No, Ed Harris, did not throw a chair at Marcia Gay Harden while filming “Pollock,” he wants you to know.
“I didn’t throw it at her,” he says of the Hollywood urban myth. “I smashed it on the ground. She wasn’t quite getting to the point that she needed to and we had a really good relationship and it just got her adrenaline flowing and helped her out a little bit.”
Whether it was the flying furniture that prodded her along or his directorial savvy, Harris’ instinct was spot-on. The actor-cum-helmer of the 2000 biopic helped to propel Harden toward an Oscar for her supporting role as Lee Krasner, the acclaimed painter and long-suffering wife of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, who tragically died in a drunken driving accident. Harris, who will receive his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 13, the same day his latest film “Run All Night” bows on the big screen, threw himself into the role, even building an art studio so that he could “spread the canvas out and work on the floor and get a feel for what Mr. Pollock was up to. Whether he was splattering with the brush or the syringe or with a piece of wood right out of the can the guy knew what he was doing. He had immaculate control.”
Known for his trademark intensity in such films as “Jacknife,” in which he played a depressed, alcoholic Vietnam vet — “I really felt very strongly about that film” — the Great Depression drama “Places in the Heart,” the Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind” and James Foley’s incisive adaptation of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” along with myriad theatrical roles on and Off Broadway, Harris’ reputation as a serious actor is certainly not without merit.
“The first time I saw him on stage — it was a Sam Shepard play called ‘Cowboy Mouth’ — I just realized, wow, everything that everyone had been saying about this guy is true,” says Amy Madigan, Harris’ wife and co-star in “Places in the Heart.” “There was immediacy to his performance. He had a truth-telling barometer that was at play at all times. His personality was very assured and comfortable and he had a powerful presence. But that’s not going to work unless you are able to put your vulnerability first and Ed is such a wonderful combination of that. Even when he’s playing a tough guy or a macho person, at the end of the day, there’s always a vulnerability that brings people in.”
It’s this blend of bravado and sensitivity that earned Harris a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his heartbreaking turn as a gay man dying of AIDS in “The Hours,” Stephen Daldry’s bigscreen adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning time-skipping novel about Virginia Woolf, her book “Mrs. Dalloway” and its impact on two women. In Harris’ swan song scene in the film, his character, high on Ritalin and Xanax, tells his best friend (Meryl Streep) that he loves her, then rolls out of the window of his apartment, plummeting to his death.
Talk about a dramatic exit.
“Ed Harris has an unerring, centered, certain quality as an actor — you never feel anything wavering, or any less than total commitment to his fiercely realized performances,” says Streep of their experience shooting the movie. “This quality — it’s truthfulness and it’s magnetism — does more than convince you of his character; it pulls credibility into the piece as a whole. Those of us working with him benefit from the centrifugal force of that belief. Looking into the blue laser of his gaze in ‘The Hours’ was to locate the emotional center of the whole movie.”
Age, says Harris, has only enhanced his ability to get in deeper touch with his emotions, enabling him to turn in even headier, heavier, performances.
“Over the years your technique, your instrument if you will, you play it better, you keep it alive” he says. “As actors, in terms of our ability or sensitivity and access to our being, your skin gets thinner.”
But Harris, whose action-thriller “The Adderall Diaries” is due out this year, does have a funny side, he proclaims, despite the fact that he hasn’t had much chance to reveal it onscreen.
“I haven’t done too many comedic films — ‘Pain and Gain’ and ‘Milk Money’ I guess — but, you know, I have a sense of humor, for sure. I mean, I’m not a particularly gregarious individual. I’m a pretty private guy but I wouldn’t say overly serious. I would love to play something like (Bill Murray’s part) in ‘St. Vincent,’ something with intelligent humor. I know that I have this reputation for being, you know, a serious kind of guy, and I try to stay focused on whatever I might be doing but I definitely laugh every day.”