Over the last 36 years if you needed a gruff character actor who could provide uncontrollable intensity, there was one man on every casting director’s speed dial. Ed Harris is an award-winning actor who has huffed and raged his way through every conceivable genre in movies as diverse as Pollock, The Rock, Glengarry Glen Ross, State Of Grace, The Right Stuff, and The Truman Show (his one unconventionally kindhearted role, just to show he could do it). When he yells on screen, audiences almost have to take it personally. This week Harris tops the bill in the strange serio-comedy Virginia, an intriguing melange of 50s Hollywood melodrama camp and dark satire, from writer/director Dustin Lance Black (who scored an Oscar for writing Milk). Harris plays a Mormon sheriff-turned-politician who has spent years engaged in a secret affair with a mentally disturbed woman played by Jennifer Connolly and gets ragin’ when his legal daughter inadvertently starts dating his secret son. It’s easily one of the actor’s most bizarre films and one that we lucky enough to pick his brain about. If you’re a fan of Harris’s long career as an actor (and his deeply underrated stabs at directing), read on for his thoughts on Virginia, getting angry on camera, playing comedy, and of course Mormonism.

What interested you in this role?

Well, I met Lance in California and had thought Milk was really successful. This was his first picture as a director and he asked me to be a part of it. I was intrigued by the fact that it was a kind of semi-autobiographical tale. Also, Lance has a really unique point of view, which I always appreciate in a filmmaker. I don’t know. It just seemed kind of quirky and bizarre and I really liked Jennifer a lot. I hadn’t worked with her since Pollock even though we were in A Beautiful Mind together, so I thought that would be fun. I thought Amy [Madigan], my wife, could play my wife in the movie, which would be great. You know, there were a lot of things to get excited about it.

Do you have any apprehensions about working with first time filmmakers?

(Long dramatic inhale) Not really … People have to start somewhere and especially if they have something to say and they are compelled to tell a story, it’s worth giving them a chance. The only time I didn’t enjoy working with a first time director was a guy who wanted to direct a movie just so he could direct another one. You know what I mean? It clearly didn’t mean anything to him. So, I felt like, “why am I here?” In that kind of situation, it’s not worth it. I did this other movie with a pair of twin brother directors a couple of years back which never really got released called Touching Home. They had never directed and never acted, but wrote directed and starred in this thing themselves. They convinced me to play their dad and we had a great experience. So, I like working with people who are starting out when they are passionate like that.

How did you find working with Dustin Lance Black? Did he take to directing quickly?

Oh yeah. He was really well prepared, I thought he did a great job casting it because there are a lot of interesting characters in this piece. I thought he handled the set really well. He’s very patient and dealt with the younger actors well. And he knew what he wanted. He knew the tenor of it. He had a clear feeling for how he wanted to tell the story and I felt really comfortable with him.

When you’re in a movie in which the style is so heightened like this, do you feel the need to dial up your performance?

Well, in this movie it was more about finding a sense of humor or buoyancy as opposed to trying to force something like that in there. It’s interesting because I haven’t seen this movie with a crowd yet. I watched the film with just my wife in a screening room. I’ll be interested to see how they react because I thought there was much more humor in it when we were working on it than I felt watching it by myself. So hopefully the humor will make more of an impact with an audience. Because when I watched it, I felt that Lance chose the more straight takes of everything. To me the movie was just hysterical and I was cracking myself up while we were making it.

That’s interesting, because it felt like things were played fairly straight to try and capture the camp humor of old 50s melodramas. But you did embrace the comedy a little more broadly at times?

Yeah, I think in every scene he could have cut it in a way where the humor would be more obvious. But that was his decision. It‘s interesting because looking back on it now, he was open to anything that we wanted to try, but he always made sure that at some point he got a very straight take that didn’t comment on the scene. I’d have to ask him about it, but I think he wanted to make sure that these characters were believable and he didn’t want it to feel like we were manipulating them or making fun of them. He wanted it to be believable even though it was insane.

I haven’t really seen you do a lot of comedy before even though you seemed so interested in that aspect of this script. Is that something that you want to try more of?

Yeah. I’ve done stuff on stage that has a lot of humor in it, but I’m not asked to do that much in movies. I have a sense of humor though, so you know…gimmie a shot. (flashes a goofy grin)

The scene stuck out for me is when you suddenly turn on your son in the back room and transform into a vicious character in split second. Do you have to work yourself up to find that?

You just gotta let it go. I’ve got a lot of rage in me (Laughs). I may get specific with that anger in some instances, but see even that I thought was funny. Because this guy loses it as soon as he mentions being his son and it’s like, calm down dude what’s you’re problem?

You’re really good at humanizing your villainous roles, is that important to you?

Yeah, it’s just more fun as an actor. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to play an arch villain. Well, maybe in Just Cause years ago. They’re all human beings and nobody thinks they’re evil. That’s my job, to humanize whoever I’m playing and try to find all of the complexities of the character. That’s what I find interesting.

It was great to see you and your wife together in this film and I was wondering what it was like to play this deranged couple all day and then go home and presumably have a much more functional relationship?

Yeah, hopefully, right? [Laughs] It was fun, we really do enjoy working together and don’t normally get a chance. She’s a great actress. I wish we could do it more. 

Do you have any future plans as a director?

I’m very up for directing again and I want to. I’m just waiting to get inspired. I don’t want to just do it for the sake of it. I want to have something worth making. So I’m reading a lot and looking into various projects, but so far the lightbulb hasn’t gone off. The only two things that I directed were two things that I was uncontrollably compelled to do. That’s the only way I know how to make movies, so I’ve got to get that feeling again. My daughter is a senior in high school and she’s going to be gone soon. Once that happens, I plan on directing. I definitely want to make a few more movies before I leave the planet, so we’ll see what happens.

Do you have any preference between working on small idiosyncratic movies like Virginia vs bigger Hollywood movies?

It’s more the role than anything else. I haven’t really made a studio picture in I don’t know how long. It’s good for a payday once and a while. Honestly, either way is fine. The most important thing is the people that you’re working with and the subject matter and the characters. Sometimes to be perfectly honest, it’s a question of finances as well. 

Did you watch any of the old 50s melodramas that seemed to have a major influence on Virginia?

No, Lance didn’t suggest that. I did a lot of research into Mormons.

What did you get out of that?

Oh god … I read Mormonism For Dummies, which was actually really good. It was written by some ex-members of the church and just outlines what the beliefs are. Out there, man. Just out there. Those guys … whew!




1 Comments | Add a Comment
Glad Ed Harris liked "Mormonism For Dummies." For the record, my coauthor and I are both practicing Mormons, not "ex-members." I wonder why he thought we were ex.Harris's new movie sounds interesting and I look forward to seeing it.
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