Marcia Gay Harden Interview, The Dead Girl

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline had a chance to catchup with Marcia Gay Harden to talk about her role in The Dead Girl. MARCIA GAY HARDEN won the 2001 Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Lee Krasner opposite Ed Harris in POLLOCK.  
She also won a New York Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for the role.   Upcoming film roles for Harden are CANVAS, Lasse Hallström’s THE HOAX, and THE INVISIBLE.

THE DEAD GIRL, the new film from acclaimed writer/director Karen Moncrieff (BLUE CAR), is a quintet of stories about seemingly unrelated people whose lives converge around the murder of a young woman.

“The Stranger” is about the woman (Toni Collette) who finds the body. The publicity generated by the discovery creates an opening for her to break away from her abusive mother’s (Piper Laurie) control and form an unlikely bond with the mysterious Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi).

“The Sister,” a forensics graduate student (Rose Byrne), is torn between her mother’s (Mary Steenburgen) pressure to hold onto hope for her abducted sister's return and her longing to move forward with her own life. When she examines the dead girl, she is convinced that she has found the body of her missing sister, finally releasing her from her burden.

“The Wife” (Mary Beth Hurt) is trapped in an intense hate/love relationship with her husband (Nick Searcy). A terrible discovery about his connection to the dead girl's murder forces her to confront what she though she knew about him—and herself.

“The Mother” (Marcia Gay Harden) searches for answers about her runaway daughter’s life and is confronted with a series of revelations that change the course of her own life. She gets help in her quest from another troubled young woman—the prostitute (Kerry Washington) who lived with her daughter. “The Dead Girl” (Brittany Murphy) is a fireball: hyper, volatile, self-destructive and subject to hair-trigger bursts of uncontrollable rage. She also has an innocent and child-like side. She dreams about improving her life and becoming a good mother to her young daughter.

The characters in THE DEAD GIRL are linked not only by their connection to a brutal murder but also by the difficult hand that life has dealt them. The film scrutinizes their inner struggles to overcome or surrender to their misfortunes. As in BLUE CAR, Moncrieff creates multidimensional portraits of women as they seesaw emotionally through a tangle of conflicting desires and fears. Here is what Marcia had to say. 

Q: What attracted you to the project?
Marcia: What I liked about it, the things that drew me to it was that it was a second time out director and that she had written this film with kind of these flashback chapters so each character could really have a chance to take control of my metaphors, drive your own car. So often you’re in a film and you feel like you’re a vehicle for someone else’s plot device or to further someone else’s story.
In this case, I felt like we each got to have a great realm and breadth in order to tell our own story. The fact that it was dark – the title is Dead Girl – so you can’t escape that, but I think it was an important telling of what happens every single day on the back streets of the cities and in countries. There are murders and violence and things like that that happen every day, and the fact is that one murder, one act of violence, affects so many different people and I think that’s what Karen was trying to get at in the film.

Q: As a mother, did it make you think how far apart this lady must have been from her own childhood and knowing so little about what was happening under her own nose?

Marcia: You know, as a human, I thought that. As a mother, I think every day I wake up with fear about what is my daughter being introduced to, what am I introducing her to, how am I paying attention to the right things. It’s a constant balancing act to make sure that she’s nurtured and given a sense of freedom and independence. And I try to allow her to have a sense of hope and goodness in the world which is very hard to do with the internet and television and the onslaught of kind of depressing news that she is exposed to I think all over the world. And when you think about being… when I was a kid, I remember – my dad was in the military and we were in the middle of the Viet Nam war and he had also been in the Philippines before that. So I lived with that spectre of war over my head I feel like for most of my life because if it wasn’t that war, it was the Cold War, and with the reality of violence and that this is the way that superpowers solve their problems anymore is by ‘I’ll show you. I’ll bomb you.
I’ll drop the atomic bomb’ whatever. It just seems so – you start questioning kind of the balance of life and morality. I think about that for my daughter a lot. In this particular case, the character must have been living in some abject denial to allow for that to happen in the home so that my character could still be loved, could still have security, could still have that kind of love. I figured that know those shops that you go into and they sell Christmas tree ornaments year round? That’s the kind of shop I think my character worked in. She was in one of those shops that sells Christmas tree ornaments year round. And we’re very luxist (?), but when you see these ladies in the button-up sweaters and the A-line skirts and the little pumps, we get immediate impressions about them. Some of them are on target and aware of what’s going on in the world, but some of them are a little ‘God forbid there’s conflict’ in the day even and that’s kind of where I called this character from.

