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Marcia Gay Harden talks God of Carnage and raising Twins

Marcia Gay Harden has three children – daughter Eulala, eleven, and twins Hudson and Julitta, five – and now she’s adding an unlikely addition to her family: a cruise ship. The actress is the new godmother of The Carnival Dream, the largest “fun ship” ever constructed – complete with a water park, a mini-golf course, and cabins that can accommodate a whole family, as well as an admirable partnership with St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

Harden is a busy lady these days; although she’s been mesmerizing audiences since the 1990 Coen Brothers film Miller’s Crossing, the honors have really been piling up since she became a mom. In addition to her Oscar for 2000′s Pollock, she was Oscar-nominated for 2003′s Mystic River, received an Emmy nomination in 2006 for Law and Order: SVU, and won a Tony this year for the Broadway play God of Carnage.

We caught up with Harden by phone on her way to the ship’s christening, after watching her read a giant book to a group of schoolchildren to promote St Jude’s. As an actress, Harden is known for her frightening intensity; but as a mom, she seems – well, fun. She’s also smart, thoughtful and very passionate about family vacations. We talked about work-home balance, the age gap between her kids, and how being an actress makes family fights more interesting. – Gwynne Watkins

It was fun watching you read that story at Rockefeller Center. My toddler liked all your funny voices.

(Laughs) That’s the way to keep them involved. Funny voices!

Are you a big read-aloud family?

Do you know, we do a lot of reading aloud, even with my older daughter who’s now eleven. When she was nine and ten we were both into the Harry Potter books and we’d read those aloud. I read to the younger ones, my boy’s just started reading himself, and he likes to fill in the words he knows or read a whole book by himself. We just started him on chapter books – he’s read The Boxcar Children, Little House on the Prairie, he just started that – and some of the details in Little House, you know, they get into how they dig the well, a lot of the making of the house, and so in maybe about three or four months they’ll be ready for that. The Boxcar kids, they love.

It’s funny how kids get into those kinds of survivalist books – kids living in train cars, families roasting pig’s tails over the fire:

Well, aren’t they all survival tales really, at the end of the day? (Laughs)

There’s a six-year age gap between your older daughter and your twins. Does that age difference work out well for your family?

I think that the books typically recommend a four year gap – they have more in common, the school locations are a little bit closer. I think any gap is okay; I love having more than one child, I really wanted to have a couple. I wanted to have a boy – I already had a girl so I wanted to mother a boy also. And then to have these two beautiful girls and a boy it’s great. And she’s a wonderful big sister; she is very close to them. Which is not to say there’s not a lot of competition. There would be anyway, between the twins. And Eulala was the queen of the house for so long, sitting firmly atop her throne – so when Hudson and Julitta came along, she had concerns about being usurped!

But it’s true that they all get along. We all live in the city. She goes to the middle school and they go to the lower school. We live up in Harlem and we go up to the country, to the Catskills, where they spend a lot of time in nature, not a lot of time watching television. So I think we do a lot of imagination games, a lot of dream games – they have a treehouse they play in, we play on the lake, we swim, we canoe. They ride bikes together. And that’s how I like it.

Sounds like you’ve got a nice balance worked out. Did it take you a while to get there?

You know, I used to answer this question so differently. I’d talk about my assistants and my nanny and my great husband – and all of that is really true – but the real fact is, the balls drop all the time for me. I’m definitely juggling. The balls drop all the time. And they can drop in the morning, when the kids are sent off to school without the proper tennis shoes for the gym class and without the right hat for the outside activity. And the teacher writes a note, and you go “uhhh . . . I got mixed up, I thought they were in water today.” That’s a ball dropped.

If I get impatient with them – I frequently feel like barking or being angry at them because of my stress – I feel that’s a ball dropped. And I used to feel really bad about that. Now I just understand it’s part of what we do. It’s okay for them to see that, it’s okay for them to realize sometimes stress builds up, and it’s better to talk about it than to not talk about it. So I wouldn’t want to paint myself as someone who’s, you know, “She can do it all!” because that wouldn’t be true.

Do you think either living in the city, or living in this particular day and age, makes parents put more pressure on themselves than their own parents did?

I think it’s just different expectations. The world has changed. In my parents’ day and age, there was a gender standard, a job standard, there was not birth control, the girls were getting pregnant so much younger, and so it was a completely different way of approaching children. I also think we live in a day and age that suggests that you’re never supposed to suffer. Feeling bad is not part of it. We’re supposed to be happy 24-7! And I think that’s wrong.

We feed immediate gratifications all the time. We don’t have the same value of working towards something or earning something, saving for something – those are values that I think we miss from my parents’ generation. But I think my parents’ generation suffered because of the gender structures, the dumbing down of the female. And I think our kids will be better off now that women are in the workplace, trying to provide a home at the same time.

I don’t feel that because I live in New York City, I need to be more perfect than somebody who lives somewhere else. I think we all strive for a kind of idealism, but you know what? The balls can drop. In fact, it seems like in the ’50s there was a lot of idealism about what it should look like to be a mom. And I really try not to ascribe that to myself.

