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‘Westworld’s’ Ed Harris has had Hollywood success, angered Mickey Mantle and may eye a musical next

Actor Ed Harris stars in HBO's new series, "Westworld".
Actor Ed Harris stars in HBO’s new series, “Westworld”.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

When Ed Harris hits the screen in “Westworld,” premiering Sunday on HBO, it won’t be the veteran actor’s first time working in the world of Michael Crichton. The New Jersey native’s first film role was in the sci-fi writer-director’s 1978 film, “Coma.”  He played “Pathology Resident #2.”  “I was holding up a cow lung and talking about something,” recalls Harris with a laugh. 

It may have been the last time that the Tony nominee and four-time Oscar nominee played second fiddle to anyone. Harris, 65, has gone on to a distinguished, and prolific, career in film (“Pollock,” “The Right Stuff,” “Apollo 13,” “Sweet Dreams,” “The Truman Show,” “Snowpiercer”)  television (“Empire Falls,” “Game Change”), as a director (“Appaloosa”), and onstage, including a recent New York run of “Buried Child” with wife, and frequent co-star, Amy Madigan. 

We recently chatted with the man who has played everything from astronauts to farmers to senators to artists and beyond about “Westworld” — in which he plays the mysterious “Man in Black” — and his full dance card, with more than seven projects in the pipeline. 

Unlike some in his profession, Harris doesn’t spend much time looking back wishing he had gotten a chance at one more take in any particular role. “I think about my work and what I’ve done that day, but am pretty good at accepting it and trusting it. I have a lot of confidence in what I do. And I don’t think that it’s false, I think that it’s earned and I think that it’s justified.”

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Your “Westworld” character is just called “The Man in Black,” but did you give him a name?

He does have a name but I don’t want to reveal it.

Is this the first time you’re having to deal with secretive spoiler culture?

Pretty much.

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Is that comfortable for you?

It makes it easier, doesn’t it. (Laughs.) What can I say?

You have this great line in the series: “In a sense, I was born here.” It gets at the idea that people come to “Westworld” and find out who they really are. Is there something analogous to acting about that?  

Yeah, it’s true. It’s a whole process of discovering.

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I think the people that use the park [Westworld] in a positive way are open to learning something about themselves. And I think that’s what happened to my guy. Because when he initially came to the park he certainly wasn’t “The Man in Black.” In all his trips he’s identified this aspect of himself that was pretty violent and ruthless and was a part of his character that he didn’t really recognize until he came to the park. Part of it was, rightfully so, sublimated.

We talked a bit about some of your many upcoming roles, one of which you described as “not very nice” in “Kodachrome,” and a “cranky old salt” in “In Dubious Battle.” So is there a part of Ed Harris that is sublimated that comes out in his parts?

No, but there’s a part of Ed Harris that’s getting older and this is the kind of parts he gets. (Laughs.) They’re fun.

With a career as long as yours, you can usually look at the filmography and see “That’s the one he did for the money,” which some actors do to finance their own projects or just, you know, eat. But the lion’s share of your roles have been interesting characters at least.

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Yeah, the lion’s share. (Laughs heartily) There’s a few clunkers in there and there’s a few that were definitely done for financial reasons but we don’t need to articulate which ones.  And there might be one or two that are clunkers and I did for the money. (Laughs.)

But it says something that you have sought out interesting work or that it has come to you.

Yeah, I feel really fortunate. I am still doing this and I’ve been doing it 35 years I guess or more. I still get a chance to do some interesting things.

I’m really excited about this film I want to direct next year. I bought the rights to this book “The Ploughmen” by a Montana writer named Kim Zupan and I’ve written the screenplay and I really feel pretty strong about it. It’s really hauntingly beautiful. It’s got some suspense and great drama but it’s a real character thing. I want my wife to be in it and my daughter and Stacy Keach is one of the main guys and I’m looking for a young 29- to 30-year-old actor who is great to play the focus of the story. I haven’t directed a film since “Appaloosa” and I’ve been looking for something because I love the directing thing.

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What do you love about directing?

You’re collaborating but ultimately you get to shape your vision of something. You’re not just a hired hand coming in to do one role. It’s your film, you’re responsible for every actor, every shot, every detail, the look of it, the words, the music, in terms of making decisions.  You’re occupied and focused.  It’s really thrilling.

And you’re not sitting in your trailer waiting for the next set-up.

No [expletive]. Because that [expletive] gets old, man. I love being in front of the camera and I love acting. I love being on stage. But that aspect of filmmaking, of waiting for hours to work for two minutes or whatever, it’s starting to drive me [expletive] bananas.  

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It’s great that you and Amy aren’t sick of working with each other.

No, I love it.  We were together 24/7 when we were in New York working on the play.  We really enjoy being with each other especially when we’re working together. I mean we were much more intimate during that time than we are at home in a way because at home you’re doing your thing, and in New York we were really just in each other’s pocket in a really cool way.

So you strike me as a man who enjoys being busy.

I do, but I also like being home. I’ve got some property and there’s always something to do. Right now I’m digging up a brick driveway and I’ve got this giant pine tree and the roots just buckled the hell out of it so I’m working on that. The roots are dense and knotty and thick and deep.  It’s taking me forever but I just dig it. (Laughs)

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It’s sweaty and you’re outside and you’re not thinking about anything.

Yeah, you’re just working, it just clears my head.

But I will point out that that still makes you busy.

Yeah, it does. But then I’ll stop and sit. I’m not too bad at doing nothing. I’m not the greatest.  It kind of seems like that, and I guess I have been working a lot. Because when I got done with the play I went right back to “Westworld” the next day. (Laughs).

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Is there anybody left on the bucket list that you’d love to work with, a director or actor? Or a role you’d like to play?

Yeah, I remember after I saw “Where the Wild Things Are,” I wrote (director) Spike Jonze a letter and said if you ever need me in anything, I don’t care, let me know, I’d love to work with you.  I haven’t heard back.

Yet.

Yet.

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Are there things we haven’t seen you do onscreen you’d like to take a shot at? Have we seen Ed Harris dance?

You know what? I actually have a decent singing voice and I’ve never been able to sing onscreen. I’d love to do a musical.

Really? A specific one? A revival? Would you do one on Broadway?

I would if they asked me and if I thought I could do it. A good one. One of the things that made me know I should do this was playing King Arthur in “Camelot” in Oklahoma City in 1973 I think it was. And having an experience one night where I did not remember doing the play at all. The audience was just on their feet and roaring and I suddenly realized “What the [expletive] happened?” And it was this pure, truly ecstatic thing and it lasted for about 10 minutes and it was like “Wow!” And basically you spend the rest of your life trying to get that back.

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You’ve done so many films, what’s the part people recognize you most for?

My favorite was, I was a huge Mickey Mantle fan growing up and he was retired but I was at a hotel in New York  and Mickey was over at the bar with some people and I had to go say hi to him.  And I went over and said “Excuse me Mr. Mantle I just wanted to say hi. I’m a huge, huge fan of yours, you’re just the greatest. My name’s Ed Harris.” And he looked at me, and he goes, “I don’t like you. You weren’t nice to Patsy Cline” in “Sweet Dreams.” (Laughs.) And I said, “Mickey I was playing a character.” I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not but I think he was just joking.

 

 

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