- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Marcia Gay Harden chuckles over talk that winning an Oscar automatically changes an actor’s life.

Sure, that golden statuette is the ultimate mantel accessory, but personally, she says, the morning after the big dance was the same as any other dawn.

“The only time the offers come in is when you’re in a big-budget movie [that wins],” says Miss Harden, the winner of the best supporting actress Oscar for 2000’s “Pollock.”

Why? Because the powers that be suddenly decide that your Oscar win can bring those finances to other films, she says.

“For Catherine Zeta-Jones, it might be very different. I choose the same kinds of roles that I chose before,” Miss Harden says.

Don’t take her hard-line stance as a complaint, mind you. The actress has been working steadily. The next few months alone find her with no fewer than three films to promote: “Casa de los Babys,” “Mystic River” and “Mona Lisa Smile.”

First up is John Sayles’ “Babys,” the smallest but arguably most intimate of the trio. She stars as one of six women waiting to adopt babies in an unnamed Latin country.

The drama casts Miss Harden, 44, as the ugliest American of the lot.

Her character might be intemperate and a bit of a thief when she pockets some shampoo samples from a maid’s cleaning wagon, but Miss Harden could understand her anguish over not having a child on her own.

“It’s a mourning,” she says when couples discover they can’t give birth.

For Nan, the role she plays in “Babys,” the adoption process left an indelible mark.

“The waiting period is kind of insane,” Miss Harden says. “Why do you have to go wait for two weeks or three months? It’s already been cleared by an adoption agency.”

• • •

Slightly shifting gears, she appears to have fewer hassles in her professional life. Working for Mr. Sayles, who both wrote and directed last year’s critically acclaimed “Sunshine State” and also helmed the upcoming epic “The Alamo,” is as far removed from being in a Hollywood-sized production as an actor can get, she explains.

Yet that doesn’t mean the finished product has suffered.

“It’s not like guerilla filmmaking,” she says of life on a Sayles’ set. “It’s very casual and extremely efficient … no trailers, nothing fancy, no divas allowed.”

The perks for working alongside Mr. Sayles surpass a sweet payday, she adds.

“As [co-star] Mary Steenburgen said, you end up having a great life experience,” Miss Harden says. “Usually, he’s making a film about ‘something,’ so you’re engaged in the topic about which you’re shooting.”

• • •

While growing up, Miss Harden did plenty of leaping from one town to another.

Born in La Jolla, Calif., she led an itinerant life as the daughter of a naval captain. Her travels brought her to the District for several visits. She graduated from Surrattsville Senior High School in Clinton and later attended the University of Maryland in Munich.

She returned to the region during the mid-80s and scored two Helen Hayes Award nominations for her work in two Beth Henley plays, “Crimes of the Heart” and “The Miss Firecracker Contest.”

“I was waiting tables at the Four Seasons,” Miss Harden recalls. “It all seemed like fun times even though I was dirt poor.”

The actress later moved to New York City after earning a full scholarship to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts’ graduate program. The proverbial big break came when a friend of directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s told them about her brave work in an NYU performance. The creative team behind “Blood Simple” and “Raising Arizona” cast Miss Harden as the double-crossing Verna in their overlooked gem “Miller’s Crossing” (1990).

“It didn’t make a lot of money,” she says of the film, which co-starred Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney as Prohibition-era gangsters.

Her performance could have vaulted her to the A list. Instead, she found work primarily in television movies, appearing occasionally in features (1992’s “Used People,” 1996’s “The Spitfire Grill”).

“I never played the game … it’s about being famous,” Miss Harden explains of her career path. “I feel like I did a great role in a great film. My choices were all about trying to be an actress.

“These kids on the front of the magazines … most people can’t name the movie they’re in, but they know their name,” says the actress, whose complicated beauty might be seen as a handicap in an appearance-obsessed culture.

• • •

Household-name status could still happen should any of her three new movies strike a chord with the public.

In the upcoming “Mona Lisa Smile,” Miss Harden is a self-described “priss pot” who gives Julia Roberts’ character fits at a women’s college set in the 1950s. “She’s a symbol of the ladies of that age who bought the party line,” she says of her role in the Mike Newell film.

“Mystic River,” which hits theaters Wednesday, marks her second time working under Clint Eastwood’s direction. She played a supporting role in 2000’s “Space Cowboys.”

“It’s a thriller but without that testosterone music that most thrillers slam into your head,” she says.

She found the screen icon shared some similarities as a filmmaker with Mr. Sayles.

“He’s a real crew guy; he gets you in and out,” she says of the screen legend. “Like John, they both delve into life, and they tell a story with their own [perspective].”

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