INTERVIEW: Ed Harris- A Heavenly Performance Raises "The Third Miracle"
by Mark Rabinowitz
Ed Harris has been nominated for 2 Oscars and 3 Golden Globes (winning one in 1999 for best supporting actor in “The Truman Show“), among many other honors, but what you really notice about him is his consistency. From his first leading role in George A. Romero‘s “Knightriders,” through Peter Weir‘s “The Truman Show,” Harris has made a career of solid, sometimes scene-stealing performances.
And yet, until Sony Pictures Classics‘ recently released “The Third Miracle,” there are no films that one might refer to as “that Ed Harris film.” In both smaller films, like Robert Benton‘s “Places in the Heart,” Phil Joanou‘s “State of Grace” and James Foley‘s “Glengarry Glen Ross” and larger ones such as “Apollo 13,” “The Abyss” and Philip Kaufman‘s “The Right Stuff,” Harris is a steadying presence. The question “Wasn’t Ed Harris in that film?” might well be answered with: “Oh, yeah! He was great!”
However, “The Third Miracle,” the latest film by director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa” and “Olivier, Olivier“), Harris is the top-liner in a film rife with fine performances, managing to play a priest that is both pious and sexy at the same time — not an obvious combination. His portrayal of self-doubting, obviously troubled priest Frank Shore firmly places him in the realm of the finest actors of his generation. Harris leads a cast that includes Anne Heche, Charles Haid (Andy Renko of “Hill Street Blues“), Michael Rispoli and the incomparable Armin Mueller-Stahl, all giving excellent performances. indieWIRE’s Mark Rabinowitz spoke with Harris at the Toronto International Film Festival where “The Third Miracle” had its world premiere, about working with Holland, the cast, and his directorial debut about legendary painter Jackson Pollack.
indieWIRE: How did you come to the project?
Ed Harris: Agnieszka is a dear friend of mine and we worked together in the mid 80’s on a picture called “To Kill a Priest.” She was trying to get this other film made and then she sent me this script and said “Ed, there’s a chance we can do this if you want to do it,” and it all happened very quickly and I read it and found it pretty provoking and interesting and so I said “yeah, let’s do it.”
iW: Do you connect at all with the subject matter from growing up, or . . .
Harris: Well, I connect as a person whose faith probably needs to be. I connect as a person who believes in god. I didn’t grow up as a catholic and I’ve probably been somewhat lazy in my pursuit of what my beliefs really are, but I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to ask some questions of myself and be present with my thoughts and feelings about god or a power greater than I am and see where it led me.
iW: The romantic in me thought “I wonder if Frank and Roxanne [Heche’s character] are going to end up together,” but obviously you can’t…
Harris: Yeah. Well he could if he wanted to leave the priesthood, I guess.
iW: Well, I mean to be true to the story, it would have felt Hollywood, or . . .
Harris: Yeah, I don’t think it would’ve. . . we considered alternatives to the ending you know and I think we ended up thinking this was the proper one.
iW: Was there ever a thought where the Armin Mueller-Stahl character was going to turn out to be somebody other than who he turned out to be?
Harris: No. That always stayed the same.
iW: There were some pretty interesting casting choices in the film. What was it like working with people like Charles Haid. . . . ?
Harris: That was my wife’s idea. We were trying to think of a guy to play this bishop, and Amy [Madigan] said “what about Charlie?” because we knew him, we worked with him on a western we’d done. [Haid directed the pair in the TV movie “Riders of the Purple Sage.”] He hadn’t acted in a long time, you know, I told Agnieszka about him and she went out and met him. He was directing something and she really liked him and wanted to do it. I thought he did a really good job. I think he was kinda cool, right for that kinda guy, you know? (laughs)
iW: And the other priest. For the life of me, I can’t remember his name. The one who wanted to be your Second, but couldn’t. . .
Harris: Oh, oh, Michael Rispoli.
iW: Because I saw him in “While you were Sleeping” and “Summer of Sam” and now here he is playing a thoughtful priest.
Harris: Yeah, he’s a good actor.
iW: It’s kind of an interesting choice.
