A little over an hour with actor Jared Harris will take you into some dark corners of conversation.
A chat about HBO’s “Euphoria” will evolve into a discussion about how the children of today may one day live in a world where coastal cities are underwater. You will begin discussing magical thinking and end up talking about the last words of death row inmates. Or he’ll tell you about that time when he, then a young student at a boarding school in England, possibly helped a notorious accused murderer make a get away.
Through this, though, two things become abundantly clear. First, Harris is an excellent storyteller.
You already know this if you’re familiar with his work in television and film, where his credits range from acclaimed series like “Mad Men” to “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” He’s currently nominated for an Emmy for his work as a whistleblower nuclear scientist in HBO’s “Chernobyl.” But there’s an art to telling an audience of one a great story – one perfectly teed up from start to amusing kicker finish – as he does. (HBO and CNN share parent company WarnerMedia.)
Second, thank goodness he didn’t become a lawyer.
Law and teaching were, in fact, the careers for which his family once thought he might be best suited, he says. In his words, he was “painfully shy” as a child, less gregarious than his younger brother Jamie and relegated to the attention-starved middle of the Harris family birth order. This combination did not read to his parents – Richard Harris, the late actor known as well for his penchant for living life large as his body of impressive work, and actress Elizabeth Harris – as the beginnings of a performer.
He was drawn to America because it was a chance to distance himself from preconceived notions, he says.
“You know the way that families will decide what your role in life is going to be? They decide who you are,” he says. “I was being handed a sort of career, or something, I just didn’t like the look of.”
Duke University was a fresh start. Part of him was annoyed to be back in school after several miserable years at strict Catholic schools since he was 7. If there was a silver lining, though, it was that no one knew him at Duke, and he’d have the time and space to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
His answer came in the form of a flier advertising free beer and pizza at the then-named Branson Theater.
“I thought, ‘F— it. I’m not gonna think about it. I’m gonna go there,” he recalls.
That sounds a little flippant, but he admits there was a bit more to it.
“I mean, I was curious; otherwise, I wouldn’t have auditioned,” he says of his first play.
He clarifies: “I was curious about what he” – his dad – “did for a living.”
Harris has been working steadily in Hollywood since the early ’90s. But it was his role in AMC’s “Mad Men” as English transplant Lane Pryce that earned him acclaim and a lot of attention.
Seven-year-old spoiler alert: In the show, Lane’s story doesn’t end well.
After going broke, embezzling money and being fired from a firm he helped found, Lane hangs himself in his office. Harris explained the character’s decision once in an interview by saying that Lane preferred to die than to go back to his home country, as had been suggested by his father, as a failure.
When I bring this up to question Harris about the emotional comparison one could draw to his own story, he interrupts.
“I told him that,” he says.
“Him” being the show’s notoriously secretive creator Matt Weiner, who kept track of all the storylines on a big board in the writers room, written in code. The card for Lane’s fate was “door jam.”
Very occasionally, he explains, Weiner would ask him for advice on English-related things in the script. (Weiner himself being an American.) That eventually evolved into Weiner putting small nuggets from Harris’s own experiences into the show.
At one point, for example, Weiner had planned to make Lane one of the “Kinder kids,” he says, referencing the group of Jewish children who were brought to Great Britain as part of a rescue effort for two years at the end of the ’30s, ahead of WWII. Ultimately, Weiner decided Harris didn’t have the right look – whatever that means.
His reason behind wanting that piece of Lane’s background to be part of the story was because, he told Harris, it was ultimately going to affect his storyline.
“And I said, ‘Well, you don’t need it because we’re so class conscious in England that if Lane comes from the wrong background, there’s a glass ceiling about how far you can achieve,’” he remembers telling Weiner. “Basically, the way that they suss out what your background is, is they ask you what school you went to.”
In one episode, Lane’s wife comes to town and hates New York. Lane, meanwhile, says he finds it refreshing “because no one’s once asked, what school I went to.”
Harris recognized it instantly.
At another point, Harris explained to Weiner that leaving your home country is a big decision, particularly for English people.
“You can’t come back with your tail between your legs,” he says he told Weiner. “It’s a one way trip, essentially. And the idea of and the shame of going back having failed is just awful.”
Harris will never have to make such a trip.
In July, he earned his second Emmy nomination, this one for his role in “Chernobyl,” a limited series from creator Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck.
Harris says he’s normally an avid researcher, but the approach was less useful for “Chernobyl.”
Valery Legasov was a chemist who put the horrible shortcomings of the handling of the Chernobyl disaster front and center. True to the promise of those who attempted to cover up various wrongdoings, there was precious little information to be found about Legasov when Harris began seeking out his history. But Harris does know that Legasov carried himself with a “sort of Russian, Alpha machismo” and had a wife and children, who weren’t mentioned in the show or script he’d received, for narrative reasons.
