Follow Us on Twitter

The Way Back - Ed Harris interview

Ed Harris in The Way Back

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ED Harris talks about reuniting with Peter Weir on The Way Back and some of the history surrounding his place in the movie and some of the challenges – both mental and physical – in filming in such extreme conditions – both hot and cold.

Q. I was unaware that there were 7,000 Americans caught up in the Gulag. Were you aware of that before you started your research?
Ed Harris: At least… There was a great book published in 2008 called The Forsaken [by Tim Tzouliadis], which was about the thousands of Americans who went to Russia during the Depression. Some of them actually had jobs lined up, some were searching for work, some were Communists, some were Socialists, some were people who were just trying to find a job and it was a great book. Peter [Weir] also had tonnes of research for us, such as documentaries and fascinating footage and stuff like that.

Q. Did you have to lose weight at certain points of filming to maintain authenticity? You look half dead at times…
Ed Harris: Well, I got pretty lean. I got as lean as I could and still have the energy to do my job. One of the things about the shoot was the harder it got, the more difficult the days were – whether walking through waist-deep snow or walking up a sand dune, which is virtually impossible to do very quickly, especially when dragging something behind you… the more difficult it was actually physically during the day working, the more you felt like you were doing your job, so it was really helpful. It snowed when we needed it to snow and we actually had a sand storm on the day we were going to create the sand storm. So, having to deal with the elements and being out in the open like that, it just enriched the whole experience. It was great and the locations were just fantastic.

Q. How did having to speak in another language add to the challenge?
Ed Harris: We had a great coach there, Valentin [Ganev], who was Bulgarian, but who spoke fluent Russian. He was actually in the National Theatre and had a chance to do a few plays. He was really helpful. He broke it down phonetically, so you knew what you were talking about, and how it was supposed to sound. I felt pretty comfortable after a while… and we were there a couple of weeks before we started filming.

So, in the end we had a couple of weeks where, for part of the day, we’d work with Valentin on the Russian language, as well as working on various physical things – whether it was taking walks or dealing with various conditions we’d encounter. We also had a great fellow there who had actually done this walk [not with the group, but for research purposes]… Cyril [Delafosse-Guiramand] who was really helpful, just in terms of what he had gone through with kind of hallucinating and starvation and that kind of thing. So, we talked about the physical aspects of some of that, which was very helpful.

Q. What was the hardest scene to shoot for you, either emotionally or physically?
Ed Harris: Emotionally, because it was a very physical shoot, any scene that did have an emotional content to it… it was just there. We were all kind of raw, we were all kind of just out there every day doing these things. Even though we had little tents of shade, or whatever it might be, it was still demanding on a physical level, which was great. But what that does to you, it kind of opens you up a little bit and exposes you. You feel like a raw nerve a little bit, so any time there was an emotional aspect to a scene, or some personal expression of something, it was pretty much at your fingertips… or at least it felt that way to me.

My worst day involved a big wide shot and we were going up the biggest sand dune of the whole film, and Jim and I are dragging this sled up there, I couldn’t even stand up because I was so weak. I hadn’t been keeping anything in. Peter was actually kind enough to let me go and take a little break at some point that day, for a couple of hours, because I couldn’t stand up. But while we were shooting that particular scene, I was saying to myself: “Please say cut!” I didn’t care how far away we were. We were doing our best, out there walking, you know…

We also did some work on a sound stage where they had built this incredible forest and they had these machines that would blow this ‘snow’ for blizzards and stuff. It was really fierce. It was bad enough when you got the stuff up your nose and you’re breathing it in and stuff. But then we were given these masks out of the bark that Jim’s character creates and they had these little slits and you think it’s going to be better. But, of course, as you’re walking into it again it’s all going into right in these little slits and absolutely pulverising your eyes. We had to put up with a lot of that [laughs].

Read our review of The Way Back

Read our interview with Peter Weir