Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Marcia Gay Harden first came to cinematic prominence with her work in the early Coen brothers film Miller’s Crossing. She has since gone on to win an Academy Award for her work in Pollock and was also nominated for her efforts in Mystic River a few years later. In addition to her film work, Harden has also had stints on the small screen, including a memorable stint on Damages. She can currently be seen in the cast of the film Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, now playing in New York and Los Angeles and on VOD.
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2011)—“Marjorie Dunfour”
Marcia Gay Harden: Ah, yes. This was shot in New York. It was an art-gallery character, so the first thing I remember was the wonderful look that I was able to get. I never remember people’s names at all, so I don’t remember the stylist or the costumer, but I remember they worked so beautifully together. We chopped my hair into a sort of Soho-y look, we put a purple streak in it, and she wore these fabulous, flowy, grand, sexy clothes. Stuff that I would never wear. [Laughs.] Nothing practical. Certainly nothing you’d wear wiping yogurt off a baby’s mouth or anything. But beautiful. But that demanded a physique of physical grandeur to express itself through the clothing, so if it had a big kimono-like sleeve, let’s say, or a poufy-bottom sleeve, you’d want to make sure that your motions aren’t all close to your body, because what’s the point? So clothing can inform me immediately about gesture and character.
The story was very sweet. Her son was basically closeted and not emotionally forward. Bottled up, low self-esteem, parents who were divorced and very selfish, leading their own lives and their own quests and their own queries, which I think is so prevalent today. I think I just heard that the divorce rate is over 52 percent now, and I’m sure all of those 52 percent are all trying to figure out, “Who are they?” [Laughs.] Not to mention there are kids at home wondering, “Who are you? Take care of me!” So that was a very poignant story, with the children kind of lashing out, but at the end of the day, the story was about family. And family coming together, even if it’s in the dissociative form that we experience today.
The A.V. Club: As a result, the film has a multi-generational cast.
MGH: Yes. But, you know, the thing is that life today—I’m a perfect example of it—we’re multi-generational. Which is kind of lovely. It’s got more of an Old World aspect to it. But the kids of my generation are left taking care of our children and our parents, who are old or dying. We’re trying to figure out nursing homes, home care, all of those things. For some of us, our kids are in college at that point, but for me, my kids are in second grade, third grade, ninth grade, which is… I mean, a ninth-grade girl? Hello? [Laughs.] That’s a full-time job in and of itself!
AVC: You and Toby Regbo, who plays your son, develop a very nice relationship in the film.
MGH: Yes, but… That’s so general. [Laughs.] I’m going to want you to be more specific.
AVC: Well, for instance, when the film starts off, the two of you are decidedly detached from each other, to the point where you seem to be only just barely aware that he’s in the room. By the end of the proceedings, you may not fully understand him, but you’re clearly starting to get a glimpse of the person he really is.
MGH: Yeah, I think she sees her defects through his sort of acting-out behavior, when he’s fired from working in the art gallery and his pain that she sees. And not to mention his relationship with Ellen Burstyn, my character’s mother. It’s an enigma to Margie. Why is he going to visit an old lady? But there’s a lot that he doesn’t know about their mother/daughter relationship, and so I think… There’s a lovely moment in the middle where she tries to get closer to him, but he’s a bit shrug-offish to her. And, again, that informs a lot. You block people who try to get too close, and I think that she’s been so eccentric for so long that she has to earn her way back, and that’s kind of what happens by the end of the movie. He’s grown up; he’s learned some life lessons on his own. She played the hard card by firing him. That was hard to do, rather than coddling him and maintaining that dysfunctional co-dependency. [Laughs.] It sounds like I’ve just gotten out of therapy class. But, all of it works toward the end for a more unified family.
The Imagemaker (1986)—“Stage Manager”
MGH: I don’t even remember making that movie. [Laughs.] I think it was [Michael] Nouri…?
AVC: Yes, it was.
