Beginning as a television actor in the mid-1970s, four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris became the film star he is today when he landed the role of American icon John Glenn in the 1983 classic, The Right Stuff. From there, Harris would go on to become a mainstay on the big screen, mostly known for playing tough men who don't suffer fools.
Yet, a look back at his career would show that Harris contains multitudes. He has played egomaniacal visionaries (The Truman Show), tortured artists (The Hours and Pollock), unassuming heroes (Apollo 13), all while excelling at playing black hats (The Rock, A History of Violence, Westworld).
Harris recently appeared as a dying photographer taking one last road trip with the son (Jason Sudeikis) he abandoned and the personal assistant he mistreats (Elizabeth Olsen) in Netflix's new movie, Kodachrome.
While he might seem like a man of few words, Harris shared his thoughts on his surprisingly diverse decades-long career in movies and television.
The Right Stuff (1983)
Harris caught the attention of filmmaker Philip Kaufman and producer Robert Chartoff first with his eerie resemblance to John Glenn and then kept it with his obvious talents. "It was the first major movie I had been in," Harris told us. "I had been in a few others, but it was very important to me."
The timing of the release of The Right Stuff was one of note. Just as Kaufman's movie was about to come out, then-Senator John Glenn was gearing up for what would be an unsuccessful run for president.
"My face was on the cover of Newsweek back then, which my mother was very excited about and I guess I was too," Harris remembered. "And you know, God bless him, John...Senator Glenn was probably running one of the historically most boring presidential campaigns in history, unfortunately. Didn't pan out for him. During that time [Tom Wolffe's] book kind of poked a lot of fun at Mr. Glenn and so the Glenn campaign wasn't sure what the film was going to be like. So they didn't want to even deal with it...I had a lot of respect for him, for sure."
Field of Dreams (1989)
IMDb has him listed as the uncredited voice Kevin Costner hears urging him to build a ball field, and rumors have persisted for years. Even the author of the source material, W.P. Kinsella, wrote he was told Ed Harris was the "Voice." It wouldn't have been the biggest stretch to imagine Harris's wife and Field of Dreams star Amy Madigan arranging it, but alas, Harris denies it was him. "That is not true," Harris said with a smile. "You can put that rumor to rest."
The Abyss (1989)
A late '80s work from James Cameron, The Abyss is one of those films remembered for its production as much as it for the final product. The movie was filmed in millions of gallons of water in an abandoned nuclear power station, and at one point Harris came close to drowning.
"The first thing that comes to mind is the harrowing experience I had down 30 feet under water where I thought maybe I bought it there for a few seconds," Harris reminisced. "That was such a tough shoot for all of us involved...all of us who worked on that, we had to hold on to each other because it was such an insane shoot."
"I'm really proud of the movie — I remain disappointed in the ending of it because I think until the last 10-15 minutes of that film it's really a good film. And then it kind of goes like, 'What?' But, what are you going to do?"
[caption id="attachment_2773901" align="alignnone" width="2663"] Ed Harris portraying NASA flight director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13. He never met Kranz, but his performance did inspire Kranz to title his memoir after one of his lines, "Failure is not an option." (Photo: Universal/courtesy Everett Collection)[/caption]
Apollo 13 (1995)
Apollo 13 was a return of sorts to prestige space race drama for Harris. This time instead of playing one of the men who blasts off, he played a man on the ground, NASA flight director Gene Kranz. While he never met the man he portrayed, Harris did deliver a (fictional) line so memorable that Kranz wound up using it for his memoir, Failure Is Not an Option. Harris wound up getting an Oscar nomination for the role, his first.
"It was very exciting for my mother and father," Harris said when asked what that first Oscar nomination meant to him. "I was excited about it. I'm not opposed to people appreciating my work."
The Rock (1996)
It might seem impossible in a movie featuring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, but it's a testament to Ed Harris's talent that he managed to steal scenes as the vengeful and deranged Brigadier General Frank Hummel. Footage from behind the scenes shows Harris's legendary intensity, but he said it was a "good time."