Q: I felt like she was on tranquilizers as well because she seemed so calm.

Marcia: Do you know I don’t know anything about tranquilizers so it wasn’t…although I understand that people… Is Ritalin a tranquilizer?

Q: I don’t know.

Marcia: Or is that a speeding up thing? Anyway…

Q: Valium.

Marcia: I didn’t make that choice for her -- that she was on that – because I don’t know enough about that world and I thought it was enough to be in the Midwest (laughs) You know, not to disparage that because again I was just reading about, you know, is it the Red Mills company that makes the grains and the oat meals. Red Mills I think it is. They’re out of Portland, Oregon. And you look at the pictures of these people and these are like Farmer John and his pretty wife in the sweater and the Peter Pan collar, but they’re making whole grains and health food and gluten fee stuff, and it’s these guys you would never expect even to have heard of the word ‘gluten free.’
They’re the ones making this stuff so I just thought you just can’t be so luxist (?) about people or the Midwest, but in this case, this particular character’s life. And, of course, incest happens everywhere. It doesn’t just happen in small pockets of society. It happens everywhere and I guess that choice is just to turn the other way, to blame the child, to say ‘it couldn’t be happening,’ to think the best even though the back of your mind knows the worst.

Q: How do you feel about your own daughter following in your footsteps and going into acting?

Marcia: Well she’s done two films, both of them have been with me. So I feel like I’ve been able to provide an environment to protect her, to talk about the difference between a serious actor and a pop actor, and again I want her to make her own choices but I also think that the quest for fame and for money as an end in and of itself is a really dangerous quest for a young person to have. And for me, I want to instill in her the idea that you say something with your work.
You say something with your art and you express yourself and you don’t… I think a lot of this other kind of film is very formulaic. So far I felt good about it. I saw her work as a very professional actress this summer in a pretty difficult film but she’s made the choice to not do films because she wanted to build a tree house (laughs) and I thought that was a great choice. And I’m not pushing her. And, in fact, any more at this moment I would hold her back if I had the choice to because the exposure to grandeur and the exposure to excess in our business is just so much and she’s a New York kid anyway so she has all that going on. I do want her to be a kid.

Q: How was it working with a female director and how was it different?

Marcia: No different with the single exception that she nursed that baby at every cut and pumped milk in the back of the car during the middle of the take. You know, other than that there’s no difference and that’s a pretty big difference.

Q: So you have this role and then you have Lee Krasner and then you have Mona Lisa Smile. All the major women you’ve played are dark women but you have your shadings. Do you think you are drawn to those roles?

Marcia: If you offered me The Grinch 3, I would take it in a heartbeat, in a heartbeat, I tell you, or two or whatever it would be. I think I get cast in those roles because I have the capability or the gift to be emotionally available rather quickly and to, I hope when I play those roles, my desire is that people see something they recognize, people see something they understand, and that they relate to it.
So I think I get cast in them and I think that I would love to be cast in comedies and would love to be cast in lighter roles. The truth is some things like Dumb and Dumber don’t really appeal to me, but I would probably explore it if I could just to see what that job is like. It’s a little slapstick, it’s a little farcical. Us serious actors, we have to make it like (using dramatic stage voice) ‘I’m doing Dario Fo. You know the ancient Italians did slapstick. Farce we call it.’ (laughs) I would do it. I would do it because it’s fun. I would do it because it pays. I would do it because of any of those reasons unlike these serious films that don’t, but you see a compelling story in these kinds of films and you just can’t turn it down.

Q: So you would prefer comedy as long as the storyline is …?

Marcia: You know, I tried it, honestly I tried it. I did Spy Hard and I was miserable. There was no storyline, but if you offered me a comedic character. Well Mona Lisa Smile, she was actually somewhat comedic and it used people comedic in Meet Joe Black. They’re sort of serious characters but they have these great comedic moments.

Q: So many actresses over 40 complain about not getting work and yet you’re working all the time. What would you say to those actresses?

