Harden, one of five children, was born in La Jolla, California, the daughter of Texas natives Beverly (née Bushfield), a housewife, and Thad Harold Harden, who was an officer in the United States Navy. One of Harden's brothers is named Thaddeus, as is her former husband. Harden's family frequently moved because of her father's job, living in Japan, Germany, Greece, California, and Maryland. She graduated from Surrattsville High School in Clinton, Maryland in 1976, the University of Texas at Austin with a BA in theatre, and the Graduate Acting Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts with a Master of Fine Arts.
Career. Harden's first film role was in a 1979 student-produced movie at the University of Texas. Throughout the 1980s, she appeared in several television programs, including Simon & Simon, Kojak, and CBS Summer Playhouse. She appeared in the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing (1990), a 1930s mobster drama in which she first gained wide exposure. Even so, at the time, living in New York City, she had to go back to doing catering jobs "because I didn't have any money".
In 1992, she played actress Ava Gardner alongside Philip Casnoff as Frank Sinatra in the made for TV miniseries Sinatra. Throughout the 1990s, she continued to appear in films and television. Notable film roles include The Imagemaker (1986), her first screen role, in which she played a stage manager; the Disney sci-fi comedy Flubber (1997), a popular hit in which she co-starred with Robin Williams; the supernatural drama Meet Joe Black (1998); Labor of Love (1998), a Lifetime Television movie in which she starred with David Marshall Grant; and Space Cowboys (2000), an all-star adventure-drama about aging astronauts.
In 1993, Harden debuted on Broadway in the role of Harper Pitt (and others) in Tony Kushner's Angels in America. The role earned her critical acclaim and she received a Tony Award nomination (Best Featured Actress in a Play). The winner in that category was Debra Monk in Redwood Curtain. Harden was awarded the 2000 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of painter Lee Krasner in Pollock (2000). In 2003, she was again nominated in the same category for Mystic River. Harden guest-starred as FBI undercover agent Dana Lewis posing as a white-supremacist in "Raw", an episode of the popular crime drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In 2007, this role earned Harden her first Emmy Award nomination for best guest actress in a drama series. She reprised the role in the series' eighth season premiere and again in the twelfth season episode "Penetration" as a rape victim (aired November 10, 2010). In 2007, Harden appeared in several films, including Sean Penn's critically acclaimed Into the Wild, and Frank Darabont's The Mist (opposite Thomas Jane and Laurie Holden), based on the novella by Stephen King. Also in 2007 she shared top billing with Kevin Bacon in Rails & Ties, the directorial debut of Alison Eastwood.
In 2008, she appeared in Home playing a woman who has had a mastectomy (Her character in Rails & Ties also had a mastectomy). One central scene called for her to bare her breasts, with the missing breast "removed" using computer-generated imagery. In Home, her co-stars include her daughter, Eulala Scheel. Harden starred in the Christmas Cottage (2008), a story of the early artistic beginnings of the Painter of Light, Thomas Kinkade. In 2009, she appeared as a regular on the critically acclaimed FX series Damages as a shrewd corporate attorney, opposite Glenn Close and William Hurt. Harden also played in the comedy The Maiden Heist (2009) with Christopher Walken and Morgan Freeman. Harden received a 2009 Emmy nomination for her role in The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, a TV film also starring Oscar-winner Anna Paquin. She was a Best Supporting Actress in a TV Movie/Miniseries nominee, and lost to Shohreh Aghdashloo. If she had won this Emmy, Harden would have entered the elite group of 'triple-crown' actors; those who have won the profession's three highest honors: the Academy Award (film), the Tony Award (stage) and the Emmy Award (television).
In 2009, Harden co-starred with Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore in Whip It, which proved a critical success. It was also in this year that Harden returned to Broadway in Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, where she co-starred with James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels. All three actors were nominated for the Tony Award, and on June 8, Harden won Best Actress in a Play. Together, Harden's films have grossed $724,487,920 domestically and $1,128,784,661 worldwide. In 2013, Harden reunited with her former Broadway co-star Jeff Daniels as a new cast member on HBO's series The Newsroom.
Harden married Thaddaeus Scheel, a prop master whom she worked with on The Spitfire Grill (1996), in 1996. Harden and Scheel have three children: a daughter, Eulala Grace Scheel (September 1998), and twins Julitta Dee Scheel and Hudson Scheel Harden (April 22, 2004). In February 2012, Harden filed for divorce from Scheel. On December 14, 2003, her nephew Sander Waring Harden and niece Audrey Gay Harden died along with their mother Rebecca Harden, as a result of a fire in their Queens, New York, apartment. Rebecca Harden was, at the time, divorced from Marcia Gay Harden's brother, the children's father, Thaddeus Harden. On May 22, 2010, Harden delivered the 127th Spring Commencement Address at her alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin.