Inspired by true events, Phantom is a Cold War era suspense thriller about a Soviet submarine captain, named Dmitri “Demi” Zubov (Ed Harris), forced to lead a covert mission that could start a nuclear war. With replacement sailors filling in for many of his regular crew, the captain quickly learns that the real mission is to launch a missile strike against the Americans while making it appear to come from a Chinese vessel, triggering a nuclear showdown between the two superpowers and forcing the men aboard to make impossible choices that could end their lives.
While at the film’s press day, actor Ed Harris spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how he got involved with this project, what appealed to him about this role, understanding the technical speak, his process for finding a character, and what it was like to work in an actual submarine and do fight scenes in such cramped quarters. He also talked about what attracts him to a project and makes him want to work these days, the appeal of Pain & Gain (from director Michael Bay), the experience of working with director Bong Joon-ho on Snowpiercer, agreeing to do Renee Zellweger’s directorial debut 4 ½ Minutes, and being in a position to take acting roles for creative fulfillment. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
ED HARRIS: No, I didn’t. My daughter and his daughter used to ride horses together, pretty intensely. They would do shows, so I met Todd through that and we liked each other. And then, we started playing tennis together for awhile. And one day, after we’d played, he just said, “I have this script that I’d like you to look at.” He’d been working on it for a year or two, and he never said anything about it. So, I read it and thought it was pretty interesting. He said, “I think we can shoot it. There’s a Russian sub down in Long Beach. Do you want to do it?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it with you.” It was an interesting character to me, who was a complex guy. And the more I talked to Todd about it, the more I felt what he had invested into the character, in terms of writing and creating this guy, and I felt his intention, more and more, as we talked. I had a good time doing it. It was fun.
It’s such a unique way to tell this Russian story without having the actors do Russian actors, and it has a really interesting affect on the viewer because of that. Was that part of the appeal?
HARRIS: Exactly. I think that was very intentional, on Todd’s part. I did ask him, early on, “Are we doing Russian accents?” He said, “No,” and I said, “Good.” That can be distracting. Not that I wouldn’t have worked on it and tried to do it the best I possibly could, but anytime you see actors doing an accent, you’re listening for what they miss, especially if you have a bunch of Americans doing Russian accents. The other benefit, which was probably more important to Todd, was that he just wanted them to be seen as human beings, dealing with issues.
Because he also wrote the film, did it help to have Todd Robinson around on set, so that he was available anytime you had questions?
HARRIS: For sure, yeah. Really early on, I sat down with him and went over some things in the script with him that I just didn’t understand, about what the sub was doing, in relation to another vessel. We went through it, just for the terminology, and then I began to do my own research on submarines, the Russian submarine history, and that kind of thing. When we started filming, I felt pretty confident in what I was talking about.
HARRIS: Once I understand what the jargon is, it’s fine. It’s a little bit like learning a foreign language. I got a little frustrated at some of it because we shot a lot of that at the same time, since it was all in the same area of the sub. You just had to remember what had happened already and what hadn’t happened yet, but that’s part of it. I’m used to it.
As an actor, when you approach playing a character, do you prefer to start with the bigger picture and take apart the story, or do you prefer to focus more specifically on the character and his humanity?
HARRIS: Initially, there’s always something that pulls you in. There’s some aspect of the character, whether it’s a physical thing or a vocal thing or some emotional place that he’s at, that you gravitate towards, initially. In this instance, other than the technical aspect of what the guy was in charge of, as captain of the submarine, it was more about allowing all of the history of this guy to sink in and really thinking about his relationship with his father and this accident that had happened and what he was dealing with, for all these years, professionally, psychologically and physically, and just getting into it.
Was it challenging to wrap your head around what these men went through who did missions like this?
HARRIS: You just use your imagination. There’s always some aspect of life that you can relate to. The longer you live and the more experiences you have as a human being, you can find some little aspect of something that relates to it, whatever it might be.
How was it to work on an actual submarine?
HARRIS: Well, it’s a lot different if you’re not submerged. The only sub I’ve ever been on was at Disneyland. So, it was never really claustrophobic, in the sense that you were trapped and couldn’t get out. That’s what claustrophobia means to me. It was confined and it increased the intensity of everything, but it was such a great gift to be able to shoot in the sub because it’s where the story took place. You couldn’t remove walls. We weren’t on some soundstage somewhere. We were in a damn submarine, so it was really helpful. It was great.
HARRIS: Yeah, you definitely had to watch where you were going, especially when you were moving quick, because you could really hurt yourself. Nothing was fake in there. Nothing was styrofoam or wood or plastic. It was all metal and hard steel. If you were doing something physical, you just had to be really careful with your head, so that you didn’t smash it against something. But, everyone took care and no one got hurt, as far as I can remember.
At this point in your career, what is it that attracts you to a project and makes you want to work? Is it about finding a character you haven’t played, or is it about the people you’ll be working with?
