It takes a while to realize that Ed Harris is wearing a scarf.
The director and star of Pollock has his coat on, toowhich makes sense, because he’s opened the window of his Georgetown hotel suite on this cold February day, about a week before he would be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for the film he tried to make for a decade. The window is open so Harris can smoke, and the coat and scarf are on so he can dash to the airport the instant this hurried, behind-schedule interview concludes. But neither coat nor scarf stands out because they, like everything else Harris is wearing, are black.
It’s the uniform of lower Manhattan, the logical outfit for an actor who has made a biopic about the first popular-press star of New York’s postwar art boom, a man so timelessly downtown that Patti Smith wrote a song about him some 40 years after his 1956 death. Harris, however, has lived in California most of his life. And, for years, he was no Jackson Pollock fan.
“I didn’t know anything about him until 1986,” the actor admits. “My dad sent me a book about him for my birthday and said, ‘Maybe there’s a movie here.’” Five years later, the actor got the rights to one of several biographies, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Jackson Pollock: An American Saga. Or, as Harris puts it, proving he’s from Hollywood: “I aligned with it officially, in terms of a production thing, in ’91.”
But Harris was drawn to Pollock’s story because the artist reminded him of himself. “I think the bottom line is thatbeing an actor, being somebody who made a decision when I was, like, 21 to learn about acting and it became very important to me. It took over my life. It became a way of looking at the world, and it related to everything. Pollock wasthat’s what art was for him, and that’s what it became.”
Harris speaks in sprawling sentences that often change direction midcourse. He seldom, it seems, starts a statement knowing what its subject is. But he plows ahead, talking of Pollock with both the obsessiveness of an expert and the enthusiasm of a convert.
“He was pretty isolated, he was very much of an outsider, in his teenage years. [Art] was this way to live. He wanted to be an artist. He wrote letters to his father and his brother saying, ‘I know my life is going to be in the arts. I’m not sure what I’m gonna do. I can’t draw worth a damn. Maybe sculpture, work with stone, maybe that would be good.’ But he really knew he wanted to do that. And he pursued it. He goes to New York and studies with [Thomas Hart] Benton.
“I was impressed by this guy who needs to do what he’s doing. And not only needs to do it, he needs to do it to a degree where he’s not satisfied copying somebody else’s work. He’s got to find a mode of expression for himself that’s his own. That’s where he’s driving toward. And he gets there, goddammit. Nobody gets it. People ridicule him, at first. But to him it’s totally honest, and it’s pure, and it’s not without intelligence. He knows the history of art, he knows where it’s come from. He knows what he’s doing. He knows he’s breaking out into something. He’s not talking about it in formalistic terms, but he knows what’s happening here. And it’s freeing to him, I think. And it’s about the act of painting, which is what he talked about a lot. You want to express something and you do it. And that’s what his paintings are. His paintings are the expression of the actual physicality of painting, on some level. And in that way they’re really not abstract at all. They’re exactly what they are. Anyway, it all kind of excited me. And I felt some kinship there somewhere, I don’t know exactly what.”
There’s more: “Then he’s got all these obstacles he’s overcoming. He’s a really bad drunk, he’s got probably manic-depressive disorder, and he’s basically an antisocial individual. Plus, he’s got this fascinating relationship with his wife. And I just wanted to act that. I was fascinated as an actor, wanted to play a good character. That was my initial hit on it.”
What didn’t fascinate Harris was Pollock’s work. “I’m saying to myself, ‘I guess I’m supposed to like this’ because I’m getting interested in this guy,” Harris recalls. “I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t feel drawn to it.” It was only over time that the actor came to “really love” Pollock’s work.
The logical next step was for Harris to pick up a brush, both to better understand the act of painting and to more convincingly portray it. Harris began to paint around the same time that he optioned the book, experimenting with “different-width brushes, what you could do with paint, what kind of line you could get. Just seeing what it would be, the effects of that stuff. I would work through a lot of techniques like that, just getting used to the tools.
“I was much more concerned about being able to paint for myself than I was wanting to imitate him,” he says. “To really understand, at least to get an inkling of understanding, about what it is to live as a painter. I didn’t paint anything exceptional, but I got to the point where I felt I could cover the canvas. That was really the biggest thing. You really learned that if you go like that”he flicks his wrist”you’re gonna know where every single drop goes. You know damn well what the effect is going to be on the overall thing.”
To depict Pollock in action, Harris studied one of Hans Namuth’s films of the painter at work. But he didn’t always try to imitate the artist’s movements.
“It depends on the specific painting,” Harris says. “Like the first time you see him paint [in Pollock], where he takes the tube of paint and makes the two eyes up there, on that male/female painting, those are lines that are on that painting. I was working on that painting, painting specific strokes that he had on that painting. The mural [that he paints for patron Peggy Guggenheim] was a little more free-form. There’s a lot more geometry to his paintings than it seems. I knew that first was the dark-brown paint, certain lines, but there was freedom within that. And then I pretty much just started painting on it and let the cameras go. When I’m dripping paint, other than the first time, which is a specific painting, I’m really just trying to paint in his style, trying to make something that worked for me.”
If Harris ultimately became the complete artist portraying the complete artist, that wasn’t his original intention. He purchased the Pollock bio as an acting vehicle and only gradually came to the decision to make the film his directorial debut. “I talked to a couple directors, and I was actually going to co-direct it at one point,” he says. “But then I decided: These are good ideas, but they’re not my ideas.”
Once Harris decided to direct, assembling a cast was easier than getting financing. In addition to enlisting his wife, Amy Madigan, to play Guggenheim, he hired Marcia Gay Harden to play Pollock’s domineering but dedicated wife, Lee Krasner. (Harden also got an Oscar nomination last week.) Such well-known performers as Val Kilmer, John Heard, and Jennifer Connelly obligingly took small roles. “I think people knew I was doing something that meant a lot to me,” Harris says.
In his time, Pollock was nearly as renowned for urinating in Guggenheim’s fireplace as for popularizing abstract expressionism. Playing the role, Harris sometimes found it difficult to switch from the tantrum-throwing actor in front of the camera to the cool, rational director behind it. “It was a little weird,” he concedes. “I would keep a certain energy going that was involved with the scene that I was playing and maybe be a little short at times with people. I tried not to do that, but I couldn’t help it sometimes.”
Still, Harris doesn’t regret taking on Pollock’s dual roles. “I did say to myself that it would be really fun one day to direct and not be in the damn thing,” he allows with a hint of a smile. “I have said that.” Mark Jenkins