MGH: I thought so. I don’t remember the role, though. I know it was some little independent film that I got cast in when I was working in D.C., and… A lot of my time in D.C. was about gearing up to go to New York. I had gone there with a B.A. in theater. I had started doing a little theater in Austin before I left there, and then I went to D.C. to help my mother and be there, and then I lived on my own. I thought, “Well, you’re gonna go to New York, but you need to have your union card. You need your AFTRA and your SAG cards to really go up there. That’ll set you slightly in advantage to all those who don’t have those things.” So that’s what I worked on while I was there, and every little teeny bit of credit you could get, whether it was for doing an industrial film or an extra role, would get you points toward the day where you could finally buy your SAG card or your AFTRA card. So that is what that was, but… I don’t remember the movie. [Laughs.] I just remember Michael Nouri. I don’t even remember the stage manager. I don’t remember anything else about it.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)—“Verna”
MGH: I had gone back to grad school, so I was studying at NYU Tisch School Of The Arts, and I was in the master’s program there, which is really a program of shredding affectation, shredding ego… not literally, but the outer surfaces, the things that you think make you you, so you can acquire neutrality. And once you acquire neutrality, you can begin character work, filling it with the core of you, which is what will make your character different from any other character. So [casting director] Donna Isaacson had come to see a play I was in where I was playing an invented character, Lucy The Fat Pig, in a Shakespeare gender reversal of A Comedy Of Errors. All the guys were girls; the girls were guys. And I was Lucy The Fat Pig, who had no lines. So my chagrin at being cast in my senior year of the master’s program in a character that had no lines led me to creating this series of different kinds of grunts and snorts for Lucy that were, in essence, lines. They were her responses. And it was absolute bawdy physical humor that we were able to explore in that play. Beanbag breasts would fall out, a skirt would “accidentally” be ripped off and the underwear would show. It was all on purpose, but we made it look as if it wasn’t, and the audience was just screaming with laughter. Anyway, Donna had come to see this, and why it made an impression on her for Miller’s Crossing, this dark film noir, I simply have no idea. [Laughs.] But she saw whatever she saw.
So I graduated, I’d been brought in to see the great Milos Forman for Valmont, and it got down to being very close between me and Annette Bening, and that was a big to-do in the casting world, because Annette had credits and I didn’t. So naturally the person who doesn’t have credits, people are asking, “Well, who’s that? Who’s that upstart just coming out of school?” [Laughs.] So I didn’t get that part, but I did get attention, and that was valuable. Then Donna invited me to meet the Coens, and I was doing a play, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, down in Norfolk, Virginia, so I was going back and forth by train to meet with the Coens, and—although it’s unusual for this time—you used to get the script a good two weeks in advance to read before going on auditions, so you had time to prepare. So I was able to check out old movies like The Public Enemy or Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, things like that, to really get the feeling of that world they were creating. And it’s easier when you’re a single kid right out of school than when you’re a mom with three kids and craziness in your life to actually do that work, to do all of that work that goes into enhancing an audition. I auditioned for them three times, and against all odds they cast me. It is typical for them to give newcomers a chance, however. They’ve done it for Frannie McDormand, they did it for Holly Hunter, they did it for me, and they’ve really helped a lot of other New York actors toward roles of prominence and longevity. So I’ll always be grateful to the Coens and to Donna Isaacson, because they sort of gave me my start.
The Education Of Max Bickford (2001-2002)—“Andrea Haskell”
MGH: That was fun, because I got to read and read and read. [Laughs.] I was constantly checking out books about pop culture. Who knew that you could even teach a class about pop culture? Some of it just felt like the snake eating its own tail, like icing on top of icing, so I was slightly cynical about it, but that was perfect for the character of Andrea Haskell. The experience of doing a television show was fantastic. It brought me back to New York; it allowed me to think about expanding my family. It unfortunately occurred during 9/11, the September when it premièred, so the writers stopped flying back and forth and the show got kind of abandoned for a little while. And that was too bad, because I loved playing her. I loved playing something in the education field, where on any given day what you’re talking about is also of interest. Because there’s a history teacher as well. And [Richard] Dreyfuss is so fantastic in it. I missed it when it was gone. I thought it was a good show that had a lot of promise, and I feel like it would be on the air still if it hadn’t been for 9/11.
