Jared Harris is Making a Career Out of Portraying Some Remarkably Tragic Characters — and the World has Noticed
Shakespeare himself couldn’t have written a more tragic arc of characters. Deliciously conflicted. Erringly driven. Spectacularly torn. And wondrously free of redemption. A cast as robust in its suffering, as it is rewarding in its downfall.
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There’s Lane Pryce, the stiff-upper-lipped British number-cruncher in AMC’s Mad Men, and King George VI, the extremely reluctant UK monarch in Netflix’s The Crown. There’s Francis Crozier, the duty-driven Irish sea captain in AMC’s The Terror, and Valery Legasov, the reserved Soviet scientist in HBO’s Chernobyl. And there’s Absalom Breakspear, the warring Burguian Commonwealth Party leader in Amazon’s Carnival Row. Each of these extraordinary characters led lives of downright Bardian proportions. And all fives lives came to extraordinary ends.
They’ve also all been extraordinarily portrayed by Jared Harris.
Harris, the 58-year-old son of late actor Richard Harris, has become Peak TV’s go-to guy for characters who are weighted down by a fate they can’t shake. Sometimes it’s a fate of their own making (Pryce, Breakspear); more often than not it isn’t (King George VI, Crozier, Legasov). But whatever the case, it’s always a fate that comes with severe reckoning. In fact, Harris’s characters all come up against the severest reckoning of all — death.
One might think that getting killed off in every show would be an impediment to an actor’s career. After all, dead people generally don’t reappear in subsequent seasons. Then again, the quicker you’re stricken from one series the faster you can jump into the next. And ever since Mad Men’s Pryce was found hanging from the back of his office door, Harris’s career has been popping along with remarkable speed. In fact, he’d committed to playing genius probability-pusher Hari Seldon in Apple TV+’s take on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series before Breakspear’s blood could even be mopped up off of Carnival Row.
That momentum shows no signs of abating either, despite some very high profile warning signs earlier in his career.
“I remember one time going in to meet Danny Devito for a movie that he was directing,” recalls Harris. “He said I saw your reel and I was really fascinated to meet you, kid, because I had no idea what you would look like or how tall you were going to be. You’re so different in everything on the reel. I didn’t even know what you were going to sound like!’”
“‘It’s a ballsy approach to take,’ he says. Then he added, ‘Good luck, kid, you’re going to need it.’”
“I laughed because I didn’t know what he meant,” Harris continues. “But he said ‘listen in Hollywood a successful actor is a recognizable actor. You’re trying to start from scratch each time. You’re hoping that eventually it will catch up to you. Good luck.’”
Harris didn’t get the role. But he didn’t let DeVito’s warning get him down either. “DeVito wasn’t wrong,” Harris recalls. “But I figured WTF, I’ll take the chance it will catch up with me.” Good that he took that chance too. Because the move proved steady can also win the race. It also enabled Harris to carve out a career trajectory that’s uniquely his own.
Harris has been building momentum for himself pretty much from the get. Then again, he didn’t have much choice other than to choose to go his own way.
“I’d been coming out to L.A. and trying to get noticed,” he recalls. “In one week I auditioned for a serial killer, a computer-generated serial killer and the ghost of a serial killer. I’d had enough. So I decided to go back to New York. I knew that if my overhead was low enough — I got an apartment for 800 bucks a month — I could do independent movies and Off-Broadway theater. And that’s what I wanted to do.”
That’s what he did do too. Shakespeare at The Public; Mike Leigh’s Ecstacy at The Houseman, as well as a slew of small roles in large films (Far and Away, The Last of the Mohicans, Natural Born Killers); larger roles in smaller films (Dead Man, Smoke, Blue in the Face); and an indie star turn (the titular target in I Shot Andy Warhol).
“It was a great time to be in New York,” remembers Harris. “And though my building would occasionally stink of dead animals after the exterminator had visited the downstairs burger joint, it was all-in-all a good place to live. Todd Barry lived there. Sarah Silverman lived there. There was a tranny whorehouse on one floor; a crack house on another…” Harris even did some work with Rosie Perez at PS 122 and got to workshop Oedipus Rex and Salome with Al Pacino at the Actor’s Studio. You don’t get more prime New York than that.
But L.A. beckoned. First came a smallish recurring role as Dr, David Robert Jones in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi sleuthing series, Fringe. Then came a choice part in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Things fell quickly into place from there.
“Benjamin Button was the break I needed,” says Harris.
“I’d been pursing a career inspired by the Golden Age of ‘70s movies. But those sort of director-driven personal films weren’t breaking through the noise. I was in serious need of a career push.”
And he got it. Benjamin Button’s Captain Mike led directly to being cast as Mad Men’s Lane Pryce, and Harris found himself propelled into the realm of what FX’s John Landgraf would infamously label Peak TV. He’d also quickly see this was a whole ‘nother summit indeed.
Harris’s initial hint of a dimension shift came when Banana Republic was set to feature a line of Mad Men-inspired clothes in all their stores. “So there was Mad Men basically plastered on three miles of storefronts all across the United States.” The ascent begat residual effects too, including heighty roles in both Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
But Peak TV wasn’t finished with Jared Harris. Not by a long shot. After all, there was still some serious tragedy to be portrayed, not to mention a certain King still to be crowned.
That King, of course, would be George VI, who’d mount the throne on The Crown. And Harris’s view from on high stretched even farther and wider than it had in Mad Men.
“Not only did Vogue and Vanity Fair want to do fashion shoots featuring The Crown,” remembers Harris, “but Netflix used the series as their flagship to unveil their streaming service in almost every country on the planet. When you’ve impacted public awareness at that level something else happens to your show.”
Something else indeed. Critics were nearly unanimous in their over-the-top praise for the series. And the public-at-large took to the show with a devotion that rivaled their love of the British Royal Family itself. In other words, The Crown got everybody talkin.’ And everybody dug what they saw too. Tons.
It may have taken 20 years, but Harris had finally proved that an actor can succeed without being a type, let alone a stereotype, despite Mr. DeVito’s spot-on advice. Hell, if anything, he’s shown that casting oneself against being typed can actually be a boon to an actor’s career.
“My thought is the more you know about the actor the harder it is to accept the character,” says Harris.
“For people to believe you’re somebody else, they should know as little about you as possible.”
Of course, the more starring roles Harris scores, the harder it’ll be for him to remain in the shadows, especially if he keeps being recognized for his work. He’s already been awarded Golden Globe and SAG Ensemble wins; and it’s only a matter of time before his fistful of Primetime Emmy and Critics’ Choice nominations beget wins of their own. Then again, why shouldn’t all that tragedy have a happy ending?
Photography: Amanda Peixoto-Elkins
Styling: Franzy Staedter
Grooming: Grace Phillips
Location: Los Angeles, California