Playing Snow White for a sick child changed this Oscar winner's acting career.
Look up "struggling young actress" in the dictionary and you might see a picture of me, circa 1982. Rushing to open casting calls in between waiting tables, always worried about how to make the rent. Just about the only acting cliché I wasn't fulfilling at the time was living in New York City. I was based in Washington, D.C., where I was waiting to get my Screen Actors Guild union card. When I did, then I'd make the big move to NYC.
It was an uncertain time in my life, but one thing I was certain of: Acting meant everything to me. From the first part I'd played in high school (in Up the Down Staircase, thanks for asking!), there was a quality about acting that made me feel in touch with something big and mysterious and meaningful…. It may sound funny, but the feeling I got when I was playing a role I connected with was that God was using me for something good. When I was blessed with a role I was really passionate about, I felt like I was doing something I was truly meant to do.
Of course, most days found me hustling through a pair of swinging restaurant doors with a stack of hot plates on my arm. And that was fine too. I was paying my dues, doing what all young actors did.
One day, as I was finishing up a long hard lunch shift, I found myself in a particularly upbeat mood. I had reason to be. First off, I'd just finished a production of And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson for a local theater. We packed a small house every night, and I was confident that I'd done a good job. Plus—and more important—Oliver Stone was coming to town to do a casting call for his upcoming movie Born on the Fourth of July, the story of paralyzed Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic. The call was just for crowd-scene extras, but I didn't care. The way I figured, Oliver Stone would notice me, pull me out of the lineup and lo and behold, I'd have my big break. I guess you could say I was in one of my optimistic periods.
Two women came in, sat down at a table in my section and smiled like they knew me when I came up to take their order. Turns out they did. "We saw your performance in And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson last week. You were wonderful! We'd like to offer you a job."
When is an actress not happy to hear those words? I asked what the part was. "Probably not what you think," the other woman said. "Snow White."
"Snow White? Where's the production?" I asked.
"Georgetown University Hospital," the first woman said. "We're from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. A seven-year-old girl named Bonnie is dying of pediatric cancer. She doesn't have much more than a month to live. Snow White is her favorite movie. Our foundation grants wishes to terminally ill children. And Bonnie's wish is to meet Snow White." I gave them an answer before I'd even handed them their menus. The part felt right and the cause was good. I promised them I'd be available the day they needed me.
I'm not a big fan of irony. So you can imagine how I felt two days later when one of the Make-A-Wish ladies called to give me the date for my appearance at the hospital. You guessed it. Same date as my casting call. "Couldn't you make it another day?" I asked, panicked.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Bonnie's running out of time." I hung up and called the casting agency in charge of Oliver Stone's visit. Was there any chance I could audition on another day? "Oliver's only in town for that day," the casting director told me. "Marcia, this is a great opportunity. Whatever conflicts you have on that date, I'd advise you to find a way to reschedule them."
I didn't sleep a wink that night. I had to make a decision. What was right for me? Success had to be Priority Number One. It was as simple as that. They could get another Snow White. I might not get another chance like this. I'd call first thing in the morning and cancel the hospital job.
Yet it just didn't feel right. I'd promised to make a sick little girl's wish come true. How could I put ambition above that? The next day I called the agency and told them I couldn't make the casting call. "I have another engagement I can't back out of," I said.
By the day of my performance as Snow White, I was as ready as I'd ever been for any role I'd played in my life. I had no lines to learn, but I'd gotten a good costume, reread Snow White for the first time since I was a kid, rewatched the Disney movie and buried myself thoroughly in the character. I could rattle off the names of all Seven Dwarfs without a hitch.
The only problem was I kept bursting into tears. I was positive this would've been my big break—my one chance to make it. And I was letting it go.
The morning of the performance I got into costume at home. I must have been a curious sight as I made my way to Georgetown University Hospital. How many times do you see a weeping Snow White at the wheel of a yellow convertible VW Bug?
On top of everything else, traffic was horrible. I got to the hospital late and flew in—stopping only to make one last call to the casting director to beg once more for a chance to reschedule. "No, Marcia," the agent said. "This is it." It was a pay phone, and as I spoke, I could see my distorted reflection in its metal surface. A pale woman with black hair and blotchy red patches from incessant crying. Some Snow White. Some actress.
I hung up, asked for directions at the information desk and went running for the elevator. Down at the end of a long hallway, a woman and a girl were standing outside the hospital room: Bonnie's mother and 12-year-old sister. Bonnie's mom recognized me (it would have been hard not to in my getup) and greeted me with a big hug. Then she handed me a bag with a Barbie and some other toys in it. "If you don't mind, I thought it would be nice if Snow White gave Bonnie some presents. She's having a bad day, but she is looking forward to this so much."
"Sure," I said, taking the bag of toys. Then I took a deep breath and steeled myself—the way I do before every performance—and walked into the room. What I found stopped me cold. All my doubts about whether this was the right thing to do vanished. I'd been prepared to meet a sick girl. But the girl sitting on a pallet on the floor was so small and thin. I knew Bonnie was seven, but she barely looked five.
Bonnie raised her eyes and stared at me. Her face, pale as it was, lit up like a candy store. "Snow White!" she said.
I stood there dumbly. Come on, something inside me said. Pull it together. You know what you're here for. Then something clicked. I wasn't just a struggling actress playing Snow White. I was Snow White. "Hello, Bonnie!" I said in dulcet tones. "I'm so glad to see you! I'm so sorry that Grumpy and Sneezy and Doc (I named all seven) weren't able to make it!"
We talked for a while. I told her all about the handsome prince and gave her her gifts. "Snow White?" Bonnie said, grabbing my hand.
"When I die, will the prince kiss me and then I'll wake up again?"
The room fell silent. How do you answer a child's question like that? It had never struck me that Bonnie wanted to meet Snow White to answer a life-after-death question. What could I say to this brave, beautiful, honest girl? I closed my eyes for a second and tried to imagine what Bonnie must be feeling. How lonely it must be to be this young and this sick. "No, Bonnie," I said, "it's even better. When you go to heaven, God will kiss you and then you'll wake up again."
You remember what I was saying earlier about how the real mystery of acting came when I was playing a role I knew I was meant to play? Well, at that moment in that hospital room with Bonnie, I got that feeling. I got it like I had never gotten it before in my life. I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be, playing exactly the role I was meant to play.
Bonnie died just a week later. Was I able to make her passing a little easier? Hopefully I was part of that plan. And Bonnie was definitely part of the plan for me. She taught me that acting is about connecting, not about union cards and red carpets and ambition. Eventually I got my SAG card and moved up to New York City. After a couple more years of acting classes and waitressing and temping and living in crummy apartments and all the rest of that stuff, I got it. My big break. Two upstart young brothers, directors Joel and Ethan Coen, cast me in their movie Miller's Crossing. I was on my way.
In 2001 I received an Academy Award for my work as the painter Jackson Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, in Ed Harris's film Pollock. Then I played the mother of Chris McCandless in the film Into the Wild. Wonderful roles in wonderful movies. Roles that, while I was playing them, made me know I was where I was meant to be. That all the struggle and uncertainty was for a reason. It's a wonderful feeling.
Marcia Gay Harden is a mother of three, but she had the chance to touch many more children through her work with the YMCA and the Virtual Y, an afterschool program offered in New York City public schools. Visit YMCAnyc.org to learn more. Marcia is also the spokesperson for Liberty Mutual's fire safety program. To learn more, visit BeFireSmart.com.