TORONTO -- Contrary to her own jokes about it, Marcia Gay Harden is not following Frances McDormand around with a broom and dustbin, sweeping up the roles that McDormand declines.
Both now Academy Award winners, Harden and McDormand share a blend of tough character actor brassiness and leading-lady presence. And the actresses have a personal affinity, since Harden's film career began with the Coen brothers' "Miller's Crossing" in 1990, a movie directed by McDormand's husband, Joel Coen.
"I'll meet her and go, 'Now, I got that part. Did you turn that one down, Franny?' And she goes, 'No, Marcia, stop it.' It's almost like a joke between us," Harden, 43, said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where her latest film, John Sayles' "Casa de los Babys," played this month.
"Not to say we're not different. Of course we are. She probably can afford to be a little pickier than I can."
Harden has had plenty to pick from lately, landing a string of roles since winning the supporting-actress Oscar two years ago for Ed Harris' "Pollock." Harden delivered a fierce performance as artist Lee Krasner, wife of painter Jackson Pollock.
"Casa de los Babys" features a great ensemble of women, including Mary Steenburgen, Daryl Hannah, Rita Moreno, Lili Taylor and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Harden wound up with arguably the juiciest role, though, playing a mad-as-hell, take-no-prisoners woman waiting with other prospective American mothers in Latin America while the bureaucracy decides whether to let them adopt babies.
The women meander through that limbo for months, forging odd relationships among one another and the locals, who either admire or resent the Americans for coming to take away their unwanted children.
Friendships are struck, kinship is found. All except for Harden's character.
People who saw "Casa de los Babys" at the Toronto festival had trouble sympathizing with the character, which surprises Harden. She felt the character reacted the way anyone might after years of unsuccessful medical procedures to get pregnant and legal hurdles to adopt.
"Someone said last night, 'So what inspiration did you draw on to play such a [filtered word]? And I said, 'Myself,"' Harden said. "Because she's like everybody I know. I live in New York City. It's like everybody I know. I'm sick and tired of waiting around and playing the game, and I want what I want, and I want it yesterday.
"And I didn't get it yesterday, or the day before or two months ago, and you know what? I'm tired. I'm tired now, and I want to go home. That to me is just really normal. She doesn't want to be PC anymore. She doesn't want to order coffee in Spanish. She doesn't want to speak to the maids about the laundry. She wants to go home with her baby."
As intensely as Harden embodies the role, Sayles said the actress' versatility would have allowed her to play many of the parts in "Casa de los Babys."
"One of the first things she said to me is, 'There's so many ways to play this.' I said, 'Yeah, and I want to see them all,"' Sayles said. "And every take, she did something that was a little bit different. New, but within who that character could be. Just another possibility of how that character could play that moment.
"I think it was one of the nice things, especially in the big group scenes, that the other actresses could play off of, which is, we don't know what she's going to do next. So you've got to always be a little bit careful around this character."
A Navy captain's daughter, Harden moved around a lot in her youth, living in Japan, Greece and Germany. She got caught up in drama at age 17 watching Greek theater and later studied acting at the University of Texas at Austin.
Stage work, more studying and a lot of waitressing in Washington, D.C., and New York followed through the late 1980s, when she got an audition with the Coens after a casting director caught her in a play.
Harden landed the female lead in "Miller's Crossing," playing a wily moll at the center of a gang war between Irish and Italian mobsters. She has landed steady film and television work since, including the movies "Used People," "The Spitfire Grill," "Meet Joe Black" and "Flubber."
In the early 1990s, Harden earned wide acclaim in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Angels in America."
Harden and her husband, documentary filmmaker Thaddaeus Scheel, have a 5-year-old daughter. Coincidentally, Harden's father and brother are named Thaddeus.
"Isn't that insane? It's like so Freudian," Harden joked. "Of course, I'm the only one who married a Thaddaeus. There's like four of them in the world, and they're all in my family."
This fall, Harden co-stars in Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," featuring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon in a drama about three old friends drawn together again after a murder. "Mystic River" was a reunion for Harden and Eastwood, who also cast her in "Space Cowboys."
Late this year, Harden plays a prissy poise and elocution instructor in Julia Roberts' 1950s campus drama "Mona Lisa Smile."
Harden just finished filming "Welcome to Mooseport," playing executive secretary to a former U.S. president (Gene Hackman) who returns to his hometown in Maine and decides to run for mayor against a local plumber (Ray Romano).
Her Oscar win has maybe put her on more casting lists, Harden figures, but she said not much has changed in her career.
"I was already the kind of person I am by the time I won. The kind of actress I am, the kinds of films I choose pretty much remain the same. And the reasons I choose them. And it's not always about great art. Sometimes, it's about 'we need to pay some bills.'
"So I feel it's pretty much the same. But it feels a little more glorious. People always go, 'And Academy Award-winning so and so...' You kind of go, that's right. That's me," Harden said, laughing. "In case anybody had forgotten."
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