Marcia: I think they’re right. I think that scripts are written… If you even look at the market right now, you can say, ‘Oh there’s a war film. Well that has 10 roles for guys and no women’ or ‘There’s a pirate film that has 1500 roles for guys and one woman, you know, with bozooms.’ There’s certainly a dearth of female roles in big budget films.
But for every time I say that, then there’s other films you look at… you know Joan Allen doing The Upside of Anger. I mean this film has 5 women’s roles and I’m sure the guys feel totally gypped in this case, so I think that what happens is there’s very few women’s roles that pay. There’s a lot of independent films for women. And I do work all the time, but I take really small, low budget films and sometimes I think I’d like to work less and just be home a little more. But I have to be home right now which is great. It’s great. Thanksgiving and Halloween and Christmas. I love being home.

Q: How do you manage it with being a mom?

Marcia: It’s insane. It’s really insane. Is any one here a mom other than me?

Q: Yes.

Marcia: It’s just insane. Right? You’re like juggling all the time. It’s really hard and I think some days I’m a terrible mom and some days I’m a great mom. And sometimes I’m a terrible actress and sometimes I’m a great actress. And it’s just constantly balancing it, but like Karen Moncrieff, she was the director, ‘And CUT! (imitates baby crying) And ACTION!’ She showed us that you can do it. You just expect if you want to be in the marketplace, you have to juggle. Your kids understand. I have a great husband and I have good nannies and so that’s the reality.

Q: You’re also in Lasse Hallstrom’s next movie, The Hoax. Can you tell us what your part is in that? It was supposed to come out this fall and then they moved it to spring.

Marcia: Yeah, I play… It’s based on the real life story of a man named Clifford Irving who faked the autobiography of Howard Hughes and he made a million dollars. And I play his Swiss German wife, Edith Irving, with blonde hair and yeah, it was fun to do. And she ended up going to jail longer than any of the guys did actually and I think she was just kind of a victim of the whole crime.

Q: The girlfriend went to jail longer?

Marcia: She was his wife. They lived in Ibiza which is really where they were so they had all that Spanish cosmopolitan thing going on, but The Hoax sets them in America so it’s a bit of a stretch but I think it works. It’s a great film. Of course, you didn’t see it because it’s just coming out now.

Q: It sounds interesting. Have you seen this one in its entirety?

Marcia: I did, but I haven’t seen it with an audience.

Q: There’s only one guy in this whole film who has redeeming qualities – the first guy, the stranger. Everyone else is kind of men behaving badly. So how do you think this film speaks to that?

Marcia: You know, it’s a very interesting question because I have to tell you I feel really badly for guys today. When I look at something like Lancaster or the war in Iraq or Enron or big corporate businesses that are absolutely clear that the economy and making money is the goal at the expense of people’s health or whatever. It makes me very angry. It makes me really, really angry. And I think, ‘Where is the leadership for young men to say no?’ One in three dates ends up in a rape. Where is the leadership in the men to say no to that kind of behavior? And I feel badly for the guys. I feel badly that they’re shoved off into war and that the atmosphere perpetuates an atmosphere of violence and if you’re drinking and f**king, it makes me very, very sad. In this particular movie, the poverty in the area and the kind of people that she was involved with, I don’t think the girls have any redeeming qualities either. I mean Kerri Washington is a snaky ho and my character is a mother who lived in denial.
Frickin’ Mary Beth gets over it and she hides the murders. So I don’t think there’s great redeeming characters in the film period, but if you asked specifically, and this is a question I battle with all the time, what is going on with our leadership and what is going on with our young men and our young women that we haven’t said no – maybe we will, today is election day – that we haven’t said no to what’s being put forth as the predominate goals of life. If you look at history, you see that any great empire – now I sound like I’m proselytizing and I don’t mean to because I think if you guys (referring to journalists present) actually talked too, we’d probably all go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ I don’t know. Far be it from me to presume, but when you look at these historical societies that have great power and great finance, they fall. They fall when they try to dominate the rest of the world. They fall when money is the be all and the end all. Did you know that the scholars used to have to study philosophy, religion, music, the arts, because there’s a place for that, because the arts speak to the soul of the character. I do believe that.
And so I know you can’t print that without it sounding hoity- toi, but it’s the truth. And so I get nervous. Like what was that perversion in Lancaster (referring to shooting at Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania)? What is this perversion that some girl yells at a guy today -- the actress in New York – for making too much noise and he kills her and he hangs her up to look like a suicide. That’s a perversion. That’s such a complete disregard and disvaluing of life that it makes me angry. In this film, it’s a perversion – this cutting fetish whatever – it’s a perversion. It’s not just road range which Crash addressed. It’s something deeper and sicker and weirder, but I think violence is deep and sick and weird anyway so what do you think? Can you talk? (everyone laughs)

Q: We’re kind of speechless, but I agree with everything you just said. Do you get involved politically?

