The Oscar- and Tony-winning actress describes the premise of her latest film, Parkland.
Actress Marcia Gay Harden
Tavis: Marcia Gay Harden has an Oscar, a Tony, and two Emmy nominations to her credit. She just wrapped an exceptional guest-starring turn in the second season of “Newsroom,” and she can currently be seen on ABC’s new series, “Trophy Wife.”
Her latest movie, which will open later this week, is called “Parkland.” As you might suspect, it deals with the fallout in Dallas of the assassination of JFK. Marcia plays one of the emergency room nurses who had to cope with the immediate medical crisis. We take a look now at a clip from “Parkland.”
[Clip of “Parkland”]
Tavis: So here you go again playing a stoic –
Marcia Gay Harden: I know.
Tavis: – unflappable –
Harden: I know.
Tavis: – no-nonsense character.
Harden: Nothing like me. (Laughter) There’s nothing. I mean kids might say “that’s like me,” but I think of myself, my emotions are on my sleeve. You want to know how I’m feeling? Just look at me and I’ll tell you how I’m feeling. Nothing is hidden. I’m all out there. I cry like a baby, I get upset, I stamp my feet. I’m not stoic.
Tavis: Yeah. I was saying to you – I was whispering to Marcia when that clip was playing, it’s been 50 years –
Harden: I know.
Tavis: – since the assassination of JFK, and I don’t know how his family feels about this, but it doesn’t seem like 50 years, in part because this is a story that we hear about all the time.
It’s like the assassination of JFK, like the assassination of MLK, has kind of like sort of never gone away. I raise that to ask what did you see when you saw this screenplay that made you want to do this for something that we have been hearing about almost weekly or monthly for 50 years.
Harden: Well it’s interesting, because I was alive when he died, so I remember my parents mourning. It was the same kind of feeling as when 9/11 occurred – just all the adults around you were just in tragedy.
My kids don’t – they know of the story, but they don’t have an emotional connection to the story. But these are the real people surrounding the tragedy and right at the time that we were shooting, they had that Sandy Hook –
Tavis: Sandy Hook, yeah.
Harden: – right, incident. The people who stood out in the Sandy Hook incident, the heroes, were the normal, ordinary people who went to save those children. So this story’s about the normal people.
What’s so interesting that I didn’t know is that Parkland Hospital was a learning hospital. This is where the doctors went to learn how to be doctors. So they didn’t know what they were doing, and the person who would run that room would have been the head nurse.
Can you imagine being an intern and you’re going there just to learn how to be a doctor, and in comes the president in such a tragic, tragic state, and not but three days later, Lee Harvey Oswald in the same hospital.
That to me was a little bit of history I really didn’t know. I thought about it as an up-and-running hospital where all the top surgeons were there. It was something much rougher and the people dragging the coffin up into the airplane. It was just a rough and nothing dignified about that moment.
Tavis: I am certain that we audiences will find – this seems a strange word to use, but this is what we are in, the business of entertainment. I know that audiences will be entertained by this in the sense that it’s a great film and you’re part of a great cast.
What’s your sense, though, of what the takeaway will be from seeing this film about these everyday people? What’s the – 50 years later, what’s the audience going to leave with?
Harden: I don’t know, actually. I’m not sure. I feel that they learn something about the behind-the-scenes that they didn’t know. It’s not about the state and the pomp and any of that. It’s not an FBI story. It’s about mistakes.
Human mistakes and common people struggling to make sense of something on a national level, but at the end of the day it calls down to the person’s stamina and fortitude.
Like the nurse that I played, she was unflappable and she did run that room, and their lives were changed forever by this incident. So I think it’s not about learning new information and uncovering the plot. I think it’s about taking a look behind the scenes at these ordinary people.
Tavis: Yeah, but that’s what makes movies work – humanity. If you can get into the –
Harden: It’s the – oh, I think so.
Tavis: – as you know; you’re the expert here. If you can get into the humanity of the character –
Harden: You’re pretty – you’re pretty good yourself.
Tavis: If you can get into the humanity of the character that’s what makes it work, and you’re so good at that.
