role call

Marcia Gay Harden Answers Every Question We Have About Her Pollock Oscars Win

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by Sony Pictures Classics

When Nicolas Cage declared Marcia Gay Harden the winner of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2001, no one could believe it — especially not Marcia Gay Harden. She hadn’t been nominated for a Golden Globe or Screen Actors Guild Award that year, and Pollock, for which she won, was an intimate Ed Harris passion project that opened nationwide a mere two days before the ceremony. The other women in the category — Judi Dench (Chocolat), Kate Hudson (Almost Famous), Frances McDormand (Almost Famous), and Julie Walters (Billy Elliot) — had higher profiles, and so did their movies. “What a thrill,” Harden said when she arrived at the podium. I agree.

To portray Lee Krasner, the tough-minded painter who married Jackson Pollock shortly before he produced his most famous works, Harden studied the history of abstract expressionism. “I am that girl who would say, ‘I don’t understand why a red dot in the middle of a white painting is considered art,’ so I wanted to learn why,” she explained during a recent phone conversation. It paid off: Her performance is the heart of the film, which marked Harris’s directorial debut. To commemorate Harden’s unanticipated 20-year-old victory and the “magical” night that followed, we talked about the road to the Oscars, what the milestone meant to her, and the one nominee who wasn’t so happy with her win.

This was Ed Harris’s dream project. He’s said he put you through several rounds of auditions before you got the part. What do you remember about that process?

Everything. It’s so sharp in my mind because A) It was something that I wanted so much and B) I had another actress that I was sure he was going to hire. I don’t even know if he was auditioning her, but in my mind, she had a lot of the edge and sharpness of Lee. I’m a bit of a softer person. That first audition was one of those auditions with a casting director, and then there was another audition at Ed’s house. By then, I feel like that might have been my third. That one is seared into my brain forever.

Was it intense?

Well, I drove up to Ed’s house, and first of all, going to a movie star’s house — it was Ed and Amy [Madigan] and they had a kid. They were up in one of the canyons, so already you’re nervous. Ed and I had worked together before on a play called Simpatico and had developed a kind of big-brother/little-sister relationship because he was such a wonderful grump. He’s such a grouch. I loved to tease him and poke fun at him, and we had a friggin’ blast onstage together.

I’d been looking at Lee Krasner tapes and studying the accent from Queens, and there I am. I might have even had my hair in a certain way, wearing some billowy gown. Ed answers the door like, “Hey, Marcia,” and I say, [in exaggerated Queens accent] “Hello, Ed, how are you?” I was completely in character. After about ten minutes, Ed says, “Marcia Gay, what are you doing?” I said, “Ed, I listened to the accent and I’m really ready to show you that I can do it!” He goes, “We have to stop it immediately. While it may be completely accurate, people have to listen to that for two hours, so we need to find a way so that the accent doesn’t draw as much attention to itself.” So I did. I brought it down. I’ll never forget that.

All of it was so larger-than-life. It was like from a movie, but there was a rusticness to it, a reality to it. His family probably offered me something to eat, and I’m sure I didn’t want to eat it because I was sure I would slob it all over my face. You’re offered coffee and you take it and hope they don’t notice that your hand is shaking.

And you’re doing all of this already knowing there’s another actress he also has in mind?

I think there were maybe two. I feel like maybe Judy Davis might have been up for it.

I can see that.

I could see it left, right, and center. Obviously we each offer something different. When you get to that point, you’re equally good. It might have come down to [the fact that] we had a working relationship previously and Ed knew my ethic. I’m pretty darn easy on set. There’s not a lot of diva in me. Most interestingly, what happened was we developed a symbiotic relationship. Lee took care of Pollock, even when he was in distress, so I planted myself in a place — willingly, not being asked to — to make sure Ed was taken care of on set. And it felt fantastic.

What did that look like for you? 

I remember the pressures being so heavy on Ed. He was wearing all these different hats, and his own money was at stake in this film. It was just intense. I would bring him water, I would make him laugh, I would rub his back. He was intense, and I’m a person who believes there’s a lot of room for conflict in creativity. Ed was about “this is a big building to build,” and he wanted to have the hammer in his hand and work with everybody to build it. He pushed me. Sometimes it made the crew uncomfortable, but I knew what he was doing. No matter what Ed did or said to me, it always ended in a hug. I remember he came once to my trailer to see what I was looking at to wear, and he was like, “What is this? What is this shit?” It was the way friends can talk to each other. Still I love that guy; we still text and talk.

The one darker note in that Oscars Night is that Ed didn’t win. I got to hold the baby, and he’s so worthy. That’s the fun distortion of Oscars and awards. When you get to the nomination point, all of the performances are so worthy that you project they’re all winners. And they are! You’ll go, “Are you kidding me, Glenn Close has never won?”

What do you think the win did or didn’t do for you? You once said that you made less money immediately after winning the Oscar than at any other point in your career.

That is true. I think there are a lot of factors involved, 9/11 being one of them. I had a family now, so I had taken a television job in New York at the time. It was right after Pollock.

That’s The Education of Max Bickford?

