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Ed Harris talks 'Phantom,' college football, NYC and more

Ed Harris, center left, and William Fichtner

Ed Harris, center left, and William Fichtner Credit: Ed Harris, center left, and William Fichtner in "Phantom"

"Solid as a rock" is the perfect way to describe Ed Harris, and not because the four-time Oscar nominee played the villainous Gen. Francis X. Hummel in Michael Bay's memorable action flick "The Rock."

It's the right idiom for Harris because there simply is not a more dependable actor in Hollywood, a single other performer who has brought conviction and strength to a long list of parts spanning some 35 years in the movie business. Everything from "Pollock," which he also directed, to big-studio schlock such as the "National Treasure" sequel has been blessed by the 62-year-old's presence.

In "Phantom," opening Friday, Harris plays a Cold War-era Soviet nuclear sub captain who is locked in a struggle for control of his boat with a shady adversary played by David Duchovny.

amNewYork spoke with Harris about the movie.

This is a classic sub drama, in the vein of "Das Boot" or "The Hunt for Red October." What's the appeal of the submarine setting? We actually shot on a Russian submarine in San Diego, it was of the same class of sub that the story was inspired by. It was a great environment because you're not removing walls, everything is metal, there's nothing fake, there's nothing plastic or Styrofoam or anything and it just enhances the reality and authenticity of what you want to achieve.

What about the claustrophobia of it? The claustrophobia doesn't really come into place that much because you're not underwater. The ship is on water but it's not submerged, so between shots or if you've got a minute or two you can get fresh air. It got a little intense down in there, it would get hot and that kind of thing. We'd have a bunch of people squirming around, trying to get things done, but it all worked out pretty well.

Did you need to immerse yourself in Russian culture to get into the head of your character? My first job, personally, as an actor on this thing was to familiarize myself with submarines and how they operate. This was a diesel powered sub. What I'm saying. There's a lot of technospeak, where I'm saying "five degree up-bubble," etcetera, etcetera. I had to sit down with [writer/director] Todd [Robinson] and literally go through the script page by page to just realize what was actually happening.

How does filming in such close quarters affect the way you interact with the cast and crew? One of the things of shooting down there is you're face-to-face with these guys. You're five feet away, right in each other's face. There was no real ego involved. There was not a lot of attitude at all. We all knew what we were there to do. It was really great camaraderie between the actors and the crew, actually, because if not it's like you stuck out like a sore thumb. If anybody had any complaint or was b------ about anything, you never heard it.

Where does Marcia Gay Harden's Oscar win for "Pollock" rank for you in terms of career highlights? It's very high up there. ... The moment when they called Marcia Gay's name was exhilarating. It was really probably one of the happiest moments of my life. It was really cool. I was really, really proud. I was just talking to somebody who just saw the film last weekend and was saying how it really holds up and what a really good film it is and I'm really proud of it. I'd like to find something else to direct again soon and I'm trying to work on it, but it's a personal kind of thing for me. Something's got to really strike me to spend the time and commitment.

Any plans to come back to New York and do some theater? We did a new Beth Henley play called "The Jacksonians" in January last year at the Geffen out here in L.A. and I'm 90% sure we're bringing it to the Acorn Theatre in the fall. I'm really, really excited. My wife Amy Madigan is in it, and Bill Pullman and Glenne Headley were in the original and hopefully they'll both be available.

Do you enjoy coming back to the city? I love the city. I mean I grew up in New Jersey and I went to Columbia for a couple years, but my years at Columbia, I don't really know what the hell I was doing there. I didn't decide to study acting until after my freshman year, I guess. At the time Columbia didn't even have a theater department, so I left and went elsewhere. But I love New York. It's a great city.

You played football at Columbia, right?

I actually played freshman football.

Were you any good? I was alright. I intercepted a couple passes here and there. I didn't really have the greatest season, neither did the team and I didn't think the coaches were very bright - in fact I thought they were rather ignorant - and taking a bus up 100 or so blocks to Baker Field was a little bit different than playing football at Tenafly High School. And it was also '69, '70, '71, there were a lot of things going on politically, culturally, and I tried to change gears.

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