Acting has become a pursuit towards maximum recognisability and exposure; here we talk to a rare mercurial actor who is swimming against that tide and putting his character first
Jared Harris’ prominence on the American screen is such that he recently joked English people now peg him as an American actor. But Harris, born in London, is very much a Brit, and American audiences have embraced him: his strong screen presence, his noble features, an ability to be a chameleon of different roles, and an acting sensibility that seems almost Shakespearean. The fact may be lost on some American viewers, but Harris also comes from acting royalty. He’s the son of English cinema icon and original hellraiser, actor Richard Harris.
Harris sat in the study of his home in the Hollywood Hills one recent spring morning. Sunlight pierced the room, and he could hear his next-door neighbours working on their property. We spoke by phone about the course of his career, and his thoughts on acting as a craft.
Shirt DEREK MATTISON
Leather pennyloafers TOD’S
Jared wears his own jeans
“My father was a much bigger personality in real life than was appropriate to release on screen. He had to contain himself for the camera”
Harris, 54, first gained public attention in the 1996 independent hit I Shot Andy Warhol, and recently appearing in Sherlock Holmes, Pompeii and Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Lincoln. But he’s won greatest affections, perhaps, as Lane Pryce, the buttoned-up English numbers man of the Sterling Cooper ad agency in Mad Men. The way his formal character is affected, along with everyone else, by the atmosphere of the 1960s is mesmerising to watch. His character commits suicide in season five, but the day following our chat, he would be on the set of Mad Men again, as director. “It’s the first time I’m directing something on this scale,” he said. “It’s a tremendous honour.”
His latest role is that of Professor Joseph Coupland in The Quiet Ones, an intelligent supernatural horror film set in 1970s England. It occurs around Oxford University, where Professor Coupland lectures on the supernatural, amidst an environment tinged with sexual and spiritual exploration. Copeland embarks on a controversial experiment to rehabilitate a troubled young girl by physically manifesting the negative energies inside her, eliminating them, thus curing the patient. With the aid of three students he conducts tests on her. The rest of the time she is kept in a locked room for observation. But strange things start happening, and eventually evil things. The film claims to be based on a similar series of experiments from the era, called the Philip Experiment.
Harris and I discussed his career on the screen, but a particularly interesting story about him as an actor came from John Pogue, the director of The Quiet Ones. There’s a scene, Pogue recalls, that involved Harris’ motionless body on the floor. “We certainly could have doubled him, or shot around him,” Pogue said, but Harris felt having his actual body on set would help the actors with their performances. “So for an entire day he lay down in the most excruciatingly awkward pose. Not moving, for probably six or eight hours. For someone with his career to go to that length, where he’s not even featured in the shot… He will do anything, including sacrifice his physical and emotional comfort, in order to get the shot, and make the movie better.
“I could tell a dozen stories just like it.”
Alex Vadukul: What was your path to becoming an actor?
Jared Harris: I grew up with people asking me the questions “What do you want to do?” “What do you want to be in life?” I felt shunted. They thought I’d be a lawyer of some kind. I studied hard in school so I could get away. It was sort of good the way I could go to America, anyways, and be by myself. I’d have no one. You wouldn’t have anyone else’s ideas imposed on you of who you were. I went to Duke in North Carolina. When I arrived I accidentally auditioned for a play, and I loved it. Within the first year of being there I thought: this is what I want to do.
AV:The South must have been a new experience for you.
JH: I found North Carolina to be incredibly beautiful. But you also have these really strange dichotomies living side by side with each other. Some parts of it were absolutely crazy. For example, my oldest friend in the world, he’s Nigerian. He came to help me make a movie there, and covers of the newspapers had things about cross burnings. He looked at me and said, “Where the fuck have you brought me, man?” But the people in the South were also the kindest, nicest people.
AV: Your father is an acting icon. Despite your initial disinterest, were you surprised you were drawn to acting?
JH: I certainly didn’t have blinkers on about it, because obviously I’d seen it from the other side. I was very shy growing up, so I was surprised that I enjoyed doing it. I was surprised that I enjoyed being on stage and having strangers staring at you. They’re basically judging you. I enjoyed the challenge of disappearing into a character. And you know, you don’t really know whether you’re any good or not. You rely on what the people that come see you perform think.
Check shirt HUGO BOSS
“ said it’s risky being different each time. Each time you’re starting from scratch, and in this business recognisability is equated with success”
Photography Amanda Marsalis
Styling Anna Roth Milner
Gal Harpaz, Peter Sebeckis
Styling assistant Lydia Burkalter
AV: Tell me more about your early years.
JH: In the 1990s I joined the Public Theater in New York. I was living in the East Village. At first I lived in someone’s apartment, in their huge closet. They had taken out the door, put in a ladder, and stuck a little bed in the top shelf area. Everyone does it that way in New York at first. You know that, mate.
AV: What was your break, so to speak?
JH: There’s an implication behind that question: that success as an actor is connected to fame. My first ‘break’ came as being cast as Hotspur at the Public Theater. And that was as significant as being cast in I Shot Andy Warhol. But that question is a tricky thing. A career as an actor, from a personal point of view, is really about the roles that you play, and the people who see it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t make your work better or worse if a billion people see your work, or if ten people see it. In terms of creating future career opportunities, it does make a difference. But in truth, it doesn’t make a difference about your abilities.
AV: Do you feel the film industry has changed?
JH: I suppose now it is geared much more towards the marketing and selling, which doesn’t really have that much to do with the creation. The conch shell has been hogged. They’re spending a lot on moneymaking films that are going to appeal to as wide a range of an audience as possible. People are also more averse to taking risks. The industry has gotten bigger, and shrunk at the same time. When I started, my big influences as a kid in the 70s were all these personal movies made by directors. If Scorsese wanted to make a movie, or Sidney Lumet did, the studios would back a director. And these guys would make these individualistic personal films. That doesn’t happen now. They’re all major decisions made by big places with millions of dollars, so one can understand why they’re making the decisions they’re making.
AV: What was your father like, and does he bear any influence on you as an actor?
JH: My father was a much bigger personality in real life than was appropriate to release on screen. He had to contain himself for the camera. Whereas in life he would walk into a room and the whole space would fill up. It was a different energy. He was encouraging of my choice. He came and saw me in a play at Duke, and I remember the look on his face vividly. It was also special because we had this whole new area we could relate in, particularly when you get to that age. I was in my 20s, and there’s a difficulty parents and children can have in relating. It was like: Wow, we now have this whole new language we can relate with. He was also just this huge figure in the field, and I wanted that information from him. I ended up with a healthy respect for acting as a craft. It was sort of banged into me, how hard the business is, how hard you have to work, how seriously you have to take it.
AV: What do you strive for?
JH: My goal has been to be as different as possible in everything I’ve been in. I once met with Danny DeVito for an audition and when I walked in he said, “wow. That’s what you look like? You look so different in each thing you’ve been in, that I didn’t know what you actually were like.” He said, “Good luck.” I asked why. He said it’s risky being different each time. Each time you’re starting from scratch, and in this business recognisability is equated with success. But I think you don’t want people to go into the theatre, and be recognisable. It’s an actor no longer being seen as an actor, but seen as a brand. In pursuit of one’s craft, one’s goal, anonymity is a tremendous advantage.