Four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris is taking on the cherished and challenging role of Atticus Finch inThe actor, known from “Apollo 13” and HBO’s “Westworld,” spoke with CBS News contributor Jamie Wax at the Schubert Theater about making the role his own.
When Harries got a phone message from producer Scott Rudin asking if he wanted to play Atticus, his heart started going “boom, boom, boom,” he said.
“You read the play and (Aaron) Sorkin’s take on it, and it’s so different in the terms of who this man is and what he’s dealing with and how he is trying to maintain his sense of goodness and tolerance … in this world of hate and prejudice,” Harris said.
“It’s a little more flawed and tortured than we’re used to with Atticus,” Wax said.
“Definitely,” Harris said. “Which I was glad of because you don’t feel obligated to play this kind of perfect man.”
The story “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one many know well: Finch, a small-town lawyer, puts his family and reputation on the line to defend a black man in 1930s Alabama. The character has long been recognized for his strong morals and courage.
The role as adapted by Sorkin was formerly played by actor Jeff Daniels, earning him a Tony nomination. Harris chose not to see the production before stepping into the part.
“I didn’t want to be influenced by it,” he said. “It’s such an individual kind of experience to portray any given character.”
Director Bartlett Sher has full confidence in Harris. “Ed will be able to take a completely different take on it. … It’s just as rich, just as moving,” he said the night of Daniels’ final curtain call.
Beyond Daniels, there’s another Atticus performance that looms large for Harris: Gregory Peck in the 1962 film.
“It was in my head for a little while, but it really has disappeared,” Harris said. “When I read the script, I said, my main job is to be as much myself as Atticus as I can be.”
He isn’t alone stepping into big shoes as this production approaches its second year. He’s part of a slew of new cast members joining the show this month, including the actors playing Tom Robinson, Jem and Scout Finch, and Dill Harris.
“We understand the responsibility of coming into the building and the responsibility of the show that we’ve been handed,” said Kyle Scatliffe, who plays Tom Robinson.
That responsibility has been made easier with Harris’ leadership. “Ed has been phenomenal just to watch and to be a collaborator with,” said Nick Robinson, who plays Jem Finch. He said it’s been “a treat” to see the way Harris works.
“He’s such a generous scene partner and just so giving and really hard on himself, too,” said Nina Grollman, who plays Scout Finch.
The admiration is mutual. “I really love them,” Harris said. “They’re really great. I love working with them.”
With over 40 years of experience both on the stage and in front of the camera, the actor knows those are the qualities needed when stepping into the theater.
“It’s all about your relationships with people at this very moment, right on stage, at this time,” he said. “If I’m not breathing and if I’m not inhabiting this space right now at this very moment, then I’m full of sh– and I don’t want to do that.”
For Harris, the hope is that inhabiting this character for a new generation shines a light on the themes of Harper Lee’s story that goes beyond those who are already familiar with it.
“If it can help open anybody up to the world and to life and to being more generous and more open and more loving, then we’ve achieved something,” he said.