Ed Harris interview: Artists and Astronauts – Archive Features

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An Ed Harris interview from the WriteMovies archive. You could follow in this actor come director’s footsteps by entering our latest contests RIGHT HERE! A featured article from the WriteMovies archive first published November 2006 by Pam Grady.

 

Artists and Astronauts

Monday, November 13, 2006

First, it was John Glenn and Apollo 13’s Gene Kranz; now, Ed Harris is thrilled to be able to continue tapping into the minds of troubled artistic geniuses like Pollock with his intense portrayal of Beethoven.

By Pam Grady

Ed Harris is having quite the career bump. He plays the legendary composer Ludwig van B. in his latest film Copying Beethoven; he is back on stage after a decade’s absence in Neil LaBute’s latest Wrecks; and next year, he will direct Appaloosa, his follow-up to Pollock.

Although the weather was generally dismal at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the clouds parted for my morning interview with Harris. In the warm sunshine of the InterContinental Hotel back patio, it is a bit of cultural whiplash to see Harris sitting in the chic café, looking so modern and ultra-cool in his black sweater after catching him in elaborate, early 19th-century garb in Copying Beethoven. In limited release this past weekend in 26 theaters, it garnered an estimated $70,460.

“The first time I got into complete makeup with the hair and the wardrobe and had sort of a visual image of myself, I started feeling like this could maybe work,” Harris reveals to FilmStew.

Harris, of course, has excelled throughout his career at playing historical characters, among them John Glenn in The Right Stuff, E. Howard Hunt in Nixon and more recently his Oscar nominated turn as Jackson Pollack in his aforementioned directorial debut, Pollack. But the 55-year-old New Jersey native admits that the idea of playing Ludwig van Beethoven gave him pause. “It’s a leap of faith in yourself and in Agnieszka [Holland], that you can make this thing work. I had no idea. I really felt like, ‘Jeez, how am I going to do this?’ You just start, step by step, start to break it down a little bit.”

This is the third time that he and Polish filmmaker Holland have worked together, with 1988’s To Kill a Priest and 1999’s The Third Miracle also receiving limited theatrical release. In spite of the fact that he realized right away that the role of Beethoven would require a tremendous commitment, Harris did not hesitate.

“We have a deep, deep, deep love for each other and appreciation,” he says of Holland. “We’re great friends. There’s a lot of respect and admiration. She’s a really, really special person in my life and has been for 20 years, so when I get the opportunity to work with her, I grab it.”

Like Fur, the Diane Arbus drama, Copying Beethoven takes a real historical figure and spins a fictional story. Diana Kruger plays Anna Holtz, a Viennese music student who lands a job as Beethoven’s copyist just as he is composing the transcendental work that will shake up the musical world, his Ninth Symphony. He is cantankerous, made more so by his deafness, but they form a bond nevertheless, and in the most stirring scene in the film, she becomes his most invaluable collaborator as he conducts the Ninth’s world premiere and turns a skeptical Vienna audience into true believers.

Going into the project, Harris already knew how to read music – long before he was an actor, he played baritone horn in the school orchestra and marching band – and he was familiar with some of Beethoven’s music, but that was the extent of it. “When I got the full copy of the Ninth Symphony, it blew my mind,” he says. “The whole score, it blew my mind. It’s insane. Good luck, so you find a conducting coach and you say, ‘OK, this is what we’ve got to do here and start working on it.'”

He also threw himself into the music. Before embarking on the project, he knew the major symphonies and some of the piano sonatas, but he was unfamiliar with the quartets, the concertos, or the opera Fidelio. “A lot of it I didn’t know about, so I just started listening to it,” Harris explains. “I got as immersed in it as I could. I spent the better part of a year listening to not much else.”

Along with the conducting lessons and the music appreciation, Harris also set about bulking up and he learned to play the violin, but his preparation went even deeper than that. To adequately portray Beethoven meant addressing the hearing loss that left the composer profoundly deaf by the time Copying Beethoven’s story begins in 1824. One of the greatest challenges presented by the role was in trying to figure out how that would have affected him.