Used People (1992)—“Norma”
MGH: Can’t mention Norma without mentioning Joe Pantoliano, because our friendship is a lifelong friendship. And the day that I dripped the wax on him and put ice down his pants was the day that cemented forever—not just my friendship with him, but with his wife. [Laughs.] She said, “Go! Go!” Norma was… I wouldn’t say she was crazy, although her kids say, “Why are you so crazy?” But she was emotionally unstable. She had been abandoned by her husband, her dad had just died, she’d always grown up with this mother. It was fun to explore that emotional instability.
She dressed up like other characters to experience the scenario that that character exemplified. That’s a hard sentence to know what makes sense if you haven’t seen the movie, but she dressed like Jackie O to go into mourning for her dad. Well, who mourns more beautifully than Jackie O? She dressed like Marilyn Monroe to come out of mourning. Who comes out of mourning more beautifully than Marilyn Monroe? She dressed like Anne Bancroft in The Graduate to sort of trap Joey in this seduction scene. Who seduced more beautifully than Anne Bancroft in The Graduate? [Laughs.] She went through these movie disguises and getups to experience her own life, and that was so much fun.
But, really, the big takeaway from that film was the people. Marcello Mastroianni, the clown that he is, an elegant gentleman clown. Shirley MacLaine, her intense intelligence and wild excursions into the other side. Kathy Bates, who’s just a rock of strength and beauty. Jessica Tandy and her elegance. Joe Pantoliano and our friendship. Just such a great treat. Oh, and Sylvia Sidney, the ancient movie star. It was a treat to be with the people.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2005-2010)—“FBI Agent Dana Lewis”
MGH: I love her. The first episode that we shot, she was investigating racism, and I thought—not knowing as much about the FBI as I do now, because I have a friend in the FBI who really helped mentor me through these roles—I thought maybe that was not just a case that Dana was assigned to but something she investigated all the time. So that made me think, “Well, if she’s investigating this all the time, then maybe she has a reason to. What could her reason be to really be angry about racism?” And I thought, “Well, maybe she came up from the South, where she saw a lot of it.” And I think the week before I accepted the role, I’d seen something in the paper about some horrible situation where a black man was [dragged] behind a car, possibly by some fraternity boys. I forget exactly, but it just struck home that these things are random, that it doesn’t personify the South, but I wanted my character to have an emotional connection to the issue.
So I made her from the South, and that stuck. So they wrote that first one, which is really interesting, because she doesn’t come out from undercover until the very end of the scene. I was living up in Harlem at the time, and everybody knew me up in Harlem, my neighbors all knew me, so one guy later said, “You know, I saw you at the beginning of the scene, and I said, ‘That’s not Marcia Gay Harden,’ ’cause you’re one of the good guys.” And then when I came out as FBI at the end, he said it was like, ‘Yeah! There she goes!’” [Laughs.] Because they just couldn’t imagine me playing a racist, where I’m so heinous and going against everything I believe in. But it was a really great one to do. In the second one, Dana is investigating environmental terrorism, but in the last one, she was raped and had to take the stand, and they really wrote it beautifully and let her take it like a soldier. Because she’s different than other people, you know? This wasn’t a line-of-duty thing. So I really appreciated that they let her crack like the woman she is, but also hold on like the soldier that she is.
Flubber (1997)—“Dr. Sara Jean Reynolds”
MGH: [Laughs.] A hundred years ago, I had the good blessing to meet Robin Williams, and all memories of that movie are about flying up and down on wires with Robin while getting into a flying car. And all he did was make the crew laugh. It was the loudest set I’ve ever been on. He was the kindest person. His then-wife, Marcia, also just incredibly kind. It was fantastic. It was a bit of a… It was an understood star vehicle. I think it was the first star vehicle I’d been in, and Robin was doing his best to just let everybody be funny and share the humor, but I think they really just let him go. We got to be the straight-people. But I fell in love with him. He’s fantastic, and he’s still a friend.
