When this week’s Oscar nominations were announced, one of the few (but pleasurable) surprises was the well-deserved inclusion of Ed Harris, recognised for his searing performance in Pollock, which the actor also directed and produced. Pollock will be Harris’ first Oscar nomination as Best Actor, and third nomination overall (followed by Truman Show and Apollo 13 as Best Supporting Actor). Paul Fischer had the privilege to sit down with the Oscar nominee to discus life and art.
It was a long day for veteran actor Ed Harris. Another day, another film festival. Fresh from the debut screening of Pollock at the Venice Film Festival, Harris was in Toronto for the movie’s North American premiere. After three decades in front of the camera, Harris found the perfect film to realise as a director, based on the life of tortured painter Jackson Pollock. It was Harris’ father who initially introduced the actor to the world of Pollock. He had been working at the Chicago Art Institute in its bookstore, where he had discovered Geoffrey Potter’s oral biography of Pollock, “To a Violent Grave”, which his dad sent to Harris for his birthday back in 1986.
Then the following year, Harris’ father sent his son another book on Pollock, which included the inscription: “I think there could be an interesting film here”. There was little doubt what it was in Pollock that fascinated Harris the actor. “To me he was just a fascinating character not only as an artist and the way he painted, and the fact that he was kind of given credit for taking modern art in a new direction, but he was also a rebel and a bit of a controversial figure and revolutionary in terms of his work. I was also fascinated where he came from in his early years, not to mention as a human being – his troubles and his pain and his insecurities and his confidence and his needs “I really have a great deal of empathy for this guy,” Harris explains with a quiet passion.
The film follows Pollock’s professional life from bottom to top and back: from his days of struggle in New York City in the early ’40s, to his mid-century reign as king of abstract expression, and finally to his downfall and death in 1956. Marcia Gay Harden plays Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife and an artist who spent much of her life promoting Pollock’s work while dealing with his self-destructive, alcoholic personality. “There is no doubt in my mind that Pollock was a complex man who had to struggle to realise and 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”.
In further defining what made Pollock tick, Harris referred to the artist’s “desperate need of approval” and it is this facet of the character with whom the actor began to identify with, he begrudgingly admits. “I only began to act because of the applause I had gotten playing baseball and football. And one day I realised: That was the end of that. My initial impulse to act came when I saw some theatre and realised that here was a job where people see you, then stand up and clap for you. Hopefully it progressed since then,” he adds with a wry laugh.
But the differences between the world of Pollock and Harris’ own life as an artist, are more distinctive than their parallels, the actor insists. “Pollock didn’t have a mechanism, either biologically or socially, for preventing his feelings from being boundless. Hence he was an extreme, conflicted person, probably a manic-depressive”. It sounds as if this was the perfect film to mark Harris’ directorial debut, at this time of his career. “I don’t know”, he says with mock fear permeating from within. “I really had no intention of directing it for the first five or six years of working on it”. All Harris wanted to do was see the film get made and play Pollock.
“When I realised, after a while, that I had become so intimate with the material, and had such strong feelings about it, when it came time to start talking to directors about it, I thought: Well wait a minute, I don’t want to share this with anyone; this is mine”. So the actor decided to “take a deep breath and just go for it”. Harris also drew from his experiences of working with some of Hollywood’s brightest directors, from the likes of Ron Howard to Peter Weir. “I’d worked with a lot of what I consider to be great directors. Even though I had always worked in the capacity as an actor, I had to trust that I picked up SOMETHING about filmmaking from them”. As a director, Harris wanted to keep his film simple. “I didn’t want it to be full of cinematic tricks or for audiences to be aware of the camera,” thus allowing Pollock to shine through.
Part of Harris’ process in taking on the ACTING challenge of Pollock, was to capture the painter’s unique painting style. From the time the actor knew he was destined to play the artist, he committed to study as much about painting as possible, and the results are self-evident in the film. “From about ’92 I began to explore painting technique, mostly just on my own, getting cans of paint and brushes, pour in drip paint and see the effect that it had”. From such humble beginnings, Harris worked on increasingly bigger surfaces, even built his own hard studio “where I had more space to paint on part of my property”.
He kept going, until he felt confident, “not till I could paint a fucking Pollock, but that I had a confidence in my ability to put paint on the canvas, to cover a large area and to create something with some cohesion, rhythm and harmony in the style of Pollock”. Many of Pollock’s actual paintings for the final film, however, were re-created in finished form by “The Jackson Five,” a term coined by the film’s cast and crew to describe the five artists who took on the unenviable task of trying to retrace each painted drip of Pollock’s vivid work. The effort, recalls Harris, is convincing – on film, at least. “I didn’t think you could recreate it,” he remarked. “They were such complex, interwoven, beautiful paintings. I thought, ‘They can’t do that.’ But I think it worked cinematically”.
Harris has since taken up painting, and hopes to continue it well after the Pollock buzz has died down, though finally conceding “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”. As painter or filmmaker? Both remain to be seen.