Oscar nominee rarely does the expected

Marcia Gay Harden, an Academy Award nominee this year for Best Supporting Actress in "Pollock," remembers when she first decided to be an actress.

"I was barely in my teens, living in Greece where my dad, an officer in the US Navy, was stationed," she says. "He took me and my four brothers and sisters to this ancient theater at the foot of the Parthenon, and we saw this amazing Greek drama.

"He tried to make it a learning experience, explaining, 'Do you realize even in ancient plays we are much more alike than we are different?' I was always the child who wore her emotions on her sleeve. I began crying, and to his surprise announced, pointing to the stage, 'That's what I want to do - act!' "

Ms. Harden certainly got her wish, starring in Broadway plays, films, and on TV. Now, flash forward to the day I visited her at her apartment in Venice, Calif. She was squealing with joy as she read the note nestled in a lovely bouquet of flowers. "It's from Winona Ryder," she says. "She's congratulating me for my nomination, and we've never met!"

The ocean view from her beach-front apartment was blocked with mountains of flowers and plants from friends and fans congratulating Harden on her first Oscar nomination. She had already won the New York Film Critics Award for her role of Lee Krasner in "Pollock."

Twirling about the room, she laughs and says, "All those days of waiting on tables until I could get a role on Broadway, all that time going to school taking lessons [she's a graduate of the University of Texas, with a Master's from New York University], and all those years of being a nobody following a dream - and now here it is."

Her joy was sweetened by the fact that Ed Harris, who produced and starred in "Pollock," was nominated for Best Actor. Could it get any better? Ellen Burstyn, godmother of her two-year-old daughter, Eulala Grace, was also nominated for Best Actress in "Requiem for a Dream."

The Harden-Burstyn friendship began in 1996 when they appeared together in the acclaimed film "The Spitfire Grill."

"That's also the movie where I met my husband," Harden says. One for unusual names, Harden fell head over heels for Thaddaeus Scheel, a documentary producer. "Thad is also my dad's name and my brother's. How could I not love him?

"Ed Harris and I first worked together in New York on Sam Shepard's play 'Simpatico.' Harris was never boring, which made working with him a blast. "I never knew when he'd lunge across the stage and say his lines an inch from my nose, or get tickled and go upstage with his back to the audience so they couldn't see him laughing."

When Harden came to Hollywood more than a decade ago, she worked with the town's top leading men. Her first break came in 1990 when she starred in "Miller's Crossing," a Coen Brothers movie with Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne. She later appeared with the madcap Robin Williams in "Flubber," followed by "Meet Joe Black" and "Space Cowboys."

The Oscar nomination "came as an amazing surprise," the actress says. "I knew [Harris] wanted me to play the role [of Ms. Krasner, wife of the artist Jackson Pollock], but he explained it was being produced on a shoestring [budget]. His passion for the project rubbed off. How could I say no?"

Harden has seldom done things the expected way. She and her four brothers and sisters lived around the world from Japan to Germany. "Having a dad in the service was helpful. I was forever meeting new kids, going to new schools, moving to new neighborhoods. I was encouraged when I attended the American School in Germany. I read for a play, and the teacher said, 'You're good at this, Marcia Gay. You have a gift.'

"She gave me a role in Chekhov's 'The Cherry Orchard.' I was much too young for the role. I'm just glad no one ever videotaped that performance!

"My dad wasn't thrilled at my wanting to act. He even offered to pay for a computer course if I'd change my mind." But after he saw her on Broadway, he supported her choice.

More recently, she starred in the Tony Award-winning Broadway show "Angels in America."

Harden will soon be seen with Judy Davis in "Gaudi Afternoon," filmed in Barcelona, Spain, and will co-star for the third time with Joe Mantegna in the TV drama "Walking Shadow," shot in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Harden will never forget her dad's philosophy: Try to make each day better than the last.

"I remember as kids [when] my older sister was directing us in a front-porch theatrics in Tokyo. She said, 'Marcia Gay, don't always try to be a perfectionist.' " Harden stopped her big sister cold by answering, "I'm not a big fan of mediocre."

She still isn't.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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