Since Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird first hit Broadway in 2018, a new Atticus Finch has greeted audiences in the seats of the Shubert Theatre. Gone is the untouchable exemplar of a man who never wavers in the face of bigotry or injustice; in his place is a man struggling as the world challenges his core belief in the inherent goodness of humankind. Now, with four-time Oscar and Tony nominee Ed Harris taking over the leading role, audiences witness yet another version.
Harris’ portrayal of the white lawyer asked to defend an innocent black farmhand in 1936 Alabama offers a gruffness not typically associated with the mild-mannered father. “One of the things that’s different between Atticus and myself is he’s very good at keeping his temper in check,” Harris says. “Some nights it’s just really difficult to listen to this vitriol from [accusers] Mayella or from Bob Ewell and not respond in a…non-Atticus manner.
“Sometimes I have a hard time being patient, but that’s good,” he says. “I’m learning.”
As much as Harris learns moment-to-moment, he also brings with him a feel for authentic, rural America. Though he grew up in New Jersey, his parents were from Oklahoma, and Harris spent a number of his formative years there. “That kind of knowledge of that little town in southwestern Oklahoma certainly, I think, has influenced my knowledge or my feelings for small town USA,” Harris reflects.
“There’s a wonderful interview, it’s one Harper Lee gave when she talks about being a Southerner and the difference between growing up in this small town Alabama and the Upper East Side, for instance—just in terms of what’s available,” Harris says. “She talks about if they went to a film once a month that was a big deal because they spent most of their time creating interesting things to do as a child, making up games in the backyard. … She has a wonderful line, she says, ‘Have you ever found the whole world in the branches of a chinaberry tree? I have.’ I understand that.”
With his life experience and a 45-year career inhabiting other lives, Harris possesses the capacity to fill Atticus with humanity. “The more experiences you have being on this planet and the more open you are to them, the wider your understanding is of what it is being a human,” he says. “It’s kind of a bottomless pit.”