What role the 'Universe of Texas' played in the life and art of Marcia Gay Harden
In 2010, she is known to the world as an Academy Award winner, a Tony Award winner, an inductee into the Texas Film Hall of Fame, and a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin, which has a lot to do with why she's been invited back to the Forty Acres this week to address all of this year's graduating students. But in 1980, she was just another student getting her own degree from the Department of Drama (not yet the Department of Theatre & Dance) and wondering what she would do with her life, who she would become. On the eve of her return to UT to deliver the 2010 commencement address, Marcia Gay Harden shared memories of her days at the university and how it shaped her as an artist and a person.
Austin Chronicle: You weren't born in Texas, but damned if Texas isn't doing everything it can to claim you. It runs through your bloodline; every few years there's a Texas connection in one of your career projects; you're honored by the Texas Film Hall of Fame and by the university. How strong a pull do you feel from the state?
Marcia Gay Harden: Ha! I do everything I can to claim Texas, too. We were always connected to Texas by blood – orange blood, of course. As a Navy brat, I and my four siblings were variously residents of California, Japan, Greece, Maryland, and Virginia, but we were always citizens of Texas, as my father would say. He even called the University of Texas the Universe of Texas. So as a youngster, I was already grateful that Texas had allowed the rest of America to rent out some of its land.
AC: So what does it feel like when you're back?
MGH: I have so many sensations of Texas when I go back. The thing I always long to do is drive those Texas country roads. And my first sensation – I think of things in terms of the senses, really – is that dry smell of sage and cactus. It's a really faint scent that only happens when the grass is crushed, and it's beautiful, and I love it. It feels like home. 'Cause as kids, we used to travel – again, being in the Navy – and we would go back [to Texas] during the summers; we would visit my granddad first in El Paso and then out on Lake LBJ, and they were glorious summers, I remember. Peach cobbler and pecan pie and Mamaw's cooking, and going out and cutting wood with him and swimming with the water moccasins in Lake LBJ. It was terrifying. [Slipping into a Texas accent] "They won't hurt yew." "Well, you tell them that, Granddad." That's where I learned how to water ski. It was, oddly for me, nature-based experience, because you don't think of Texas as the nature base, right? You think of the woods and the mountains, but that dry landscape, we were out in it a lot, and it has a great resonance for me.
And when I come back to UT, it doesn't feel like home, because home is where my grandmom and granddad were. But it feels like a moment when I looked in the mirror and went: "Oh. Maybe you are becoming who you want to be." And I don't mean physically but idealistically, where the things I'm studying or the things I'm doing or the things I'm believing in or the people that I'm hanging out with or the independence that I'm finding resonate for me, in terms of the grownup that I might like to become.
There's also a bravery about Texans that always spoke to this cowgirl in me. I don't think of Texas girls as Southern belles. The kind of Texas girl that I resonate with is a ranch girl. She's capable, she's kinda sexy, she's a little bit tough, but she's absolutely a mother, and she's always feminine. She gets her hands dirty, and she's okay with that. She's kind of a pioneer; she can shoot a rifle and wrangle a horse and milk a cow. There's a sense of bravery and toughness and independence in that idea of a Texas woman – maybe because my grandmom represented all that on some level. But when I came to it, when it began to be represented in me as a young girl – probably in a dangerously more tough way, [slipping into her own Texas accent] 'cause there was a big period of Harley-Davidson riding that I'm not proud about. Actually, I probably am proud about it; I had a good time, but then I realized, "Uh-uh, that's not your deal, kid," and moved on. But that spirit of a pioneer and independence and can-do-it-iveness, I definitely associate with Texas.
AC: So much of that is bound up in your family. Where did the university fit into you getting that sense of who you were becoming?
MGH: Well, my dad had gone to UT, as did my mother, as did my uncle, as were my older sisters. They had come back from Italy and Germany, respectively – we were on an overseas tour, I was in Greece – and they wound up south of the law school near Eastwoods Park, down the street from the Posse. And I was told I could go to the Universe of Texas, and I would be considered a state citizen, and so I did. I went initially because it was the great alma mater of my parents, but I did research, and I knew it had a good theatre program. I went in my junior year with credits transferred from Greece and Germany.
And I will never forget having to decide what I wanted to do. I was torn between being a cultural attaché and bringing the arts and culture to the world or being an actor and doing the same. And when I thought about it, the only thing that made sense to me, the only thing where I heard that my voice would be unique, was being an actor, and I knew I needed to study to do that.