Pollock (2000)—“Lee Krasner”
MGH: That was exciting. That was exciting intellectually, educationally, emotionally, the craft of it… It was probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. It was full of museum visits and art study and painting classes. And emotional drainage. Working so closely with Ed Harris, who I just think is a genius. Long hours. Hard days. A full character. It was everything I dreamed of. And it was a tough shoot. You know, Ed wasn’t always easy [as a director], but he was always right. And he had the Pollock cap on as well. So sometimes you’d have Pollock directing you in a movie, which was cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. [Laughs.] And sometimes you would just have Ed Harris and all of his great brilliance and manliness coming from behind the camera. But I would follow Ed up any mountain trail at any time of day or night, knowing he’ll take care of me. He’s a man.
AVC: By law, I am required to ask you the obligatory question about where you keep your Oscar.
MGH: [Laughs.] Well, it used to be in New York. And then I brought it out here [to California]. The house that I’m in right now was designed by Cedric Gibbons, who designed the Oscar. He designed the house next door as well, but this one he designed for Dolores del Río’s parents. There’s a wonderful little built-in shelving unit that separates the living room from the den, and Oscar sits right there, keeping an eye on both rooms.
Spy Hard (1996)—“Miss Cheevus”
MGH: Ugh. I hated doing that movie. [Laughs.] It was, I thought, going to be an opportunity to have a lot of fun, but it was just chaos and, uh, not so much fun. And not so funny. I mean, Leslie [Nielsen] was great, but it was really his show, and it was just… very chaotic. Behind schedule, over budget. People mention her to me, but I’ve never really seen the movie. All I know is that she was supposed to be sexy, and I don’t know if she even was.
Kojak: None So Blind (1990)—“Angelina”
MGH: Oh, my goodness, I think that was more than a hundred years ago! [Laughs.] I wasn’t even born yet! But, yes, I do remember that one. I remember I got to do my own stunts and wear a really tight shirt. In fact, I think the tight shirt was the basis of the audition! But I loved Telly Savalas. In fact, just the other night, I watched… I’m on a jag of showing my kids old films, and I just showed them Kelly’s Heroes. Boy, was he fantastic in that. He was great. And Clint Eastwood. I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve seen the movie or if you’ve seen it, but it’s really fun, and I was reminded how wonderful Telly Savalas was. All I remember about the actual movie, though, was climbing a fence with a gun, wearing a tight shirt with my hair flowing. That’s it.
Mystic River (2003)—“Celeste Boyle”
MGH: For Mystic River, Clint [Eastwood] called my upstate home, and my niece from Texas answered the phone. [In a near-whispered Clint Eastwood impression] “Hey. Is Marcia there?” [Loud high-pitched Texas accent] “Hold on! Can I say who’s calling?” “This is Clint Eastwood.” “No, it’s not!” “Yes, it is.” “No, it’s not!” “Yes, it is!” “It is?” [Screaming.] “Oh, my GODDDD! Marcia! Clint Eastwood is calling the house!” [Laughs.] So I get on the phone, trying to act all cool myself, “Oh, hi, Clint! Look, um, I know you’re casting that movie, and I really think there’s something I can do with the role. I have some ideas for her. So I just wanted you to keep me in mind if you think I’m right for it when you do it.” A couple of weeks later, I got the offer. He said, “Let me see what you’ve got.”
So I brought up my hair, the voice, the whole idea of her as fragile as she was. We were really lucky, because we had the script, but we also had the book to base deeper aspects of character on, and I just felt like there was a real fragility to her, that she was very, very moral. And in that movie, all the people who make the moral choice to do “the right thing,” they all get screwed. And the first ones are the boys. In my day, if a car pulled up that looked like a police car and they said, “Get in,” you got in. That’s when I was a kid. Today’s kids probably wouldn’t do that. They’d be like, “I don’t have to, read me my rights, I have a phone call to make first,” whatever. Not in my day. You’d get in. Because you minded authority. So they’re doing what they think they should be doing, and they get hurt. The second one is the girl who stops for the person she thinks she hit. If you hit somebody and you go on, that’s called a hit-and-run! It’s illegal! But she thinks she hit somebody, so she gets out. And she gets hurt.