Harden: You want people – I want people to relate to me as a character. I want them to go, “That could have been me,” or “I know someone like that.” I like it when they have that little clutch in their heart or clutch in their throat and they feel like they’ve been there, whether it’s laughter or tears. I like it when they relate to me as the character.
Tavis: I’m not saying this to kiss up to you, although I’m happy to do that. (Laughter)
Harden: Stop action, okay.
Tavis: I didn’t mean it like that.
Harden: That’s all right. (Laughter) Well, maybe I did.
Tavis: But there is something about you – you’ve won and nominated for all these major awards, and yet there is something about you in various characters that is very relatable. Do you work at that? Is that something that comes natural? Is there some trick that you want to share with us, some magic potion you have?
Harden: First of all, I adore you so much. I just have to say that. Because no matter what I answer, it was – if I go, “Yes,” it’s just – (laughter). Well, Tavis, let me tell you.
Tavis: But you always come across as so every day, so –
Harden: That’s why, because I am. I’m just an everyday mum. I don’t mean to be pooh-pooh about the career. I’ve had an amazing career and amazing blessings. But I’m an everyday person and I have lived an everyday life and I drive an everyday car. I take my kids to school. I made that myself.
Tavis: I’m glad – yeah, I know my mom is thinking, “What is Tavis holding in his hand?”
Harden: “What is he holding?” Your mom will like that.
Tavis: So yeah, Mom, I’m going to – well, she won’t get any of it, but (laughter) I’ll let you – she’s in Indiana. But I’ll let you tell the story what this is, but when you brought this as a gift to me, which I so appreciate, it took me back – speaking of moms – took me back to my mom.
Because I grew up in a family with nine brothers and sisters, and we were so poor – how poor were you – that
Harden: So poor that –
Tavis: – we picked our own apples and the like and my mother and my grandmother, God rest her soul, “Big Mama,” as we called her, my mama and Big Mama would be in the kitchen with these old kind of mason jars and we made our own apple preserves and we did this as a kid.
So whenever I see a mason jar like this I just get giddy, because it takes me back to my childhood.
Harden: Well when you put that on some toast and butter – biscuits.
Tavis: Tell me what this is – biscuits, exactly.
Harden: Okay, this is fig jam. I have a fig tree outside my back door and I picked some figs this morning and I made it this morning.
Tavis: That’s so sweet of you, I appreciate it.
Harden: I know you have a sweet tooth because I think we discussed that when I was 500 pounds and pregnant the last time I was on your show. (Laughter)
Tavis: In fairness to you, you were pregnant with twins, so that was –
Harden: Okay, I know, but they were this big. (Laughter) I was not.
Tavis: See, every day. That’s what I mean, you’re so relatable. I love it, I love it. Well, I’m going to have this on some biscuits tomorrow morning for breakfast.
Tavis: I’m going to be that big in a couple of days after I eat all of this.
Harden: You might be. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. But I want to get to this blue card. I never use these blue cards, really, but I wanted to write this down because there’s a tradition that I have with you.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this or not, but every time you come on our show, and I’m so honored to have you, and you see that sign? It’s been 10 seasons now.
Tavis: We’re in our tenth season and you’ve been here so many times, you’ve always been kind to us to come back repeatedly. In looking at some old tapes of our conversations, every time you come on it always seems that you have, like, 18 – you’re working like a Jamaican. (Laughter) You got like 10 jobs.
Harden: Yeah, man, I do. What about it, Tavis? You’re working hard too.
Tavis: Yeah, but you’re always doing a thousand things. I mentioned a couple of things already. So you just wrapped – and I loved you in this – “Newsroom.”
Harden: Okay, forget – how about the fact that they let my character say she was liquid sex. I said, “Aaron, you’re giving me that line?”
Tavis: Great line.
Harden: He said, “You could do it (unintelligible).” I’m like, “All right, well, I’m liquid sex.” I couldn’t believe it.
Tavis: Before I jump off of this to all the other 20 million things you’re doing, how did you react when Jeff Daniels –
Harden: Oh my God.
