Since the late 1970s, Ed Harris has
made more than 50 television and film appearances. It didn’t
take long for audiences to stand up and take notice. In 1983,
Harris’ performance as John Glenn in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff put him on the map of Hollywood’s
most talented actors. Keeping busy throughout much of the eighties
and nineties, Harris won wide acclaim for his roles in such films
as Places in the Heart (1984), The Abyss (1989)
and Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Though never asserting
himself as strictly the leading man, Harris won even more acclaim-and
two Oscar nominations-for his roles in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995) and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). In 2000, Ed Harris decided to try his hand at something
new: producing and directing. With Pollock, Harris asserts
himself as a true auteur-a man that can really do it all.
Here, Harris talks about his first attempt behind the camera and
the difficulties of bringing art to life.
Stephen Ashton (MM): Many
moviemakers have discovered-often, after it’s too late-that
making a film about an artist can be difficult. What drew you
to the challenge, and to Pollock in particular?
Ed Harris (EH): I think
it was the dynamism of his character: a complex man who had to
struggle to realize himself and to find himself. I thought his
was a great story, a journey. He was a bit of an underdog, a guy
who had to fight through all of these artistic influences to arrive
at a place of true originality. He had a great spirit and his
own way of doing things. All of these things were attractive to
me. He was a fascinating character and his story was kind of a
challenge to me too-I like a challenge
Buffalo Soldiers (2001)
MM: Speaking of challenges,
how difficult was it to direct your first feature and also be
the centerpoint of the film as an actor?
EH: It was quite a challenge.
MM: How did you keep
motivated to continue directing and starring in the film?
EH: I immersed myself
in Pollock, his person and his work. The whole project grew on
me: working on the script and getting into the character. I came
to have a lot of empathy for the guy; not just for his art, but
for the struggles he had as person.
MM: What struggles
would those be?
EH: I think that, emotionally,
he didn’t really mature much past adolescence. I think he had
a feeling of not belonging. Even in school he had a sense of not
belonging, he was always kind of an outsider. I think it was part
of his biological makeup too, being a “different breed.”
I think he was trying to live a life with openness and vulnerability,
which he needed for his creative spirit.
MM: Had you tried
your hand at any screenwriting before Pollock came along?
EH: No, not really. I
didn’t really write this one, but I worked on it a lot. [Writing
credits go to Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emschwiller, based on
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s book Jackson Pollock:
An American Saga]. The original screenplay was over 250 pages
long; I had to get it down to 110. The original script was trying
to capture the essence of his work and times. It was complicated-it
overlapped and was interwoven in time-but I wanted to make
it more straightforward.
MM: What compelled
you to direct the film as well, especially considering you’d
never directed a film before?
EH: I had been working
so hard and long on it-I was so into it. You know when you
align yourself with a property really invest yourself into? The
years were going by and either I was being a fool or really committed
to it. I just had to do it. I decided to direct out of default,
in a way. I had become so intimate with it all, with Pollock,
that I really didn’t want to relinquish control.
MM: And now, looking
at the finished product, do you think that was a wise decision?
EH: Well, I’m pretty
satisfied with the outcome.
MM: When watching
the film, one can’t help but be struck by how nature seemed
to influence Pollock’s work. Was this something you did intentionally?
EH: We just wanted to
suggest that subtly. We experimented with shooting a lot of images
of nature, but it felt a little too on the nose. I think it was
more unconscious. He was a pretty observant guy and I think he
took in things. There are stories of him looking-really penetrating
objects-and getting inside them in some way. I think the
Pollock had a sense of the oneness of things-no beginning,
no end-and I think he had some cosmic sense.
MM: Why didn’t you
put some of that in the film?
EH: That’s a good question.
I really didn’t know how to do it without some narration or a
cinematic trick. I wanted to just hint at it. I wanted to keep
it more subjective and personal. I thought, for the film to work
at all, it would have to be his emotional journey.
MM: I was really struck
by the way you ‘became’ Pollock, the painter-the
way you danced over the canvases. It really looked like the way Pollock must have moved. How did you work on the painting
EH: I am intrigued by
painting-a solitary act where you can see your results just
as soon as you step back. I started to paint and decided that
I wanted to do all of the painting in the film myself.
MM: Did you do any
additional research on Pollock so that you could portray
EH: I studied the Namuth
film. In fact, his son gave me a bunch of outtakes, but you know,
it is kind of like what Pollock said: ‘Things come out of
a need.’ If you’ve got a big canvas, and you need to get
around it, the best way to do it is the way he did it-with
a little alternating dance step. And the more I painted, the more
I experimented with painting in his technique.
MM: What was your
favorite part about making Pollock?
EH: I loved the painting.
It was the most relaxing time of the filmmaking process for me.
I didn’t have to worry about anything, just paint on the canvas.
That was great. I felt like I was creating something at that moment,
something that had some merit. Whether I was doing that or not
is not the point-I just had to focus on what I was doing:
painting. I didn’t have to act.
MM: You’ve actually
taken up painting since deciding to make the film, right?
EH: I did. I built a
painting studio at my house, and I love it.
MM: Do you think you’ll
stick with it?
EH: I’d like to. I am
really kind of curious as to what I would come up with after getting
Pollock out of my system-I’d like to know if I have a style
of my own.