Harris: Well, Agnieszka is really — she’s challenging, she has a wonderful mind. I think she’s really good at casting. She has her own thing she’s looking for in certain parts, and she tends to find them.
iW: Is she an actor’s director?
Harris: I would say, yeah. For me, definitely. We’re very close. Very good friends. So she can say anything she wants to me, and I can ask her anything I need to. I feel very comfortable with her, like I’m in good hands and I trust her a lot, so I really like working with her. And I think most actors that I know that have worked with her pretty much fall in love with her because she’s really great to work with. She’s very open, and yet she also really knows what she wants. So she’ll let you try things, but if it’s not moving the story in the direction she wants, if it’s not true to the character that she feels she wants to develop, she’ll let you know.
iW: When working with Agnieszka, I assume you had a fair amount of input into the development of your character. Did you guys work on that a lot before shooting?
Harris: Yeah, I mean it was a pretty quick pre-production. She was up here [Toronto] and they got it all together in a matter of six weeks, or something. It was really quick. I came up during that time; we talked. I met some other actors, auditioned some people. Then I went back home and came back before we started shooting for a week of rehearsal, trying to define scene by scene where we really wanted to go. We spent a lot of time on the script, really penetrating it and knowing what we wanted to achieve.
iW: So you shot it here — did they do any exteriors in Chicago?
Harris: They probably did and then she did the stuff in Slovakia after [the rest of the film] was shot here.
iW: The opening sequence and the rest of the flashback scenes were phenomenal.
Harris: Yeah, she did a wonderful job with that.
iW: Did you get to meet the actress who plays the would-be saint, Barbara Sukowa?
Harris: Yeah, she was around. I got a chance to say hi to her, to meet her. I would have loved to act with her. She’s really splendid. It was also nice just to have the tapes of her, to be able to watch her without her having to be self-conscious about it. I thought it was another great choice that Agnieszka made. Here’s this woman who doesn’t say a damn word in the whole thing, really. But you really feel like there’s something going on with this woman.
iW: Was there any thought to having the third miracle occur, or was it always pretty much left. . .
Harris: It was always pretty much set up that way. It’s a little confusing to some people if they’re trying to count miracles. But, you know, the whole thing with Maria is considered one miracle, I think. Whether it’s recovering from lupus or off the deathbed, that’s one. The other one is about the bombs flying — you could say that the third miracle is, as far as Frank’s concerned, that he’s still a priest. That he is a priest, that he’s realized that this is what his destiny is and what he wants to do and what he believes in. Or it could be the child, or that anyone has a child, that could be considered a miracle. I think if people are counting miracles, they get the wrong idea of what the film is about, although it is called “The Third Miracle,” so . . .
iW: In your career, you’ve done both large and small films, and you didn’t take the “I’ll start with small films and move on to bigger ones” track. Do you have a preference?
Harris: It’s really in the material and in the people you work with. This is actually the first independent film I’ve made in a while, and I’m glad I did. I’m working on this other thing that I just got out of the cutting room that I directed. This Jackson Pollock movie, which is another independent film. It’s kind of nice to be back in the independent world, to tell you the truth.
iW: Did you shoot the Pollack film in East Hampton? [Where Pollack lived and died.]
Harris: We shot the exteriors in East Hampton at the Pollack House. Allan Harrison who runs the house out there was really helpful.
iW: I did part of my growing up out there, and have visited the Pollack grave.
Harris: Oh did you? It was great shooting out there. We looked in Nova Scotia, we looked around in different places, trying to find something that had that same feeling as that area 50 years ago, and I was concerned because it’s so different out there now in terms of all these cedar trees have grown up all over, and the vista is so different from what it was when they [painters Pollack, Willem de Kooning, etc.] were there, because it was really wide open. But, I sacrificed that for the reality of being there.
iW: Was that the first film you directed?
Harris: Yeah. (chuckles). I played Pollack and I directed it. I had my hands full, believe me. But I had been working on it for so long. I just didn’t want to hand it over to somebody else. It’s not like I want to start a career as a director, I just really didn’t want to. I had a particular feeling about it, and I didn’t want to hand the vision over.