He’s been an astronaut, a figment of John Nash’s imagination, and even Jackson Pollock, but in his new movie SNOWPIERCER, Ed Harris plays Wilford, the man at the head of the train, making sure things run smoothly aboard his eternal machine. I caught up with Harris to talk about his new film, which hits theaters later this week, on June 27th. Together, we chatted about what drew him to the script, what it’s like working with Chris Evans, if and when Harris will be making a return to the director’s chair, and his advice for up-and-coming actors.
Could you talk about, in working with such an international crew, and especially the director, and the two other main characters are Korean, so what was like a big discovery for you?
Ed Harris: Well you know, the most interesting thing was the style of filming, you know? Tilda’s probably talked about it, but I wasn’t there for the whole shoot, you know, I just came in for the end, because my character, you don’t see him until the end. But, you walk in the sound stage and there’s this big bulletin board. They got every shot of the day in this big story board, and when you do one shot, they put a line through it, and the next, and it’s religious, I mean that’s what you’re gonna do that day, there’s no change. You do what’s on that board. And you never shoot, like, if I’m doing a scene with you, and it’s a couple of pages long, he’s never gonna shoot the whole thing in one way. He’ll shoot a few lines, like the first beat of the scene, then he’ll turn the camera around, get my part for that scene, of that part of the scene, then he’ll change the angle a little bit. He’s basically cutting while he’s shooting, I mean the editor’s sitting right there on the stage, right below the set, with a big tent, and he’s actually getting the footage while they’re filming. So, director Bong kind of cuts while he’s filming in a way. He’s very precise. I actually enjoyed working that way, but it was getting a little frustrating for Chris, because he had been there like eight weeks or something and you could never really do a whole scene because it would always be parts of it, you know. And I could see how that would get to you after a while, but for me, I was entering director Bong’s world, and I wanted to fulfill his vision, because I think he’s a visionary and a really great filmmaker, so, it was a different feeling, but a good one. There was a reverence about the whole thing, in a way. The set was very quiet, everybody knew what they were doing, very organized, very specific, you know, every shot.
And you could handle to eat kimchi?
EH: Oh no, I didn’t eat very much Korean food. We were shooting in Prague, and I don’t remember having any Korean food. I was a huge fan of Kang-ho, from having seen THE HOST and MEMORIES OF MURDER, so even though I didn’t really work with him, it was just really nice to meet him, and Asung, too. I was very impressed with both of them. I just worked with Chris, who I really enjoyed working with, but he was the only actor, Tilda had already gone, John Hurt had gone, Octavia wasn’t there, so I really didn’t work with any of the other actors, Jamie Bell or anybody.
What was it about the story or the role in particular that kinda got its hooks into you, and made you say “Yeah, this is something I wanna do”?
EH: Well, you know, it was really having seen director Bong’s films that made me want to work with him. I would have played any role if he had asked me, just because I really appreciated his work. But the fact that he wanted me to play this guy who was talked about through the whole film, who is kind of the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain or whatever, that had some attraction to me, and it was interesting to try to fulfill something that director Bong wanted. He’s so built up, who this guy is, and then there’s this big thing open, and he’s just this old guy making dinner with his robe on, but director Bong really wanted him to be matter-of-fact and very mundane, and simple, and kind of freaky that way.
Were the pajamas your idea?
EH: Uh, it was a costume designer’s thought, I think. I don’t remember if we ever tried anything on other than a pajama-kinda look. There were various robes that we tried on, and we settled on that one.
Tilda said she had a lot of input on her costume —
EH: Oh, I bet she did. Her glasses and all. Tilda’s hysterical, man. She’s a character, it was beautiful.
When your character was revealed, I thought Hugh Hefner, was the first thing that came to my mind, in the pajamas.
EH: It is kind of a Hugh Hefner kinda look, yeah, in terms of the look.
Who do you inspire from?
EH: Just the script, myself, experience. It wasn’t any particular kind of person I was patterning myself after. Probably a coagulation of various folks, you know.
Now, as meticulous as director Bong is, with his direction and his design, did he really have you cooking?
EH: Yeah, yeah, I believe they had some heat going there, yeah.