With key differences between the man in real life and the man on the page, Harris opted to form more of a mental and emotional connection to the man, one that reflected his status as a reluctant hero.
“He’s aware of, you know, Siberia and the gulags beckoning or a bullet in the back of the head, and he wished someone else had answered that phone call that morning,” he says. “I would think about that a lot.”
Now almost three months after “Chernobyl” concluded its run, the series remains front of mind for many – for better and worse, whether it’s in the form of renewed discussions about holding power accountable or (this is the “worse” part) Chernobyl tourism.
Harris theorizes the show struck a chord because the viewers saw in the show’s DNA deeper meaning and commentary that can be applied “to current events.”
“One of the most satisfying things was, quite unintentionally, that everything is going right for Putin but somehow this television show has upset him,” he says, laughing as we discuss reports that Russian TV is planning to air its own account of the event. “Some people just can’t be happy. You know what I mean?”
These days, what seems to keep Harris happy professionally is a steady flow of good scripts and characters that present a new challenge. Don’t, for instance, bombard him with your scripts with a troubled scientist at the center, Hollywood.
After years of playing mostly bad guys – “In the beginning, you’ve got an English accent and for some reason, I don’t know, you get cast as bad guys” – he’s one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated chameleons.
His next role will be in Amazon’s “Carnival Row,” which he filmed prior to “Chernobyl.” He also has a part in “Morbius,” the Marvel superhero film starring Jared Leto. He won’t tell me if he plays a good guy or bad guy in the movie. Because Marvel.
When I ask about his dream project, I bring up his years at boarding school. Having heard and read the extent of the strict rules the students were expected to follow at both schools he attended – the now-closed Ladycross in Seaford and Downside – and the scandal that has plagued the latter, I tell him his experience is ripe with storytelling potential.
Apparently, I didn’t know the half of it.
How to Get Away and possibly help a Murderer
In his boarding school days, Harris and his friends loved prisoner of war movies, because they felt like they could relate, he says. Influenced by their choice of programming, he and another boy eventually formed an escape committee – not unlike Dumbledore’s Army, I later think.
The pair prided themselves in being experts in getting people off the grounds of Ladycross undetected. One day, they decided to help two boys who were having a particularly hard time make an ambitious escape.
The plan was for them to take advantage of the new head master’s flawed system for counting kids after playtime and make a dash during their walk to some nearby Downs. This way, they’d have plenty of spare time before someone noticed they were missing.
Armed with a map of the world, a collection of spare change and a packet of Polo Mints, courtesy of Harris and the “committee,” the boys made their escape.
Within 40 minutes, their absence had been noted, and Harris and Co. began to sweat.
“That was a dangerous period because now people can squeal on you, gain favor with the masters, which they did,” he recalls. “Not too long after this, like within 30-40 minutes, we’re sitting down studying, the Downs are crawling with – and I mean, it’s like ants – with police. Crawling all over the place looking for the children.”
What they did not know is that police had been at a nearby port, on the trail of Lord Lucan, a notorious aristocrat believed to have mistakenly killed his children’s nanny in the ’70s before never being seen again. The case is one of Britain’s most enduring criminal mysteries.
Police from all over had been dispatched to various ports in southern England in an attempt capture him, including the port to which the escapee students had been sent by Harris and his cohort. When the call came in about the missing children, the police by the port relocated to the school.
The boys were eventually nabbed by the headmaster’s wife, who spotted them walking along the street and quickly returned them to the school. But who wasn’t found? Lord Lucan.
“The postscript is, they found Lord Lucan’s car abandoned at the port,” he says and an amused grin on spreads across face. “The last place they found anything connected to him was at that the port that the police had been protecting but left to go find the boys.”
I burst into laughter.
Black comedy is a genre Harris gravitates to naturally. In fact, it was his performance in a black comedy, “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” that Harris convinced his acting legend father that he was on the right path.
Richard Harris had come into town for a double feature – first to see a film his son made and then to watch his play in the evening.
“He was basically going to tell me to be a director. ‘Cause he thought, ‘You just don’t have the personality’ or that, you know, ‘You don’t have whatever that makeup is to be an actor,’” he says.
Harris changed his father’s mind.
“I remember really very clearly coming out of the theater afterwards and seeing this look of surprise on his face. I can still hear the first laugh I got in the play a couple of minutes into being on stage,” he says. “I can hear this laugh, and all I thought was, ‘Yes!’”
Fate, as they say, is a funny thing.