He’s on his own A-list

Times Staff Writer

Ed HARRIS has lived in movie star country, on a shady piece of Malibu hillside high over the Pacific Ocean, for much of his fruitful 24-year career. He rarely drives down to L.A. to take meetings or lunch with moguls. In fact, watch the balding actor, dressed in faded cotton, walk past two pickup trucks and some rusty patio furniture, and you might mistake him for one of the workmen spiffing up the neighborhood estates on a recent weekday morning.

The way he sees it, “I’m not a movie star. I’m an actor.” As Hollywood’s Mr. Everyman, Harris has parlayed an open, Middle American face and persona into a career of diverse supporting characters, from lover (“The Abyss”) to serial killer (“Just Cause”) to imaginary federal agent (“A Beautiful Mind”). “The roles I’ve had that are leading roles I’ve either produced the film myself, or else they’re films that nobody’s seen,” he said.

Now 55, Harris is playing two central characters -- one larger than life, one seemingly smaller -- in productions that take him from a dying mill town in Maine to the gilded salons of 19th century Europe. As Ludwig van Beethoven, in “Copying Beethoven,” an independent film now in production in Budapest, Harris tackles his first period role, but one that recalls the largest effort of his career, when he directed himself as another intense artistic genius, Jackson Pollock, in “Pollock.”

In HBO’s two-part “Empire Falls” (Saturday and next Sunday), Harris is the operator of a small-town grill, the touchstone for the other townsfolk in a high-profile ensemble cast that includes Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In this drama, based on Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, playing the character Miles Roby allows Harris to show off what friends say is another side to the actor himself: the smart, decent man of few words.


Acquaintances call Harris independent-minded, serious and bluntly honest, the sort of guy who would tell a stranger his toupee is slipping, the sort of actor who prepares so thoroughly, he winds up embodying the characters he’s playing.

“He picks the characteristics that he wants to investigate and he underplays them,” said Newman, who plays Harris’ crusty old goat of a dad in “Empire Falls.” “What you have is not a performance so much as character behavior, which I admire,” he said.

“People are recognizing more and more just how good he really is,” said “Empire Falls” director Fred Schepisi. In the ensemble piece, he said, “Everything is about connections. His part is affected by what happened in his past and his relationships to all the different strata of society which had a personal impact on him. He’s got to convey an awful lot of what’s going on in his mind without looking boring. You need to be very sure of where you are in the progression of the character at all times.”

Because the movie was often shot out of sequence, Harris had to regulate his performance so that his character was always developing, like a print in a chemical bath, Schepisi said. “He conveyed all the turmoil inside of him without it ever seeming precious, and certainly not boring. It was quite a feat,” he said.

As an actor who changes from film to film, Harris has acquired neither the persona of a star nor the $20-million-per-picture fee that goes to those whose names drive throngs into theaters. He doesn’t much care if he’s on Hollywood’s A-list. “I’m on my own A-list,” he said. Yet audiences identify with him because he seems like an ordinary guy.

An ordinary guy, of course, would not spend 10 years working on a movie about a troubled artist, even building a studio to perfect his own drip painting technique over the years. Or try to start a theater company. Or build a Craftsman’s playhouse with dormers, rafters and patio for his daughter that has a better ocean view than his own.


Shy yet intense


In conversation, Harris is shy yet also blunt, profane and intense on the topics of art, politics, and the media. He is also surprisingly uncomfortable in front of a camera.

He is alarmed that quality films are an endangered species and that the industry’s star-making machinery chews up young actors. “The business is so ready to grab anybody with the potential to be a young star and they throw them into these ... movies and hope one of them hits. If three of them don’t, then you never hear from this person again. There goes your career.”

If there’s one thing he’s learned about Hollywood, he said, “You can’t rely on the business to provide you with the opportunity to act,” he said. “If what you want to do is act, then you’ve got to find the situation where you can do that. If what you want to do is become a star, then good luck.”

The middle child of a bookseller and a travel agent, Harris grew up in the diverse environments of New Jersey and Oklahoma. He didn’t start acting until he was college age. “It was 1969, a lot of things were going on, football ceased being fun and I figured I might do something else,” he said.


He left Columbia University, moved to Sierra Madre and started working at a small theater in Pasadena. He took bit parts in many of the TV shows of the era -- “Lou Grant,” “Rockford Files,” “Hart to Hart” -- but kept auditioning for stage work through the ‘80s. He met his wife, Amy Madigan (“It was interest at first sight”), when they were cast opposite each other in the film “Places in the Heart.” They married two years later.