So I signed up for the school, and you auditioned for a play, and I remember running down the hill with my oldest sister, who was there at the time, to see if I'd made it. And I saw my name at the bottom of the list, and my sister let out this war cry that we've always had, where she'd take her tongue and trill it at the back of her throat, and she let out this war cry of victory – in the middle of the Drama Department, by the way – and we were dancing and jumping around. I was cast as Sonya in Uncle Vanya, and I was terrible. I didn't know the first thing about what to do. I had no craft. Tons o' passion but no craft. I relied on instincts to sort of hobble my way through the play, but it was clear to me after I finished it that what I needed to do was learn.
I didn't want a master's in theatre; I wanted a liberal arts degree, because there's nothing more boring than a dumb actress. I figured, "Okay, I need to study everything I can but major in theatre." And I changed. I grew up. I gained standards of excellence. I learned my craft. I learned how to work my voice. I learned how to neutralize my body. I learned accents. I learned how to score a script. I studied under Lee Abraham, who's a great acting teacher, fierce in his demanding of honesty from the students. I got to study under [film director] Edward Dmytryk. One of the most important classes for me was an appreciation of music class; to this day, one of the ways that I work as an actor is off of rhythm and music, and that potential to say there's music in every single thing in life, and even in the rhythms of breathing and rhythms of communication, we give out energy – those things I got from UT. And I studied great literature and great playwrights and worked with directors there and really, I feel, took some knocks and grew up personally. But I learned what it means to be an actor. So that was my growing up there.
AC: Did you have any vision for your career, where you'd be five years out of school, 10 years out, what city you'd be in, and so on?
MGH: Oooh, I'd love to say that I had a plan plan plan plan plan. What I had more was a magnet pulling me somewhere. My first plan was move out of Austin ... gracefully. In other words, it wasn't about running away. I loved living in Austin. [But] it was pretty clear that I would need to move on, because I wanted to do the stage, I wanted to do film, and I doubted that they came to Austin in the same way they came to New York or L.A. I graduated, then I went to Washington, D.C., where my parents were, to get my feet on the ground. Then my plan was to get my union cards. And I could do that through day player work, extra work, industrial work, in D.C., and then move to New York as a Texas girl when you got your gun loaded. It was about being prepared.
When I moved to New York, I got off the bus as green as can be, in an A-line skirt and character shoes, wondering why Spielberg wasn't there to meet my bus. Then I began the hard work, the hard work of knowing nobody in the business, of seeing what does it take, what do you have to do? Reading Back Stage magazine, going to the Equity building, auditioning every single day, doing temporary typing, eating carrots and apples because I didn't have enough money for anything else. That was the work: living the life. And to this day, I think that is the life then, isn't it? It's not about getting there. It's the how, what you did along the way, what were the stories – all those are the things that fall upon the mantle and become the book.
AC: What do you want to share with students?
MGH: Good lord, I just ripped up my entire speech and said: "That's not it! That's ... not it." Probably because I keep thinking, "What do they want to hear from me?" And I have to take it back and say, "What do I want to tell them?" And probably it has to do with finding joy in a fractured society, finding joy in a society where you're aware on the Internet of all the tribulations and woes of the world, and we spend, unfortunately, often more time talking to people on the Internet than we do being with people and more time reading jingles than poems. It's certainly not a call to go back to an ancient time, and I'm not tryin' to start a commune, I'm just sayin' that there have been times in my life when I've forgotten joy, and I don't know where to find it. And I've found it again, and probably I'll talk about that, because the biggest part of it has to do with giving back and being grateful and all of those commonsense things that aren't about making $3 million on the stock-market trade.
AC: With your family such a big part of your life and the charity work you're involved with and your recent Broadway run in God of Carnage, where you had that live connection with the audience, it seems that these days you're very bound up in experiencing deep human connections.
MGH: I think that's true, and obviously that's my work. I remember an acting teacher once said that the work of the actor is to illuminate the human condition and that in order to illuminate the human condition, we need to study humanity. And the things that turn me on are anthropology and how the brain works and how human beings relate to each other and, yeah, being with people, being with my children. I threw out the other speech because I was talking at them; I wasn't talking to them. Doing MGH's idea of a commencement speech and not MGH doing a commencement speech. So I'm back at the computer.
AC: I'll send you whatever speech-writing mojo I have through the airwaves.
MGH: Do! And if you think of a good joke or two, I need some jokes. Don't think I don't know that!