An Interview with Ed Harris

The Famed Actor Opens Up to FINE Magazine at the La Costa Film Festival

Ed Harris at the 2014 La Costa Film Festival

Edward Allen Harris’s journey has taken him from a childhood in New Jersey to acting studies in Oklahoma, and eventually to Broadway and Hollywood where his name evokes an instantly recognizable acting icon with an impressive list of accomplishments.

Since his breakthrough performance, playing astronaut John Glenn in 1983’s “The Right Stuff,” the award-winning actor and director has been much praised in Hollywood for his portrayals of famous historical figures, as well as being awarded an Obie for his work on the New York stage. His inspirational 2003 football film, “Radio,” in which he starred and collaborated with Director Mike Tollin, was screened at the Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas in Carlsbad for the La Costa Film Festival. I was fortunate to grab a few moments to speak one-on-one with Harris before the screening.

Ed Harris at the 2014 La Costa Film Festival in San Diego, California

Being a classical musician, I was most curious about his turn as the title character in “Copying Beethoven,” his collaboration with Polish director Agnieszka Holland. He was intrigued at my bringing up that film, which he felt had had disappointing distribution in the US. He also agreed with me about how courageous it was of Holland to highlight some of Beethoven’s lesser-known works in addition to the ubiquitous Ninth Symphony, which, in a pivotal scene, Harris was required to conduct.

“Learning to conduct was very tricky,” he said. “It took eleven months of study. And I felt I should also learn to play the violin, at least somewhat. That was hard.” When, half-jokingly, I offered to coach him in some finer points of violin playing should he ever have that need for another film, he laughed. “I don’t plan to do that again.”

I asked him if he had plans to tackle other roles as musicians. “No,” he said, “Beethoven was difficult to play.”

Nonetheless, he holds enormous respect for Agnieszka Holland, with whom he worked on two other films: “To Kill A Priest” (1989), and “The Third Miracle” (1999).

Ed Harris accepting an award at the 2014 La Costa Film Festival

Harris praised colleague Tollin, his director for Radio, and spoke of their close friendship. He elaborated on that at the Q&A after the screening. Though Tollin now focuses mostly on documentaries, Harris expressed his wish that Tollin would someday go back to making narrative films. “I would work with him in a heartbeat,” Harris said of the Camie (Character And Morality In Entertainment) Award-winning Radio director.

Tollin, too, was full of admiration for Harris. “Ed sets the best possible atmosphere for the narrative,” Tollin said. “Working with him is a huge challenge. On the set he always does his optimum best for the film.” Harris, who reacted with modesty to Tollin’s praise of his acting chops, then demonstrated his keen sense of humor. “I would have preferred to be a football player,” joked Harris, who was a star athlete in high school and played football at Columbia University.

Harris clearly displays his love for the game in the uplifting “Radio.” “Coach Jones is still watching Radio’s back,” Harris said, adding that James Robert Kennedy, the real person on whom Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character is based, is now in his 60s and going strong.

As a final question, an attendee asked Harris which of his many roles was the most challenging. Without hesitation he replied, “Beethoven.”

Co-founder Michael Callihan presented Harris with LCFF’s first Legacy Award and a custom golf bag. Harris admits to have been lacking as of late in that sport but said, smiling, “I guess I’ll have to go back to it now.”

His final advice was passionately put to the audience. “Never give up,” he said.

Harris’s appearance and honoring at LCFF is also a tribute to Callihan and wife Ruby, both of whom have worked tirelessly and devotedly to bring a first-class event to Carlsbad. They have succeeded immensely: every event, from screening to celebration, has been impeccably produced. Still in the midst of this year’s event, one can’t help but look forward to Festival #3 next year.