Harris defines his role in Frontera, a new feature film that examines immigration issues, racism and the law.
Actor-director-producer Ed Harris
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with multiple Oscar-nominated actor Ed Harris. He’s one of the country’s most respected actors excelling in movies from “The Right Stuff,” playing American hero John Glenn, to HBO’s “Game Change” where his performance as Senator John McCain won him a Golden Globe.
His new film is called “Frontera” and it deals with the complex issues of immigration and human trafficking that affect both sides of the U.S. and Mexican border.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, coming up right now.
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Tavis: Ed Harris is unquestionably one of the country’s most respected actors. He has four Oscar nominations to his credit, a Golden Globe win, a slew of other accolades. He’s also an actor who’s willing to take chances and deal with contemporary issues that many stars would rather ignore.
His new film is called “Frontera.” It costars Eva Longoria and Michael Pena and deals with a murder on the border between Mexico and Arizona that escalates an already tense situation. We’ll start with taking a look from the movie.
Tavis: I’ll let you set this up in just a second. But can I just start by telling you I can’t imagine a more propitious time for this film to come out? The subject matter is just topical. Earlier this week, as you know, President Obama decided he’s going to delay his…
Ed Harris: Executive action.
Tavis: His executive action on immigration. What do you make of the timing of this?
Harris: Yeah. Well, it is a topic very much in the news, for sure. We shot this film about a year and a half ago, I guess, in New Mexico. Michael Berry, who wrote it and directed it, grew up in southern Arizona and his co-writer, Louis.
It’s a subject matter he wanted to deal with and I think he deals with it really well. I mean, it’s not a preaching kind of deal. It doesn’t really take sides. It just kinds of presents a situation that the country’s trying to deal with right now.
Tavis: And the situation depicted in the movie is exactly what?
Harris: Well, Michael Pena is a Mexican who goes to the states illegally trying to get some work. He runs into some trouble. I’m a rancher who lives on the border. My wife accidentally gets killed. He’s in the vicinity. He gets arrested for basically murdering my wife, which I’m not sure that that’s what happened. Try to find out the truth.
His wife is Eva Longoria. Finds out he’s in prison. She comes illegally, gets in all kinds of trouble. She tries to see him and things just keep going. I mean, it’s a pretty interesting tale. There’s a lot of stories going on at the same time, but I think it’s handled really well, you know.
Tavis: You said earlier, and you’re right about the fact that the movie doesn’t take sides which I think is a beautiful thing. Sometimes I am bothered by projects that like walk up to the line. The movie may even get chalk on its shoes, but it doesn’t step across the line. Sometimes as a viewer, I’m wishing that they’d take that next step and, you know, not preach or proselytize, but…
Harris: Go for it? Yeah.
Tavis: Go for it. Don’t be so cowardly in the presentation. There are other films, though, like this one where I think not taking a side is a beautiful thing because what it allows, or forces maybe a better word, the viewer to do is to focus on the humanity of the characters. And that’s what I think happens here.
Harris: Well, I think that’s what Michael achieved, you know. I mean, he wrote the characters. Both the Hispanic characters and the Anglo characters, I think, you know, are full-blooded people.
My character, for example, who’s not that happy about the illegal crossings on is property, but he doesn’t really do anything about it. He’s not some kind of hard ass going out to shoot them and he’s unhappy that his wife, you know, rides her horse down there and is worried about her.
But he learns something during the course of it. I mean, in terms of the humanity of these people trying to make a better life for themselves, he actually gets it in a certain sense, you know, and realizes the situation and ultimately tries to be somewhat positive about it with the Pena character, you know, at the end.
Tavis: Yeah. But when you’re in a project like this, though, tell me about whether or not as an actor you approach a character different when it’s not just about getting us to revel in the humanity, but also there’s a morality issue at play. ‘Cause this is about humanity and morality.
Harris: Well, yeah. I mean, in order for this character to develop or to see a development and to maybe even open a couple of human being’s eyes to the possibility of maybe their attitude about undocumented workers coming into this country, maybe they could think about that a little bit.