Tavis: Because everybody was like, it was like the surprise of the night, I guess. Everybody thought something else was going to happen, but –
Harden: We were praying. I was watching with my kids. The twins, who are nine, and my 15-year-old daughter. My children actually learned how to curse during “God of Carnage,” which Jeff Daniels and I did together in New York with, God rest his soul, James Gandolfini and Hope Davis.
So when Jeff won, they felt like it’s like Uncle Jeff, and we were screaming and jumping up and down on the couch, because it was just fantastic. This is a man, Jeff, he knows it about himself – he doesn’t smile all the time. Jeff can be a curmudgeon. Ear to ear, he was so happy. (Laughter)
Tavis: In case you’re living under a rock, Jeff Daniels won at the Emmys the other night.
Harden: Right, for “The Newsroom.”
Tavis: Yeah, for “Newsroom,” a big deal. So we mentioned “Newsroom,” just wrapped your turn there. “Parkland” we’ve already talked about.
Tavis: “Trophy Wife” we ain’t got to yet.
Tavis: “Elsa and Fred,” a movie with Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer. That’s coming. “Get a Job,” speaking of Emmy wins and losses, Bryan Cranston, love Bryan Cranston, everybody does now, “Breaking Bad.”
You got a gig with Bryan Cranston, a movie called “Get a Job,” and you just wrapped a Woody Allen project for 2014.
Harden: That’s right.
Tavis: I’m out of breath. (Laughter)
Harden: It didn’t all happen this year. “Get a Job” was, one of them was last year, and – (laughter).
Tavis: But you’re like the hardest-working woman in Hollywood?
Harden: Well, I’m a single mother, I support those kids. I like to work. I feel better when I’m working. I feel really – and this is suddenly – it is like this. This business is roller coaster up-and-down, and when it’s down you think it’ll never go back up.
But I think when I was younger and I had all these wonderful times, I don’t think I appreciated it in the way I do right now. This is an up for me right now, and I appreciate it because I’ve been on that low swing before.
So it’s fantastic. “Trophy Wife,” a new, I have a new sitcom, and that’s what I was really praying for, because it’s a good schedule for a mom. They work five days a week and you don’t necessarily work every day.
I like to do homework with my kids, so this is the best, best schedule, and it’s fun. It’s fun.
Tavis: I’m going to talk about “Trophy Wife” here in just a second. Since I got this card out, I’m just going to run through all this stuff (laughter) and have you top-line some of this stuff. But I want to talk about “Trophy Wife” in particular in a second here.
But since you mentioned those up times and down times, I suspect that’s probably true for most people in this business, particularly and especially for women, and especially as they age or become more chronologically gifted.
Give me some sense of how you have navigated what you would call those “low swing” times.
Tavis: Oh, yeah. (Laughter)
Harden: That’s step one. Okay, this has not been step two. I have faith, first of all, that I will work again, and I have faith in a lot of wonderful things, the spirit world and my kids and my family.
I cry and sometimes I kvetch, but I try to keep busy, doing things like doing readings or just staying in the business somehow. Then there’s some stuff you can’t be in control of.
Like one time when it was down, I thought okay, I’m taking the kids to the Southwest. So I rented a 31-foot double pop-out RV, a fanny pack and a visor, and I took my kids to Yosemite and then to the Grand Canyon and to Arizona and Sedona and we were on the – we camped out in the Circus Circus – look at your face. Look at your face. You’re horrified.
Tavis: I’m like, and you survived this?
Harden: Yeah – I drove it.
Tavis: I’m saying, I know. (Laughter)
Harden: I drove it.
Tavis: How did you survive it?
Harden: It was so much fun. But I know a lot of people wouldn’t do it, but it was so much fun. The kids put, like, twinkly lights up on their bunks in the RV, and we parked at the Circus Circus campsite in Las Vegas, and we were invited – my publicist called and she says, “You’re invite to go to the Cirque de Soleil because Yoko Ono’s going to be there and they’re doing the new Beatles thing.”
I said, “Okay, but we’re in the Circus Circus campsite. How can we do that?” She said, “Well, do you want me to cancel?” I’m like, “No, I don’t want you to cancel. So we pulled out the nicest things we had, we put on high heels, and we got out of Circus Circus, we’re like walking across the parking lot like this.
