Character Studies, Marcia Gay Harden

Every year since the 1960s, the media has been abuzz about a certain Best Supporting Oscar curse, rumored to have either killed a long list of careers or lulled them to mediocrity. If there is such a curse, Marcia Gay Harden is beating it down with both fists. Always consistent, always versatile, Harden was destined for greatness because she always understood how to make the most of every role, and she had the hunger to go the distance long before meeting Mr. Oscar.

Harden has a flair for character work and steps into each character like a second skin, no matter the era or accent: gangster moll, Southern housewife, artist from Brooklyn. Her portrayal of Jackson Pollock's mothering wife Lee Krasner in Ed Harris' Pollock put Harden on the map. She earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination, a New York Film Critics Circle Award, and the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2001. On beating out fellow nominees Judi Dench, Julie Walters, Frances McDormand, and Kate Hudson, Harden has said, "Vegas had me at 12-to-1 odds. I sure do wish I had bet on myself and made a little money."

In 2003 alone, Harden has shared the spotlights of stellar casts: in Mona Lisa Smile opposite Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, and Maggie Gyllenhaal; and as the fretful Celeste Boyle in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River opposite Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon. And with films to be released next year that include Miller with Chris Cooper, Welcome to Mooseport with Gene Hackman and Ray Romano, and P.S. alongside Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney, Harden has no intention of slowing down, much less giving in to that silly curse.

"The only thing that seemed to me I could do in such a way that no one else could was acting," Harden said. "I thought, I can be a doctor, but there's going to be someone else who is just as good or better. I can be a lawyer, which I still sometimes think I would love to be, but I think there's someone who can do it just as good or better. So, being an actor, there will be people who can do it just as good or better, but I'll have my voice, and no one will have my voice."

A stage actor at heart, Harden garnered a Tony nomination, a Drama Desk Award, and a Theater World Award as the Valium-loving Mormon wife Harper Pitt in the Broadway production of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize–winning Angels in America in 1993. Other stage credits include Sam Shepard's Simpatico opposite Ed Harris, Fred Ward, and Beverly D'Angelo at New York's Public Theatre in 1994; and The Seagull alongside Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, and Natalie Portman for Shakespeare in the Park in 2001. "I was in love with theatre," Harden said, smiling. "I was in love with the literature of it. I was in love with the audience response of it, the craft of it, and the fact that you're taking the author's words and truly great ideas in the most beautifully strung language."

Desperately Seeking Stardom

The daughter of a Naval Captain, in her youth she moved among the United States, Japan, Greece, and Germany. All that time, she felt compelled to pursue acting. Early on, Harden was in Washington, D.C., for an acting workshop, when she heard that a casting director was coming to Catholic University to audition actors for a soap opera. The breakdown called for a brunette, and the character's father was in the military. Naturally Harden thought she was perfect for the part, but she ended up being five minutes late for the audition, and the casting director had already left for the airport.

Not taking defeat easily, Harden drove her VW convertible through the pouring rain and talked her way through the gate and on to the plane to hand the casting director her picture and resumé. The casting director was simultaneously appalled and impressed with Harden's persistence; she arranged for a meeting later that week. Nothing ever came of the encounter, but, for Harden, that wasn't the point.

"It's what I was looking for, and it's what all of us young actors are looking for in a casting director," Harden said. "We are looking for somebody who sees something in us—something individual, wonderful, some gift, something unique in me that would be of value to a soap opera and to the world. In her class that [the casting director] would teach, she said, 'Don't ever do what Marcia Gay Harden did.' But we both laugh at the story now, and when I got my first job on Miller's Crossing she was one of the first people to send me a congratulations note."

Harden graduated from the University of Texas with a B.A. in theatre, and then she was off to pursue her girlhood dream on Broadway. "Literally, I got off the bus in a pair of character shoes, an A-line skirt, and a leotard shirt," the actor recalled with a laugh, "thinking, as most of us do that get off the bus with suitcase in hand, that it's going to be a lot easier than it is, and the city will just be glad I'm there as they discover me. You know in the back of your head it's not true, but you don't know how hard it's going to be. And it's hard—really hard."