So how good of a cook are you if push-came-to-shove and you had to survive on a train?
EH: I could make a damn pork chop, if I needed to. My best dish is lasagna, actually, which I do a couple of times a year. My wife wishes I cooked a little bit more often, but, you know. I can put a frozen pizza in the oven. I can make a good salad.
Chris Evans is really coming into his own, both as a leading man, and a really good character actor, I’m just curious about your experience working with him.
EH: I really liked working with him. You know, he’d been working his butt off on the film for quite a while when I got there, and I didn’t really see him at all other than when we were working, but you know, totally committed guy, and really dedicated to what he’s doing and really wanted to penetrate this character and fulfill director Bong’s vision and I enjoyed working with Chris, a lot. He was a good guy, I liked him very much.
When you step into a role like this, of Wilford, with director Bong, do you leave your own directing hat or perspective at the door when you come in?
EH: I would say more so in this instance than usual. I mean usual, I feel more free to make suggestions, or to question whatever, and I felt free to say whatever, but I didn’t really feel the need to, because he’s so, he really just knows what he wants. He really knows in his head how he wants something to go, and so, I would spend most of my energy and concentration trying to fulfill that. There were a few little things here and there, but I can’t even remember what they were. I would say “Hey, what about ba-ba-boom?” Not too much.
ICONS: So you’ve participated in several sci-fi films, including THE ABYSS, GRAVITY, APOLLO 13, and now SNOWPIERCER, and I was wondering what draws you to the genre?
EH: I don’t know, I’m not like a huge sci-fi film or anything, but I mean, those are all good stories, I think. So, I like a good story, and I like all the directors of all those films, they’re all really accomplished, you know, I like working with a director that I have faith in, that I know has a strong point of view about what they’re doing. I don’t know exactly what to say about that.
ICONS: It’s more the story than the genre that draws you in?
What are your favorite movies or favorite performances in the movies you watch?
EH: Good question. Well you know, I start naming things…I can’t really uh, I can’t really answer that question. Sorry.
EH: You know what film I saw recently which I had never seen before was CHUCK & BUCK. Miguel Arteta movie that was made a long time ago? I was at the Sundance Film Festival last weekend, I worked as an advisor, I was working with filmmakers and they screened that because Miguel was there. And Mike White, who is a wonderful screenwriter, is a bizarre character. It was a really good film. It was very odd and very unsettling at times, but it was really interesting.
Did you have a chance to sort of talk shop with some of the international actors that you met?
EH: No, very little. Asung speaks really good English, but Kang-ho, you know, you have to really use an interpreter so we didn’t really talk any detailed kind of shop, you know. I just really was…it was a pleasure being around that guy, because I think he’s a really, really, really fine actor. I really have a lot of admiration for him, and I’d like to work with him again.
How did this project come to you? Did you watch Bong’s movies before?
EH: Yeah, when I was sent the script, I was told “It’s director Bong, he’s a Korean director, made some other films”. I had never seen any of them, uh, I think they first film they sent me was THE HOST, which totally blew me away, and then I watched, I think it was MOTHER second, and then I watched MEMORIES OF MURDER, all of which I thought were wonderfully accomplished films, which really made me want to work with the guy. I’m a big fan of his.
So when will we see you back behind the camera again?
EH: That’s a really good question. APPALOOSA we shot in ’07, POLLOCK I made in ’99, that’s eight years, it’s almost eight years now. And you know, I wish I was directing something right now. I wish I was shooting tomorrow. It’s just, the only way I know how to do it is to be so compelled with a story or something I read that I developed into a script that I have no other choice but to make a film of it, and I just haven’t been able to find the material. I’m getting a little frustrated, I keep hoping that lightning strikes somehow. ‘Cause I’m not really like a director, you know? It’s not like a director for hire, I see scripts once in a while, and I guess if I read something that really turned me on, I would do it, but it’s much more of a personal kind of compulsion that I need to feel. I hope to direct a few more films before I leave but planet, but boy, I hope I can find the material.
I know some actors that worked with you on APPALOOSA that want you to start directing something else.