Marcia: Well I think life is political, you know, I really do. I think everything about life is political and it makes me very angry when people think, ‘Oh actors can’t have an opinion.’ The truth is I’m a mother, I’m an actor. That’s what I do for a job. So if somebody else…Purdue ran for office. He’s a chicken farmer who by the way farmed some pretty disgusting chickens so if you guys have seen Fast Food Nation, you’ve heard the whole thing. It’s all pretty big business [and] disgusting.
And so I think anybody can have an opinion and people should have an opinion. I think that’s what makes America great. It’s that you, me, the grocer, the actor, the whomever, we all can have opinions. The key is how do you live your life. If I sit here and I have an opinion and I drive a Hummer, I absolutely have no right to spout [off] about the environment if I’m driving a Hummer. So if you can just be aware. I think all of us are trying to find our way. It seems to me – I would hope not all of us – it seems to me that with the help of the media that people will begin to understand that there are major environmental issues that face us and major political issues that face us and that we have to be responsible to them and to our children.

Q: So what’s the difference between a serious actress and a pop actress?

Marcia: Well you know a pop actress wants fame and money, but fame is the key, I think, for a pop actress. So they make choices that are geared toward making a lot of money and putting butts in the seat and being more and more and more famous and having a Q rating, and I think actors try to tell stories. But it’s embarrassing but anyway you asked me, and I expose myself in the answering of it, because I see the print ‘how serious Marcia Gay Harden’ and it’s a way of downgrading it at the same time.
You know what I mean? It’s like, ‘Oh, so hoity toity.’ And it does look hoity toity, and I understand that, but it’s the choice to tell a story with your work, even if it’s a funny story, I think that’s a serious actor. I mean Bette Midler is a totally serious actress because she transforms, she tells great stories with her work, but when push comes to shove, she makes you feel something about humanity and that’s what it is. How do you tell a story?

Q: Earlier you were saying that you don’t think that a lot of these characters in the film have redeeming qualities but what about Toni Collette’s character? I saw her… She was in a very oppressed environment. She was mentally and emotionally abused by her mother and she got out and the redeeming quality I saw in her was that she called someone to let them know her mother was in the house by herself.

Marcia: Everybody has some redeeming quality in the film. Everybody has at least one. Even the guys, with the exception of the murderer, and yet his redeeming qualities are he has this mild mannered life and he’s a mild mannered man who has stayed with his wife and he gives her love and I guess that’s the mystery of the human being is that they are…well not black and white, we’re not labels. The film labels each of our characters – the stranger, the this, the that. We’re so much more than that. We’re so much more complicated than that.
And I think that‘s something that Karen’s trying to explore is what’s behind the label. Toni calls the mom. The sister and Mary Steenburgen, they’re not negative characters, they’re trying to move on. I take the kid. Kerry Washington brings me to the kid and says ‘Take care of the kid.’ You know, Brittany, I think like she’s the most vulnerable and hopeful. That journey that she takes in that car with that stuffed animal to get to her kid. You know, to me, she’s one of the most hopeful. Josh Brolin is very kind initially and then something just comes up and you know, he’s not a horrible person. The grocer guy, he’s lovely. And then there’s the murderer.

Q: Nothing to do with the film, but do you remember the first car you ever drove and have you ever crashed?

Marcia: It’s a VW convertible, yellow with a black top. That was the first car I ever owned.

Q: Was this in college?

Marcia: Yes, in college. I was 21. And have I ever been in a crash? Knock wood, thank God, only once when someone else was driving the car, a little MGB. Why?

Q: It’s for the Sunday Times. It’s a section called ‘In Gear.’