The character has to start from a place of some ambiguity about how he feels about this and grow to a place. So you have to be aware of that and you have to try to create someplace, a foundation, of who this man is in as brief a time as you’ve got to see him travel somewhere, you know…
Tavis: Since you were last here…
Harris: If that makes sense.
Tavis: Yeah. That makes sense. Since you were last here, I started counting. I think you’ve done six or seven projects since I last saw you. I see you…
Harris: I did a bunch of indie movies like a couple of years ago…
Tavis: You did.
Harris: Like five or six in a row.
Tavis: That’s what I was about to get at. You’ve done a bunch of indies and clearly you’ve done blockbusters. But you’ve been on a pretty serious run of indie films of late. What’s that all about?
Harris: I don’t know. It’s just people asking me to be in their movie and not making any money, but playing some interesting characters.
I mean, one of the things was called “The Adderall Diaries” that I did with James Franco that I had worked with the first time director-writer, first time director, at the Sundance Film Lab which I like to do in June where they work on scripts and stuff.
You know, this thing with Michael, he’s a first-time director. He just said, “Ed, you gotta do this. I wrote this for you. You and your wife can be in it.” My wife Amy’s in it, you know.
Then I worked with Liam Neeson in a kind of a big film that’s coming out in February or March. So you just kind of mix it up. Try to keep things interesting for myself [laugh].
Tavis: So you mix it up. You keep it interesting, but what’s the takeaway for you when you’re working on a project by your own admission where you’re not really making a bunch of cash?
Harris: Well, you know, I enjoy acting and I appreciate people who have passion about what they’re doing and have a vision about the film they’re trying to make. If it’s a young filmmaker, you know, and if my name attached to it helps them raise the little bit of money they need to make the movie and it’s a project working with some actors that I respect, you know, I’m willing to take a shot at it.
Tavis: Tell me about that Sundance Lab you mentioned. You went right past it. Tell me about what that is and why do you…
Harris: I’ve been doing that off and on for years. It’s up in the hills outside of Provo that Redford started, you know. It’s actually a resort area, big time ski thing in the wintertime.
But every summer, they have their screenwriting lab. They have a producers lab. They have a filmmakers lab where mostly first-time feature film directors, some of them have made shorts, some of them have worked on videos or whatever.
But most of the writer-directors have written scripts that they want to direct. They’ve gone through a whole process with screenwriting people and everything and they come there for four weeks in June. They have video crews, they bring in actors, they have editing facility.
It’s really great ’cause it’s all about the work. They bring in eight people in there from all over the world working on these scripts. People like me come in for a week at a time as “advisers” and we just work with the filmmakers, you know, trying to help them achieve what they’re trying to achieve.
They pick scenes from their film that they want to work on because maybe they’re the most difficult scenes that they think they might have trouble with and we work on those scenes. They film them, they rehearse them, film them, cut them, get critiqued.
And it’s really cool because it’s just about the work. It’s not about anything else other than trying to help these people make a good movie.
Tavis: So we see the end product of your hard work once you’ve made a decision and done the filming. I want to back up a step, though, and get your take on how you assess – since we’re talking about screenwriting here – how you assess the stuff that you see coming across your desk these days.
Is the writing over the course of your career getting better, getting worse or about the same?
Harris: Well, you know, I think it’s fairly obvious. Most of the best writing, the most creative writing, the most interesting, the most out of the box kind of stuff, is being done on cable, you know, and on the computer.
I mean, whatever it is, Amazon or Netflix or something. Because they’re just willing to take chances, you know, and there’s a market for it. More and more what’s in the theaters is huge, big blockbuster movies, you know, or wanting to be blockbuster films.
I mean, there’s, what, 300 films at the Telluride or Toronto or something. How many are those people gonna see? How many of those are actually gonna be in a theater, you know? You know, as an actor, I mean, I learned a long time ago that the fulfillment in this business is the doing of it because you can’t rely on anything coming out.
