The son of legendary character actor Richard Harris and brother of director Damian Harris, Jared Harris has carved out a thriving career playing villains, creeps, and pop icons. Harris made his screen debut in Damian’s 1989 adaptation of Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers, and scored his breakthrough role playing Andy Warhol in 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol. By that point, he’d already popped up in small roles in cult favorites like Nadja, Natural Born Killers, Dead Man, and Smoke. Harris made an indelible impression as a cocky Russian cabdriver in Todd Solondz’s controversial 1998 black comedy Happiness, and played John Lennon in the 2000 TV movie Two Of Us. Harris scored some of the best reviews of his career playing a salty Irish sea captain in 2008’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, and then took on a key role in the third season of Mad Men. Harris can currently be seen playing the nemesis of disease-curing crusaders Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser in Extraordinary Measures.
Extraordinary Measures (2010)—“Dr. Kent Webber”
Jared Harris: You can’t print what we affectionately called it on the set, that character. It was a play on Kent. A very popular English swear word.
AVC: I’m guessing the readers can fill in the blank.
JH: Yes. It could give you a pretty good idea of what the character was like. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’re the primary antagonist in the film. Is it fun playing the villain?
JH: It is if there’s something else to it. If it’s just two-dimensional, just “be really mean so everyone likes the movie star even more,” then there’s not a great deal of interest, and most of those parts tend to end up on the cutting-room floor, because you get the idea. When you see the guy the first time, you get the idea. This one had a little something interesting from an acting point of view, which was that from a scientific point of view, my character was absolutely right, and in the end, he was correct in what he was warning [Brendan Fraser’s character] about. Losing his perspective because of his understandable emotional connection [to his children, whose disease he’s trying to treat] would cause problems. The thing that happened at the end, in terms of putting his kids into that trial, was extremely serious. In the story, of course, you love these kids and everything…
AVC: You don’t want the handicapped children to die.
JH: No, you don’t, but the upshot of what that would have done is, it would have meant that all the research they had done would have been set back 10 years, and there would be no medicine for any kids. Not just his. Any kids. Because all their research would have been completely invalidated. So it’s extremely serious, what the guy did, but the problem with that character—which, again, was actually fun—is, he’s just so bad at dealing with people. He’s not a personable person, and he’s not a likeable person. But what he was saying wasn’t wrong.
AVC: Harrison Ford played a composite of scientists. Was your character a specific person or a composite?
JH: He was a composite. That conversation, where they walk down the corridor and he [tells Fraser’s character] “everyone else doesn’t like the idea of a non-scientist being in charge, and my advice to you is to keep your head down,” that is a verbatim, word-for-word, conversation that actually happened.
Mad Men (2009)—“Lane Pryce”
JH: I was drinking with a friend of mine. He said “Isn’t it weird that the year before, you were this sort of rollicking drunk, drinking, whoring Irish tugboat captain [in Benjamin Button], and this year, you’re everyone’s favorite corporate asshole?” I came into that series in this sort of hostile takeover, set in opposition to all the characters everyone’s built up affection for. People expected him to be the bad guy. They were looking for a bad guy, and they were looking for someone for Don Draper to butt heads with, and it seemed like it would be him, but actually, the character falls in love with America, which is very clever of Matt [Weiner]. But he falls in love with America, and he likes it there. He wants to stay. Then he can see the friction with his wife. His wife wants to go back. So you start to get these little windows into their interior life, and particularly that character—you don’t get a lot of his interior life. It’s very interesting playing those types of characters, because you get these small moments that open up that window and let people in.
Though initially they wouldn’t let me onto the lot, and I almost got the hump because they wouldn’t let me onto the lot, I almost walked away and said, “Fuck it.” They have this weird thing where you have to drive on. They wouldn’t let you walk in. There’s some problem with driving on, and I didn’t want to be late, so I just parked the car on the street and ran in, and they wouldn’t let me walk in, and I’ve got an audition, and they were getting so humpy about it. So I just thought, “Fuck the lot of you.” I was going to walk off. [Laughs.]
The Ward (2010)—“Dr. Stringer”
AVC: This is John Carpenter’s first movie in nearly a decade. That’s exciting.
JH: Yes. I was as excited as you to be working with John Carpenter. I absolutely love his movies. I’m a complete fan of his. I was thrilled. He’s quite a shy man, but he’s got a very wicked sense of humor. He’d come up to you, and you’d do a take, and he’d look at you, and he’d go “Wow, that was unbelievable.” And you’d go, “Uh, in a good way or a bad way?” [Laughs.] He’d kind of play with you and tease you like that. But he’s extremely disciplined when he works. He’s got this thing where he won’t have any small talk around the camera. If you want to go and discuss where you’re going for dinner, or what you did last night, you go and do that somewhere else. And generally, his shooting days end about an hour and a half earlier than anybody else’s, which is great. He’s an absolute, total, as you’d expect, pro, and he pretty much only shoots what he knows he needs. He doesn’t do masses and masses and masses of coverage. He’ll do little pieces, because he knows where he wants to cut already.