People were like, “Where are you going?” We’re like, “We’re going to the Cirque de Soleil.” We didn’t care. (Laughter)
Tavis: The kids had a good time, I assume.
Harden: They loved it.
Tavis: They had to have a blast.
Harden: Yeah, they – first, it’s beautiful, and I think driving and flying on planes on some level is good family time. There’s no distractions.
Tavis: Back to my mom. You were talking about moms earlier, and you being a mom, of course. My mom loves Yosemite, and as long as –
Harden: I love Yosemite.
Tavis: – I’ve lived in California, I’ve never been. She gets on me all the time, “You have got to go to Yosemite. You’ve got to go check it out.” So I’m going to get there one of these days. Tell me more about “Trophy Wife.”
Harden: It’s very funny. It stars Malin Akerman. She’s the trophy wife, and as all trophy wives probably on some level should be she’s blonde and beautiful and young.
But she’s married a man who I was his first wife and Michaela Watkins was his second wife, and the man is Bradley Whitford. So it’s about how she tries to integrate these families.
Michaela and I say that the show is about how we make her earn her trophy, (laughter) and it is funny and we’ve got great kids. My character, she’s kind of a cross between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and Me, and she’s fun and – but maybe she’s not fun.
Oh, and my new boyfriend is going to be Dennis Haysbert. Am I saying it right?
Tavis: “You’re in good hands?”
Harden: Mm-hmm. (Laughter)
Harden: I hope so. (Laughter) We’ll see and I’ll let you know. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’ve been jealous of him for a lot of different reasons, and now he gets to hang out with you.
Harden: Well, no, I saw him at the Emmy party the night before, and I sat on (unintelligible) and I said, “Aren’t you excited that you’re going to be with, I hope you’re excited you’re going to be my new boyfriend,” and he – I swear to God, he didn’t move.
He was like, “Yes, I am.” I was like, “Well we’re not doing Allstate now, you’re going to be my boyfriend.” (Laughter) “Come on.”
Tavis: Show some excitement, huh?
Harden: I said, “Wrap me up with those beautiful hands.”
Tavis: Since you went there, and obviously I didn’t know this, this is obviously 2013, so this is no longer “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Harden: That’s right.
Tavis: But what do you make of the fact that you’re about to be in a sitcom for a major network and you’ve got a Black boyfriend?
Harden: I love it.
Harden: I so love it, because this particular network, you’ve got “Modern Family,” where they have gay couples –
Tavis: They got everything in “Modern Family.”
Harden: Everything. But I tell you what, you know we’ll hear about it from closed-minded people.
Tavis: That turns you on, or that –
Harden: Oh, the other people don’t turn me on at all, but you remember I was a Harlem girl.
Tavis: Yeah. A brownstone in Harlem.
Harden: That’s right.
Tavis: Down the street from Maya Angelou.
Harden: That’s right, Maya. That’s right. So for me it’s fantastic. He’s an amazing person. He’s an amazing man. And he’s beautiful, and I’ve had a crush on him for ages, so.
Tavis: Yeah, that voice, man, is –
Harden: I know. (Laughter) I’m going to have to try to – I’m going to have to talk like this just to match it the whole time. (Laughter)
Tavis: If I were a woman, I think the voice would get me. He’s just – that voice of his is unbelievable. All right, so we talked about “Trophy Wife,” that’s the new gig. Tell me about this –
Harden: Can I just say Tuesday nights at ABC?
Tavis: Say that again.
Harden: Tuesday nights, ABC, 9:30.
Tavis: I didn’t hear you.
Harden: Tuesday nights, ABC, 9:30. (Laughter)
Tavis: Okay. So that’s “Trophy Wife.” So we talked about “Parkland,” we’ve talked about “Newsroom,” we talked about “Trophy Wife.” You’ve got so much stuff going on.
All right, so just top-line these other things right quick. I know you can’t say too much about it, they’re not out yet. But tell me about “Elsa and Fred.”
Harden: Okay. “Elsa and Fred” is basically Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer falling in love, and that’s why we were there. Michael Radford directing. It was shot down in New Orleans.
