Harris paints turbulent life of 'Pollock'

Oscar nominee spends years on story of troubled American artist

— Jackson Pollock discovered his talent by gazing at a blank canvas and capturing beauty in a spattering of color. While trying to tell the artist's story on film, a despairing Ed Harris found inspiration when he sat on a New York City curb.

On only the second day of shooting, the actor and first-time director had fallen behind schedule while trying to film a complicated scene on a busy street.

"We had to make a decision about what we weren't going to get that day and what we were never going to get � after working on the script for eight years," Harris said.

The 50-year-old actor, known for playing agonized tough guys in blockbusters like "The Abyss," "Apollo 13" and "The Rock," developed a passion for Pollock's story after reading a biography of the artist in 1986. He received an Oscar nomination for best actor Tuesday for his portrayal of the artist in the film, "Pollock."

The movie Harris had in mind leaned more toward his work in smaller, independent movies like "The Third Miracle" or "Glengarry Glen Ross," and he spent nearly 15 years working toward the day when his movie would be complete.

That troubled day on the street was a turning point.

"I sat on the curb and thought, 'This is impossible,'" Harris recalled. "I was telling myself, 'This is just not gonna happen. There's no way we're going to be able to pull this off."'

Harris describes that moment sitting in a similar pose � crouched at the edge of his seat, hands clasped prayerlike above his knees, his face resting on the fingertips.

"I just kind of just sat there and ... just wept for a while," he added with a laugh. "I said to myself, 'What are you doing here? You can sit up and get the shot. Just do what you gotta do."'

Work continued, and Harris got what he needed that day even if he didn't get everything he wanted.

"It was moment-to-moment, kind of gut-check survival time for months," he said. "Ultimately, it was very, very invigorating and challenging. And boy, it really keeps you alive, I'll tell you that much."

As the lead actor, director and producer, Harris said, it was a constant battle to complete the film on time, within the budget and in a manner that did justice to the subject.

"Ed is very serious. He's very focused. He's very dedicated and intense," said "Pollock" co-star Marcia Gay Harden, who played the artist's wife, Lee Krasner. "Making this movie was a lot of stress for him. The road was a little bouncier at times because it was his first time as a director."

The movie chronicles Pollock's progression from a Depression-era painter living off a federally funded workfare program, to the peak of his career as America's first internationally lauded abstract impressionist.

Pollock is best known for his so-called "drip paintings," huge canvases covered with multicolored splashes and drops of paint. Some art aficionados sneered � he became the target of "my-kid-could-have-done-that" criticism.

"The bottom line was that he was a creative individual who really fought a lot of his own obstacles and pressures to come up with another way of painting and a way of expressing himself that was truly original," Harris said. "I think, in its best sense, it was very pure. And it happened to revolutionize modern art."

Pollock eventually found fortune and acclaim through the influence of art critic Clement Greenberg (played by Jeffrey Tambor) and collector Peggy Guggenheim (played by Harris's wife, Amy Madigan.)

Pollock's wife � and greatest promoter � worked tirelessly and sacrificed much of her own career to keep him sober and working. He also suffered from a painfully fragile ego that led to alcoholism and temperamental outbursts that eventually cost him his life.

"This is not a fictional character," Harris said. "He doesn't exist in a book, he existed on the planet, you know? He woke up every morning, he faced what he had to face and went out to his studio to paint."

Pollock died in 1956 while driving drunk down a country road. His mistress, Ruth Kligman, was hurt in the crash, and her friend, Edith Metzger, was killed. Harris decided to direct the film "by default" because he had such a specific vision for telling Pollock's story.

"I had been living with this guy for quite a while and I kind of knew what I wanted to do," he said. "I felt that I could inhabit this character in an honest way."

Harris next appears as a German major in the World War II drama "Enemy at the Gates," and is shooting the drama "The Hours" with Meryl Streep.

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