I recently got the chance to talk to Ernest Harden Jr about his role in Clint Eastwood’s new film, ‘J. Edgar’. Here, Ernest talks about what it was like working with Leonardo DiCaprio on-set and how he got into acting in the first place…
Hey Ernest. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about your new film, ‘J. Edgar’.
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
It’s basically the story of J. Edgar Hoover’s rise to power and his complex life until he died.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
His real name was James Crawford. He drove for J. Edgar Hoover for 40 years. He had FBI training and carried a gun but he just called himself a driver. He knew where all the body’s were buried so to speak. He was one of the few people who Hoover trusted. He outlived Hoover and Hoover’s second in command, Clyde Tolson. He was the one who discovered Hoover’s body when he died. James Crawford also ran the FBI for a little while after Hoover’s death because Clyde Tolson - (who was also his lover) was so distraught, he couldn’t perform his duties.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
I have been involved with Clint Eastwood crew for years. I’ve worked on two other movies for them besides J. Edgar. One of them was directed by Clint Eastwood’s daughter Allison. It was called ‘Rails And Ties’ starring Kevin Bacon and Marsha Gay Harden.
Did you have to do any background research into the history of Hoover?
Yes I did. I read articles from the Internet. To me he was a man whose main objective was to be the most powerful man in the world by having a file of information on everyone who he thought was important in America and the world.
The film was directed by legendary film actor and director Clint Eastwood. What was it like working with him as a director on-set? Must have been incredible!
This was the first time that I was directed by Clint Eastwood himself. It was great. I was so surprised how soft-spoken he was. Yet when he spoke I listened with intensity, wanting to give him what he wanted on the first take because as a rule he doesn’t do a lot of takes. He’s an actors director and gives you the freedom as an actor to create. I was blessed to have worked with him.
The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set? Any good anecdotes?
I had to learn to drive some very old cars in the movie. That was not as easy as you may think – the things that we take for granted today when driving our modern cars. They had it a lot different then, like no power steering, having a starter choke and a clutch. Learning how to deal with all of that was fine until they added pressure on me with the word “Action!”. Now I was ‘by the numbers’ trying to figure out what I had just been taught. All the while a producer whispering in my ear “Don’t let that car cut off when the camera starts rolling”. The camera starts, I hear the word “Action!” and that dash-board starts to look like Chinese arithmetic to me. The car conks out, the crew breaks out laughing and I start to bang the steering wheel saying “I am finished, it’s over for me already!”. Leonardo DiCaprio who was in the back seat said with a smile, “Let’s have some positive energy here, you’re not finished”. Needless to say that never happened again for the rest of the shoot. I became an expert driving those cars. Later on while talking to Clint Eastwood he said everyone on set was betting against me getting through that day. Everyone “but him”. I simply replied, “Thanks, you are the only one that counts”.
Let’s talk a bit about you Ernest. What made you want to get into the industry in the first place?
I was in grade school and a girl that I liked signed up for the school play. I didn’t because I thought that it wasn’t cool. All that semester the teacher was on stage rehearsing the kids who had signed up for the Christmas play, while we were sitting in the dark class everyday until the play was put up. Everyday day I had to sit in the dark and watch my girl talk to other guys under beautiful Christmas stage lights. I said to myself then that I would never miss another play and I never did.
You’ve been in a number of different film and TV projects – which actors/actresses have been your favorites to work with and why? Any good stories to tell?
Working with Mrs. Bette Davis was my favourite project to work on to date. The movie was called ‘White Mama’. Jackie Cooper directed it. I co-starred with Mrs. Davis. It was the best role that I have had so far. In fact I am the only African-American to ever co-star with her and have her as a leading lady. It was great for me to see and work with Hollywood royalty up close like that. That was a blessing for my career and my life.
If you could invite three people to dinner (living or dead), who would you choose and why?
Bette Davis, because she has cooked dinner for me before and it was great. Clint Eastwood – he is a living legend and loves Jazz like I do. It would be a great evening. And my Mom who passed in 2000. I would want her to be there to see who I was hanging out with.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things could you not live without?
Cable with Sports Center, My dog Kobee, and a huge boat to leave when I wanted to.
What’s coming up for you in 2012?
I am currently working on a web series called ‘The Unemployment Of Danny London’. Actor Danny Lippin is playing Danny London. I play his wife’s father Todd. It is a funny show and I think it’s going to be a hit. I am also working on a one man show. Plus I hope to be working on Clint Eastwood’s next film called ‘Trouble With The Curve’.
Thanks for the interview!