Four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris plays an American imprisoned in a horrendous Stalinist prison camp in frozen Siberia. Filmed in hard, cold foriegn locations, Harris puts his heart and soul into the role...and gives Buzzine an exclusive behind-the-scenes look into his adventure with director Peter Weir and and an all-star cast.
Izumi Hasegawa: How much arm-twisting did Peter (Weir) have to do to get you this part?
Ed Harris: Absolutely none. If anybody was twisting arms, I was trying to twist his. It was I who wanted to work with him, ever since I'd done The Truman Show, which was like 12 years earlier. He didn't make films that often, and he didn't ask me to be in Master and Commander, and I heard he was doing this. I think my agent said, "Peter's making a movie and he's interested in you for a part." I said, "I hope he's more than interested." Anyway, it worked out.
IH: Jim (Sturgess) said you actually could have survived this...
EH: Probably better than him!
IH: That's exactly what he said. How was taking on all the elements?
EH: It was great. I loved it. I just ate it up. I really enjoyed it. It was four memorable months. Even though it was difficult at times, I was really up for it.
IH: It was painful to watch. How did you go through all these transformations?
EH: It's interesting watching it, seeing the film a few times--particularly the desert stuff, when we're burning and our skin is peeling, everyone's dying of dehydration. I don't even really remember getting make-up. When I look at the movie, I think that's what happened to us, in a way. It felt like it happened in a good way. It was a day-to-day proposition. I felt very focused. I knew I was in the hands of really wonderful filmmakers. We just tried to do our best job every day.
IH: How were the weather conditions?
EH: We did do some work on a sound stage--they built a forest on the sound stage--some of the closer stuff and the snow storms and stuff. They had control over these big fans blowing this awful stuff through the trees. As soon as we got off the stage, it was great. Even though it was freezing cold or blistering hot, you really felt you were in the elements these people were dealing with. I mean, they weren't gonna let us die because they were making a movie.
IH: What did you learn from the experience?
EH: It was a really good personal experience for me. It's hard to describe why, but I think it has to do with the reality of putting one foot in front of another. If you can do that, you get to where you're going. And if you stop, you don't, in terms of whatever is at hand. So many of us live our lives ahead of time. We think about things that are going to happen next week--what am I gonna do when this takes place? You can't do anything about it until you get to that point. It just brings you back to trying to be in the moment and taking a step at a time. Not that you don't prepare for things and think ahead, but the reality of your life is that it's a moment-to-moment proposition. I mean, we could all be dead tomorrow. Who knows? One of the things that got reaffirmed was the experience of recreating this forced me to spend some time alone by myself and really think about what that's about, in terms of just moment-to-moment. I think, in a place like that--a Goulag or concentration camp, which I've never been in, thank God--I would imagine even talking to your grandfather, he had to have found a place inside of himself that was his own--a very private, core of his being that he depended on to get him through that experience on a moment-to-moment level; it had nothing to do with anyone else. I was kind of exploring that aspect.
IH: Do you ever put on the director's hat while acting?
EH: A little bit. You can't say too much to Peter because he's Peter. I would maybe think about...not so much working with Peter, but other directors who have less experience. I might even make suggestions: "Hey, this is happening between these two people–don't you think you should capture it better over here?" I'm not really gonna say that to Peter. I saw a first cut of the movie and I was talking to Peter, and I made a couple comments... I made one too many, and he turned to me and said, "Maybe you should just be in the editing room." I said "Okay, I guess I won't make any more suggestions."
IH: Do you have further plans to direct?
EH: I don't have any specific plans. I'm dying to direct another movie. For me, it's always like I need to find the material. I gotta do this. I'm looking, I'm thinking, I'll read some things. There are a couple projects I'm very interested in being a part of, but what I want to direct, I'm not sure.
IH: How was working with Saoirse (Ronan)?
EH: I don't recall singing any songs with her, but we would find things to do to keep ourselves busy. It was great when Saoirse showed up. First of all, she was about 15 at the time--about the age of my daughter. She's got this great Irish accent; her mom and dad were with her who were really cool people. She kind of has this breath of fresh air, and even in reading the script, I didn't really realize the extent or the depth of that relationship or where that was gonna go. We pretty much shot in sequence, that aspect of the film. And Saoirse--being who she is, and we have a certain chemistry together--enjoyed each other's company and had respect for one another. That scene where she washes my feet, I don't think that was in the script. I think Peter saw how we were together and had this idea he wanted to do, which was a result of something that was going on between us...which was kind of cool.
