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Interview: Ed Harris Talks About Becoming Beethoven

On Wearing Earplugs, Music Education, and Making His Dog Cringe

By Bogdan Fedeles

At the MFA press screening of the upcoming “Copying Beethoven” movie, reviewers found out that Ed Harris himself was flying to Boston that very night to meet with the press and answer a few questions about his new movie. Given the unusual nature of the film and his incredibly powerful portrayal of Beethoven, we had quite a few questions for him. Luckily, Harris was kind enough to sit down with a few reviewers for a lengthier interview the next morning.

The Tech: Did you have any musical knowledge going into this movie?

Ed Harris: I grew up playing the baritone horn. I could read music and knew basic music terminology and I was probably familiar with a couple of Beethoven’s major symphonies and the more popular piano sonatas, but I wasn’t at all familiar with the bulk of his work. So it was a whole new education for me which was great.

TT: The setting of the movie was in Vienna, but it was filmed primarily in Budapest. How did that work?

EH: In Budapest we worked mostly on the sound staging — the interior stuff. Then the Ninth was shot in Kecskemet, a city south of Budapest, where they have a beautiful theatre. In Sopron, a city in the west of Hungary near Vienna, we did the exteriors and the street scenes because it had a great look for that.

TT: Did you do anything in particular to prepare to play someone who is almost completely deaf?

EH: Well, I worked a lot with ear plugs. In his final years, Beethoven had these conversation books where he would converse with people in writing. For a two hour movie, we made it to conceive that he reads lips more or less. I really did plug up my ears so I had to pay attention to people when they were speaking, to really understand what they were saying. Somebody gave me a CD that … was showing the deterioration of what he would have been able to hear over the years, which was rather interesting to listen to. I talked to my father who can’t hear a lick, but mostly it was just shutting my ears and not hearing anything; and constantly listening to his music on my iPod so that his music is in my head all the time, for months. He’s been going deaf for 26 years. In [the Heiligenstadt] testament from 1801 which they found after he died in 1827, he was already talking about his loss of hearing and how it’s going to affect his life, and how he’s going to have to shut himself off from the society and just focus on his music. So it was a long time in coming.

TT: Did you have any anxieties about the film post-production?

EH: [There was] a longer version [where] the relationship between Beethoven and Anna seemed to have been diffused because there were a lot of other stories going on with her character, which ultimately we needed to trim down and focus on this relationship a little more.

TT: Did you think that ultimately Anna’s character was a beneficial aspect of the film?

EH: The relationship between [Beethoven and Anna] was pretty strong and one gets the sense of him passing along something to someone. Agnieszka [Holland, the director] is a strong willed woman and a fairly political one and I think that part of her point of view about the whole story was empowering this young woman. At the end of the film when [Anna] is walking out in the fields, you get the sense that this is a person who is going to have her own voice; if she is going to do anything creative at all, it will be from the place of her own purity and not just trying to copy whatever else is going on in the world, which I think it is a fairly powerful statement to make this day and age when we’re just inundated with information constantly, sound and media. I do think that Anna’s character in the film does allow Beethoven to express himself, whether it’s rage, whether it’s fear of being deaf and conducting, whether it’s trying to express his relationship with powers greater than him, there’s someone that he’s got an intimacy with, that he can talk to.

TT: Some critics brought up that Anna’s character is very good looking, (Diane Kruger was a model) and somehow in the context of the early 1800s, not many women looked like that. I was wondering if that was in any way distracting.

EH: Well, I haven’t read anything but I know there have been some mixed reviews. One thing to be said about the film is that musically is very historically accurate in terms of the pieces he was working on at that time. I didn’t have a problem with it — for me Diane was the actress I was working with. Yes, she’s very pretty and I think she does quite a wonderful job in the movie. One of the things I think she does great is listen – there are some really beautiful moments when she’s just listening to him, paying attention to him, she’s wrapped. A lot of actors don’t listen very well. The fact that she’s beautiful and young, what can I tell you? I think there’s a wonderful chemistry going on between the two of them in the film. And it’s a lot more pleasant to see an attractive woman rather than a guy being the copyist. It allows for some heart to be shared and I think they become like soulmates in some sense. The fact that she’s a woman and he’s a man has something to do with that. There’s an attraction between these people which is never consummated. You feel the sensual attraction and appreciation. This is part of what the film is. I don’t know how else to explain this. If people don’t like it, well, they’re entitled to their own opinions.

TT: The ending — did you feel at all that it was a little abrupt?

EH: There were various versions of the movie, where that particular scene where he is dictating the Hymn of Thanksgiving from Op. 132 was not the last scene of the film. I think the film is edited in its best possible format. Even the producers and the business people involved, after the first cut of the film, they were going: ”Can’t you put the Ninth Symphony at the end of the movie? ‘Cause that’s the climax of the film.” And I was: “Yeah, but didn’t you guys read the fucking script? It’s been this way since day one.” Part of the desire of the writers was to reintroduce these later string quartets to the public, and in particular the Grosse Fugue, which is out there, man. It’s 180 years old, but sounds like modern music. One of the writers’ desires was to say: “Check this shit out, man.” It’s pretty impressive. It might be difficult to listen to, but once you get into it, it’s pretty great stuff.