“I love the theater,” Harris said. He and a group of colleagues, including Holly Hunter, James Gammon and Tom Bower, commissioned architectural plans for a small theater they hoped would emulate Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, an ensemble of actors, directors, playwrights and filmmakers. Although they found a space, now occupied by the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica, he said they couldn’t raise the money to make it work. “The last 10 years would have been a lot different if we’d been able to get a space there,” he said.

He went on to make his own luck in films, nominated for Oscars in supporting roles for “Apollo 13,” “The Truman Show” and “The Hours.” He also famously spent a decade rewriting the script for “Pollock,” which he then directed, casting himself in the starring role. That earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor.

Marcia Gay Harden, who won an Oscar for her role as Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, called Harris “unorthodox” as a director, an actor and a person. In filming “Pollock,” rather than call “Cut!” and take 20 minutes to make adjustments, he would simply interrupt the actors with the cameras rolling and then move on. To get her attention in one scene, he unexpectedly threw a chair. As a result, she said, “He helped me get to a place I would never have achieved if not for Ed Harris. He gave me a lot of trust.”


Personally, she said, “He makes me smile because he’s so serious. He makes me feel like a mischievous little sister.”

As an actor, she said, Harris “insists upon playing men, not boys. He’s a man. There’s nothing about Ed Harris that’s a boy. Except his grin. And then he’s a bad boy.”

Last month, Harris began what he calls the most challenging role of his career as the title lead in “Copying Beethoven.” To prepare, he not only read biographies but studied violin, piano and composing, which is even more daunting than action painting, he said.

“With Pollock, I could build an art studio and take most of the decade and get to the place where I could cover a canvas with paint in his style and create something that had some rhythm and movement to it and some beauty, maybe. In this situation, I have not composed my symphony yet. Or my etude....


“So wish me luck,” he said with a chuckle.


A connection with Newman

The role of Miles Roby in “Empire Falls” appealed to him as much as the chance to work with Paul Newman, the film’s executive producer. Harris said circumstances had prevented them from working together before. “This time I didn’t want to pass it up again. I don’t know how long Paul’s going to be acting. I read he’s going to do one more thing and retire. A lot of people say that. He’s in great shape.”


Newman said he has no plans to retire and among other things is considering a project that would pair him again with Harris. “I’ll let you know when it’s in cement,” he said.

During casting it quickly became clear that “Ed would be the perfect guy for the role,” Schepisi said. “As a person, he’s got a balanced outlook on life. He’s well centered, a good solid character, not distracted by the wrong things. Ed’s got good family values. ‘Decency’ is the word that leaps to mind, not as an insult.”

While Harris said he takes his work “very seriously,” he would take it even more seriously if he did not have a family. “I’m sure I would be a very different person in terms of work. I’d probably do nothing but that. But I have a family” -- his daughter is now 11 -- “and I’m glad I have a family. It’s the top priority, so you work it out.”

He said he’s worked on his 21-year marriage as seriously as his career. Every year on Valentine’s Day, he said, he creates something for Madigan. Last year it was a painting, this year a sculpture.


When he’s offered a part, he said he talks it over with Madigan before committing. “Certain things you have to do, that your being is telling you to do project-wise and character-wise, whether it’s ‘The Hours,’ ‘Empire Falls,’ the Beethoven thing. Other gigs, maybe I haven’t worked in a while and maybe it would be a good idea to work, that are not creative have-tos, but have-tos for other reasons.”

His deep Midwest family values should definitely not be confused with red-state morality, he said. “I hate that ... term, ‘moral values.’ Cross it out of the lexicon. ‘Moral values.’ I’m sorry.

“It’s a term that has a negative connotation to me. It means women don’t have their own reproductive rights. It means health care isn’t essential for every child born in this country. It means preemptive war is fine. It means the dollar is more important than the air we breathe. Those are not the moral values I live by.”

Harris said he plans to keep working as long as he enjoys it and “there are still characters to play or movies to make I find interesting enough.” This fall, he plans to direct “Fool for Love,” the Sam Shepard play in which Harris made his New York stage debut, on Broadway.


One character he hasn’t played recently is a political man. He said he would be intrigued by a character “who was very Republican, for lack of a better word, who through listening to his daughter, to his son, maybe even to his wife, about certain issues, actually comes to the realization that there’s a better way to do things than the way he’s been holding on to his life.

“It could be woven into an interesting kind of story.”