Why Marcia Gay Harden Spends Her Time Off in Upstate New York


Zooming around on an ATV at her property in the Catskills, a couple of hours north of New York City, Marcia Gay Harden pointed out various sights that sparked memories: a back road where she taught her children how to drive; a garden where they picked blueberries; a skate ramp one of her children built; the forsythia trees she planted in honor of her mother, who died in 2018.

“My mother said to always plant forsythia where people can see it, so it greets you, because it’ll be the first thing in bloom,” Ms. Harden said. “Every year when it blooms, I think, ‘Oh, mother would be so proud.’ It’s the first thing you see as you come down the driveway.”

An ATV was necessary to give a visitor the full tour in just one day — the entire property, which sits on Gossamer Lake in Mountaindale, N.Y., encompasses around 300 acres, with a main house, a boathouse, a treehouse and a barn.

Last fall, Ms. Harden, 64, wrapped filming on “Knox Goes Away,” a thriller with Michael Keaton and Al Pacino that will make its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. This fall, she is reprising her role as the acerbic reporter Maggie Brener in the third season of Apple TV’s “The Morning Show,” alongside Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. But while Ms. Harden, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as Lee Krasner in the 2000 film “Pollock,” also has a home in Los Angeles, she spends most of her time off here in upstate New York. (This interview was conducted before the continuing strike by the SAG-AFTRA union. )

She has had this home since 1997 — and that isn’t something she takes lightly. Growing up, she said, “I was a Navy brat, so every year or two years we moved. We lived in eight different homes by the time I was 15.”

She added: “This place, for me, was someplace to plant roots. Because I didn’t have roots as a kid.”

Occupation: Actor

How she knew she was home: “We just saw so much incredible nature here, and it moved us. There’s a marsh; there’s a bald eagle. As we walked around at dusk once, we saw a great horned owl in a tree. I think those were the things that sold us.”

Many of the design decisions were made with her former husband, Thaddaeus Scheel, a prop master and director, who also helped build parts of the home. So deciding to keep the property after they divorced in 2012 wasn’t easy.

“It was definitely a thoughtful process: How would I use this property?” she recalled thinking. “Were there too many memories? Would it be too painful?”

Eventually, she decided she wanted to hold onto it for stability, for herself and her children, Eulala Scheel, now 24, Julitta Harden Scheel, 19, and Hudson Harden Scheel, 19.

“I also think I wanted the kids to know that their dad had built it, and I never wanted to leave a relationship with this ongoing animosity,” she said. Holding onto the home was a way to “teach my children that they can get out of a relationship, and they can break up, without demonizing the other person.”

At that point, some might have made major renovations, to reclaim the property as their own or turn it into something new. But not Ms. Harden.

“I did think, ‘Well, why haven’t I done more to make it mine? Why didn’t I tear down a wall?'” she said. “I realized it already was mine, and I didn’t need to erase it — I needed to hold onto it.”

Instead, she spent time learning how the house worked: the air-conditioning, the plumbing and “all kinds of things that are really, for me, not the first thing that I want to be learning about,” she said. “But I had to really learn a lot, because I thought, ‘I can’t just depend on someone else all the time.'”

As for the decor, much of it reflects the surrounding wildlife. An owl lamp lights the den. A deer skull, displayed in the barn, is one of a number of “things we’ve collected from around here,” Ms. Harden said. In a bathroom in the barn, tiles depict various creatures, including a dragonfly, an owl and a turtle.

The barn is also where Ms. Harden put the potbelly stove from the set of “Pollock.” There’s a moment in the film when Ed Harris, playing Jackson Pollock, is “stoking the flames of the stove,” she said, “and that’s kind of where he gets the idea for using dripping.”

Upstairs, a disco ball and pool table are at the center of a wide-open space lined with bunk beds, where children and friends would often stay over. “It was like camp for the kids,” Ms. Harden said. “In the summertime, it was all toys and fun and projects and puzzles and disco dancing.”

The boathouse has an entirely different vibe. It was built for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, Ms. Harden said: “I thought I could care for her here, but she ended up meeting a man, and her life went in a different direction. When she didn’t come, I turned it into a place where I did pottery.”

Many of Ms. Harden’s handmade mugs, bowls and dishes, along with those made by her children, are on display. Pottery is a hobby she began in the 1990s, while performing in “Angels in America.” “I still consider myself a fledgling, because I don’t do it all the time,” said Ms. Harden, who plans to take a pottery class with her children in Italy.

Up the stairs of the boathouse, which are stacked with books — some left behind by occasional Airbnb guests — is Ms. Harden’s office, lined with windows that offer 360-degree views of the woods and lake. This is where, surrounded by nature, she wrote much of her 2018 book, “The Seasons of My Mother: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Flowers.”

“I love just coming up here and opening my windows,” she said, “and just working and writing.”

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