Correct. In retrospect, maybe I could have held off for the next big role and constantly planted myself in a leading way. Retrospect is not my best friend. I think it’s a leash around your neck that keeps tugging you back. But I did Max Bickford, and I loved doing it. We were there on 9/11 in Queens watching that horribleness happen. For me, that television show never quite recovered, and I think the finances in the film industry changed. I was the breadwinner for my family, so it was important to keep my family afloat.

For anyone observing the way that season was unfolding, your Oscar was a total left-field win. At what point did you know that Sony Pictures Classics was going to position the movie for awards, and to what extent?

Well, please understand, at that moment, I was a complete Oscar ignoramus. Positioning, campaigning — all of those things were completely new to me. I didn’t know that they had people at five in the morning that announced the Oscar nominations. I knew you’d take out ads, but I thought, Doesn’t everybody? I didn’t know how deeply [Sony Pictures Classics co-president] Michael Barker was behind the film. I knew he liked my performance, and I knew he and Ed had worked together in editing to allow Lee Krasner to have a little more resonance.

But then it started being in the running, and I had a wonderful publicist at the time, Carri McClure, who understood all of this. I was busy traveling around the country doing the media thing — going to Texas and Cincinnati, wherever. My mindset was, “Oh great, I’ll go to Texas and get to see my mom! How much fun! Oh my God, they’re flying me everywhere!” Even though I was an established actress at that point, I don’t think I’d ever been on the kind of media tours that Pollock was putting me on.

Would I have said that that equalled an Oscar package? Maybe when we went to the Venice Film Festival, getting off the airplane and stepping into a boat with a bottle of prosecco. Now that’s glam. That made me go, Maybe people will take notice — but not necessarily of me. For me, it was Ed’s movie. I don’t think I’d even been Miss Let’s Watch the Oscars Every Year. I’d never paid attention to it that closely, other than how glorious it is. But then, as awards after awards after awards went along and there were no nominations for me, I certainly didn’t think the Oscars would come along and go, “Yes, we love her.” So that morning of the nomination, the phone started ringing off the wall, and it was probably my lawyer who got to me first to say I’d been nominated. I went, “What?!

Since the SAG Awards started in 1994, you are the only person to win an Oscar without receiving either a SAG nom or a Globe nom beforehand.

That’s right. It was only the New York Critics Award. I didn’t know how that would balance the scale. I knew the odds in Vegas were really great against me by the time they came up.

So going in to that night, you were told it was unlikely you would win?

Oh, it was unlikely in my brain. It was a dream that Ed would win, and I was thrilled to be there. They all say, “It’s easy to say that when you’ve won an Oscar.” But for me, that night was the win. And then winning was the win!

Who did you think was going to win?

Kate.

Yeah, I think that’s what most people thought.

Yeah, and by the way, everybody deserves to win. In that moment, everybody has presented such worthy performances that it’s really hard to tell. I would have felt really happy for anyone because each has a moment in their performance that you’re like, “Yep, yep, yep.”

It was a really strong lineup that you were part of.

It was! When they called my name, it was a blur. When you go through the footage, you can still see my dad standing up well into the thank-you speech going, “Bravo!” Somebody behind him said, “Sir, you must sit down!” I was like, “Please don’t let it be Scorsese.”

Had you prepared a speech?

Yeah, of course, because I’m a people pleaser. They said 45 seconds, and in the limo on the way down, I would have my ex timing me. I would cut things because I wanted to thank my acting teacher from NYU and the waiters who covered my shifts while I went downtown for auditions. It was going over, so anything that was cute and personal went out the door to 45 seconds of names, names, names. I tried to make it sweet and elegant and fit my parents in there. I didn’t even think of my siblings! I’m also probably the only Oscar winner in the supporting category who’s ever finished in the prescribed amount of time.

Your first words were, “What a thrill,” which is a fantastic way to begin an Oscars speech. I don’t know whether you know that people who follow the Oscars religiously love the “What a thrill” moment.

I didn’t know that.

If I’m talking to a friend or colleague who loves the Oscars, I can say, “What a thrill,” and they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Are you telling me that I’m almost a meme? Oh my God!

Did you know that “What a thrill” was going to be your first line?

No! That was the one unscripted line. I will tell you that I did kind of mess up because I had my little crumpled sheet in my hand. I’d rehearsed it in the car, but I thanked my husband after my lawyer and everybody laughed and I didn’t understand why. Maybe because it made him seem like he was second.

That’s interesting, because when you said, “Thank you for taking the time to view the tape and even consider our film,” the audience chuckled in response. In rewatching the speech, I was wondering whether that was some kind of running joke because Pollock was seen as this scrappy underdog. I didn’t understand why that moment elicited laughter in the room.

You know, maybe because that was one of the early years — and this is all completely earnest and innocent of me; it was not planned to be a joke — that they were sending out tapes [to voters]. Pollock hadn’t appeared in theaters but for a truncated period of time in order to qualify, so it said to me that people, in the privacy of their own homes, had watched it. So that’s where that line came from. Now I realize many, many, many people — myself included — do watch the DVDs or [screening] links at home. Oddly, I was told later that the press stood up and cheered, which made me cry because you think of the press as so jaded. But I think they also, better than anybody, knew the procedures of SAG Awards and Golden Globes and this and that.

