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Marcia Gay Harden Lost a Bet With Her Mother and Won an Oscar

By Marc Myers

The actress recalls her childhood growing up in California, Japan and Greece as the daughter of a naval officer and a mother who encouraged her to act

Marcia Gay Harden in New York City in March. Photo: Axel Dupeux for The Wall Street Journal

Marcia Gay Harden, 58, is an Oscar-winning actress who has appeared in more than 50 films, including “The First Wives Club,” “Pollock,” “Mystic River” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.” She is the author of “The Seasons of My Mother” (Atria). She spoke with Marc Myers.

My mother wasn’t a stage mom but she was convinced I had talent. In the early 1980s, fresh out of college with a major in theater, my plan was to work odd jobs and audition in Washington. But I was stubbornly insecure.

My mother, Beverly, sensed my anxiety. One weekend, when I visited my parents’ home in Virginia, she pulled out an article about auditions for a local production of Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be in Pictures.”

I insisted it was a musical and resisted. My mother gently offered to call to see if it was a musical. I said, “fine,” so she called. It wasn’t a musical. I auditioned and got my first professional theater part. What’s more, I received good reviews and won an award. More plays and good reviews followed. Somehow, my mother knew that if she just got me to the edge, I’d fly.

When I was little, my family lived in a three-bedroom ranch house in Garden Grove, Calif. My father, Thad, was a naval officer who rose to the rank of captain. He’d be away for six months at a stretch. The person who maintained the ship at home was my mother. There were five kids—I was the middle child.

All in all, we were good kids. This had a lot to do with my mother’s lightheartedness and kindness. Her voice was soft and reminded me of Snow White. She also loved planning fun events to keep us occupied. May 1 was always a big deal. The night before, we gathered flowers in the garden. The next morning, we made little bouquets and “Happy May Day” cards. Then we left them hanging on neighbors’ doors.

When I was 8, in 1967, my father was transferred to Japan, where he helped command a ship. Our house was on the naval base, halfway up a hill. It was magical. My mother became a sexy, determined, ’60s woman who wore asymmetrical dresses in orange and yellow.

Our house had a front porch, where we put on plays for families on the base. The first was “The Princess and the Pea.” I pretended to stagger while carrying a heavy cake, and the audience laughed. I thought, “They think I’m funny. This is clearly something I need to be doing.”

The house that changed me most was in Greece. In 1976, my dad was appointed commanding officer at a base in a town called Nea Makri, on the eastern coast. We rented the house of a shipping magnate. The furnishings were beautiful, and the house looked down at the bluest water.

Finally, I had my own bedroom. It was circular with French doors that opened to fragrant trees in our backyard. Each day I was overcome by the smell of jasmine, lemon and orange trees and roses. There was an intoxicating sensuality there, and I fell in love with the country.

I spent my first year in college in Greece. Acting became a passion after I watched ancient Greek plays performed at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. When I moved to Munich for my second year of college, I began to take acting seriously. During a rehearsal, my teacher said, “Oh, (pause), you’re good.”

After my last year of college at the University of Texas, I moved to Washington, D.C., then to New York. I waited tables at the Pierre Hotel and went on auditions. By then, all of my friends were buying stereos and having babies. I didn’t have anything except a fifth-floor walkup in the West Village.

‘The house that changed me most was in Greece.’
—Marcia Gay Harden

My parents were supportive, in their own way. My dad dropped hints about me studying computers as a fallback. Then NYU gave me a full scholarship to its graduate program in theater. My mother said, “At least she’ll be able to teach.”

In 1988, I auditioned for Joel and Ethan Coen. The directors were casting unknowns for their movie, “Miller’s Crossing.” Months later, when I was in my kitchen, my agent called. “You got the part!” he said. I fell to my knees. My first major film role. I called home. My dad said, “Fan-blanking-tastic.” My mother said softly, “Oh, Marcia Gay!”

Today, I live in Mar Vista, in Los Angeles. My house is Spanish Mediterranean, but old. The four-bedroom house is about me and my three kids.

On one side you can see the Pacific and on the other the mountains. But they aren’t sweeping views. What we have is privacy.

My father died in 2002. My mother today has Alzheimer’s. I don’t measure what stage she’s in, but she’s handling the disease with grace. When I ask, she says the most important things to her are love, flowers and her family. This is the same woman who pushed me to audition. I don’t want Alzheimer’s to be her legacy.