And my character… If you think someone committed a crime, you should turn them in to whomever you perceive authority to be. And in this case, Celeste didn’t believe the authority was the police, because she’d grown up always thinking that the police were the bad guys. So she took it to Sean [Penn]. He was authority. He was the neighborhood boss. He would do the right thing. And in each case, the moral action came back to sting us. And I loved that about the story. And I love that about Clint’s filmmaking. I think it’s one of the most beautiful films he’s made, from the color palette to… Well, I just think it’s beautiful: the direction, the performances by Sean and Tim [Robbins], just beautiful. And sad.
Space Cowboys (2000)—“Sara Holland”
AVC: Was Space Cowboys where you first met Clint Eastwood, or did you know him prior to that?
MGH: No, it was on Space Cowboys. I met him for the first time on that. I was shooting Pollock, I said [to Ed Harris], “Oh, my God, I’m up for Space Cowboys! We go down on Pollock for a month and a half while you get fat, Ed. That’s exactly the amount of time that they need the character. Would you just call Clint? If you like working with me, would you just call him and tell him?” So he called Clint, and the conversation literally was like this: “Hey, Clint.” “How ya doin’, Ed?” “I’m good.” “Well, good. I’m good, too.” “So, listen, Marcia Gay…” “Yeah? You’re working with her, aren’t ya?” “Yeah, Clint. She’s a good girl.” “She’s a good girl?” “Yeah. She’s a good girl.” “Okay. Talk to you later.” Cut to… I get the part. [Laughs.] Apparently, I’m a good girl.
Sinatra (1992)—“Ava Gardner”
MGH: Boy, that was a real ego boost to play her. She’s so incredibly beautiful, and I loved the director [James Steven Sadwith], because he had worked with me when I was a white-trash Texas girl on a film we shot together called In Broad Daylight. When he called me to offer me the role, he said, “You know, I’ve seen you do that.” “But you saw me play this white-trash character!” “I know. But I’ve seen you do both. You can do this.” And it was such an ego boost, from his belief in me, that I could embody what to me is otherworldly, way-outside-MGH beauty. But so much of what Ava was was about come-ons. And the attitude and the hair and the voice. The way she lit a cigarette. All of that. She was very sexy because she just was. Because she owned it. Whereas I’m very sort of direct. But if you own it, you have it. So it was so much fun to wear her beautiful outfits, to be pampered every day, to be able to try to approach her beauty, which, you know, I’m a much differently featured person. But it was lovely to let whatever my beauty was shine through her. And Philip Casnoff singing all of the Sinatra? Just beautiful.
Homicide: Life On The Street (1995)—“Joan Garbarek”
MGH: Oh, that was gorgeous. Andre Braugher was a good friend of mine then—and still is, for that matter—but that episode, that character, it was the saddest thing ever to have to make that decision [to take her son off life support]. It was a very sad show, but I thought it was written beautifully. I thought the writers just got the rhythm of mourning perfectly. I still cry when I watch that one. I thought it was beautiful.
The Mist (2007)—“Mrs. Carmody”
MGH: That was fun! Frank [Darabont] was probably on location scouting at the time that I was up for the role, but he cast me anyway. And I said, “Well, why did you cast me?” Because it’s written for this kind of yellow-pantsuit-wearing, very overweight, stodgy character. Flashy but stodgy. And I said, “I’m not that. So I don’t know if you want that, or if you want a different-bodied version of it, knowing who I am.” And he said, “I just think you can do it.” I said, “Well, I have some ideas, but I don’t want to be that, because I’d have to work at being something that I’m not for so long.” So the costumer came over, and we pulled out old wigs of mine, and just all this clothing that I had, and we created five characters. Because the character could go any way. She just had to be a religious freak who thinks the world is coming to an end. And I don’t know about you, but if I saw huge bugs outside my window, bugs as big as a tree, yeah, I might think the end of the world was coming, too. [Laughs.] I mean, why not? Giant bugs, dinosaurs banging around… I mean, what would you think?
