Nominated for four Academy Awards — for Apollo 13, The Truman Show (for which he received a Golden Globe), Pollock and The Hours — and an Emmy (Empire Falls), Ed Harris has become a familiar face on movie and TV screens. He returns to the local stage, at the Geffen Playhouse, in Neil LaBute's "love story," Wrecks — a solo performance in which Harris proffers a kind of Dostoyevskian monologue (which means it's partly rambling, partly unstable, yet largely profound) from the point of view of a widower at the viewing of his deeply cherished wife. (The play premiered in Ireland, before transferring to the New York's Public Theatre in 2006.)
Harris got his training in L.A. theater, working in the kinds of "cat box" venues that so often prove to be the laboratories for actors, playwrights and directors who are bound for other destinations.
He grew up in New Jersey, and after attending Columbia University (which then had no theater program), he transferred to the University of Oklahoma (his parents grew up in that state). Eventually, he worked his way farther west, to study at CalArts.
"When I got out of CalArts in '75, until '82, all I did was Equity Waiver," he explains, "living in Sierra Madre and painting houses." He recalls doing some plays at the Globe (in West Hollywood), at the Gene Dynarski Theatre and at another now-defunct warehouse space called the Pilot Theatre, which used to be on Santa Monica Boulevard down the street from the Complex — before it was converted into a parking lot. He was among a group of rising stars who tried to form a partnership at the MET Theatre, but acrimony sabotaged the effort. Doing plays in small theaters here is "like watching them sink into the Pacific Ocean," he says. "I don't think that's going to change anytime soon."
However, Harris performs Wrecks in the Geffen's small space, and even there, the attention has been national.
The actor is intense in person, as well as gregarious and generous. He either slumps back on the couch he's sitting on, or he rocks back and forth. Much of the time Harris avoids eye contact as he explains a concept, then his eyes focus in like lasers. He means what he says, and he does what he means. In Ireland, he wroked in a 600-seat theater. In New York, it was a larger space than the Geffen. Harris says he's not trying to re-create those performances, or, to be literal, that he is trying to re-create them — meaning not to repeat what he'd done before because it was habitual. The challenge, he says, is to erase what was comfortable in order to find new and different truths, which may lay hidden in the text.
"One thing about theater is that it's always fulfilling because it's live. Whether it succeeds or not, night to night, hopefully you're putting yourself out there. You're saying, 'Here I am.' You're saying, 'You can buy into this show or not. But this is the best I can do for you.' It's a little scary sometimes, but you feel like you ... you know for yourself what you've done."
Wrecks continues at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave., Westwood; through March 7. (310) 208-5454.