That’s quite rare now. It used to be the norm, you know? They would let directors do that. But nowadays, [except for] very established directors with reputations, they really want you to cover everything from every angle in its entirety, so they have the option, when they get to the edits room, to decide what to keep. So it’s quite rare when the director’s actually able to go, “No, I just need these two lines from this angle.”
I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)—“Andy Warhol”
JH: I went to meet Mary [Harron], and I went to chat with her about playing the part. I said, “I’d love to come audition for you. I like the script. I like you.” She obviously knew everything about that period and the people, because she’d been in it and done these documentaries on it. It felt like I’d be in good hands. So I said, “Just give me two weeks to see how close I can get. I have a good idea of what I’m going to do. Don’t ask me to come in on Thursday or something, because I won’t be able to do anything by then.” By the time I got around to coming in, I knew that Warhol hated to be put under the spotlight, and he liked to put the spotlight on other people and then watch. So I took a video camera in and I videotaped her auditioning me, sort of to fuck with her head.
AVC: For somebody who was such a catalyst, Warhol seemed to be a pretty passive person.
JH: Everyone who was within his crowd, who worked in the factory, he thought was fair game for him to use in the creation of whatever he wanted to create. And likewise, you could do the same to him. So Bridget’s diary, the Warhol diary that Brigid [Berlin] wrote, actually started off being… They used to have phone calls in the morning where he’d talk about what he spent the day before, and it was a way for him to keep track of his expenses for the IRS. So she was like his accountant. He’d say, “Well, we got in a cab, which was $2.50, and we went to a party, and…” As he was describing what he spent, he was explaining what he did, and she was writing it all down. Then she looked at it and went “You know, I think I’ve got this diary here. I could do your diary.” And he said, “Yeah, go ahead, I don’t care. Publish it.” So he expected people to use him just the same way he was using other people.
Dead Man (1995)—“Benmont Tench”
JH: That was fun. We showed up to Arizona and there was supposed to be a script, which never materialized in terms of the scenes, and basically we were having lunch at midnight, because it was a night shoot, and we were all dressed up in our costumes, and it’s Billy Bob [Thornton], Iggy Pop, and myself, and we’re looking at each other and going, “Does anyone here have any idea what we’re going to be doing later on? Because I haven’t seen a script.” All there was was some argument about baked beans, and you get shot in the foot, and then everyone gets killed. That was all they had. So we started to go, “Well, if we’re going to improvise, we need to have an idea of a structure around it.” So we went and sat in, I think it was Iggy’s trailer, or Billy Bob’s trailer, and we started to kick around these ideas of what we were going to do. So we came up with the idea that this was a Manson-type family living out in the jungle, and they’d sort of taken on these weird roles. Iggy was the mother, and I was the truculent kid, and Billy Bob was the impatient dad. But we had this thing where we’d come across strangers, and whoever found the stranger first, that person would be their property, but you could lend them to somebody else for their shaving kit or something for a day. But the actual honor of killing that person went to the person who saw them first. So there was some kind of weird, fucked-up family of serial killers lost in the west or something. They just sort of went from there. It was pretty crazy.
AVC: So you mapped out how you were going to improvise.
JH: Just sort of an idea of what normally happens when you come across somebody like this, and then, from there, Jim [Jarmusch] introduced Johnny [Depp] into the scenario, and then people started to improvise around it. And we did it in a couple of hours in a trailer. We figured out what was going to happen, and then we went and shot it.
Natural Born Killers (1994)—“London Boy”
JH: That was wild. I went in to audition for a different part, and clearly, before I got in, the casting director had told Oliver Stone my name, and who I was, and that I was Richard Harris’ son. Oliver was clearly pissed off that he was seeing an English actor to audition for an American role, because I get in there, and Oliver calls me Richard the entire time, and when we start to do the scene, the casting director doesn’t even wait for me to get halfway through my lines before he gives me the cue for the next line. He’s just basically rushing me out of there. I can see that he’s cowering a bit, and that he’s being chewed out, so I’m assuming that’s what happened. It was a fucking disaster. I get out of there thinking that was a fucking waste of time. “What the fuck? He didn’t even get my fucking name right!”
