but I think you can go in the right spirit and understand it.

Q: Do you view yourselves as underdogs in this year’s Academy Awards race?


Harris: Well, I guess I felt that way because prior to the nominations coming out and all the other awards, the film had been pretty much shut out at all the film critics’ awards. I wasn’t really counting on it. My bottom line is I’m so proud about the movie and I feel really good about the film that it’s really nice to be recognized, but I don’t feel any different about the film. It hasn’t made me feel better, or that it’s a better film. I really have a strong feeling about the work as it exists. Any recognition that comes along is like “thank you.”

Harden: It was deserving before and it’s deserving now, but it’s just kind of a nice thing that the academy members took the time to open up the videotapes, sit down, turn on the TV and look at it.

Q: What’s it like to be nominated for something this high-profile?

Harris: It’s a big night and it’s obviously a big business night for films. The competition aspect of it is something I despise because acting is not about that. Running a race is competition or playing a baseball game. Acting is not about that. With acting, you only really compete with yourself in terms of your work, [not] that artificial set-up of pitting the five guys and women against each other . . . and there is a winner.


Harden: Like it or not.

Harris: And four non-winners.

Q: What would winning an Oscar mean to you both?

Harden: I chose to be an actor. I chose to do film, and this is an honor that my industry is bestowing upon a particular performance. So, I think it has to be a personal victory. . . . There are some people who it has changed their entire career, and there are some people that have gone on and you forget that they ever won it. You try to remember who was even nominated last year. You forget.


Harris: Well, I think the best thing, if one was to receive an Oscar, is that you would have received one. You wouldn’t be waiting for the one when you are 85 for your body of work.

Q: Jackson Pollock was a tormented, self-destructive artist. That had to be an appealing character to mine.

Harris: He was tormented and stuff, but the film to me is more about the effort he is making rather than destroying himself. This is a guy who fought through all these things, you know, and had the help of Lee [Krasner], with whom he wouldn’t have made it otherwise. But this guy didn’t give up. He tried. He got up every day and painted, or tried to, and did that from the time he was 19 until the time he died in ’56 when he was 44.

Q: Marcia Gay, did you have to study Lee Krasner intensely for your role?


Harden: I studied her as much as I could. We were fortunate. There was a tape of her. She was in her 70s, I think, around there. In old age, she had become larger in every way than when she was younger. [She wore a] muumuu, kaftan, or something. She was very grand and she had become very important in the art world, and I think she wore that importance on her body and in her sound, so I had to find a way to come back to something simpler and maybe a little more vulnerable, which is what she was when she was with Pollock and she wasn’t so secure and wasn’t so important.

Q: Are there similarities between artists and actors?

Harris: I think it has to do with the mystery of it all. Where inspiration comes from and, you know, seeking some unconscious place where you are trusting yourself and the powers that be to reveal some truth. I mean, the artist and a blank canvas and an actor creating a role, I mean, you can take it anywhere.

Q: Ed, why did you cast Marcia Gay as Lee Krasner?


Harris: I just knew that she was really good, you know? And that there was not a wall there. It was about dealing with Marcia Gay. There was openness. And Marcia Gay is dark. She has a wonderful body. Lee had a great bod, you know. Marcia Gay is a lot prettier than Lee was, but she is also not afraid to take things down to where they need to be.

Plus, I knew it was going to be a tough shoot, and the last thing in the world I needed was some diva to work with, someone with an attitude or somebody who is going to give me [expletive] about whatever. I needed somebody who’s going to get down in the trenches and really work, because we were working long hours, always under the pressure of time.

Q: Was making the movie a grueling experience?

Harris: Yeah, it was a struggle. My senses and everything were very alive. It was very demanding but very exhilarating as well.


Harden: Ed, what was day one? Do you remember?

Harris: The gutter [scene]. There’s a little girl in the window.

Harden: That was day one!? Gee, why don’t you start with something light, Ed!?

Harris: The second day, [the scene called for us] to be walking on the street downtown. I mean, that was the day I just sat down on the curb about midday and said, “This is totally [expletive],” and said, “There is no way in the world we can make this movie.”


Harden: And it started raining and we didn’t expect the rain.