I mean, I worked on a picture about Beethoven for a solid year, you know, researching, gaining weight, playing the piano and then a violin, learning conducting. Film came out in three theaters for, you know, two days or something. It’s like what are you gonna do?
Tavis: How do you process that when you have all of what you’ve just laid out, done your best, and it just doesn’t even – how do you process that?
Harris: Well, you’re upset with the guys who put the money up because they’re scared to release it. They don’t want to spend any more money on advertising. But like you I say, you give it up. What are you gonna do?
Tavis: But why have done it in the first place if they were gonna…
Harris: Well, you don’t know they’re going to handle it that way.
Tavis: I mean the producers. Why would they have spent that money to do it and then not push it out…?
Harris: Maybe they’re having an argument with the director about the cut and the director says, “Look, this is the film. I insist that it be this way” and they go, “Okay, fine.” And it’s just like a personal vendetta sometimes, you know.
And other times, you know, it’s a company of investors that have put money into a project, right? And somebody’s responsible for investing their money in a film. Maybe the test screenings aren’t any good.
Maybe whatever, and they realize it. Let’s cut our losses. Let’s not spend another X amount of million dollars advertising this thing. Nobody’s gonna see it.
Tavis: Let me step out on a limb here. Have you ever thought about walking away from the business because of the politics that you sometimes as an actor get caught up in?
Harris: Walking away? You know, I try to ignore the [bleep], pardon my expression, as much as possible. You know, I really enjoy theater, but I haven’t really thought about walking away from it. I mean, I…
Tavis: But it must frustrate you sometimes, though, the politics of the business.
Harris: Well, like I said, you learn that the fulfilling part of it is doing it. I don’t count on anything else. You know, a film like “Frontera,” you know, I don’t know how many people are going to see it and how many theaters it’s going to be in. You know, it’s been on Video On Demand for a few weeks. That’s the new thing they do now.
They put it on Video on Demand for a while, then they open in the theaters and you go, well, why don’t you spend any money on advertising? They say, “Well, we don’t have to because Video On Demand advertises it’s going to be in a film. When it’s in the theaters, that advertises on Video On Demand.” They don’t spend a [bleep] nickel. Again, pardon my French.
Tavis: That takes me back [laugh] – that takes me back to the comment you made earlier about the fact that, to your mind, television, cable specifically, is more willing to take risks these days than Hollywood. Why do you think that is?
Harris: I don’t know. I mean, I guess, obviously there’s a market for it. These things have been successful, you know. You know, distributors and the distribution of major motion pictures and the venues that are accessible, they’re not going to show “True Detective” or whatever it is.
I mean, first of all, it’s a 10-episode thing. So is there an opportunity to really develop character, to really dive into something? I mean, there’s some really great stuff being done, you know, that’s pretty exciting and people see it.
Tavis: There are number of folk like you in this industry who we have come to know, respect and love as actors on the big screen who have decided to do television, cable. Is that something that is on your…?
Harris: Well, you know, I just joined up on a HBO series based on the film, “Westworld.” You ever seen “Westworld”? ’75? Richard Benjamin, Yul Brynner?
Harris: And it’s a pretty trippy deal. Christopher Nolan who’s – Jonah Nolan, Christopher Nolan’s brother has written it with his wife, Lisa. And we’re doing a pilot right now. Anthony Hopkins is in it, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright.
It’s got a really good cast, you know, and I’m playing the man in black, man. I mean, you know [laugh], it’s kind of fun. We’ll see how it goes.
Tavis: This Western style, I’m looking at – every time I’ve interviewed you, you been on this show three or four times and you always come dressed like a cowboy.
Harris: Well, I don’t…
Tavis: You got your boots on, you got whatever those jeans are, but is that…
Harris: Yeah, they’re Wranglers, man. They’re like vintage Wranglers. I’ve had them for a long time.
Tavis: But I get the sense this is who you really are, though.
Harris: Well, I don’t really…
Tavis: You don’t just play a rancher in “Frontera.” You…
Harris: Well, I could have worn a suit. I have three suits.