"It was one of Michael Bay's earliest movies, you know," Harris told us. "Michael and I got along fine and David Morse was in there. We had a good bunch of people to work with. I had a couple speeches in that thing that were kind of tough to do. I had to get myself rather worked up to do them, but I got there. I remember there was one scene, there was a telephone and I got very frustrated and I started banging the receiver down. Every time I was doing the scene, Bay would bring the phone over so if I had some angst to work out, I could smash it."
The Truman Show (1998)
Ed Harris was a late addition to the cast of The Truman Show. Playing a part initially intended for Dennis Hopper, Harris had little to no time to prepare for his role and never actually worked with Jim Carrey during the making of the movie.
"I met [director] Peter Weir on a beach in Malibu, I think on a Thursday," Harris remembered. "And I started shooting on Tuesday. I was replacing another actor and I had to go to New York that weekend to for something and came back and jumped right into it. It was kind of good for me, because it didn't give me any time to think about playing this god-like character. I might've tied myself up in knots trying to figure out something. I just had to commit to something."
[caption id="attachment_2773906" align="alignnone" width="3049"] Ed Harris was a late addition to The Truman Show, after Dennis Hopper left the movie with only days to go before filming. Harris never actually worked with star Jim Carrey during the making of the movie, but said he's met him a number of times since.[/caption]
If there was a person to capture the intensity of Jackson Pollock, it would have to be Ed Harris. Harris spent the better part of 10 years on what would become his directorial debut. It all started when his father mailed Harris a book about Pollock, something the actor took as a warning about his heavy drinking. It flashed a spark in Harris.
"I really did work on that thing for almost a decade, in terms of the script, getting the rights, starting to paint, etcetera etcetera," Harris explained. "My thought was not to direct it until about a year before filming. I was so obsessed with it. I had talked to other directors about it. Ones who were in interested had their own thoughts about it and I was like, 'Wait a minute. No, no, no. That's not what's in my head.' So I decided to direct it myself and I figured I knew more about it than I thought I did. It was a learning experience, but I'm really proud of the movie. I'm glad it held up. It was a tough, tough, tough shoot — ended up spending a lot my own money on it, but I didn't care."
In an interview with Today, Harris hinted that his wife (and Pollock co-star) Amy Madigan wasn't happy with his on-set behavior.
"I had a lot going on, it was intense," explained to Yahoo. "I'd lose my temper, maybe not be as polite as I could have been at times and she hadn't been around for the first few weeks of filming. Yeah, she was slightly appalled at my behavior, but what can I say?"
The Hours (2002)
Harris took a moment to consider our question when he asked if he was surprised people considered this Oscar-nominated performance "against type." "He was a gay man and a writer," Harris said. "To me, I like to feel that I'm not a type-cast individual. I get to play different kinds of roles and that was one of them."
He lost a fair amount of weight to play Richard Brown, but Harris didn't exactly ask people to cry for him. "It just took a little bit of discipline, you know?" he asked. "I wasn't eating very much. I was making sure I was staying healthy but I tried to get as lean as I could...my metabolism is pretty good, so it worked out."
A History of Violence (2005)
In A History of VIolence, Harris excelled as the scarred and menacing Carl Fogarty. "That one contact that was glazed over, I don't think I could see out that worth a damn," Harris shared.
His exit from that movie comes from a shot to the back from Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes). When asked his memories from that day, Harris drew mostly a blank, saying, "I remember being in the yard being shot," before giving the biggest laugh he had to give during this interview.
Harris, who started his acting career on television in bit parts, admitted that he probably wouldn't have been very interested in being a television regular once his film roles became more plentiful. "If you had asked me 20 years ago I'd say, 'Doubtful,'" Harris admitted. "As we all know, the nature of things have changed a great deal."
While Harris's Man in Black was viewed as one of the show's villains in season one of Westworld, Harris thinks audiences will see him in a different light during the show's sophomore effort.
"I did this Q&A...one of the questions was do you see your character as a protagonist or antagonist and I said, 'a protagonist,'" Harris said. "I think particularly, it didn't feel that way in the first season, I think maybe hopefully more in the second season. I think there's something he's trying to do in the second year that is worthy."
When we asked if how much he paid attention to the cottage industry of Westworld theorizing and speculation, he replied, "Very little."
Ed Harris's new movie Kodachrome is now available for streaming on Netflix.