You just finished playing a mother on the verge of a breakdown in the Broadway play God of Carnage. Has doing that every night helped you to channel all your crazy-mom stuff? Has it actually made you calmer at home? I think we all strive for a kind of idealism, but you know what? The balls can drop.

(Ironic laugh.) No. In a word, no. No. No. The funny thing about doing it – I don’t know if it’s made me crazier or it’s made me calmer, either one, it’s my work – but being an actor, you can’t really turn the work off at five o’clock and go home. And a lot of people can’t either, when they’re at their jobs. But in this case, the emotions and the rage and all of those things – an actor’s asked to produce those on demand. And that means they have to be alive in your body. And that means at times I would express myself more dramatically – whether it’s joyfully or angrily – to my family than another person who doesn’t have the same kind of work that I do. And we understand that, we understand that. My kids are pretty dramatic themselves, so it’s okay. The play has been an absolutely wonderful thing to do for me; the hardest part was taking me away from the homework at night. But to be on Broadway, and we had the most incredible cast:

And the cast – you, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels – you’re all parents, right?

We’re all parents; all of us except Jeff have younger children. But we can all relate to what it is about parenting! (laughs)

The play is about parents fighting over an incident in their kids’ lives. How involved do you think parents actually need to be?

I’m still trying to discover it myself. We know that micromanaging’s bad and we know that excess freedom is bad, so that thing between is an individual choice. And I definitely think there’s something to be said for kids working out their issues, but in this case (the case of the play), the one kid bashed in his teeth. So as a parent, I would have been involved in that as well.

I think that – you know, I try to stand back. My husband’s much better at it than me. Let the kids solve their arguments, wait ’till the moment when it gets really bad – well, not bad, but until you can’t take it anymore (laughs) – and then you step in and try to mediate. Now, I’ve seen a teacher I really respect – as soon as she hears the insults or the “you can’t play with me” – she’ll say “come on, out in the hall, let’s go, let’s have a little chat.” And they discuss it. But she nips it right in the bud. So I don’t know, I’m discovering it.

Where do you think parents should draw that line between protecting their kids and giving them independence?

I read an article recently someplace, I think it was online, about a woman who let her ten-year-old son take the subway in New York by himself. And she was being called the worst mother in the world, I think. There are a lot of books that you read and a lot of talk about how kids need independence. And I do think that parents feel very pressured to be concerned about their child’s safety, and I think it goes too far on some level. It’s that kind of thinking in some bizarre way that leads people to buy Hummers, you know what I mean? God forbid anyone should smash into my car. And they buy these insane two-gallon-a-mile gas-guzzling cars to protect their kids, but if that car bumped into someone else it would slaughter them! (Laughs.) So I think it’s related in an odd way, that we can overprotect to the point of being harmful. And that kids, for their own growth, they need to know that they can handle walking around a block in a city that they’ve grown up in without mommy holding their hand. And I think that’s important. I wish my Pop were here to see it; he’d be really, really proud of me.

Oh no, we’re trying to get to the ship and we’re stuck in traffic!

This is the ship you are godmother of?

That is what I’m doing today! I don’t know if you knew, my dad was in the Navy all when I was growing up. He was a career man. And when I was about nine, we came back from Japan on a cruise. My always dad loved the sea, loved the sea at night, loved everything about the ocean. And he sort of instilled all of that in us. And now Carnival has asked me to be the godmother of the Dream – which is all about dreaming big dreams, and I’m sure you know they’re working with St Judes – so I get to christen the ship, and I’ve never done anything like this! (Laughs) I wish my Pop were here to see it; he’d be really, really proud of me. It’s a beautiful, huge, family-fun-oriented ship that’s got a pool and a golf course, and I’m going down today and break a champagne bottle and christen it the Carnival Dream.

One of the best things I love about this new enterprise they’re doing is that they’re creating these interactive events onboard the ship so that families also learn more about St. Judes. People take a hologram of their hearts. Or they might say, “Okay, for the next hour, everybody who goes down the slide, Carnival will donate $2 to St Judes children’s research!” Or there could be a dance-a-thon. All kinds of things. I really think that’s innovative, and a great way to teach people and make people more aware. I know when I look into resorts and cruises, I see if there are opportunities to give back — I think those are really good things for moms to be looking for.

Last year I researched an article about pregnant stars on the red carpet, so I can say with authority that you’re the only Oscar nominee ever to show up near-term with twins.

No, Catherine Zeta-Jones! Oh, not with twins, you’re right. You did your research!

Was that a difficult night for you? What was going through your head on that evening?

It was not difficult because of being pregnant; I definitely waddled down the aisle and felt beautiful, to tell you the truth, no matter what any critics could say about – whatever those ridiculous people would say! I felt beautiful. But my family was still recovering from our grief at the loss of my niece and nephew, so it was difficult to be so in that space of joy.

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