By Pauline M. Millard
When Ed Harris was first asked to play Ludwig von Beethoven in the new film “Copying Beethoven”, he said his first reaction was a big, nervous gulp.
Sure, Harris knew a little about music. He knew how to read it and he had played baritone saxophone growing up. But Beethoven was a classical master, not to mention a dark, brooding man who spent the latter part of his life completely deaf, yet still felt the need to write music. He should have no trouble channeling that, right?
Then, Harris, 56, said something changed. “After the first day of filming, I knew I knew I had a good grasp of it,” he said as he sat on a hotel balcony overlooking Park Avenue in Manhattan, smoking a cigarette. Even though he would appear on stage just a few hours later, Harris was calm and cheerful, dressed casually in a white oxford shirt, gray slacks and white running sneakers.
Harris spent a good nine months, if not a year, studying Beethoven’s life and music. He even learned how to conduct and play the piano and violin, all to better understand the character. Feeling that instant click once he got on the set was a relief. “I found it freeing,” Harris sad. “Once I was in the character, I didn’t give a damn.”
Harris’ career has spanned over two decades, has earned him four Academy-Award nominations and has seen him in a spectrum of roles on both the stage and screen, although none as grandiose as Beethoven. In 2000 he made his directorial debut with “Pollack” and in 2007 he plans to direct a western called “Appaloosa”. He also recently finished shooting a noir thriller called “Gone, Baby Gone,” directed by Ben Affleck.
“Copying Beethoven” takes Harris to a new level in a career, one as a leading man, who utterly transforms himself, mentally and physically, for the character. It is the story of Anna Holtz (played by Diane Kruger), a female composition student in Vienna who is sent to Beethoven’s apartment to help him copy scores for the upcoming premiere of his Ninth Symphony. Initially it’s an odd pairing, considering Anna is a young woman and in 1824 it was rare for a woman to work outside the home. But Anna is the best composition student at the conservatory, so Beethoven reluctantly agrees to let her stay. The two develop a bizarre friendship as Anna tries to keep the haphazard Beethoven organized, clean his apartment and make sure the work gets done. In return, Anna, an aspiring composer herself, hopes to get the maestro to look at her work.
Beyond the relationship between Beethoven and Anna, “Copying Beethoven” shows a lot of the composer’s quirks, such as his distrust of cleaning women and his disregard of other people. He paid no attention to his surroundings and was primarily focused, even when completely deaf, on making music not because he wanted to, but because he felt it was the only way to get it out of his head. Beethoven was a tormented artist who felt he must live in solitude in order to stay true to his music.
As eccentric as Beethoven was, Harris said he could relate to him as a character. “I could respect his passion for what he did, the way he totally removed himself from society in order to write music,” Harris said. “I also thought he was very courageous with a real sense of mortality, yet he still kept working.”
Agnieszka Holland directed Harris in “Copying Beethoven.” She was no stranger to his work and chose him as her leading man because of the seriousness and depth she felt he brought to his craft.
“I trusted his work and his preparation,” she said. “It wasn’t superficial. He developed an understanding of Beethoven, of both the man and the artist.”
Holland said that she was most impressed by the physical changes Harris brought to the role. Harris put on 30 pounds in order to play Beethoven. He learned to conduct so well that he could lead the symphony in the film on his own, without any help. “He has a creative urge in him that is more important than success,” Holland said. “It doesn’t stop with a success or a failure. It just goes towards a challenge.”
Once Harris stopped filming “Copying Beethoven” he moved onto his next project, a stage version of Neil LaBute’s “Wrecks”. It’s a short play about an everyday working man who is giving a speech at the funeral of his beloved wife. It started as a two-week stint in Ireland and soon became a two-month, sold-out engagement in Manhattan. Variety raved about Harris’ performance, calling him “fantastically likable” and The New York Times said that Harris gave the play, “both the strongest and most delicate interpretation it is likely to receive.”
For Harris, it was a homecoming of sorts. He grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey and is a self-described Yankee fan. However, he hasn’t performed on a New York stage since he appeared in Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico” in 1994. Harris, who lives just north of Los Angeles with his wife, actress Amy Madigan, and his daughter, Lily, said he loves the theater and welcomed the change of pace from film, especially in New York.
“Whether you’re on screen or on a stage, it’s all about finding the truth in the moment that you’re in,” he said. “It’s all about reaching the person in the back row.”