So I’m going home, and a phone call comes through to my agent, and they want me to come back and read for a different part that is an English part. So I go back in there a couple of days later— this time he’s got my name right—and I’m halfway through that, and Oliver Stone cuts me off and went, “Yeah, yeah, you’re a natural. You’ve got this part. It’s yours. Do you want to… do you have a girlfriend?” I say, “Yeah.” “Is she an actress?” Now, she was just thinking about getting into the business, so I immediately go “Yeah, of course she is.” She has that one line at the end of the scene. So he goes, “Bring her along and she can say that line.” I go “Great.” So I go home, and I’m all proud and everything. I’m like “I got you a part in an Oliver Stone movie,” right? So I’m a hero for a couple of days.
We get to the set, and the girl is absolutely gorgeous, and they dress her up in this long wig with this tank top where the pits are out and these tiny hot pants and these long boots, and she looks basically like a tart on any boulevard late at night on a Friday, you know, hustling. Which is kind of strange. But Oliver’s tongue falls out of his mouth like the cartoon wolf as soon as he sees her, and he comes up to her, he goes, “Oh my God, oh my God, you are so beautiful.” He goes “You are so beautiful. Don’t you know that all the men here are in love with you?” I’m looking at him, and it’s kind of embarrassing. I’m standing next to her while he’s doing this, and I say, “Are you speaking for yourself there, Oliver?” And he looks at me like I’m an ant. “What the fuck is this peon doing talking to me? Why is he opening his mouth?” He kind of withers me with his stare, and he turns back to her, and he goes “So, tell me, have you got a boyfriend?” And she takes a little bit too long to answer. There’s this long pause, and she sort of sticks up her hand, points her thumb, and jerks it in my direction.
And he goes “Him?” And she goes “Yeah.” “With him? This guy?” She goes “Yeah.” He goes “Jared?” She goes “Yes.” He says “But… with… where did you meet… I mean, Jared?” And I look at Oliver Stone, and I went “Yes. You knew that. You asked me to bring her.” I said, “On your way, Stone. Turn around and on your way.” And he gets a bit shocked, and he turns around and starts to walk away, but then he remembers that he’s the director. He stops, and he looks back at me, and he goes, “That was a typically English thing to say.” And I look at him, and I go, “I’m sorry, what would the American thing have been? You can have her if I can have a bigger part?” From that point on, he fucked with us all day long. He was furious. That was my Oliver Stone experience.
JH: Yeah. I met Todd Solondz to audition for the part that Phillip Seymour Hoffman played, and I was one of the actors he was considering for that role. But when I read the script, I really responded to Vlad. So when we started talking about the script, I said, “You know, the part I really like is Vlad.” He was sort of taken by surprise. He said, “No, you know, that’s weird. I didn’t think of that, but, you know, I had somebody in mind, but if you want to, I’ll consider you.” And I said the same thing I said to Mary. I said, “Give me two weeks, and I’ll come in, and you’ll have an idea of how close I can get.” And, you know, it’s smart, because I wouldn’t have been in that movie, because there was no way Phillip wasn’t going to be playing that part. I went in there… I think I bullshitted the Russian. He let me off on that one, because he speaks Russian. But, yeah, I responded to that part. I just thought there was something funny about the guy that I really enjoyed, his arrogance. He didn’t really give a shit what anybody else thought of him. I really liked that.
I read something interesting doing the research for that character, which was that there was a study done on the mental health of immigrants to America, and then the second and third generation. There was some study that was done that said that the longer you are exposed to this new country, the more mental-health problems you’d develop. [Laughs.] Within the context of that movie, I thought, “Right, well it makes sense.” He’s got fewer mental-health problems than all these other characters. Because there’s a sort of sense of neurosis about all these other characters that that person doesn’t have.
AVC: Was Happiness difficult to make?
JH: No. The only difficult thing about making it was that it was a low-budget movie, and you never have enough time to shoot everything, so there were long, long days: 18-, 20-hour days. You’d start shooting at whatever. You’d start shooting in the afternoon of one day, and then you’d still be shooting in the morning of the next. It was tough only in that way. All of my scenes were with Jane [Adams], who’s fantastic, and we had great fun. In terms of the subject matter, you were kind of aware, of course from the script. You didn’t quite know how it was going to be handled, but it was also exciting, in that sense, because there was something risky about it.
A lot of the talent representatives at the time wanted Todd to be more explicit about judging the characters in the story in terms of, “This person is a good person” and “This person is a bad person.” He refused to do it. He said, “No, I just want to present the characters and let the audience make their own mind up.” There was a dichotomy, because people were naturally appalled by the [pedophile] psychiatrist character. But at the same time, he has a good relationship with his son. He’s talking quite frankly with his kid. It’s the Dylan Baker character. He wasn’t judging the characters, which frustrated a lot of people.