Tavis: I have three suits? Is that what you said? You have three suits?
Harris: I have a few suits.
Tavis: Okay [laugh].
Harris: But other than like, I don’t really have any slacks per se. You know what I mean [laugh]. It’s either jeans or a suit. You don’t care.
Tavis: No, no. I love you either way.
Harris: Hey, I got a question for you.
Tavis: Go ahead.
Harris: I understand you’re going to be on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Tavis: Oh, here you go. Here you go [laugh].
Harris: No, seriously.
Tavis: Yeah, I am.
Harris: That’s pretty cool.
Tavis: Yeah, well, it’s…
Harris: When is that happening?
Tavis: What’s today? Thursday? So the first episode is Monday night, September 15.
Harris: Wow. You been working with a coach and all that?
Tavis: With my dancing partner. Her name is Sharna Burgess and we’ve been training like four to six hours a day. It’s pretty intense.
Tavis: I think everybody’s who’s done the show says the same thing, that it’s much harder than it actually looks.
Harris: Oh, I bet.
Tavis: Which is probably like true of acting, I suspect. You guys make it look easy, but it’s much harder than it actually looks. So I’m about to turn 50 and I figured I would do one last foolish thing before I turn 50.
Harris: I’m really proud of you, man. I think that takes a lot of courage.
Tavis: Yeah, well, either courage or stupidity, one of the two. I’m not sure which one it is. We’ll find out.
Harris: Good luck with it.
Tavis: Yeah, we’ll find out in the next few weeks. I want to still go back to you, though. I come back to these jeans and these boots only because I’m curious as to what you do when you’re not on a film set. How does Ed Harris spend his time when he’s not…
Harris: I have some property. We have a few acres, so I like working on it whether it’s cutting stuff down, cleaning stuff up, building steps or working with concrete, you know, brickwork.
Tavis: You a carpenter or masonry guy?
Harris: No, not particularly. You know, I kind of dabble in all that, you know. Try to stay in shape, get some exercise. You know, I read a little bit. I play a little tennis. I got a buddy I play tennis with.
I live in Malibu and I’ve been there for years, you know, and I finally took a few surfing lessons, you know, ’cause I used to body surf a lot when I lived in Santa Monica. But I haven’t quite mastered the surfing thing…
Tavis: So I’m dancing and you’re surfing [laugh].
Harris: Yeah, yeah. It’s actually pretty cool, you know.
Tavis: Are you better at surfing than I am at dancing?
Harris: I hope not [laugh] because, if I am, you’re in big trouble [laugh].
Tavis: I may be in big trouble. How have you found the surfing so far? Is it…
Harris: I’ve only gone three times, yeah, so I haven’t quite – you know, just gotten up for a couple of seconds. But you can feel the power of the water and you can see why people get addicted to it.
Tavis: So might you get addicted to it if you keep doing it?
Harris: Yeah. You know, you start getting busy with work, leaving town, so there’s not too much surfing in New Orleans as far as I know, so I gotta go down there.
Tavis: That’s where your next…
Harris: What am I doing next?
Tavis: Next gig is in New Orleans?
Harris: Actually, yeah, in the fall.
Tavis: I’m glad you raised that because I’m curious as to how, Ed, these days – I mean, I suspect this may have changed over the course of your career, maybe it hasn’t. But at this point in your career, we talked earlier about whether or not you’d ever do television or something.
But how are you making decisions about – back to “Frontera” – how are you making decisions about the stuff that you will do? Opportunities that you will accept at this point in your career? Is there something you’re looking for that you haven’t done? How are you making decisions?
Harris: What I’m really looking for is something to direct again. I haven’t directed a movie since “Appaloosa.”
Tavis: I thought that might be.
Harris: And, you know, I read stuff. A lot of the things I get interested in, somebody else has already got the rights to it. They’re working on a script, blah, blah. I mean, you know, if you want to base a film on a book, you got to get that book a year before it’s published, you know, and I haven’t at this point – I should hire somebody to do that kind of work for me because things get bought up, you know.
