For 15 years, former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison punished and intimidated NFL quarterbacks, winning two Super Bowl rings and the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award along the way. But since retiring from the NFL following the 2017 season, Harrison has transitioned from working with a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach to engaging with a stunt coordinator and acting coach.
These days, Harrison is playing the role of Apocalypse in the new STARZ series ‘Heels,’ a television drama about a wrestling league set in small-town Georgia. His physique and existing public persona made him a great candidate for the part, but he says it took a lot of time and work to prepare.
“The biggest thing is I had to learn how to be a wrestler. Everything you do in a wrestling ring is like a dance,” Harrison told Heavy, before noting that his stunt coordinator is a professional wrestler who coaches him on everything from how to hold his opponent in the air to how to slam him to the mat.
“We are trying to make it look as painful as possible but do it as safely as possible,” he added.
Then there’s the acting side of his job, for which he has developed his skills with the help of an acting coach, practicing dialogue and working through scenes, including scenes from existing movies.
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From Stage Fright to Supervillain?
In some ways, becoming an actor seems an unlikely turn for a former NFL player who admits to having “stage fright” and was decidedly uncomfortable doing media when he came into the league.
But that’s part of the appeal of acting, he says.
“I like a challenge, and this challenge involves getting over a fear that I had.”
Now Harrison is aiming to take his acting career to the next level, telling Heavy that his dream role is to play “a super supervillain.” That is, “a villain where you have to have at least three different movies before you take him down.”
Don’t bet against Harrison making more of his fledging actor career, as he has plenty of self-confidence. Asked if he has a favorite actor, he offered up a classic response.
“Yeah, of course, James Harrison.”
Harrison’s Sons Are Playing Football
Meanwhile, football is never far from Harrison’s mind, especially since both of his sons are now playing tackle football.
“My oldest is playing for his middle school and my youngest is playing in Pee Wee league,” he says, adding that “it was not a hard decision to make.”
“They wanted to do it so I allowed them to do it. I’m not going to sit here in fear of every little thing. Life has risks; just waking up and walking out the door has a risk.”
As for his own career, Harrison says he still keeps in touch with many of his former Steelers teammates, including Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark.
And while he’s responsible for one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history—a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in the 2009 Super Bowl—the best game he ever played was in November 2017, a Monday Night home game against the Baltimore Ravens.
That night, Harrison accumulated 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery, not to mention 10 tackles and six quarterback hits.
“It was like anything I did was going to work,” Harrison told Heavy. “There was nothing they could do to stop me. Like I said in ‘A Football Life,’ I haven’t had that feeling since,” he added, making reference to a new documentary about his life and career, which premiered on NFL Network on September 24.
Harrison Gets ‘Defensive’
In addition to everything else, Harrison is also taking advantage of his reputation as a great defender to promote defensive driving for USAA. In support of USAA’s Safe Driving Campaign, Harrison recently took to Instagram to highlight his “driving persona” and why the issue is important to him.
“Of course, I’m a defensive driver,” Harrison said, telling Heavy that his current ride is a Volkswagen Passat with a diesel engine. “Safety starts before you turn the key. You’ve got to put your seatbelt on and adjust those mirrors and get your phone into a harness so that you can use your phone with Siri and not have to use your hands.
“I make sure that I am aware of my surroundings so I can anticipate what other drivers might do,” he added, before encouraging everyone to take the time to review the safe driving resources at USAA’s website.