I caught up with Will Harrison, the fine young actor playing a Navy medic in The Coast Starlight, between shows on a recent Saturday. This is not always the ideal time to fire questions about a play to its interpreters. They’ve just come off an experience that, however rewarding, is draining emotionally, and they need to decompress and recharge before the evening affair. At that moment, Harrison told me, the play is “a soup of words.” But given the actor’s insights into his character it’s fair to say that his fatigue was momentary and, after our chat, would be easily addressed with a cigarette and some good grub.
The fatigue of T.J., Harrison’s character, is not recharged as easily. He has boarded a train with the intention of deserting his commission. It is 2019, and T.J.’s deployment back to Afghanistan, as America’s messy departure is aborning, is imminent. All six characters in Keith Bunin’s thoughtful, entertaining drama face dilemmas, but T.J.’s dilemma – will he in fact go AWOL? – lends the evening its highest stakes.
What has driven T.J. to the brink? “His dilemma is not that he hates everything about the military and needs to escape,” Harrison said. “His dilemma is more emotional. As T.J. says when another passenger on the Coast Starlight asks him why he doesn’t just go back and complete his tour of duty: ‘They’ll put me in a unit with a lot of decent folks and I’ll fall in love with them.’ T.J.’s problem isn’t the people he serves with. He respects them. Larger questions are gnawing.”
With The Coast Starlight and the current hit Amazon Prime series “Daisy Jones & The Six,” Harrison is having a moment. But has been involved with acting for years. He attended Waldorf schools in Ithaca, New York and Hadley, Massachusetts, and graduated from Carnegie-Mellon’s drama school in 2019. T.J. is his first time playing as a soldier. To etch the portrait, did he have to imagine himself in the military? “I put that question less on myself and more on people I knew growing up who I can imagine in T.J.’s situations more easily. I try to create something that is outside of myself that I can step into every night. Putting myself in a character’s shoes is not something I’ve found incredibly helpful in terms for creating a character’s backstory.” Then Harrison said something that retains its truth no matter how many times in my years interviewing actors I have heard it uttered: “This all gets very mushy when you start talking about it.”
We returned to specifics about how prepared this role. “I did some research into military culture in general, specific to the Navy and to the Marines, because T.J. is a medic and a naval officer assigned to Marine units. That research was super-helpful. But the biggest key for helping me to play T.J. was figuring out his physicality – the way he holds himself. Once you figure out how someone stands it’s easier to figure out how he moves.”
Where is Harrison moving after The Coast Starlight arrives at its final destination on April 16th? He replied: “I’m in a movie that was written and directed by my incredible sister, Tess. It’s called This Is a Film About My Mother. (When I sat down to write up this interview I read on imdb.com that the film takes place “during a stark winter weekend in upstate New York.” As a character exclaims in Homer’s The Odyssey: “Oh, Ithaca!”)
The Harrisons’ movie has already done the festival circuit and is coming out next month. In it, the actor said: ‘Tess and I play brother and sister.” So, I asked, is it fair to say you had to do less research for the movie than for The Coast Starlight? Harrison laughed. “Obviously.”
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.