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Jared Harris: Tragedy Becomes Him

Sailun Tires

Jared Harris is Making a Career Out of Portraying Some Remarkably Tragic Characters —聽 and the World has Noticed

Shakespeare himself couldn鈥檛 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.

Jared Harris for SWAGGER



There鈥檚 Lane Pryce, the stiff-upper-lipped British number-cruncher in AMC鈥檚 Mad Men, and King George VI, the extremely reluctant UK monarch in Netflix鈥檚 The Crown. There鈥檚 Francis Crozier, the duty-driven Irish sea captain in AMC鈥檚 The Terror, and Valery Legasov, the reserved Soviet scientist in HBO鈥檚 Chernobyl. And there鈥檚 Absalom Breakspear, the warring Burguian Commonwealth Party leader in Amazon鈥檚 Carnival Row. Each of these extraordinary characters led lives of downright Bardian proportions. And all fives lives came to extraordinary ends.

They鈥檝e also all been extraordinarily portrayed by Jared Harris.

Jared Harris for SWAGGER

Harris, the 58-year-old son of late actor Richard Harris, has become Peak TV鈥檚 go-to guy for characters who are weighted down by a fate they can鈥檛 shake. Sometimes it鈥檚 a fate of their own making (Pryce, Breakspear); more often than not it isn鈥檛 (King George VI, Crozier, Legasov). But whatever the case, it鈥檚 always a fate that comes with severe reckoning. In fact, Harris鈥檚 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鈥檚 career. After all, dead people generally don鈥檛 reappear in subsequent seasons. Then again, the quicker you鈥檙e stricken from one series the faster you can jump into the next. And ever since Mad Men鈥檚 Pryce was found hanging from the back of his office door, Harris鈥檚 career has been popping along with remarkable speed. In fact, he鈥檇 committed to playing genius probability-pusher Hari Seldon in Apple TV+鈥檚 take on Isaac Asimov鈥檚 Foundation series before Breakspear鈥檚 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.

鈥淚 remember one time going in to meet Danny Devito for a movie that he was directing,鈥 recalls Harris. 鈥淗e 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鈥檙e so different in everything on the reel. I didn鈥檛 even know what you were going to sound like!鈥欌

Jared Harris for SWAGGER

鈥溾業t鈥檚 a ballsy approach to take,鈥 he says. Then he added, 鈥楪ood luck, kid, you鈥檙e going to need it.鈥欌

鈥淚 laughed because I didn鈥檛 know what he meant,鈥 Harris continues. 鈥淏ut he said 鈥榣isten in Hollywood a successful actor is a recognizable actor. You鈥檙e trying to start from scratch each time. You鈥檙e hoping that eventually it will catch up to you. Good luck.鈥欌

Harris didn鈥檛 get the role. But he didn鈥檛 let DeVito鈥檚 warning get him down either. 鈥淒eVito wasn鈥檛 wrong,鈥 Harris recalls. 鈥淏ut I figured WTF, I’ll take the chance it will catch up with me.鈥 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鈥檚 uniquely his own.

Harris has been building momentum for himself pretty much from the get. Then again, he didn鈥檛 have much choice other than to choose to go his own way.

鈥淚鈥檇 been coming out to L.A. and trying to get noticed,鈥 he recalls. 鈥淚n one week I auditioned for a serial killer, a computer-generated serial killer and the ghost of a serial killer. I鈥檇 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鈥檚 what I wanted to do.鈥

That鈥檚 what he did do too. Shakespeare at The Public; Mike Leigh鈥檚 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).

Jared Harris / SWAGGER

鈥淚t was a great time to be in New York,鈥 remembers Harris. 鈥淎nd 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…鈥 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鈥檚 Studio. You don鈥檛 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鈥 sci-fi sleuthing series, Fringe. Then came a choice part in David Fincher鈥檚 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Things fell quickly into place from there.

Benjamin Button was the break I needed,鈥 says Harris.

鈥淚’d been pursing a career inspired by the Golden Age of 鈥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.鈥

And he got it. Benjamin Button鈥檚 Captain Mike led directly to being cast as Mad Men鈥檚 Lane Pryce, and Harris found himself propelled into the realm of what FX鈥檚 John Landgraf would infamously label Peak TV. He鈥檇 also quickly see this was a whole 鈥榥other summit indeed.

Harris鈥檚 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. 鈥淪o there was Mad Men basically plastered on three miles of storefronts all across the United States.鈥 The ascent begat residual effects too, including heighty roles in both Guy Ritchie鈥檚 Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Steven Spielberg鈥檚 Lincoln.

But Peak TV wasn鈥檛 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鈥檇 mount the throne on The Crown. And Harris鈥檚 view from on high stretched even farther and wider than it had in Mad Men.

鈥淣ot only did Vogue and Vanity Fair want to do fashion shoots featuring The Crown,鈥 remembers Harris, 鈥渂ut Netflix used the series as their flagship to unveil their streaming service in almost every country on the planet. When you鈥檝e impacted public awareness at that level something else happens to your show.鈥

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.鈥 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鈥檚 spot-on advice. Hell, if anything, he鈥檚 shown that casting oneself against being typed can actually be a boon to an actor鈥檚 career.

鈥淢y thought is the more you know about the actor the harder it is to accept the character,鈥 says Harris.

鈥淔or people to believe you鈥檙e somebody else, they should know as little about you as possible.鈥

Of course, the more starring roles Harris scores, the harder it鈥檒l be for him to remain in the shadows, especially if he keeps being recognized for his work. He鈥檚 already been awarded Golden Globe and SAG Ensemble wins; and it鈥檚 only a matter of time before his fistful of Primetime Emmy and Critics鈥 Choice nominations beget wins of their own. Then again, why shouldn鈥檛 all that tragedy have a happy ending?


Photography: Amanda Peixoto-Elkins
Styling: Franzy Staedter
Grooming: Grace Phillips
Location: Los Angeles, California


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