Marcia: We have a Prius now. I have a Hybrid car and a minivan. The day we turned in the Jaguar for the minivan, my husband had a heart attack. (laughs) ‘We’re doing it, honey. The minivan’s the way to go.’

Q: So this was after the twins?

Marcia: Yeah. It was actually after the first one because the minivans are great. They have this little aisle so you can step into the aisle to put the kid’s seat in the back. But yeah, we need it now, we travel. We’re 5 in a car, 6 if there’s a nanny, 7 with the dog. So it’s a packed car.

Q: I have a music question for you. Is music a part of your process at all?

Marcia: It is. It’s a great question because I worked with George Wolfe on Angels in America and I discovered… I kind of knew this all along but I’ve always thought I’ll think about musically what is the character like. Is the character like (imitates musical instrument) ‘rah, rah, rah’, are they a low bass, are they a high flute, what are they? And George Wolfe used to come into Angels in America and he used to direct me like this, (rapid delivery) ‘Okay, Marsha, Marsha, Marsha, Marsha.’ Do you know George at all?

Q: No.

Marcia: He’s amazing. He’s like very, very frenetic and fast. ‘OK. I see the scene where you need to come through the door and go (skat singing) ‘bah ba bah ba bah ba…bah, bah, bow!’ And I would go, ‘Okay, but I think I go ‘ bah ba bah ba bah baaaaaaaaaa bow bah bow! He’d go, ‘Okay. Show me that.’ I’d say, ‘Okay, let me go do that.’ And then we’d do that in body language and the rhythm of it and so I always think about music and I always think about symphony and jazz.

Q: Who do you listen to?

Marcia: Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Rossini, Bach, mostly jazz and classical.

Q: The Wiggles?

Marcia: (laughs) The Wiggles. Right. Teletubbies. And modern music, I like Jack Johnson and David Grey. I mean very… more folky I’d say, acoustic folky. They have that on… Is it Sirius that has that Coffee House channel? It’s in one of our cars. It has the Coffee House and so we always have this really great acoustic stuff.

Q: So where do you have your Oscar?

Marcia: It’s in my office. I live in Harlem in New York and my office overlooks this kid’s school ground across the street from me. And so the Oscar sits on a shelf behind my desk and my windows are always open. That’s where it sits looking at the kids.

Q: Are you neighbors with the Clintons?

Marcia: You know Clinton’s office is about 4 or 5 blocks down on 125. I’m neighbors with the brothers and sisters in Harlem. (laughs)

Q: What’s your cross street? I used to live at 103 and Central Park West.

Marcia: 103 and Central Park West? Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

Q: Right there on the corner.

Marcia: So you know where the Palace is, the police athletic league uptown?

Q: Yeah.

Marcia: It’s a very family oriented neighborhood. Everybody there is pretty happy that the drugs are going out and no one wants to see a Baby GAP on every corner. (laughs) No, you don’t want to become like this white gentrified thing. But by the same token, it was segregated in one direction and that also isn’t fair to anybody and so now I think there’s a greater mix but it’s still a great Harlem. It’s still Harlem and it has the character still, I think.

Q: So what went through your head when your name was announced? Do you remember that? Do you remember what you were thinking of at the Awards?

Marcia: Yeah, I was thinking how grateful I was to Ed Harris that he had just put me in this film and believed in me and allowed me to transform and kept me simple in a way that I don’t think I could have been if it hadn’t been for him. And so it just made me understand how great a director can be for an actor, how grateful I was that this was a character that was able to be fleshed out and that Ed had edited it in a way that was very generous to me.
And so I think I had that moment. I did the work but he showcased the work. He offered me the work and showcased the work. I remember when I was walking up there I was really proud that my husband was sitting next to me. I was grateful to Ed and my dad was alive and so he was like a couple rows back screaming, ‘Bravo!’ An old military man with his hands above his head yelling, ‘Bravo!,’ and people were pulling his shirt tales down. So I was very grateful and I remember standing up there and feeling like it was Ed’s baby but I got to hold it and that’s still the feeling I have. I feel like I’ve been given custody of this thing that really was his that he helped me have.

Q: Thank you so much.

"The Dead Girl” opens in theaters on December 29th. Marcia Gay Harden will be seen next in "The Invisible.”


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