Ed Harris Discusses His Career at the Jacob Burns Film Center

Iconic Star Makes Acting a Way of Life

Photo by Gage Skidmore

The Jacob Burns Film Center recently held its eighth annual Silver Screen Fundraiser and treated attendees to a 90 minute Q&A with actor Ed Harris. Presenting clips from a career that begin in 1978, New York Times film critic Janet Maslin directed a discourse into the personal and professional life of one of America's finest actors

Significantly, the packed theater learned that a character only emerges from a screenplay after Harris does some important paper work of his own. The actor creates his own back story for the character and jots down the ideas as they come along. By filming, the image of the character is clear to the point where, he said, "They become very real.” That leaves the on screen creation following more readily.

He and the audience were left in agreement upon viewing a scene from the movie Just Cause, in which he portrays a serial killer. "Looks even weirder from this angle," he said onstage, and that provided a segue into some of Harris's documented confrontations with paparazzi.

A Day in the Life

Bad enough when they find him a solo act, but infringing upon a family situation is not something he takes lightly. With the clicks catching him and his daughter eating lunch one day, he returned a look that should have come across in a lot less than a thousand words.

"So you can be scary even when you're not working," interjected Maslin. But it was Mr. Harris's reaction to the message the photographer missed that got the last laugh.

"I threw my hot dog at him," Harris said, and since his daughter approved at the time, full vindication came across in the audience's reaction.

Looking out for the Little Guy

A down to earth decency also emerged as his recent involvement in an independent film unraveled before the audience. Touching Home is a true story of the difficult and heart-warming relationship between an alcoholic father and his two sons.

Written upon the father's death by his two sons, Harris was held hostage to the story by more than just the compelling nature of the screenplay. "They wouldn't let me say no," said Harris.

In the audience, Logan and Noah Miller rose to tell their side of the story. "All the experts tried to talk us out of it," said Logan Miller somewhat inaudibly. On his toes, Harris rose to his feet and flipped the microphone ten rows deep into the ready hands of Logan.

"We're the independent filmmakers. We're here to talk to Mr. Harris." He conveyed how they bypassed security at a film festival to ensnare the actor. Persuaded, Harris would read the script and was later impressed but pleaded complete unavailability.

Nonetheless, Harris agreed to a meeting in which he relented to the brothers' sincerity and persistence. "I'll give you two weeks," he told them, and the Miller's jumped on it. As is, the film is scheduled to be released after the Harper Collins book they have written about the making of the film is published.

A Way of Life

Displaying consistency, it seemed not to matter that they knew nothing of how to write a book, but the Miller brothers share a similarity that compares to the actor's beginnings. Mostly a jock growing up, Harris' late introduction into art and culture at Columbia opened up another world to him.

He realized, "that acting encompassed a whole way of life," and the process isn't simply limited to the roll of a camera. 40 years later, he understands that sharing screen space with other great actors does not put a cap on his expression.

“The more somebody's got to give back to your work, the more freedom an actor has to project back his own interpretation,” he said. 

That was quite apparent to Janet Maslin after revealing a clip of the profanity laced Glengary Glen Rose. Jack Lemon, Al Pacino, and Alec Baldwin, she said, "You not only out acted them, you out yelled them."

"I out F…ed 'em too," he said to the audience's delight. 

But given the somewhat free reign that fame has provided him has not diminished the graciousness that has probably helped get him this far. "Congratulations on this facility and I'm honored you asked me to be here," he concluded.

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Ed Harris Discusses His Career at the Jacob Burns Film Center