Christopher Plummer – both of them I’m completely in love with. But I remember one day I said to him, “Christopher, in ‘Hamlet,’ don’t you think there could be three choices? Like to be, is one choice, not to be is another choice, or like to die?”
Christopher said, “No, no, darling,” and he started reciting “Hamlet.” Just “To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind.” Just the way he could say – I was at his feet the whole – I hope I didn’t hit my mic – I was at his feet the whole time.
So that was – it’s about old people falling in love, and they go to Rome and they dance in the fountain.
Tavis: Shirley MacLaine is, if my memory serves me correctly, was just announced as a Kennedy Center honoree this year.
Harden: God bless that, that’s fantastic.
Tavis: Am I right about that? Somebody – I think I’m right about that. Whew – I am right about that. I thought I read that. Congratulations, Shirley MacLaine.
Let me jump back to “Parkland” right quick, because you mentioned who the director was on “Elsa and Fred.”
Harden: Peter Landesman.
Tavis: Yeah. “Parkland,” first-time director?
Tavis: Directorial debut.
Tavis: So how did you, how did – how does he handle himself?
Harden: Oh my God. Okay, first of all, he was fantastic. He wore the hat beautifully, and I said that to him. But here’s a very funny story.
I was talking to Peter, I’d been offered the job and I was talking to him right around the Sandy Hook time. I called and I said, “This is just the same thing. The heroes are the ordinary people.” I said, “Do you have children, Peter?”
He said, “Do you know who I am, Marcia?” I said, “You’re the director of ‘Parkland.'” He said, “Marcia, I’m (unintelligible) dad.” So his kids go to my kids’ school. (Laughter) (Unintelligible) over my house before, working on a script. But you know how – do you have kids?
Tavis: No, I don’t have kids as yet.
Harden: You need to.
Tavis: Yeah, not yet, yeah.
Harden: There’s a (unintelligible) sonnet about that. It says you have to have children because you’re so beautiful. Basically it says don’t go to your grave without having children. So I’m going to send you the sonnet.
But the kids come to my house, he has been typing over at my house. But you know when you have kids, you don’t always know the parents’ last name. Like you just – some –
Tavis: But your kids go to the same school.
Harden: Yeah, they go to the same school. (Laughter) He’s been over my house (unintelligible) school and he said, “Well, I’m really glad that you took this. It shows me you didn’t just do it as a favor.” I thought oh my God, could I be any more in my own bubble? But yeah, that’s Peter Landesman, and he did a gorgeous job.
Tavis: So “Get a Job,” I mentioned Bryan Cranston. He has had – talk about a run, this run on “Breaking Bad.” This is your lane; you’re a TV and movie person. What did you make of all of the hype? This “Breaking Bad,” this thing – “Breaking Bad” broke out.
Harden: It did.
Tavis: Everybody was –
Harden: It did. We tried to get a ticket to the graveyard showing of the finale for a charity, but there wasn’t a ticket to be sold even like to the – even to people in the cast. Like if Bryan had wanted a ticket, he couldn’t have gotten one. (Laughter)
It was so completely sold out. I think it’s just people, I think there’s a movement, and the show deserves it. But I think there’s a movement of almost like cult followings, right, where like in “Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter,” and those are in the big film.
So on television, sort of the same thing. They get their own cult audience, and then it just blows up. It was pretty genius marketing.
Tavis: Yeah, it was indeed. So tell me about this movie “Get a Job.” Just top-line that for me, “Get a Job” with Bryan Cranston.
Harden: It was about two years ago we shot that darn thing, so I have to say there’s certain – my character’s an executive and she’s like a crack the whip executive. (Laughs) It’s about young people getting jobs and losing jobs, and how they get jobs in the marketplace.
Tavis: Sounds like real life.
Harden: It sounds like real life, yes. (Laughter)
Tavis: Getting jobs, losing jobs – more losing jobs than getting jobs these days, unfortunately.
Harden: These days, mm-hmm.
Tavis: I’m sure you can’t say anything about this Woody Allen project.
Harden: We’re not allowed to say anything about Woody Allen.