IH: Can you talk more about Peter?
EH: It's not so much methodical to me as it is he's extremely well-prepared. He researches the hell out of something. If Peter decides he's gonna make film about something, he puts the blinders on--not in his head, but in terms of his focus. It's unbelievable. The attention--he says, "This is what I'm doing," and it's all he'll think about until he's done. It's kind of incredible. His attention to details...not detail for the sake of detail, but detail for the reality of the situation and telling the story as accurately as possible. His experience as an actor himself is invaluable because he really understands what an actor does, which is hard to talk about, but he knows how to talk to actors, how to reach them, how to encourage them to go deeper with their characters or explore certain things on their own. His attention to every aspect of filmmaking, whether it's the camera and the lighting and the technical aspect of things, or whether it's the thing you have on your blouse there, or your hair is falling or your make-up or inflection of a word, or whatever it might be. You know, when you're in front of the camera, he's riveted on what's taking place and he doesn't miss a fucking beat. And it just makes you that much more confident and trusting and able to do the best work you can.
IH: To what extent, if any, did you deprive yourself of food, rest, or water to get in this role?
EH: I didn't really deprive myself of rest, but I got pretty lean and had to maintain that for four months. I actually got a little bit leaner in the desert because that's when they were really, really about to go. So that took a little bit of discipline. But I was kind of up for that and I felt good, and it was a balance between getting as lean as possible and still having the energy to work and focus. I got kind of into it.
IH: Why do you think Peter wanted to do this movie now?
EH: That's a really good question which hopefully you can ask him. I think once he read the story and did some of the research and became aware of some of the vast spectrum of the Goulag system and how many thousands of places there were like that and how many millions of people went through them... Here was a story that was hopefully based on a true situation that he felt an obligation to tell in as real a way as possible and to honor the people who not just escaped, but the people who'd been in these situations, in a way.
IH: How you define "freedom"?
EH: I guess it's being able to go where you want, say what you want, think what you want, and create what you want, without being told you can't or being put in jail because you didn't.
IH: What's the most important thing in freedom?
EH: Some people don't find inner freedom until they have their exterior freedom taken away from them. I think a lot of people, especially in this country, take it for granted. I agree freedom is a state of being, but I was just reading about the Belarus actors--there's a big article in the paper about them--who are in New York doing some work, who had to literally escape the country to come and perform, and how different it is for them to have their theatre group, and how their audience has to go to a specific place and hide them somewhere else. And that's a day-to-day thing for them. But they're free in their spirit and their being and what they need to do. They're not free to do it where they want because they'll get arrested. I know, on a personal level--just on a day-to-day thing, in terms of how you're dealing with your day--there's a way that you feel free and a way that you don't. Sometimes you feel very free and open, and other times you feel very imprisoned; whatever it might be--factors in your head or outside.
IH: This is a movie showing real inner freedom...
EH: The time you've been in this country, eight years of that, George Bush was the president. And seriously. Now we have a Republican-controlled Congress. As much as they wanna talk about America and how great this country is, they're the most repressive group of people we've had in office in a long time. It's no wonder you don't feel free.
IH: Could you talk more about Saoirse and Jim?
EH: Saoirse is 17 now, and she's really serious about what she does, for one thing. She really considers herself an actress--that's what she loves to do. She's very careful about what she chooses to do. Her parents are really, really great people who are really close with her. They don't restrict her creatively but really give her a firm support system for making decisions. Saoirse isn't a lightweight. She really likes complexity. She likes dealing with situations that are serious, in a way. I think she's in really good shape. Likewise, Jim. Jim is one of these young guys... I'm sure he's been asked to try to put him in a lot of goofy kind of movies and make him a young ingénue kind of star, but he's an actor. He really likes to act; he wants to learn more about it and do things that are important to him. A couple of films he made in Europe are kind of heavy, kind of intense. He's played some really intense kind of guys, in a good way. I think he's looking forward to expanding his horizons as well, in terms of playing other roles. They're both people who have a good sense of themselves, who don't need somebody else to define who they are to them. I think they feel secure about that in a certain way, so they go through their life that way and don't get caught in the bullshit.
IH: Did you ever offer them advice?
EH: I don't think so. Jim talked to me about a couple things, but it's really just about following your heart and knowing what you really want to do. I don't know if I gave any advice; I just try to do my work and lead by example, if anything. Not that I wouldn't answer a question if they asked me.
Newmarket Films' 'The Way Back' is released on January 21, 2011