To your point, I will tell you, as someone who covers this stuff professionally, it often feels so stale by Oscars Night. It’s the same four people winning every single award. Even when it’s deserved, it becomes a little dull, so to see a thrilling win like yours, where everybody thought it was going to be Kate or Frances or whatever, is so exciting.

It’s new blood. It just felt great. And by the way, I felt the girls were really happy for me as well. There was one I will not mention — but it wasn’t Kate — who seemingly wasn’t so happy.

And then you get to go to the Governors Ball! That was beautiful. That was a dream. Are you kidding me? There was this rotating centerpiece that the orchestra was on, and everything was so beautiful. There was champagne on the table and people coming by to say congratulations, and my gown was pretty. I was in these Harry Winston diamonds, and it felt like a dream come true.

After you win, you go backstage and you do all of that. When I came back to my seat, my dad wasn’t there. There was a filler in his seat, and Mom says, “He’s gone to get a drink.” I got up to go find him, but I didn’t tell my Harry Winston bodyguard that I was going. I just wasn’t thinking, and apparently that created major panic. I found Dad, who was getting drinks for everybody. Then I could see this head bouncing over the crowd and it was the Harry Winston bodyguard, who was a hot, hot dude. I said, “I’m so sorry, I’ll never do it again.” My dad died in 2002, so I was just blessed that he was there. The night was magical, truly. It ended with this crazy paparazzi chase. When we were heading back to the hotel, we realized we were being chased by paparazzi. My mother was like, “They’re after the jewels! Let’s fling them from the sunroof! I want to live!”

I’m sure the bodyguard would have loved that.

He was in the car with us, and he was like, “No!” He was on the radio to the police, and the police were chasing the paparazzi. My ex was trying to film it all because he was a documentarian, and I was just thrilled that I was famous enough that paparazzi wanted to keep chasing me. Then we pulled in to the Santa Monica police department, and it turns out — womp, womp — they thought I was Russell Crowe.

Then we went to sleep, and to answer the question of, “Did you think things would change?” I think I expected to wake up and the lawn would be emeralds and standing on the lawn would be Spielberg and Scorsese in an arm-wrestle trying to get me their next script. Instead, you open the windows and it’s just another day.

I have to loop back around and ask what Julie Walters, I assume, did to make you feel like she wasn’t happy for you.

It’s not her.

Oh!

Mm-hmm. But I would never say anything negative because what a night, right?

I totally get that you don’t want to throw anybody under the bus and now I’m being annoying by pressing you, but the other two people in that category — Frances McDormand and Judi Dench — had both won Oscars within the past few years.

Uh-huh, yes.

But one of them was less than satisfied.

And I’m friends with Frances McDormand. There you go.

Right, I don’t think Frances McDormand gives a shit about what awards she wins. So, Judi Dench.

Frances doesn’t give a shit. But I don’t want to say anything negative about anybody, honestly. It was my perception that somebody wasn’t so happy, but you never know what people have going on. Whatever. However, I’m a big one for effusive congratulations. That’s who I am. I’m just so happy for other people in their wins and their glories. For me, there’s plenty of room at the top. Sometimes you just accept that life rolls along and things come to you when they should.

This is neither here nor there, but interestingly, Julia Roberts won Best Actress that night for Erin Brockovich. You beat out Julia Roberts for the role in Miller’s Crossing, the movie that put you on the map. Were you aware of that at the time?

I was. I did not rub it in [laughs].

I’m sure Julia Roberts was fine with the way her career developed in spite of not getting that one role. 

It’s true. That was a shock, and if there’s any people I’m in debt to for the rest of my life, it’s the Coens. They take risks. They put new people on the map. They are fantastic storytellers, and they gave me a chance not just to act but to transform and meet the amazing Albert Finney and the late, great Jon Polito. And that night, I didn’t say, “You know, Julia, guess what?” First of all, I love her. I think she is so incredibly talented. She does something that’s really, really hard to do. She is likable even when she’s unlikable. Even at the height of her anger, you still relate to her. And she’s friggin’ funny. I love her.

I agree. In 2019, you said that you doubt you’d ever win an Oscar again. I understand the sentiment, but if anything, it seems to me that you’re even more respected within the industry now than you were then. So I’m curious why you think that.

Okay, I take it back. I don’t know why I would have said such a thing. Maybe because it’s not where my head is. But I would be a very big liar if I said I wouldn’t like to, and I’d like to win an Emmy. Of course I would. But the thing that comes behind saying, “I’d like to win an Oscar,” also means you’d like to be given a role that was big enough and important enough to be able to do something with it. It’s about the scope of the work.

There’s this strain within the industry that forces people, despite all the campaigning they end up doing, to act like they don’t really care. I just never believe it. Why wouldn’t you care?

I don’t really believe it, either. Validation is one of the greatest teaching tools in the world. The Oscars are part of the machine. I don’t like to pooh-pooh it at all because I think it’s an important part of the industry. Acknowledging great work is important, and now that it’s opened up to recognize more independent films and things like Roma, that is fantastic. It gives these movies a little breath of life.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.