Back to School

Like many struggling New York actors waiting for their breaks, Harden auditioned like crazy, went out for the Equity principal parts that she saw in Back Stage, waited thousands of tables, and got great feedback but, alas, not enough jobs. "I had my craft and all this time I had agents, but I wasn't competitive enough, and I thought I wasn't good enough or resonant enough," she said. "I would make choices because I was facile and could put out the tears or get the laugh on a given line and really manipulate the audience, but I didn't think it was coming from an inner, organic place in me. I didn't want to be that kind of actor, so I chose to go back to school and spend another three years really honing the craft."

After three years, Harden earned her MFA in 1988 from the graduate theatre program at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Indeed she is still known to occasionally consult with the school's master teacher Ron Van Lieu. She also annually awards funding to a promising new acting student through the Marcia Gay Harden Scholarship. But while she was still at NYU, she continued to try to land that big break, because quitting was never an option.

"There would be businessmen who would come in when I was waiting tables, and they would say, 'How long will you stick this out? How long until you give up?'" the actor recalled. "I couldn't think in terms of my time limit, because then the world is square. I know where the ocean drops off, so I can't think in that way. The world is round, and it's continuous, and something will occur in the cycle of it. I think to visualize failure as you're starting off is really a bad thing to do. I know my friends would say, 'Oh, Marcia, you lie. There were times when you were so depressed and so angry.' But anger and ambition are great fuel, and you have to have a little anger and ego to be ambitious and to trudge through the mire of a difficult field when no one's opening doors because you're completely unconnected or whatever it is. You have to have that, so it's all really healthy."

Marcia's Crossing

It took six years of struggle in New York before Harden got her break, which strangely enough came from a nonspeaking role as Lucy the Fat Pig in an NYU graduate production of Comedy of Errors. "I was literally playing a hag with beanbag breasts that is part of the farce of the play. It wasn't even ham acting, it was spam acting, but it was really fun and big and funny," Harden said, laughing. "My character was an all-but-silent character, so that's why I invented her to be Lucy the Fat Pig—so I could grunt in certain places and have a say in the rhythm of the dialogue with my grunts. I just never wanted to be too much in the background. I always wanted to be a part of things."

Casting director Donna Isaacson, who had seen Harden in a few auditions, came to see the student production. "Now here," Isaacson told The New York Times, "is someone with nerve. She just went for it. There was no holding back." Isaacson immediately called her in to audition for the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing. The actor spent several weeks with the script before she went in, read several Dashiell Hammett stories, rented films such as Public Enemy, and nailed her audition. She beat out Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, and Jennifer Jason Leigh to play the star-making part of Verna, the poker-faced, chain-smoking love interest to rival gang members Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne.

"God bless the Coens that they give unknowns opportunities," Harden said. "They're not dictated to by studios about needing to hire this actor because they're going to bring in this much money and put this many butts in the seats. They hire who they want, and they make the kind of movies they want, and it's really to the great benefit of people like Frances McDormand, Holly Hunter, and me—all of whom were somewhat discovered in the Coen Brothers' films."

Often, Harden will use relatives or other people she knows to help her create a character. For instance, when she began to figure out how to play a professor of speech, elocution, poise, and homemaking at Wellesley College circa 1953 for Mona Lisa Smile, Harden thought of her mother: "I definitely knew that my mother had a lot of similar attributes and grace as this character Nancy Abbey, so I culled a lot from my mother. The rest of Nancy I created because there was a silliness to her. So, it was a combination. Usually I work on voice first, but the character dictates where to find the truth, and that's what it's about. It's not a specific formula, because each character and each play and each film asks something different of you, so you approach it in a different way—all trying to find truth."

We hope Harden will be continuing that search for truth for many years to come. At least she'll never have to storm onto another airplane to find it.