Harris talked to a vocal coach about how or if the deafness would have affected Beethoven’s speech and he listened to a CD of what the composer might have been able to hear at different stages as his hearing loss progressed. And Harris sought counsel from his father, who has lost his own hearing over the years. The deafness eventually became a key part of the actor’s performance.

“I plugged up my ears a lot, so I couldn’t hear much,” he explains. “It was harder to hear. On the set, when people would talk to me, I would either have to really, really listen to what they were saying or I would have to pull out the plugs, if we were really on a time rush. You work with it. You try to make it part of you. He was very much in his own space all the time.”

Harris admits that he does not delve so deeply into every role. “If David Cronenberg calls you up and asks you to play this guy in A History of Violence, you don’t have to spend a year on that. The preparation is very different.”

All the prep work for Copying Beethoven pays off in a beautifully nuanced performance, and for the actor, there was the extra joy of the three days spent shooting the symphony performance. “It was a beautiful old theater [in Kecskemet, Hungary],” he says. “It was thrilling. The orchestra was great; they were very supportive. The choir was really delightful. It was exhausting, but it was really fun. I mean, I love that music and I loved the conducting aspect of it. I really just got into it and tried to do the best I could.”

The conducting scene appeals to something else in Harris: his love of the high-wire act of performing live. He was a stage actor to begin with, the winner of an Obie Award for his New York stage debut in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love in 1984, a Drama Desk Award in 1986 for Precious Sons and a Lucille Lortel Award for his work in the 1994 Public Theater Performance of another Shepard play, Simpatico.

With an active film career and a 13-year-old daughter at home, Harris has had less time to devote to the theater. But late last year he took to the stage for the first time in a decade to star in the Neil LaBute’s one-man show Wrecks in Cork, Ireland, and has since reprised the role through November 19 in New York at the Public Theater. The play itself has gotten mixed reviews, but Harris’ notices have been glowing. He confesses that he has been having a ball with it.

“I can’t tell you how fun it is,” he raves. “I’m digging it big time. I’m really enjoying it. It’s fun, because I’m really working with the audience every night and it’s a relationship, so every night is different, because of the energy out there.”

With Copying Beethoven having just begun its run in art houses, Harris is hoping that the third time will prove to be the charm for his partnership with Holland. He is immensely proud of the film, still enthusiastic about the experience even as he moves on.

He has two film projects currently in the works. Once he is through with the LaBute play, he goes right into Winston from first time filmmakers Logan and Noah Miller. The twin brothers tracked Harris down at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre earlier this year when he attended the San Francisco International Film Festival as the recipient of its Peter J. Owens acting award. His initial impulse was to turn the siblings down, simply because he did not think he could find the time to work with them. But, he says, “They were so endearing. I said, ‘OK, guys, I’m with you.'”

Once Winston wraps, it will be full speed ahead on Harris’ second directing project, Appaloosa, a Western based on a Robert B. Parker novel. Harris and his friend, actor Robert Knott, wrote the screenplay and Harris will star alongside his History of Violence co-star Viggo Mortensen and Diane Lane. He hopes to go into production in the fall.

“It’s a really cool story,” he reveals. “We’re going to have a good time. It’s pretty much in the mold of a classic Western. I want it to have a certain scope to it, at least geographically, you know what I mean? I mean, it’s very personal. It’s really about these people, but the landscape has to be – you have to feel where you are.”

Harris turns 56 on November 28, but as far as he is concerned that is just a number. “I don’t really spend too much time reflecting. I try to keep my eye on the future and the present,” he insists.

“I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years or at least 25 or so, and maybe I’m kidding myself, but I still think I’m growing as an actor and I also feel like my career is still in a certain phase. It’s ongoing thing and I really enjoy it, so I’ll keep doing it for a while.”

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