Ed Harris talks Kodachrome, Westworld and the state of America

by Russell Baillie / 12 June, 2018
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Ed Harris. Photo/Getty Images

Riding high with his killer role in television’s Westworld, Ed Harris continues to bring the flinty characters that have been the hallmark of his career to the stage and the big screen. 

Ed Harris has become something of a symbol for the single-minded American man. He’s used his resonant voice and intense blue-eyed gaze to play cowboys and astronauts, soldiers and sheriffs, artists and assassins.

That means he’s worn many hats: a beret as Kristof, the genius reality-television puppetmaster in The Truman Show; helmets – diving ones and space ones – in The Abyss and The Right Stuff respectively. The latter, in which he played Mercury astronaut John Glenn, proved a career breakthrough: a shot of him as Glenn made the cover of Newsweek just as the real Glenn headed into politics.

There have been plenty of Stetsons, too. He wears a big black one as the merciless Man in Black in the television series Westworld. That character could be a distant relative of the black-hatted title character he played in 1987’s Walker, the craziest movie of his career – well, until last year’s Mother! – about the American who appointed himself president of Nicaragua in the 1850s. It lives on in cult infamy.

On the line from New York, Harris laughs at the millinery-oriented overview of his career. “Ha, ha, ha. I just like wearing hats – especially as I don’t have any hair on top of my head.”

In his new film, Kodachrome, he sports a jaunty Panama to play a famous photographer who embarks with his estranged adult son on a road trip from New York to Kansas, to the last laboratory still processing the colour-slide film of the title.

It’s a relatively low-key role for Harris, not least because his prickly character is dying. “It was a great character to play. I had a really good time doing it.”

He is a man who, it must be said, sounds much friendlier than some of the characters he plays. “How are things in New Zealand?” he asks. Good, thanks. How are things in the US? “Good God almighty,” he chuckles. “Pretty pitiful situation, I guess, at the moment, eh? It’s embarrassing.”

At 67, Harris is a man whose career remains on a steady roll. In the past couple of decades, he’s appeared in plenty of big films but also managed to direct two of his own – notably the acclaimed Pollock, a biopic of the abstract artist Jackson Pollock, in which he also played the title role – and spend time treading the boards of Off-Broadway theatres.

When we talk, he and his wife of 35 years, Amy Madigan, are coming to the end of the season of the David Rabe play Good for Otto in New York. They were on stage together in London early last year, too, in Buried Child by the late Sam Shepard, who was also a Right Stuff alumnus. Do husband and wife come as a package?

“We have of late. It’s been really fun, you know.”

Harris as Jackson Pollock in Pollock.

Harris as Jackson Pollock in Pollock.

Born in New Jersey, Harris was a high-school athlete and football star before he attended Columbia University, and didn’t take up acting until his family shifted to New Mexico. He studied drama at Oklahoma University, then in Los Angeles, where he’s been based ever since.

He met Madigan when they were both cast in the Depression-era film Places in the Heart, starring Sally Field. They’ve since appeared in nine movies together, including Pollock, in which she played art collector Peggy Guggenheim.

The idea for the film was sparked when Harris’ father gave him a copy of a biography of the artist, but it took 10 years for the actor to get it to the screen.

It won him a best-actor Oscar nomination (co-star Marcia Gay Harden lifted the statuette for best supporting actress) and cemented Harris’ reputation as a single-minded tough nut. He famously smashed a chair on set to give Harden’s performance a jolt.

The film took its toll on the Harris-Madigan family finances. “I spent a ton of my own money on that film. You know I didn’t need to, but I had to. So I wouldn’t have changed that for the world.

“I had spent so much time working on developing the script and working on this guy and painting and getting to know people that knew him and getting the rights to his works … I was totally immersed in it. And I didn’t care what I had to do to make the film right.

