Marcia Gay Harden on Dreams, Nightmares, and Why There’s No One at the Movies

Marcia Gay Harden is a Oscar- and Tony-winning actress who’s appeared in some of the most critically-acclaimed movies of the past 20 years, including Millers Crossing, Into the Wild, Mystic River, and Pollock. PopMatters caught up with her recently in New York, for a wide-ranging discussion that touched on charity work, living in New York, and things that “deaden the soul.”

Harden was appearing at an event to read a children’s book to a group of Brooklyn schoolchildren. But really, that’s only half the story: the book, The Dream Picker of Perrysport, was collaboratively written by children aboard Carnival Cruise Line ships. Harden was reading at on the occasion of the grand unveiling of a 15-foot-tall, 20-foot-wide edition of the book, which served jointly as the unveiling of Carnival Dream, a new family-oriented ship. Carnival has also entered into a multi-year relationship with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital around the Dream, with a goal of raising $3 million to aid in children’s cancer research.


Tell me a little bit about the project and how you got involved.

I was asked to be the godmother for the new Carnival ship, Carnival Dreams. What “the godmother” means, is, it’s an old maritime tradition, and it means that you basically christen the ship, and you wish it fair winds, smooth sailing, and safe passage. And so I thought, “Well, this is a lovely idea, to do something like this for a big beautiful ship.” But what really made me feel close to the project is that they’re donating millions of dollars to St. Jude Children’s Hospital for kids who are dealing with cancer.

Is supporting St. Jude’s an issue that’s close to you?

Kids are an issue that’s close to me. I love, love, love children. I’ve been to St. Jude’s before, and my daughter’s come with me, and she said “These girls are the heroes.” There [are] many, many charities that I’m involved in, but this program, providing millions and millions of dollars for cancer research — I think it’s fantastic.

The book is about following your dreams, and finding your dreams. As a child, would you have imagined yourself where you are today? Are you following your dreams?

I would have never imagined something like this. This is just so much larger and more specific than anything I would have imagined., As a child, I am sure there were moments when people said to me, “Oh, you’re such an actress,” which really means, when you say it to a kid, “you’re such an exhibitionist.” I would have pictured [being an actress] something more like Katherine Hepburn; a woman stepping out of a beautiful car, with a Lhasa Apso, or whatever those dogs are, those ones that are so skinny, with white fur, and your hands are always held at distinctly 90 degree angles. I wouldn’t have imagined living in Harlem, and working in the theatre, and riding my kids to school on the bike, and the specifics of what it really means to be a working actor in New York City and having kids. It’s much less glamorous in real life. In fact, there’s almost no glamour whatsoever.

I bet there’s a little glamour.

Maybe a little. Just a little.

You’ve worked with a lot of actor-directors in your career: Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn, Ed Harris, and now Drew Barrymore, in Whip It. Is there something about that that you feel is different, or that appeals to you?

I think maybe directors who’ve been actors before are more interested in the character, rather than lighting the set, or the effects. Typically they’re more character-driven stories, and that’s what appeals to me, and it gives an actor a chance to create a more interesting character. And I think that that’s certainly what Drew is about and absolutely what Ed is about.

Pollock was his pet project in a lot of ways.

It was his baby, for sure. He didn’t care if you couldn’t see the shaft of light on the wall, even though it made it “better.” He was only interested in what was happening with these people right now. And I think that just made the film so much better.

And I think Clint, too, and in a more subtle way. He sort of poo-poos his life as an actor, even though he was a wonderful actor.

He’s had such an illustrious directing career at this point.

Please! The guy is awesome! He’s hot, sexy, old, fantastic, beautiful, smart, fun, he’s great.

You made your Broadway debut in Angels in America, and you’re currently in God of Carnage, for which you won the Tony. What is it that keeps you coming back to the theatre?

I’ve been really lucky with the theatre. The theatre is the place where an actor gets to work their craft, to stretch, all systems go, all systems firing. I don’t think it’s that way in film or television.

Because there’s so much stopping and starting, or. . . ?

Yes, and the responsibility of the film is the director’s, the writer’s, and the editor’s, not the actor’s. The collaboration with the actor is less and less to the point where there’s almost no rehearsal anymore. It’s just, like “Get in there, and go. We cast you for what you look like, not who you can transform into. What you are right now is plenty.” And that’s a different kind of collaboration… it’s not collaboration. It deadens the brain, it deadens the body. But on stage, you’re using everything.

I’m not saying I don’t like television and film, I just think the process has become so much more reductive as the money becomes much more the key to whether a film has a life or not.

You were on Damages. There’s a feeling that dramatic series like that, or Mad Men, are equal to or greater than the kind of drama and compelling characters that you can get in film. Do you have any thoughts on whether TV is becoming a better arena for character-driven stories?

I think with cable, it’s opened up a whole wonderful new avenue for very interesting character-driven work. I think that film has found itself subject to the weekend that it opens, so a studio that would have been making 28 films a few years ago is now making three.

TV can take more risks?

Well, I don’t know. The viewership is in the home, the revenue is from advertising, so it’s maybe safer with cable to take risks that you couldn’t do with networks before? On cable you’re not as dogged by the network teams trying to have a say [in the show], so maybe they can. But you’re still making your day, shooting eight pages [of script] a day. There’s still very little rehearsal, if any. It’s more of a writer’s venue, television is.

I don’t know that television is eclipsing film, and I don’t think it’s TV’s fault that that’s happening. And you can’t even say “TV,” because it’s mostly on cable that this is happening. The audiences . . . I mean, I went to a movie the other day, and there was just no one there.

I’ve had that happen to me, too, recently.

Maybe it’s DVD. If you can get it in your home, why come out? You have to get the babysitter and everything. It seems to me the disconnect is that people think, “Why would I want to go and sit around with a bunch of other people to watch a movie?” The community aspect is what’s becoming eclipsed by instant access. The audience thinks, “Why should I go to a movie theatre? Why should I rent a DVD and watch it on a TV with my friends? Let me just download it on my iPod, and watch it in my cubicle. Let me sit in my cubicle and be plugged up.” It’s such a Woody Allen nightmare image. And I see that, and I think, “I want to go to a theater and have a movie wash over me.” It used to be that was the point of going to see a film, and that’s really being lost.