Before he joined the cast of The Merchant of Venice as Portia's love Bassanio, David Harbour hadn’t been seen on a New York stage in three years. Instead, the actor, known for roles in The Coast of Utopia, The Invention of Love and a Tony-nominated turn as Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has been in Hollywood, landing parts opposite stars like Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, not to mention playing a James Bond villain. During a break from his daily Shakespeare, Harbour chatted with Broadway.com about sharing the stage with Pacino, the screen with Kate Winslet and being directed by Queen Madge herself.
You’ve been away from theater for a while; how did Merchant lure you back?
I’d been doing a lot of film work and I started to feel…flabby. Metaphorically. Then [director] Dan [Sullivan] called about Merchant and I thought, “Perfect.” I was anxious to get back to something that felt substantial, like eating a meal, as opposed to the flimsiness that film can be.
Was it difficult joining a cast that had already had a successful run in Central Park?
No, it was great. Everybody was there to rehearse the play anew. I was grateful I didn’t see it in the park, so I could approach it fresh. Even Al [Pacino as Shylock] was finding all kinds of new stuff, which allowed me a lot of freedom.
What’s it like hanging out with Al Pacino every day?
I just like him so much. He’s such a legendary dude and he’s very charming, so I get all giddy when I’m around him. He’s just a real actor's actor, but he’s so mega-famous that sometimes you’ll think, “Jesus Christ, this guy was in The Godfather!” Or he’ll tell a story and say, “so, I did a movie with Sidney Lumet, blah blah blah,” and you’ll realize “oh, you’re talking about DOG DAY AFTERNOON.” It’s insane.
Speaking of co-stars, you and Lily Rabe [as Portia] have amazing chemistry on stage.
Yeah, she’s got a lot of strength and she really allows me to be as big as I am. I think that creates the chemistry, this strength between us. [We're] willing to wrestle.
She’s such a beautifully emotional actress. Has her recent tragedy [the death of her mother, Jill Clayburgh] made her a little more raw?
We were all very aware of that the first couple performances she came back. It was lovely to be able to play Bassanio opposite her and to express such love to her at that time. Even though it’s a terrible tragedy, the greatest thing about art is taking tragedy and creating beauty.
Let’s talk movies. The Green Hornet comes out soon. Give us a rundown on your character.
I play District Attorney Frank Scanlon. The idea behind the comic is that the Green Hornet [Seth Rogen] becomes a criminal to fight crime. So as he’s breaking the law, this district attorney comes after him.
Now that you’re officially part of the comic book club, what’s your take on Spider-Man?
Oh man, I want to see that! All I know is that the New York Post is so mean to them every single day. God bless 'em for trying to do something and maybe it’ll get ironed out.
What other films do you have on the horizon?
I’ve actually got four movies coming out this year. Crazy! One, called The Convincer, is going to Sundance, Isolation is touring festivals in Europe, and then I have this Madonna movie.
Yep, I did a movie called W.E., the story of Wallis Simpson and Prince Edward, written and directed by Madonna. It’s a great script and story, but to be honest I mostly wanted to hang out with Madonna for a couple of months. She made me a man when I was 12 years old. I remember the exact video, “Open Your Heart.” The best part is I got to dance with Madonna to Madonna music, which was the most surreal thing ever. It’s like watching Dog Day Afternoon with Al Pacino. That’s next on my list.
While we’re discussing your films, I have to know. How awkward was filming that sex scene in Revolutionary Road with Kate Winslet when her husband was the director?
Ha! They broke up, didn’t they?!
Are you taking credit for that?
I am officially taking credit! No, trust me, there was not much passion in that scene; it was more like Twister. It was in the front seat of a car, so it was like, ‘Your leg goes here, my hand goes here.’ They’d yell “cut” and we’d both start laughing. I don’t think Sam was very intimidated by me.