Tavis: See? I told you. (Laughter)
Harden: Except – what I can say is that he’s amazing. He’s kind of a guru. He makes you deal with all those – like every story about him is true and every story’s false. He was very gentle and very lovely.
We shot in the south of France in Cannes and on the beaches. Like, no one wears tops and we’re like – well, okay, well now – (laughs). Okay, no, okay. It was just a beautiful place to be.
But then I got kind of lonely because my kids were with their dad back east, and I got really lonely. One day Soon-Yi asked me if I wanted to go to this place in Cannes and put my feet in a fishbowl where fish eat your dead skin, (laughs) and I did. It was the craziest, crazy – it’s a fad. It’s happening everywhere.
Tavis: You’ve heard of this? Brian is shaking his head, my floor guy.
Harden: Have you – have you done it?
Harden: No. (Laughter) But you’ve heard of it.
Harden: See? It’s crazy, right?
Tavis: This show has gone off the rails. We’re talking to Brian off-camera here –
Harden: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: – who’s the stage guy, the floor director.
Harden: I know. People are raising their head. No, and so I did – like, it was so wild and fun to do.
Tavis: Wild and fun – what does it feel like when a fish is eating your dead skin?
Harden: They were like these mini-piranha or whatever they are, and you put your feet into this tank and they all (makes whirring noise) and they start nibbling at you.
At first it’s insane; you’re like (squeals). Everybody screams. Then after a while you kind of get used to it. Then I was trying to do experiments with it to see if I lift my – if I dip them in even more, do they all go up to like the next area? They do. There’d be like a perfect ring of them. It was crazy.
Tavis: Okay. So is this something that you would ever do again?
Harden: No, I did it once; I don’t think I’d do it again. Because honestly, you could get the same thing with a scrub brush, you know what I’m saying? (Laughter) I mean, come on. You don’t need the fish.
Tavis: I’m cheap, I got the scrub brush.
Harden: Right, I got the – right. (Laughter)
Tavis: So we talked earlier, and I’ve got two minutes to go. I’m almost out of time, and I could do this for hours with you. You’re in one of those, by your own admission, you have these low swings, as you put it, and these up swings, so how do you inhale?
How do you live in this moment with all this stuff going on when you’re in one of these upswings?
Harden: I like that question. This is a very – the way that I’m inhaling these days is with no help, with the love of my kids as my family. I quit smoking so I’m not inhaling that anymore.
Just trying to – and it’s work. I think that it is work, because life can be painful and it can be scary just to sit still, but that’s what I tell myself. Just sit still, look around you, breathe into it, enjoy it, and be here with Tavis on this beautiful day and know that it’s really special.
Tavis: Well, you are special, you are beautiful, and I always enjoy our conversations, whether you bring me –
Harden: I do too.
Tavis: – preserves or not.
Harden: I know your mother. You’d better save a little for your mother.
Tavis: Yeah. But I appreciate you doing this, and I’m so glad you came by.
Harden: I am too, thank you.
Tavis: You deserve all that success. You’re (unintelligible).
Harden: Thank you.
Tavis: Some people you see get that and you’re like really, really happy for them, and you’re one of those people.
Harden: Thank you.
Tavis: You’re so sweet.
Harden: Thank you.
Tavis: So where do I start here? “Trophy Wife,” ABC –
Harden: ABC, Tuesday nights, 9:30.
Tavis: All right. Then –
Harden: “Parkland” coming out.
Tavis: – “Parkland” coming out, “Elsa and Fred” later.
Harden: Coming out.
Tavis: “Get a Job” later.
Harden: Coming out.
Tavis: Woody Allen project –
Harden: Coming next summer.
Tavis: – next summer. But for now, the show would be called “Trophy Wife,” ABC on –
Tavis: – on Tuesday nights.
Harden: Tuesday nights, that’s right.
Tavis: Marcia Gay Harden, I love you and I’m glad to have you here.
Harden: I love you too.
Tavis: Thank you, sweetie.
Harden: Thank you.
Tavis: Dennis Haysbert, I want your job. (Laughter) I want all your jobs. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for joining us. As always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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