It’s not surprising to hear Ed Harris say, “I’m a fairly intense guy and take things somewhat seriously.” After all, the man has built a storied, decades-long career playing hard-asses and tough guys, and off camera, he’s been known to be a little extra. So it is surprising when he finishes that statement by adding, “Maybe too much so at times.” Keep chatting with the actor under the obsidian chapeau of Westworld’s Man in Black and you’ll find a man who’s insightful, gentle, and genuinely trying to mellow out these days. Vulture caught up with Harris ahead of the announcement of this year’s Emmy nominations, for which he seems a likely candidate.
I want to talk about a wonderful little clip of you in George Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 film Creepshow, where you’re dancing around. Do you remember doing that?
Oh yeah! I just remember it was really silly. I remember just trying to have a good time and stay loose. It’s pretty silly, I think. I haven’t seen it in years.
You’ve got to rewatch it. You’ve got some real moves.
[Laughs.] Okay, I will.
Are you much of a dancer? Maybe if you’re at a wedding?
No, not at all. In the olden days, I — with the help of whatever — I loved to dance. But these days, I’m not in too many situations where anybody is dancing. I don’t mind dancing by myself. Turn on the music in a private room somewhere or down in the gym and just dance around and it’s really just a great way to stay loose. I like privacy, to be uninhibited in terms of moving and exploring your body and stuff, just doing whatever you feel like. I remember when I was in college at Cal Arts, they had these rooms where you just go in there, have a mirror, and lock the door and you could just do anything you needed to in there. Enjoy the freedom of total privacy. As a creative person, you’ve got to have that space where you’re just free. You’re not self-conscious, no one is looking at you, no one’s going to look at you, and you can really just do whatever you feel like in terms of loosening up.
Is that how you warm up?
Yeah, you know, when I was doing this play — we just did 125 performances in London of [Sam] Shepard’s Buried Child. My wife and I had my own private dressing room and it had enough space. I’d get there two hours before the show and do what I needed to do vocally and physically and get ready to do it.
Let’s talk Westworld. What were you told about the show when you were first approached? It’s a bit of a weird pitch.
Let’s see. I met with [co-creator] Jonah [Nolan] and he laid out the basic premise of the show. He told me that my character was a human being. He kind of waxed poetic about the deeper levels of the show or what he and [co-creator] Lisa [Joy] were aiming for. He got very deep into the metaphysical aspects of it. It sounded very interesting to me and obviously he was very passionate about it, but he didn’t get into much detail about my character until the show progressed.
So at the beginning you didn’t know the Man in Black’s true identity?
I didn’t know that he basically owned this place. I didn’t know that his wife had died. I knew that he had been coming here for 30 years and this time he was going to say that he wasn’t going to leave and that he was after something. He was trying to find some deeper meaning in this place. That’s about all I knew.
Did you start to build out a backstory for him?
Yeah, I started building out a backstory, which I had to throw away when I found out his identity. What he did, what his job was, the company that he owned, and that kind of thing. What his family life was like, where he lived. I was told that on the outside world he was a bit of a philanthropist and a very well-respected citizen and that he came to the park to kind of exorcise this violent part of him, which he had recognized by coming to the park. I knew that.
As the scripts came in and you learned what Jonah and Lisa had planned for the character, how did you have to adjust?
It just fills you up a little bit more in your subconscious, in terms of who this guy is and why he’s doing what he’s doing in a certain way. But I felt pretty secure about that, anyway, so I don’t think it really altered anything drastically.
What was the biggest surprise when you got a script for a given episode?
I guess the biggest surprise was when I saw [co-star] Jimmi Simpson and was told that he was playing me as a younger man. I went, “Oh, I didn’t know that was happening.” That was a bit of a shocker.
Had you interacted with Jimmi much at that point?
No, I just saw him walking by the trailer and somebody told me who he was. We said hello after, but we never really were on the set at the same time, so I’ve seen him more after we’ve finished than I had during the filming.
You didn’t have any conversations about the character while you were shooting it?
Nope. Not a one.
What have you talked about with him subsequently? You guys have this character in common, after all.