“I mixed that film twice completely and went to three different composers. I would have done whatever I had to do to get it what I wanted it to be. I didn’t even think about it. I mean, my wife was kind of going ‘Ed, what are you doing?’. But we survived.”

If Pollock was an artistic triumph in step with his challenging stage work, in the movies Harris remains better known as a go-to guy for a voice of authority: in Apollo 13, he was mission controller Gene Kranz (“Failure is not an option”), and he’s played a fair few sheriffs, colonels and generals.

John Glenn in The Right Stuff. Photo/Alamy

Nasa – the real one – has asked him a few times to perform narration duties on commemorations. He can’t get away from it in the movies, either. When Sandra Bullock’s stranded astronaut calls Houston in Gravity, that’s Harris responding.

“I mean, I am fascinated by space but it’s not something that’s like a major thing in my life.”

Harris’ commanding tones haven’t always been that commanding. “I used to have a really thick Jersey accent when I was going to college,” he says, “and just over the years, you know, part of my craft is to be able to use my voice appropriately for whatever given character.

“And I actually feel really good about the whole vocal stuff in Kodachrome, because it’s lower-register and pretty relaxed.”

The last time he played a dying man on screen – a poet with Aids in The Hours in 2002 – he got the fourth of his four Oscar nominations for it. Playing another one – and another difficult artist – in Kodachrome was harder than it looks.

“He might not be that active but physically it’s really challenging because he’s hurting, he’s aged, he’s frail. His mind is still sharp. Even to play an invalid you have to be in pretty good shape because you have to be able to use your body in a way that allows you do that.”

The film is also a meditation on the cultural change that has come with an increasingly digitised world. So where does Harris, a man who plays a robot-killing cowboy on television, sit on the digital-analogue spectrum?

“I’m a bit of a dinosaur, I’m afraid. You know it’s passing me by big-time. I am decent on the computer and that kind of thing but first of all I really like film films.

“I take a few decent photos I have a great old Leica camera that I actually used in the movie and I’ve taken some pretty good photographs. But I haven’t done much of late. I’ve been toying with the idea of building a little darkroom and getting to shoot some black and white but that’s just in my head at the moment.”

Gene Kranz in Apollo 13. Photo/Alamy

Gene Kranz in Apollo 13. Photo/Alamy

Presumably the photos would go up on the wall chez Harris-Madigan next to the Pollocks he painted in character.

“Well, a couple of friends got some, and one of the things about making that movie was you would shoot what he might be doing on canvas and you see that. But then to save time and canvas they put the camera back on me painting, and I will be painting over stuff that I thought was actually not so bad and just totally f---ing it up. So there wasn’t that much work left that I thought was decent.”

Harris is hoping to direct a psychological thriller based on Kim Zupan’s 2015 book The Ploughmen, about a Montana deputy sheriff and a local serial killer. Until then, Westworld gives him a regular pay cheque and keeps him busy for most of the year. So does figuring out what is going on in the show.

No, he didn’t know the twist about his character – that another regular character in the wild west android theme park was actually the Man in Black too, at a younger age. And that he owns the place. It was all bit of a surprise.

“You never know where they are going to take you. I’ve never worked on something where you find out in episode six something very basic about your character that might have been nice to know in episode one.

“I think they think that it’s going to keep the actors fresh or something. I told them, ‘Well, you know, last year I did 125 performances of Buried Child, and I knew what the script was going to be and what was going to happen with the character, and the 125th performance was just as fresh and alive as the first one. I don’t have a problem understanding and knowing what is going to happen to my character.’ But whatever.”

He’s not complaining. He has steady work in a high-profile show that is kind of a western, a genre he loves. He directed his own very good one, Appaloosa, in 2008. That one featured Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renée Zellweger and no killer robots. In Westworld he’s enjoying being a gun for hire and wearing that hat of his.

“I like putting on my Man in Black outfit. It makes me feel good.”

KODACHROME is in cinemas now. WESTWORLD, SoHo, Mondays. 8.30pm

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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