Ed Harris on Building a Character and His Take on Becoming an Actor


“If you have to do it, you will. If you don’t have to do it, you won’t.” – Ed Harris on Becoming an Actor

Four-time Academy Award nominee Ed Harris is close to the top of the “Wait, he hasn’t won an Oscar yet?” list. He’s also a three-time Emmy Award nominee too, so it’s fair to say that Harris hasn’t received his awards gold due yet. And even with all the acclaim he has received for his roles, Harris is still up for challenges — including stepping into his first Broadway role in over two decades by recently replacing Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird — and continuing to sell out the packed Schubert Theatre week after week.

While participating in a video about how to “make it” in acting for Vanity Fair, Harris spoke about the importance of getting out of one’s comfort zone when performing and added valuable advice about learning the difference between wanting to be an actor and wanting to be a star.

Harris points out that in taking on a character that is very different from one’s own persona, an actor can learn a lot about his or her own abilities. From his early days at the Pasadena Repertory Theatre, he recalls, “Sometimes it’s a matter of research about the person, sometimes it’s a whole physical thing that the person’s got some particular aspect to them. I remember one of the first things I did in theater was I played Lot in a Tennessee Williams play called Kingdom of Earth. He’s very effeminate character, it was a whole different way of being physically for me. I just allowed myself to work on that and to be that, and to change how I felt, and not afraid to be, you know? I don’t have to be Mr. Macho. I was only 26 when I did that, but it taught me a lot.”

One piece of advice that Harris has to share with aspiring actors is to know to separate the idea of being an actor from being a “star,” because the craft and the business, while connected, are separate entities. He says:

“I would just say if this is something you’re pursuing as an actor, it’s one thing to learn about acting, it’s one thing to become a better actor. It’s another thing to want to be somebody, to want to be a star, or to be, da da da, or to get recognition. If you want to be an actor, and learn about acting, it has nothing to do with Hollywood. That has nothing to do with the business. That has to do with you as a human being pursuing something that you f****** care about. If you get good enough, all that other stuff will take care of itself.”

He also sums up his thoughts on whether or not one will make it in a single sentence: “If you have to do it, you will. If you don’t have to do it, you won’t.”

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