My Big Break
10:02 am
Sun March 9, 2014

The Unforgettable Performance Ed Harris Doesn't Remember

Originally published on Sat March 8, 2014 8:23 pm

As part of a new series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Actor Ed Harris, whose new film The Face of Love is out in select theaters, has taken on some indelible roles: from the controlling creator of the tiny universe in The Truman Show, to abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock.

But his most memorable acting experience came long before these Oscar-nominated performances.

Back in 1973, when Harris had studied acting for just a year at the University of Oklahoma, a teacher asked him to audition for a production of the musical Camelot at a community theater.

At the time, he was working as a night watchman at an apartment complex in Oklahoma City and hadn't done much theater. After the audition, he was cast to play the lead role of King Arthur at Oklahoma City's Jewel Box Theatre.

"I was very excited," Harris recalls. And it took some work: "I put a yardstick up on my back and they tied it to me so my posture would be good during rehearsals."

During one of the performances, Harris had a transcendent experience.

"I don't remember doing the play at all," he says. "Really, I mean, seriously I don't remember doing the play. I was just in another zone. I was in it."

When he walked out during the curtain call, he saw 220 Oklahomans on their feet cheering in the small, packed theater.

"I had this feeling of complete ecstasy," he says. "It's probably the most high I've been ever, in any way."

Harris says this rush not only convinced him to pursue acting, it also set a standard for what truly embodying a character should feel like.

"It's almost like you spend the rest of your life trying to get back to that state where you're just present, doing it, no thought other than doing this character in this play or this film," he says.

With all of the awards and accolades he has today, he's not sure that he's ever truly gotten back there.

"The Camelot experience obviously is not a traditional kind of big breakthrough in terms of a career, but it was a big break for me personally, as a human being who has decided he wants to act," says Harris.

"It was an internal realization that, you have no choice now buddy, this is what you're gonna do."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we're collecting stories of triumph, big and small, moments when people make great leaps forward in their careers. We call it My Big Break.

Actor Ed Harris has taken on some memorable roles, everything from astronaut John Glenn to painter Jackson Pollock. But he feels his most memorable performance came back in 1973.

ED HARRIS: I had studied acting for just a year at Oklahoma University. I'd been pretty much a jock up to that point, played football and baseball, and realized that wasn't going anywhere. The teacher that I had, who was a wonderful teacher, he was directing a production of "Camelot" in Oklahoma City the following year and asked me to audition.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: I was working as a night watchman in an apartment complex during that time. And we did the audition. I really had not done very much theater. I mean, I've done a few plays at college. And then I got a call from him that he wanted me to play King Arthur. And I was very excited. It was at JewelBox Theatre, 220 seats.

I had put a yardstick up on my back, and they tied it to me so my posture would be good during rehearsals. I remember the songs, you know, (singing) how to handle a woman. There's a way said a wise old man. A way known by every woman since the whole rigmarole began. And it, you know, goes on. Anyway...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: ...one night, we did the show, and I don't remember doing the play at all. Really, I mean, seriously, I did not remember doing the play. I was just in another zone. I was in it. I only remember coming off the stage and hearing this roar go up and went back after the curtain call, and 220 Oklahomans were on their feet cheering. And I had this feeling of complete ecstasy, probably the most high I've been ever in any way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: What it did was not only convince me that this was something to pursue, but ever since, you know, you try to get back there. I mean, it's almost like you spend the rest of your life trying to get back to that state where you're just present, doing it, no thought other than doing this character in this play or this film. I don't know if it'll ever happen again that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: The "Camelot" experience, obviously, is not a traditional kind of big breakthrough in terms of a career. But it was a big break for me personally as a human being who has decided he wants to act. It was an internal realization that you have no choice now, buddy. This is what you're going to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Oscar-nominated actor Ed Harris. His new film, "The Face of Love," is in select theaters now. We want to hear about your big break. Send an email with your story to mybigbreak, all one word, at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.