“What people are supposing or guessing, it just doesn’t matter to me,” the star of HBO’s brain-tickling sci-fi series “Westworld,” said on a recent afternoon in Beverly Hills, his brow furrowed, his voice a low growl. “I mean, I’m glad people are enjoying it. I’ve just got other things I’d rather spend my time doing.”
Harris has never much cared about achieving huge stardom either. “Not that I was ever going to be Tom Cruise or anybody, but in my mind I wouldn’t have fit into that anyway as a human being,” he said. And no, he doesn’t want to autograph that photo or poster for you if he knows you’re just going to turn around and “try to sell it on eBay for $3.75.”
If any of the above makes you think Harris may not be the most approachable celebrity around, well, so be it. “I kind of skulk around anyway,” he saidAdvertisement
What Ed Harris has always cared about — deeply and for more than 35 years now — is the work: getting to the heart of the character and the scene, not just saying the words but “saying what the words are saying.”
At that, Harris has been tremendously successful, earning four Oscar nominations and delivering indelible performances in such varied films as “The Right Stuff,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Apollo 13,” “The Truman Show” and “Pollock.” “I think I’m respected as an actor, especially amongst my peers,” Harris said. “That probably matters to me more than anything else.”
With his return as the sinister “Man in Black” for Season 2 of “Westworld,” which kicked off on April 22, and his critically acclaimed turn as a cantankerous photographer in director Mark Raso’s new Netflix dramedy film “Kodachrome,” Harris, at 67, is still notching new highs in his career.
In his review of “Kodachrome,” which is now streaming and also opened in a handful of theaters on April 20, Times critic Kenneth Turan heralded Harris’ performance, writing, “The actor has not been nominated for an Oscar since ‘The Hours’ in 2003, and it’s about time that happened again. In fact, it’s about time he won.”
In “Kodachrome,” Harris plays a legendary photojournalist named Benjamin Ryder who, approaching death from cancer, asks his estranged and embittered son, played by Jason Sudeikis, to join him on a road trip to Kansas to the last lab that develops Kodachrome film.
The actor had played another difficult artist, painter Jackson Pollock, in the 2000 drama “Pollock,” which he also directed and which earned him a lead actor Oscar nomination. But Ryder, who is well aware of his failures but can still be callous and cruel, was a different kind of animal.
“This guy just is who he is — he’s a professional photographer who’s neglected his family for years and now he’s dying,” said Harris, who has himself been married since 1983 to actress Amy Madigan, with whom he has a daughter. “It was really interesting to just kind of sink down in there with him. His modus operandi is not to give a damn. And there’s a certain relaxation in that.”
“Kodachrome” director Raso says that, from the moment he first read Jonathan Tropper’s script for the film, he pictured Harris in the role of Ryder. “You want to love and hate Ben, and Ed can do intimidating and charming simultaneously,” Raso said. “He is a wonderful guy, and I think he takes on these roles that kind of scare us because he wants to challenge himself as a person.”
In person, Harris can come across on the surface as laconic and somewhat gruff. “Ed doesn’t suffer fools,” Sudeikis said. But he has also his soft side. While the father and son they play in “Kodachrome” maintain a chilly, combative relationship, Harris and Sudeikis formed a bond early in the shoot. “Ed found out I was left-handed and he got a left-handed baseball glove for me, and we threw the ball around,” Sudeikis said. “It was like a Cat Stevens song.”
Harris didn’t allow any sentimentality to creep into his performance, however. “Ed never feels like he’s going for an emotional response,” said “Kodachrome” producer Shawn Levy. “There’s never anything cloying about an Ed Harris performance. His work often evokes an emotional response but it never feels like the intent. It feels like the reward for an amazing performance.”
Whether as the sadistic Man in Black — who Harris says will “get paid back a lot” in the show’s second season — or the blithely obnoxious Ryder, the actor has no problem tapping into his scary side. “I have a good time doing that,” he said with a dry laugh.
Since early in his career, though, he has continually mixed things up, in part out of a conscious effort to avoid being pigeonholed and in part simply as a result of the hand he was dealt.
“The thing was, when I first started out as a younger guy, I was already losing my hair — and you weren’t a lead in a film if you didn’t have hair, period,” said Harris, who grew up in New Jersey and was a star high-school athlete before discovering a love for theater. “So I would just try to get the most interesting part I could play in whatever it was.
“I feel pretty strongly about the diversity of characters that I’ve been able to play. I mean, a lot of people go, ‘You play so many bad guys.’ And I go, ‘OK, well, have you seen this, this, this, this, this, this and this?’ ”
Harris doesn’t look backward much. Occasionally he’ll stumble across one of his old movies on TV, he says, but he won’t seek them out. Asked if he ever turned down a role that he later regretted, though, he answers without missing a beat.
“Stanley Kubrick called me up one day and asked me to play the sergeant in ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ and I said no,” he recalled, referencing the abusive drill instructor played by the late R. Lee Ermey in Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War film. “[Ermey] was great and did a much better job than I would have done. But that always make me kind of go, ‘What were you thinking about?’ ” He shook his head with a rueful smile. “It might have been that I had a few too many beers that night. It was foolish.”
Looking ahead, Harris has written the screenplay for an adaptation of the 2015 novel “The Ploughmen,” about the relationship between a rookie Montana deputy and a serial killer, which he hopes to direct soon. “I really love the directing thing,” he said. “I find that, in terms of the film world, that’s much more fulfilling to me.”
As for acting, he wouldn’t mind doing some more comedy and maybe someday taking his first real crack at Shakespeare on the stage. “That would be a huge challenge,” he said. He smiled wryly. “It could be a tragic mistake, but I guess it couldn’t be too tragic. All they could do is say, ‘You suck.’ ”
Occasionally these days Harris thinks about taking a break from acting, if not retiring permanently. “I thought about it during this play,” said the actor, who recently finished an off-Broadway run of playwright David Rabe’s newest drama, “Good for Otto,” in which he shared the stage with Madigan. “During intermission I went in the bathroom and I thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to do something else for a while.’ But probably not for a spell. I still enjoy it. If I stop enjoying it, I’ll stop doing it.
“I’m still learning,” he continued. “A lot of it just has to do with accepting your mechanism, you know what I mean? I don’t care who you’re playing. Just being in your body, inhabiting the space fully. Relaxation and focus. No artifice. Just be there.”
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“At the end of the film, he gave out the photos that he was taking (during) the entire film to cast and crew… I have one of the photos he took of me while we were shooting that’s on my desk.”
“Each breath, you’re lucky to have it. So if I start getting nervous or excited, I just try to breathe and be aware of it. And feel my feet on the ground, actually feel I’m here.”
“Obviously I use a computer for various things and have my iPhone, but I think there’s something to be said for not doing anything, for just sitting, for just observing,” Harris said in an interview at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival.
“I was down in Kentucky at (actor) Sam Shepard’s memorial with his family. His family was talking about how Sam was a great observer and he was a very private guy. One of the aspects of that privacy was, he would like to just be and to take in what was around him, and you can’t do that when you’re on your phone 24-7.
Elizabeth Olsen plays his assistant and Jason Sudeikis plays his estranged son, who works at a record label and is struggling to remain relevant in the digital era. Together, they go on a road trip with Ben to the lab.
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