Including the film he once swore he'd never publicly talk about
Credit: Universal Pictures; 20th Century Fox Film Corp.; Courtesy Everett Collection

Before he was terrorizing androids as the Man in Black on HBO’s sci-fi thriller Westworld, Ed Harris appeared in more than 70 films, racking up four Oscar nods. While his roles are diverse, the actor, 65, is perhaps best known for his authentic-feeling portrayals of traditional American can-do leaders for whom, as his Apollo 13 flight director famously declared, “failure is not an option.” Below, Harris recalls some — but by no means all — of his finest and most popular work.

THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) After a few minor film roles, Harris joined Philip Kaufman’s stellar historical drama as astronaut John Glenn. “I wasn’t really happy with [my audition], and Phil saw me pounding a wall in the hallway [afterward], and that inspired him to say, ‘Hmm, this guy’s got some energy, maybe he’d be good for Glenn’ … One of the funny things about it was Phil really wanted me to smile a lot — and that’s a little tough for me.”

THE ABYSS (1989) Harris nearly drowned while shooting James Cameron’s notoriously difficult underwater action epic, and once swore he would never discuss the film (though he has commented on it a few times since then). There’s an 11-minute sequence in the film where Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character sacrifices herself, and then is revived by Harris, that ranks among his finest work (and is arguably Cameron’s best setpiece as well). “We were guinea pigs, in a way, Jim wasn’t quite sure how this was all gonna go down… [in the drowning scene I was] screaming at her to come back and wake up, and I was slapping her across the face and I see that they’ve run out of film in the camera — there’s a light on the camera — and nobody had said anything. And Mary Elizabeth stood up and said, ‘We are not animals!” and walked off the set. They were going to let me just keep slapping here around! … It was very difficult, but it was worth it, I met some great people. The Abyss is a really great movie up until the last 10 minutes, which was the big disappointment.” And nowadays there are no hard feelings toward Cameron. “I like Jim. He’s an incredibily talented, intelligent guy. In subsequence years after filmming it was always good to see him.”

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992) Harris joined an all-star boys’ club to bring David Mamet’s play about desperate salesmen to the big screen, which included being repeatedly berated in Alec Baldwin’s iconic seven-minute motivational speech. We asked if there was any competitiveness on set. “The word ‘competitiveness’ in terms of acting is always a strange one for me — it’s just about doing your best job. I give it to you, you give it back to me, and vice-versa … It wasn’t the most fun thing down there having Alec Baldwin give you that speech, but that was part of the character — just sitting there, taking it from this guy.”

APOLLO 13 (1995) Harris picked up his first Oscar nom for his portrayal of NASA flight director Gene Kranz, who was tasked with saving an imperiled space mission. “I researched the heck out of that and was really prepared, got used to all the jargon and how these guys talked. Going to that set, you really felt like you were in the control room … The thing I appreciate about [Kranz] is he’s not concerned about himself. He’s not concerned about his image, he’s not concerned about anything other than doing the best job he can. The moment I recall the most is when [the NASA team] realizes we finally succeeded and everybody cheers. I remember this energy, taking it in and appreciating the work that everybody’s done.”

THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998) Harris was back in a control room to earn his second Oscar nod, this time as the beret-wearing producer of the world’s most popular reality show. “[Director Peter Weir’s wife] Wendy [Stites] was costuming it. At one point, she put that beret on me and that helped a lot. Sometimes the physical things can really put you in the space. When you think about reality TV and what’s happened since then, it was definitely ahead of its time.”

STEPMOM (1998) This cult-favorite dramedy was a change of pace for Harris, who was the brains behind a heartwarming scene involving an engagement to Julia Roberts’ character. “When I proposed to Julia with the ring that slides down the thread onto her finger—that was my idea. I thought it turned out nicely.”

POLLOCK (2000) A biopic about the abstract painter marked Harris’ directorial debut, and to prepare, he taught himself how to paint years before the cameras rolled. “I spent almost a whole decade working on that movie. I built an art studio so I could paint on a big surface and create some things that felt Pollock-y. I don’t know if I ever did anything very good. I mixed the film twice and went to three different composers and took my time cutting it until it was just what I wanted it to be. It was a tough shoot and I ended up spending a ton of my own money on that movie, but I didn’t care.”

THE HOURS (2002) With his portrayal of a man in the final stages of AIDS, Harris earned yet another Oscar nom. “A different kind of character for me. I lost a lot of weight and had a chance to work with Meryl [Streep], which was fun. I had some good friends who died from AIDS and I felt kind of obligated to do them justice in some way — the suffering and feelings of despair that some of them were living with at the time … It was important to me.”

APPALOOSA (2008) Also directed by Harris, the Western based on Robert B. Parker’s novel paired the actor with Viggo Mortensen. Harris calls the film the best time he’s had on set and would like to make a sequel. “I read Parker’s book while I was on a horse-riding trip and fell in love with these two characters. I wanted it to be made in a certain classic way. I was proud of it. I’m not a big gun guy but, in terms of playing cowboys and Indians, I grew up doing that. There’s something kind of whimsical or romantic about the Old West — the things people had to face during that time and [valuing] loyalty and being a man of your word.”