EH: Yeah, well I get asked that question a lot, and I wish I was working on something at this very second.
I see you’re voicing the new PLANES movie this summer, how did you get the work of a voice actor?
EH: That was kinda fun, I play a helicopter named Blade, who is the head of this fire and rescue squadron. It was trippy, I had to go in there like three or four times, because they kept changing the script a little bit, and you keep working on it, and every time you come in the animation gets more and more refined. The last time I was there they pretty much were finished with it, and I was just doing little things, and it looks really cool. It’s a pretty good story, it’s really fun. I had a good time doing that.
Do you do the same amount of character work for a voice role like that as you do for live action?
EH: Not really, I mean it’s a helicopter (laughs). It’s very specific though, in terms of the technical speak in the film, because they really had really great advisors, who’d say “Oh no, you wouldn’t say that, you’d say this”, and so, I knew that the dialogue was appropriate. And it was really just working with Bob, the director, you know, just trying to develop this character guy. It was fun. I didn’t do a lot of research.
That was also your voice we heard in GRAVITY.
EH: Yeah, at the beginning of that, yeah.
Was that kind of conceived as a bit of a nod to APOLLO 13?
EH: Yeah, I think so, Gene Kranz, and the whatever, yeah. APOLLO 13, yeah.
What’s been sort of the get-back for you to association with NASA and the space program, and the roles that you’ve done over the years?
EH: Well, you know, I’ve been asked a couple of times for NASA to show up somewhere, or do something, fly with the Blue Angels, whatever, and I always seem to be busy. I don’t have, I think, space exploration is really exciting, but it’s not like a thing in my life…it’s just a couple of films I’ve made, that I’ve enjoyed doing, that I really got into, I mean, I did a lot of research for John Glenn and Gene Kranz as well, I mean very in depth research, but it’s kind of like studying for an exam, you know? You learn all of this stuff, and this it kinda goes whoosh! (Slides hand over head) You know.
Could you give us some advice for the young actors who want to work?
EH: It’s just about growing up as a human being, and it’s about paying attention to the world around you, and it’s about wanting to get better at your craft, not wanting to be a star. It’s really about, if you want to be an actor, it’s about becoming the best actor you can be, and if that means if you need to be studying with somebody, if you need to be doing theater, if you need to be doing vocal work, if you need to be doing physical work, if you need to be doing emotional work, whatever it might be. It’s a way of life, you know? And it’s a commitment to that, it’s not about, you know…a lot of actors, they stop learning, they just try to get work. To me, if you get good enough, somebody will find you. You don’t even need to be here in L.A., you can be anywhere, and if you really get great at what you’re doing, somebody’s gonna pay attention.
One of my favorite roles of your was in THE ROCK as General Hummel, a character with such morally ambiguous motives. Did you have a lot of freedom to play those layers in that movie, within a big action movie context?
EH: I just remember having to make a speech about Thomas Jefferson or somebody, and thinking it was ridiculous, and had this, there was a phone, and I was pounding the phone, because I was trying to get myself geared up to do this rap and I just had to get some adrenaline going, and after that, Michael would just keep bringing me the phone whenever I was doing a scene. I just remember having to go for it, you know? I don’t remember exactly what your question was, but it was pretty cut and dry, as far as I was concerned, what the guy was trying to do, what he stood for. The ambiguity came more in the storyline, you know, in terms of what was right about what he was doing and what was potentially devastating about what he was doing, in terms of the threats he was making. But I was just trying to tell the truth, moment to moment.
The pressing question that ties in is are they making you your own Blade character for PLANES and did your agent negotiate part of the merchandising rights for you?
EH: That’s a good question. I’m not sure what the merchandising thing is, I’d have to look at the contract, but the last time I was in there they gave me a little model helicopter of my character, yeah, which was really cute, so we’ll see.
Cuter is if they gave you part of the profit of your character.
EH: (whispers) Don’t bring that up (laughs).
*This roundtable interview was conducted by Kalyn Corrigan of Icons of Fright, Laurie Curtis, Debbie Elias, Christina Radish, Fred Topel, Scott Huver, Todd Gilcrest, and Michael Dequina.