Two Of Us (2000)—“John Lennon”
JH: That one came to me. I was offered it. I’m a big Beatles fan. You take a deep breath and hope you can pull it off. We did a lot of rehearsals. We spent about three weeks rehearsing before we started shooting, Aidan [Quinn] [who played Paul McCartney] and I. There was a little question of how much prosthetics do you go into to do it, because the profile of the characters is so recognizable. There was a sort of balancing act going on. There were fake teeth made and stuff like that. Really trying to figure out how far we could go. But that always happens with these things. They never actually commit enough time to doing those things well. It’s so difficult to get someone to push the button to actually go, “Yes, we’re going to make this” and start releasing the money. So really, [costumers] could have done a lot more with that, but they didn’t put them on the payroll early enough for them to be able to do everything they could do. In the end, we did the nose and contacts, I think that was it. And it’s always tricky. It’s still acting. It’s imaginative. But on the other hand, it’s something that people know really well, and if you’re not close, you’ll be dismissed out of hand. To my mind, the best John Lennon is still Ian Hart.
AVC: It’s like Warhol or Orson Welles, for that matter, where you could have a film festival about all the people who have played that character.
JH: I think at the time that I did it, there had just been the Oliver Stone one [The Doors], of the Warhol, and he didn’t really feature in the story.
AVC: More of a cameo.
JH: Yeah. My concern was, I just wanted to get close enough that people who knew him would miss him. I didn’t know there was any competition going on. You don’t think about that. Afterward, I tried to get my manager to get us onto Saturday Night Live, because I thought it would be fun if David Bowie and I went on Saturday Night Live and did dueling Warhols, like “Dueling Banjos,” and have the banjo and the guitar, and have someone playing it, because I can’t play. But all those little musical breaks during “Dueling Banjos,” we’d do different lines of classic Warhol things like “Oh, gee, golly,” that kind of thing. Just do this weird little riff. Dueling Warhols. I thought that would be a laugh.
Blue In The Face and Smoke (1995)—“Jimmy Rose”
JH: Wow. I’m not on the credits for that. I went to audition for Wayne [Wang] for that, and at the time, they were up in the air about whether they wanted an actor or a real person, someone who’s mentally challenged. Apparently, they said they met a bunch of people who had a high-functioning state, but they couldn’t get the idea that they had to say their lines with somebody else, and they just do them all at once, so they’d gone back to the idea of having an actor do it. I went and spent a long time studying and working with… There’s a hospital on Greenwich Avenue where they look after people like that. And it was quite scary. It seemed like it’s a very thin membrane that protects your sanity. In terms of what they understood as being real. The other thing I remember thinking about was: Often the way these characters are treated in movies, there’s a sort of sentimentality about them, and they’re sort of treated like pets or something. It’s awkward to interact with people who suffer from that condition, because they’ll do or say anything. There’s rules to polite engagement and polite conversation, but they can really say anything and do anything, and it makes people uncomfortable. So I wanted, if I did it, to have these moments where I make the other people feel uncomfortable about being around that character. Because that’s what I’ve seen, and what my experience has been.
Fathers’ Day (1997)—“Lee”
JH: Wow. Yeah. I’m enjoying the choice of ones that you’re picking. Yeah. I had great fun on that. Robin Williams is a king. He’s a very, very, very lovely, sweet man who was extremely accessible. And whenever he was introduced to someone, he’d remember their name, he’d remember the conversation you had. He’s very present in that way. That one, Louis and I, the other thug and myself, we got some license to do some improvisation, but I remember at one point we were doing something and Ivan [Reitman] yelled out from behind the camera, “Would you guys just get on with it? You look like two actors trying to get more screen time!” [Laughs.]
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)—“Captain Mike”
JH: Again, I auditioned for that, and met David [Fincher] to audition for it. He was originally Cajun, that character, and I don’t know if it was because my Cajun accent sucked, or he didn’t want too many people doing Southern accents. He said, “You can do it any accent you’d like.” “Irish,” he said. “Do him Irish. But any Irish accent you’d like.” To be perfectly honest, I never thought I was going to get that part. It was such a big movie. He’s a huge director. Often you go up for these parts, and they cast much better-known people in them, so I expected that. I couldn’t really believe it when I got the phone call. It was a great experience, absolutely. In your life, I think you think maybe if you’re lucky, you get to work on five movies like that, the kind of film that you grew up watching, hoping one day to be involved in, sort of fantastic David Lean epics.