“Pffffffffffffff! The new right wing? Sarah Palin? The Tea Party? All that shit. The only hope is that things swing so far to the right that they swivel back to the left”
eight days without water. I’m sorry. That isn’t going to happen unless you have camel’s blood in your veins.”
As Harris goes on to confirm, The Way Back remains, for all its infelicities, a thumping good story. No wonder Weir, the admired director of Witness and The Truman Show, managed to attract such a fine cast. Our own Saoirse Ronan and Colin Farrell join Jim Sturgess as escapees.
“It was good to work with Colin,” Harris muses. “I had met him at the wedding of one of our agents, and that was back in his drinking days. That was a fun night. He’s so smart and so generous and open. He realised the substance abuse was getting out of hand and sorted himself out. That really makes him a better guy. He’s an excellent guy.”
I’m not sure what a “fun night” with Harris would feel like. He is shorter and more compact than you might expect, and comes across as an articulate, polite gentleman of the old school. But he doesn’t laugh much.
Mind you, born with no silver spoons anywhere near his mouth, Harris has toiled hard throughout his life. He was raised in New Jersey by a travel-agent mother and a father who worked in a bookshop, and he managed to get into Columbia University, an Ivy League college, where he excelled at sport. At one stage, his main interest was American football. Though very fitlooking, he doesn’t seem to have the physique for that violent pastime.
“I loved playing football,” he says. “I was 25 pounds heavier then. I was quick. But, during my freshman year, though football had been my life, I decided to study acting. I had seen a few plays, and liked what I saw. What am I going to do with my life? I was a pretty good student, but I had no particular intellectual pursuit. I took a few classes and it opened up my eyes.”
He was 33 when that role in The Right Stuff brought him a degree of fame. He admits there were difficult periods during his first decade in the business, but argues that he never felt he wasn’t going to make it. He’d pump some gas. He’d do a play. He’d work in a bar. He’d do a small role on the telly. Harris claims (and, noting his sincere manner, I believe him) that he never had much interest in becoming a movie star. He always savoured the work for its own sake.
“But, yes, it could be frustrating. I remember going up for various TV shows: Hart to Hart, The Rockford Files, Lou Grant. The casting directors regarded you as the lowest of the low.”
He pinches a centimetre of air between thumb and forefinger. “They really would make you feel this small. Then I got a decent job with John Savage and Gig Young on a project called Gibbsville, based on stories by John O’Hara. I remember driving back in the car weeping. Those casting sessions could be torture.”
Harris has been lucky in finding a suitable soulmate. In 1983, while shooting Places in the Heart, he met up with the talented actor Amy Madigan. The two married within months and have remained happily entwined ever since. Resident in the same LA house for 25 years, they seem as secure a couple as it is possible to meet in Hollywood. “The bulk of my life has been spent working, living
and loving with Amy,” he says. “But it’s insanely tough for women in our business. As the years pass, it gets harder for women to find work. As a result, when I look back I realise Amy has had more one-on-one time with our daughter, Lilly. I wish she had an opportunity to work more. But that’s how it is.”
In 2005, the couple managed to get themselves to Madigan’s ancient homeland for a spell when Harris starred in a production of Neil LaBute’s Wrecks at the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork. It wasn’t his first time in the country. A great fan of Ryan’s Daughter, Harris had sought out the locations for David Lean’s picture in deepest Kerry years previously.
“Stopping at pubs all the way and driving on the wrong side of the road,” he remembers in a rare moment of levity. “Luckily, I just about got there alive.” The Celtic influence continues to figure in the Harris-Madigan household. Lilly, now 17, is studying Irish, and has applied to study at Trinity College. If she is anything like her father, she should have no difficulty achieving her goals. Spend half an hour in Ed Harris’s presence and you emerge impressed at the sheer determination of the man. He spent nearly a decade trying to get Pollock, his biopic of the key abstract expressionist, off the ground, and, when collaborators became thin on the ground, he ended up directing the project himself.
“It became an obsession. I just wanted to do something I could get my teeth into,” he remembers. “So I just stuck to it. Frankly, I hadn’t planned on directing it until we almost began shooting.”
Despite his craggy calm, one suspects that Ed Harris is not the sort of chap you’d want to cross. Both in person and on screen, he wears the look of a man with strong, unshakable beliefs. Sure enough, when I address his political leanings, he begins to simmer slightly in his armchair. Mention of the recent US midterm election, in which the Republicans clawed back so much ground, causes him to emit a furious, surprisingly noisy hissing noise.
Listening back to my recording of the conversation, I momentarily think that the machine has gone on the blink. Did some sort of industrial piston malfunction during our conversation? “Pffffffffffffff! It’s disappointing. Big time. This election was really sad. I am not saying Obama is doing the greatest job, but he inherited the biggest pile of shit: the economy, two wars. Half of congress in now saying you can do nothing unless you preserve Bush’s tax cuts. He’s in a really rough place.”
Thoughts of the head-the-ball tendency in the Republican Party trigger another noisy exhalation. “Pffffffffffffff! The new right wing? Sarah Palin? The Tea Party? All that shit. The only hope is that things swing so far to the right that they swivel back to the left.”
Make it happen, Ed. The US needs such serious men.