So we created Tammy Faye, we created kind of a hippie rebel activist with a beret and long hair and thick eyebrows, we created the preacher’s daughter, which is the one we ended up with, we created the nun, who’s a hair-pulled-back, tight-glasses kind of lady, and then we created… well, just a mom. One of those angry moms with a shopping cart who you just can’t get out of your way. So we created these five characters, and he culled it down to the preacher’s daughter or the nun, and then I said, “Let’s do the preacher’s daughter. We’ll have a little more fun with her. She’s a little more whimsical, she moves a little bit differently. The nun may be too on the nose, a little too caricature-y.” So we did the preacher’s daughter, and it was so much fun to work down there in Louisiana. It was crazy hot. Hotter than hell. Gambling, people buying drive-thru alcohol… [Laughs.] I couldn’t believe it. Crocodiles in the streams, things like that. It’s a crazy place. And then there was this dog-food factory, and when it was rendering the dog food, you could literally see the fumes marching up the street. So it was heinous and fun at the same time. But what was really great was all the extras who spent all that time in the grocery store. They were all great. And when I had to run that sermon… It was fantastic. I loved Toby Jones, too. We would play Scrabble all day long.
Damages (2009)—“Claire Maddox”
MGH: Sexy lady! [Laughs.] Smart and sexy. Morally impenetrable in her work and morally repugnant in her private life. But at the end of the day, Glenn [Close] would be the better general, because her character was willing to sacrifice people, whereas my character wasn’t. But it was so much fun to create her, to build her. And just to be on that show. It’s crazy being on that show, because you don’t know what’s happening. You don’t know what next week’s going to be about. Suddenly I own the company, or want to own the company. They kept all that stuff under lock and key. But they let me create this sexy, garter-belted character that I just had a blast with.
King Of Texas (2002)—“Mrs. Susannah Lear Tumlinson"
MGH: Working on King Of Texas was a life experience for me. We were down there doing a period film, it was Hallmark, which is just a joy, and it was in Mexico. First we were in Pachuca, where there’s nothing. Nothing. Except for a great children’s museum, there’s just, like, nothing there. A bodega, and that’s it. And then a couple of miles away, there’s a Christ as big as a high-rise, his arms outstretched. And there were rooster fights at the Pachuca hotel, which I tried to put a stop to using bad Spanish. But it was a rooster fight! So that was horrible. But what was more horrible being a stupid American going, “Please stop! Please!” [Laughs.] “Que es eso? Que es eso?” But then we went to Pueblo, which is absolutely gorgeous. We shot in and around there, we rode horses, we made some beautiful friends. And to be with that whole Mexican horseback riding, the rancher tradition of the Mexicans, it’s really nostalgic, because it’s very elegant. I loved shooting that. I love it when you take a version of a Shakespeare play [King Lear] and turn it on its head and it still makes sense. And that’s kind of what we did with that.
AVC: I was trying to think why that story about the rooster fight sounded so familiar, and I just realized why: because Patrick Stewart told me about it.
MGH: [Laughs.] Yeah, probably because they were all mad at me! Patrick Stewart was so gorgeous to work with, but they were all sleeping, and everybody wanted to sleep. I wanted to sleep too, but I couldn’t understand why no one was complaining to the front desk. It sounded like there was a wedding going on, because you would hear them going, “Opa! Pollo, pollo, pollo!” So I thought people were asking for more chicken. I mean, I didn’t know! But it was really loud, there was loud music, so I walked down in my robe and nightgown and slippers, and walked past what looked like a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. Bleary-eyed people, kids drinking beer, dark shadows. There was a crowd in a circle, and I thought maybe the bride was in there dancing or something. And I shoved my way in, and I saw the chickens. The bloody roosters. “Pollo, pollo, pollo!” So that’s when I was like, “Perdón! Perdón!” Everyone shut up and looked at me. We’re talking, like, 40 drunken people around these roosters, gambling. “Que es eso?” They’re like, “Go home, American!” [Laughs.]
I’m lucky I didn’t get run out of there. It turned out it was, like, the mayor of the town or something horrible like that. I don’t really know. But it was business people, and it was their tradition. It just went against all my sensibilities. But I learned a lesson, and it was embarrassing for me to realize how unwittingly pompous it was of me to judge them. It’s not my culture, I don’t like it, but it’s not my place to go in and go, “Que es eso? Por favor! Dormir!”
AVC: Well, for what it’s worth, Sir Patrick summed up your actions by saying, “That’s balls.”
MGH: [Laughs.] I love it. Well, let’s let him have the last word on it, then!