Even a cursory glance at his résumé should tell you that four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, 59, has never hesitated to take chances, as he did when he made his directorial debut with Pollock (2000), a startlingly intense portrait of the tortured American painter. But this is pushing it.
Approached backstage at the Castro Theatre in 2006 by identical twins Logan and Noah Miller, who identified themselves only as “the independent filmmakers,” Harris did what few stars of his stature would: He listened to their feverish pitch for Touching Home, the new drama about two baseball-obsessed brothers struggling to reconnect with an alcoholic father.
Harris then agreed to watch a trailer they’d constructed on their laptop despite zero background in the film industry, and took a copy of their script, promising to contact them within a week.
Why did he do it?
“These guys are undeniable,” he says, referring to the ever-enthusiastic, sandy-haired twins sitting to his right in a San Francisco conference room. “They’re good looking, they’re fit and they’re not crazy. Some people are. But they showed me footage they’d shot at the Colorado Rockies’ spring training camp, which looked good, and they told me about their dad, who’d passed away. It sounded interesting.
“Besides, they wouldn’t take no for an answer. And when someone won’t take no, the only thing to do is say yes.”
In Touching Home, Harris plays Charlie Winston, the booze-ridden father of twins, played by the neophyte Millers, who dream of playing in the majors and come tantalizingly close to making it.
The movie is based on actual events documented in their bestselling book Either You’re In or You’re In the Way: The Millers grew up in West Marin, tried out for several big-league ball clubs (Logan played in the minors for the Toronto Blue Jays) and learned, not long before ambushing Harris at the Castro, that their father had died, homeless at age 59, in the Marin County jail.
As it happens, Harris once dreamed of playing in the majors himself, earning a nickname during his Little League days in New Jersey that he recalls with a hint of embarrassment now: “Rifle-Arm Eddie Harris.” The baseball connection afforded the Millers a priceless moment with their on-screen father – a game of catch between takes – that merely solidified their already tight bond.
For the Millers, 31, acting for the first time opposite Harris was yet another learning experience, one that required them to listen, react and, most important, try to stay relaxed. It wasn’t always easy. Watching Harris channel their father’s spirit with uncanny precision was inspiring, but also emotionally draining.
“The first scene Ed did, it was like seeing our father again,” says Logan. “He embodied not just his physical mannerisms, but also the cadence of his speech. It made things difficult. I had to try not to get too caught up in it. I remember walking away from one scene and just breaking down, crying behind the camera.
“Ed was resurrecting our father, who hadn’t been dead a year. He wasn’t a famous person. He wasn’t Johnny Cash. He wasn’t a celebrity, he was just some guy people passed by every day who was fairly insignificant to them.”
“The main thing was the sense of responsibility I felt to my sons,” Harris adds, nodding at the Millers, whose unbridled energy clearly impresses him. “It wasn’t like we were there to make money. There’s a depth of feeling [in this story] that is indescribable, and it’s real. I felt it emanating from them. I wanted to do justice to this man that they cared about. If this story is about anything, it’s about unconditional love. They never gave up on him, and they had every reason to. That’s love."
Touching Home is currently playing at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. For tickets and showtimes, click here.