A Hollywood Treasure
By Beverly Cohn
d Harris is recognized as one of the most gifted actors of our time.
His body of work includes some of Hollywood’s most memorable films,
three of which are on the American Film Institute’s “100 Most
Inspiring Movies of All Times:” “A Beautiful Mind,”
“The Right Stuff,” and “Apollo 13.” His
work encompasses the entire media spectrum including television, which
has been airing his beautifully textured western “Appaloosa,”
which he co-wrote and directed. His award-winning stage work continues
to hit the mark as evidenced by his recent riveting performance in Neil
LaBute’s one-man play “Wrecks” at the Geffen Playhouse.
Harris latest film is the haunting The
Way Back directed by Peter Weir. Based on a novel by Slavomir
Rawiez, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom,
is the story of a small group of prisoners in a Siberian gulag in 1940
who escaped and walked thousands of miles over the most brutal terrain
to reach India. Harris plays Mr. Smith, an enigmatic American prisoner.
The following interview, edited for print purposes,
originally appeared in the January 14th edition of the Santa Monica
Mirror, and is being reprinted as a courtesy of that publication.
Harsh life in a Russian gulag. Photo
Q: What is the first thing you look for in a script
and what attracted you to The Way Back?"
Harris: Generally, its an instinctive response
to the material and is it going to be worth my while. Either some part
of my gut says that I want to do this or it says I dont want to
do it. A lot hinges on whos involved in the project, other actors,
the character, a new territory to explore. In this case it was Peter
(Weir) who I had worked with on The Truman Show,
and had hoped to work with him again. So I was very excited when I was
told he was doing this movie and was interested in me playing one of
L-R: Ed Harris, co-star Jim Sturgess and Peter Weir
on location. Photo Credit: EPK.TV
Q: What is so special about working with Peter?
Harris: Words like thorough, specific, passionate, committed,
intelligent come to mind. Peter is the consummate filmmaker in the sense
that he decides to make a film about a specific subject and literally
puts blinders on and thats all he thinks about. Hell research
the hell out of it, talk to people if its a historical situation
to get their experiences. Hell work on the script and gets designers
involved who can bring his project to life.
The escaped prisoners avoid capture by locals who
get rewards for turning them over to the authorities. Photo
Hes specific and pays attention to every aspect
of the filmmaking whether its the sets, props, costumes,
make-up, or hair. Hes totally attentive and thorough and as an
actor, you know hes a guy whos going to make a film that
works. Whether everyone likes it or not is not the point as the film
is going to come to fruition and whats on the page will take place
in a way that make sense and works as a film. Also, he was an actor
and understands our process and communicates well with us.
Prisoners are forced to lie face down in the snow.
Photo Credit: EPK.TV
Q: Unlike many films that are shot either on a sound
stage or at one location, this film was shot on multiple locations including
Bulgaria, Morocco, and India. Did that make it more interesting for
Harris: Well yes. I was looking forward to the fact
that once we got out of the gulag, we were going to be outside in the
elements. I like challenges of physical work. We did shoot on a sound
stage early on as a forest had been created so Peter could control the
snow as well shoot some of the close-ups in the earlier part of the
story. I couldnt wait to get out of there because the story is
about being outside. Once we got outside, we pretty much stayed there
for the rest of the shoot.
Ed Harris as the escaped American prisoner, Mr.
Smith. Photo Credit: EPK.TV
It was a great four months and a memorable experience
for me and as difficult as it got at times, I enjoyed every minute of
it. Its nice to feel you have perseverance because this story
is all about that.
Q: This was an incredibly demanding role physically.
How did you prepare for it?
Harris: I dropped some weight before we went on location
and did some physical labor to get callouses. Also, I worked on finding
a real personal center and quiet place because in this situation, where
you are thrust into a gulag or a concentration camp, the only thing
thats going to keep you alive is yourself and you have to find
an internal core where you can do that. It allows you to take it moment
by moment and do things you have to do to live. Im sure any survivor
of these camps would talk about how they ended up being with themselves
to get through it.
The trek from Siberia to India continues over relentless
terrain. Photo Credit: EPK.TV
Q: What were the most difficult scenes physically?
Harris: The scene where were walking across this
field of very deep snow was one. There was no trail and were trying
to walk through it. That was tough.
Trekking through the desert. Photo
But I think the hardest day for me was when we were
in the desert with these big sand dunes. I had an intestinal problem
and couldnt move a finger I mean I was just dead. We had
to drag this thing up a mountain of sand and I was thinking give me
break and couldnt wait to hear cut!
It was very cold when we started shooting and very hot when we
finished. It was like the harsher and more challenging it was, the more
you felt like you were doing a good job.
Irena (Saoirse Ronan) leads the way across a frozen
lake. Photo Credit: EPK.TV
Q: Was there a strong bond amongst the cast?
Harris: I probably spent more time alone in solitude
than I had in a long time because I have a family. But yes, we spent
a lot of time together as a group and we depended on each other for
sharing the experience. Everyone had a good attitude and no one was
ever a problem. Peter was very careful in his casting to make sure we
would work well together and there wouldnt be any divas. We got
together a few weeks before we started filming to get to know each other
and ultimately we really did pull together.
Q: Were you familiar with this period of history?
Harris: Vaguely. I was aware of the gulags and that
millions of people had perished under Stalins rule, but there
was a lot I didnt know. For example, I was totally unaware that
thousands of Americans had gone to Russia during the Depression to find
work. The Russians would advertise in the United States for workers
and in the first eight months of 1931, 100,000 people applied for jobs,
10,000 of who got jobs. Part of the deal was when you arrived in Russia,
you had to give up your passport and when Stalins Reign of Terror
began, they couldnt get out. The American Embassy wouldnt
help the workers because they didnt have passports and were told
they were stuck there and thats how my character, Mr. Smith, winds
up in a gulag.
Ed Harris' Mr. Smith forms a bond with the young
Irena who is also seeking freedom.
Photo Credit: EPK.TV
Q: How did the introduction of the female character,
Irena, played exquisitely by Saoirse Ronan, affect your character?
Harris: Mr. Smiths humanity had been pretty much
shut off in the camp and this young woman brings back to life the shred
of humanity he has left. The scene where Irena washes my feet was unscripted,
but after we did a few scenes together, Peter realized something was
going on between these two characters and was important to the story.
Ed Harris (Mr. Smith) in a confrontation with fellow
prisoner Valka (Colin Farrell).
Photo Credit: EPK.TV
Q: How much character direction did you get from Peter?
Harris: Peter encouraged us to keep exploring our characters.
He wanted us to create back-stories and to find actions that were not
necessarily scripted that we would be doing to survive the journey.
We knew we were pretending, but we were also very immersed in the reality
of what these people were going through.
Q: You mentioned family before. What is the biggest
challenge in juggling your career with being a husband and a father?
Harris: We kind of worked it out over the years. Unfortunately,
I have a lot more opportunities to work than Amy (Madigan) whos
a wonderful actress so I spend more time away from home than she does.
Other than this project, which was four months in Bulgaria and Morroco,
generally the first question I ask is how long is the shoot and where
is it? I didnt want to be an absentee father and havent
been, so its weighing one against the other. I dont feel
like Ive sacrificed my career for my family or vice-versa. Its
been a pretty good balancing act.
Q: Your body of work is awesome. Its been a real
Harris: Thats very kind. Thank you.