TT: Now that you’ve heard all of these late string quartets, which one or one movement of them is your favorite?

EH: I love the one that he is dictating, the Hymn of Thankgiving. I think that’s really exquisite. And depending on my frame of mind, I like listening to the Grosse Fugue, but I’ve got to be in a certain place, otherwise, it’s insane.

TT: Do you still listen to this music?

EH: Yeah, my iPod is still loaded up with that. I have a couple of Dylan tunes, but the rest is Beethoven, primarily because it is so hard to put shit on it [my iPod]. I don’t know how to use it very well. The more I listen to it, the more I appreciate it. I was talking to this fellow Jeremy [Eichler], who is the classical music critic for the [Boston] Globe about the fact that classical music in general is considered to be made for the upper crust of society, for whoever can afford tickets to the symphony, at least in this country. This is very different from Europe; there you got cab drivers singing opera, there it’s part of life. The more you listen to Beethoven, the more you realize he covers a whole range of human emotions; his stuff is earthy, strong, powerful, guttural, visceral as well as being beautiful at times and very demanding musically. Part of the problem these days is the education system in public schools. When I was growing up, we had our own orchestra in third, fourth, fifth grade. You could rent an instrument and you would play. A lot of public schools now can’t afford that. They don’t even have art, they don’t have shit. They’ve got “No Child Left Behind”, cramming all their kids to study for tests. That’s the way it is.

TT: Do you think this movie can act as a medium to promote classical music?

EH: Let’s be realistic. This film is not a blockbuster movie that’s going to be seen by hundreds of millions of people. Hopefully, it’ll have a life out there and reach people, and then have a life after its initial release where it’s shown in colleges, schools and so on. I don’t think it’s going to turn anybody off to classical music. Hopefully, it’ll bring a few people in, make them more aware, make them want to go out and listen to more things.

TT: Have you seen the Immortal Beloved?

EH: I have never seen that. I know that there’s also this Beethoven movie back in the ’40s, which I didn’t see either. I mean, if there was a videotape of Ludwig walking down in Vienna, I’d look at that. Or a recording of his voice. But there’s no need for me to see another actor portraying Beethoven.

TT: So, your performance of Beethoven was completely original and not inspired by any other movie …

EH: It was inspired by Beethoven, hopefully.

TT: You talked a little bit about the tension between the artist and the people he was trying to bring his art to, like Diane’s character. Any parallels between this role of a tormented artist and other roles you’ve done such as the one in “Pollock”?

EH: The huge difference between the two of them is that Pollock’s work deteriorated in the last years of his life; his alcoholism, his psychological problems defeated him. Beethoven fought through his illness, his reclusiveness, his eccentricity, to put his music out there till the day that he died. And it got more exquisite in a way, more challenging and more revolutionary, the closer he got to leaving the planet, whereas Pollock was very much struggling to find what he wanted to do during the last couple of years of his life, if he was doing anything at all. That to me is a really big difference between the two of them. I think Beethoven was a much healthier individual; even though he was a bit out there and irascible, he had focus, energy and commitment; he was a vital guy. Pollock was tormented to the point of debilitation.

TT: How much musical training did you do before the movie and how much did it improve while doing this project?

EH: I played the piano for a year prior to the film; I took lessons and practiced every day. I also took violin lessons and conducting lessons. My sense of the musical world improved somewhat. The idea was never to get great at it, but just to infuse myself with living in the world of music, that it was my life. It wasn’t about being a virtuoso, that wasn’t the point. I knew I wasn’t going to be. But for nine to ten months of my life I lived with his [Beethoven’s] music in my home all the time. That’s how I enjoy working. It makes it interesting and fun for me, and it feels up my spirit or whatever, with what’s important to know when trying to portray this guy.

TT: I was wondering in the movie, when you play the beginning of the Grosse Fugue on the violin, can you actually play that?

EH: Yeah, yeah, I learned that and I could play that pretty decently. That’s about the only thing I can play other than “the chicken and the whatever …”

TT: That is a pretty difficult passage.

EH: It is pretty difficult. When we were shooting that, we had this violin player on the set, like a coach, who I hadn’t worked with. They just brought him in case I needed some help. We did a couple of takes and then I walked over to ask him how I was doing. I can’t even imitate what his impression was. It was like … so unsupportive and so dismal he couldn’t even look at me. I felt like: “Fuck you, you’re suppose to be helping me out”. He actually did say a couple of things that helped, because the take where you see me playing is one of the later takes, so it did improve a little. But literally, my dog would go like this [puts his arms around his head] when I was practicing.

It was pretty funny. But I got to the point where I could make a decent sound. I didn’t have the greatest violin in the world, no Strad or anything. It was fun though.