Oh, I don’t know. I just complimented him, basically. We talked for a while. I just really like the guy. It was more just talking about life and stuff. We didn’t really talk about the work that much.
Tell me about working with James Marsden. You spend a lot of time on the show with him and you guys have some real chemistry. What was it like working with him?
I like James a lot. We got along great. He’s from Oklahoma, and my roots and my folks are both from Oklahoma, and we had that in common. We’re both kind of athletic guys. And we just got along. I liked working with him very much. He had to go through the ringer a lot, tied up to that tree and getting shot a bunch of times. He was a trooper, though. Good guy.
How about working with Evan Rachel Wood?
I loved working with Evan — especially when she got to beat the shit out of me. She was so up for that. She was so excited that she finally got to pound the Man in Black and throw him around. It was pretty funny, actually.
What do you think the show has to say about the relationship between men and women? Your character gets into that a lot.
That’s a good question. What this whole thing is saying about humanity, I’m not quite sure. It’s not the most optimistic outlook on things. When I get a script, I’ve got to say, I don’t really intellectualize it too much. I really just try to get into the motivations of the character and who he is and what he’s doing and try to tell the truth and let people think what they’re going to think about. I don’t get into psychoanalyzing the larger aspect of things, necessarily. I try to just do it on a very human, visceral level.
What do you think attracts you to characters who are menacing and masculine and tough? Is there something that pulls you toward them?
Eh, I don’t know. Not necessarily. It’s fun to play men who know how to take care of themselves and have a bit of confidence. And it’s also fun to play people who are totally insincere and out of their minds.
Jonah and Lisa have said that they’re writing the whole second season before they shoot it. Do you know more about the character going into this season?
No, I haven’t been told a thing. I talked to Jonah while I was in London on the phone and he said, “We’ve got some great ideas. Lisa and I really look forward to talking to you about what we have in mind.” And then we’re at this Paley Fest thing a few weeks ago, and we spent a little time. But I still don’t know. I have no idea what’s going to happen or where my character is headed or anything. I figure I’ll find out soon enough.
Obviously this is a big prestige TV show. Do you watch much TV?
Yeah, we’ve been watching Feud, actually. I really like Rectify and The Night Of and The Crown. We’ll pick out certain things we want to check out. I don’t watch a lot of network TV, but we’ve got Apple TV, so we can binge if we need to. Other than that, I mostly watch sports. There’s so much content now, it’s just ridiculous. You hear people talking about shows, “This is great and this is great.” You could spend 24 hours a day watching all this stuff, and I just don’t have the time to do that.
What do you like about Feud?
It’s just kind of fun. I know Jessica [Lange] and I know Susan [Sarandon] and I’ve worked with them both. I’ve also worked with Judy Davis on a Clint Eastwood film a long time ago. It’s fun to watch people that you know work and do their thing. It’s just so … God, Joan Crawford, what a miserable human being she was. It just makes you glad that, first of all, the studio system has changed over the years and that kind of thing. Also, Amy [Madigan, his wife] and I were just laughing because we’re not in the game like that. We don’t participate. We do our work and that’s it. Not bound up in any of that bullshit. So, it’s kind of fun to watch.
What do you feel like you’ve learned about yourself as a creative person that you didn’t know 20 or 30 years ago? What’s something that you’ve realized about yourself?
Well, I think the main thing is, I’m a fairly intense guy and take things somewhat seriously. Maybe too much so, at times. At least, I used to. As the years go by, you realize how important just relaxing and being present is, keeping your feet on the ground and all the research you’ve done and the prep work you’ve done for whatever character you’re playing. When you’re in front of the camera or on the stage, it’s just about getting in that zone and letting it be and not trying to do anything and letting things take place and letting discovery happen and trusting yourself and opening yourself up to see what takes place.
How do you relax?
Well, a little yoga. I do something physical pretty much every day, whether it’s working in the yard or doing a little run or swimming or playing a little tennis. I’ve got some property, so there’s always something to do outside. I’ll get into some routines. When I’m working, especially with theater, you get into a routine where you’ve got your prep that you do, vocally and physically, every day, eight shows a week. And when I’m doing film, you just try and stay in good shape and stay loose and keep breathing and stay centered and do your thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.