Harris plays the legendary composer in “Copying Beethoven,” a new film about the composer’s waning years of life and music. Last week, at a roundtable discussion with college journalists, Harris discussed his intense commitment to the role, some of his problems with the script, and his view of music education in America.
MY FRIEND, LUDWIG VAN
Much of the conversation focused on Harris’ acting process and his attempt to mix his own personality with Beethoven’s.
“For 9, 10, 11 months, I lived with [Beethoven’s] music and my own all the time; that’s how I enjoy working,” he says. “It makes it interesting for me, it’s fun, and to me, it fills up my spirit with what’s important in order to try and portray this guy.”
Harris’ preparation for playing Beethoven was grueling.
“I played the piano for a year prior to filming. I mean, I took lessons and practiced every day. I took violin lessons and conducting lessons,” he recalls.
Even in post-production, Harris has found himself enjoying the music that was in his head for so long.
“My iPod is still kind of loaded up with that,” he says with a laugh. However, he admits that his ineptitude with digital technology might play a part in that fact.
“You know, [there are] a couple of Dylan tunes, but it’s mostly Beethoven, primarily because it’s so hard for me to put shit on it,” he says of his iPod. “I don’t handle it very well.”
Despite this hard work to capture Beethoven’s essence, Harris admits that the film made a number of fictional leaps in its representation of his life.
For example, the script tinkered with the composer’s deafness. “Beethoven had these conversation books where he would converse with people in writing and you can’t make a film like that,” Harris says. “You have to make the conceit that he reads lips.”
But lip-reading or not, Harris still committed himself to accurately representing what it’s like to be a deaf person. For inspiration, he turned to his own deaf father, “who can’t hear a lick,” Harris says.
On the set, he went even further. “I really did pretty much plug up my ears,” he recalls. “So I really had to pay attention to people when they were speaking to really understand what they were saying.”
Another wholly fictional addition to the film is the character of a female copyist named Anna, played by Diane Kruger. Harris’s initial reaction to the character was mixed.
“I asked the writers, ‘Why are you introducing this character?’” says Harris.
He eventually came around to their point of view, though. “They really wanted to give Beethoven a platform on which to speak,” he says, “on which to talk about his work and to express himself to someone, and I think it works in the film.”
THE IGNORANT SYMPHONY
Ultimately, Harris says he hopes that the film will reveal Beethoven to a segment of society that hasn’t heard his music.
“In this country, [classical music] seems to be reserved for some other class of society,” Harris laments. “And the more you listen to Beethoven, the more you realize that he covers the whole range of human emotions.”
To an extent, he blames public schooling for the lack of music appreciation among youth.
“When I was growing up, you had your own orchestra in third, fourth, fifth grade,” he says. “You could rent an instrument and you would play. Now the public schools can’t afford that. They don’t have art. They don’t have shit.”
In such a world, Harris hopes the film will do more than just entertain.
“If it introduces a handful of people to Beethoven’s music, classical music, turns them onto it a little bit, all the better.”