HARRIS: That’s a really good question. In this instance, it was to work with my buddy. He was making a movie and asked me if I wanted to join him. That was the #1 thing. Granted, if it had been a character I didn’t want to play or I wasn’t interested, I would have said no. But, Todd is a good friend and it was something that he obviously cared about. He hadn’t made that many films, and I figured, what the heck? Other than that, I just try to find things where I instinctively go, “Yeah, I want to do that. I want to spend the time to do that.” I did a lot of work, last year. Much more than I usually do. I did four or five movies last year, which I don’t usually do. I don’t have anything planned right now. I don’t know what the next thing I might do is. It’s not like I’ve got 25 scripts I’m reading. You get offered some things and you look at them and go, “I don’t want to waste my time with that. I don’t care how much money they pay me for that. Oh, this is interesting. Who’s doing it? When? Where?” It used to have a lot to do with family. My daughter is in her first year of school, although she’s been out for a couple years ‘cause she traveled around for a year, but I used to not want to be away for eight months of the year. You have to always gauge certain things. But, I have a little more freedom now, in terms of choices. I’ve also been doing this a long time and I don’t really want to play certain types of characters in certain kinds of films, just for a payday, if I can help it. I’m trying to be a little more selective, in terms of what really is moving me. And I really want to direct again. I’m just trying to find something I’m compelled to do, along those lines. I could write something, but I’m not the best, most disciplined writer. But, I really, really, really want to direct again. Appaloosa was five or six years ago.
HARRIS: Pain & Gain was Michael Bay, who I had worked with on The Rock. He wanted me to play this guy. I didn’t make any money doing Phantom, I didn’t make any money doing the play I was doing in January and February, and I didn’t make any money doing the thing I did with Annette Bening (called Look of Love). It was a three-week commitment down in Miami, and it was an interesting, bizarre story. The character wasn’t that fascinating to me, but I thought, “What the heck. I can probably have a good time.” It was [Mark] Wahlberg, who I like, and the story was just outrageous. It was hysterical, reading it, and I just thought it would be fun to be in that kind of a picture.
What drew you to Snowpiercer?
HARRIS: I saw three of director Bong’s movies and I said, “I want to do this. I don’t care what he’s asking me to do because he’s a really great filmmaker.” His friend and fellow filmmaker is director Park, who did Stoker. I met director Park when I was in Prague. He came by the set and actually produced director Bong’s film. He seemed like a really interesting guy, and Oldboy just blew me away.
Who are you playing in that?
HARRIS: I play a guy who owns and runs a train. You don’t see me until the end. There’s a revolution going on with all the poor people that starts in the back of the train and moves its way forward. They finally get up to the front where I’m at. It was trippy. The sets were unbelievable. They had these big train cars that they build on a soundstage, and the whole thing was on this gimble deal. I hope the film works. I can’t see that it won’t, but it was amazing. That was really a trip, working on that. His whole way of working is so different. He’ll just shoot bits of a scene at a time. Normally, you’ll shoot a master and shoot the whole scene on one person and then shoot the whole scene on another, but he’ll shoot a little bit one way, and then shoot a couple lines another way. He just constantly gets the pieces that he knows he wants. And he had the editing thing down below the stage where the trains were, and the editor was cutting while he was shooting. It was out there.
HARRIS: I don’t think I would necessarily like to work that way, but I’m sure I picked up something.
As a director, are you primarily just interested in the smaller character-driven pieces, as opposed to big-budget action and effects movies?
HARRIS: Yeah. I wouldn’t know how to do that. I’m not really interested in that. The two films that I’ve made were very personal, in different ways. The Pollock thing was a whole other deal. That was just something that took over my life, for a long time. And then, Appaloosa was because I started reading this book and fell in love with these two guys. I wanted to deal with the relationship with those two guys. I’m not a filmmaker, looking for a film to do. I’m an actor who loves to direct film, if I find something that I’m compelled to do and want to spend three or four years doing. I really love the process, though. I might have to just say, “Yeah, I want to direct that,” because I want to direct something, but that’s just not the way my being is. It’s got to be a necessity for me, otherwise I’ll just keep acting.
Are you also going to be doing Renee Zellweger’s directorial debut, 4 ½ Minutes?
HARRIS: I told her I’d be in her film, but I don’t know when she’s doing it. I really like Renee, and I really liked her script. She said, “Would you do this with me?,” and I said, “Yeah,” but that was last year, sometime.
Do you feel like you’re in a better place, as an actor, where you can take roles for the creative fulfillment and not the paycheck?
HARRIS: Yeah, definitely! You bounce back and forth. It depends. Everybody has got their different financial responsibilities, but there’s a lot of things that you end up paying for because you can. You find that, all of a sudden, you’re responsible for this and this and that, and you can’t just drop the ball on that. Unfortunately, there are times that you’ve got to pay attention to what the contract is. It’s not just the material, all the time. I literally did five films last year, but I’m not embarrassed about any of them. I don’t feel like I sold out, or anything. I usually don’t work that much, but it was all right. Plus, when I’m not working, there’s things I love doing at the house. I love working outside. I always have some project that I’m working on. It’s a day-to-day proposition.
Phantom is now playing in theaters.