Harris: We had like a fraction of the work done that we were supposed to by midafternoon. I just realized that this whole dream was pretty much a joke. It was impossible. So [I said to myself,] “You can sit there and close down shop or try and finish the day,” so I did.

Q: Marcia Gay, did you sense turmoil going on with Ed?

Harden: I remember him sitting on the curb thinking we’re [expletive] and what are we going to do? I remember him getting up and taking a breath, and then we went on with the day. Every single day was a struggle.


Harris: Oh, yeah, nonstop!

Harden: Because there is not enough time to make a movie and not enough money. But I remember never feeling like this is the first time Ed is wearing this hat.

Harris: You’re just trying to make it work, you know? Scene by scene.

Q: You each work in both studio and independent films. What strikes you as the major differences between them?


Harris: It’s really about time and money. I had never directed before, but I learned an awful lot. If I ever do another film independently, I’d just make sure that the budget is a realistic one and not one that is created solely so that the film can begin shooting.

Q: How long did the shoot last?

Harris: Fifty days. I’d always said I needed 50 days. We started out with a 45-day schedule and ended up being 50 days anyway. In the meantime, you never get the new day. In the first eight weeks, we never, not once, did we do the scenes that were listed for that day. So living with that is a drag. It’s a drag for the actors, it’s a drag for me, it’s a drag for all the crew. We never got our day. That’s not a way to work.

Q: Marcia Gay, you’ve been quoted as saying, “Until people get to know me, they see a dark, hard, sensuous bitch.” What did you mean by that?


Harden: When did I say that? It was probably in a quiet conversation.

Harris: [laughing] You probably said it with a big smile on your face.

Harden: Well, it was a crazy thing for me to say anyway, because I’m not sure what people see me as when they see me, but I do know people come up and say, “Oh, we thought you were much harder, or much tougher.” Or, “Gee, you couldn’t do comedy” or something like that.

Q: Ed, you were quoted once as saying your career has been based on playing characters, that you don’t really have a persona. What did you mean?


Harris: I was just referring to the fact that I don’t play myself like a Harrison Ford. I play characters, whether it’s a lead role or supporting role, whatever it might be. I don’t feel like I’m doing me.

Q: Is that something you feel comfortable doing?

Harris: I think it’s more frightening to say you’re not going to play a character, you’re going to be this guy. I like characters.

Harden: It’s a transformation. It’s not diminishing or hiding behind [something] when you are a character actor. You transform what is already you into them. You don’t lose yourself or hide yourself. If people say, “Oh, my God, I didn’t see you at all” [in that character], I don’t know if that is a compliment or not a compliment.


Harris: The whole term “character acting” to me is one I really hate. What else are you [expletive] doing? You are playing a character. That’s what acting is! If you are not playing a character, you are playing a movie star in a movie.

Q: Ed, your wife [actress Amy Madigan] plays Peggy Guggenheim in “Pollock.” What was that like?

Harris: When she came on the set, she would be arriving and seeing her husband in this kind of place where she had never seen me before--I just mean in terms of trying to make this film happen. I think it was a bit startling to her at first. Not real pleasant at times. But when she was working, we got along fine.

Q: If you win, is there that one person you would thank?


Harden: It would have to be Ed. [But also] my parents, my family, [and] these crazy waiters who used to cover for me back in New York when you would run down on the subway for an audition. All those people come to mind.

Harris: Well, my wife. And Marcia Gay. And my folks. [Executive producers] Peter Brant and Joseph Allen, who put up a lot of money to make the movie. They really trusted me to make the film. All the designers. It’s weird, [my nomination is] for an acting thing, but I would feel totally obligated to thank the people who helped me make this movie.

Harden: Any endeavor in this business, you never do on your own. [You think back on all those who said,] “You go on, Ed Harris,” or “You go on, Marcia Gay.” Every single step is part of that journey.

Harris: Or, even more so, the people who said, “What are you doing? You’re not going to make it. You don’t have any hair. What do you think is going to happen? You’ll play bad guys all the time.”


Q: Did you have to go through that?

Harris: Enough. Just enough to make you go like this [clenches his fist and slams it into his palm]. The best motivator is . . .

Harden: Revenge!