But, no, I don’t know. Some part of it’s financial at times. Some of it’s just great character and an interesting project. Sometimes it’s a buddy who’s trying to get something done and I can help him get it done and it’s a decent project, you know.
Tavis: Regarding the directing, is there something specific that you’re looking for? You know what kind of thing?
Harris: Just a really great character-driven thing. I mean, it could be film noir, it could be a western, it could be, you know, anything. I mean, something that’s got a lot of guts and energy to it and great characters and a good story, a good, solid story.
I mean, you know, I sit down and try to write. I’m not really a writer, you know. I’m not one of these guys that wakes up early in the morning and writes every day. I think if I did have that discipline, I could probably come up with something. But I’m not that kind – that’s not how I’m made, you know, not at the moment.
So, I mean, I start things. I get a great idea and it doesn’t go anywhere [laugh]. You know, I write 10 pages and go, you know.
Tavis: I’m going to put you on the spot here for a second.
Harris: Go ahead.
Tavis: You’re talking about great writing and stuff that you’d like to direct. And you talked earlier about the screenwriters lab that you’ve been involved in at Sundance for years. So look back on your career and give me three projects that you have starred in, that you’ve been in, that you think really fit the bill of really, really good stuff, top to bottom.
Harris: I think “Pollock” is a really good movie that I worked on for about a decade, directed, acted in, produced.
Harris: I think “Appaloosa” is a really fine western. I think Viggo and I had a really great relationship in that, Mortensen. What else?
Tavis: I mentioned “The Right Stuff” earlier in introducing you.
Harris: “The Right Stuff,” yeah. That was a long time ago. A lot of stuff I feel good about, you know. If I had to pick number three, I don’t know what that would be. I think my work – actually, you know, when Agnieszka Holland called me up and asked me to play Beethoven in a film, I said, “What? Are you kidding?”
I worked my tail off and I actually think I did a decent job on that film. That was a good learning thing for me in terms of, hey, man, you know, just go for it. It doesn’t matter about success or failure, but try it, you know. I mean, what a challenge.
Tavis: I think most of us – and I don’t want to speak for all of America – I think most of us would put Beethoven at the top of the list of the greatest composer perhaps who ever lived.
Harris: Yeah, no kidding.
Tavis: What was your personal takeaway from learning so much about Beethoven? What’s your takeaway?
Harris: Just that. I mean, unbelievable, you know. I can listen to the Ninth Symphony over and over again and some of his last work, you know. It started getting really kind of out there and almost abstract. It’s pretty amazing. The guy was just awesome, man. I’m not a huge classical music aficionado. You know what I mean? But, boy, I listen to a lot of Beethoven.
Tavis: Yeah. So beyond Beethoven, since you’re not a classical guy, I’m just curious. What do you like to listen to?
Harris: I listen to Dylan a lot, yeah.
Tavis: Enough said [laugh]. In the classical category, it don’t get much better than Beethoven. In folk, I mean…
Harris: My wife keeps up on what’s happening, and my daughter, you know, currently in music. But I’m not quite on a beat here.
Tavis: Again, I repeat, in the classical genre, it doesn’t get much better than Beethoven. And in the folk arena, Dylan is about as good as it goes.
Harris: Yeah. I mean, he’s a rocker too. I mean, you know.
Tavis: You got two good ones. You got two good ones.
Tavis: The movie is called “Frontera” starring Ed Harris and a wonderful cast. Ed Harris and Michael Pena and Eva Longoria, a wonderful cast. And I think, as we said earlier, it will allow you to not take a side necessarily, but wrestle with the humanity of these characters.
It’s a powerful story and I think has some twists and turns in it that I think you’ll find of interest. In the meantime, until I see you next, you keep working on your surfing and I’ll work on this dance thing.
Harris: And you keep working on the dancing.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah [laugh].
Harris: All right. Pleasure.
Tavis: Good to see you, Ed.
Harris: Thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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