Jared Harris interview: John Carpenter, Mad Men, and being Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes 2

Jared Harris chats to us about Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, John Carpenter's The Ward, and Mad Men...

A gifted actor with a long and diverse career in such films as I Shot Andy Warhol, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Other Boleyn Girl, Jared Harris puts in a small yet captivating performance in John Carpenter’s horror, The Ward, out now on DVD and Blu-ray.

One of Harris’ finest performances in recent years, though, is as Lane Price in the acclaimed TV series, Mad Men. Initially a supporting player, Harris’ character, a buttoned-up English financial officer, has gradually grown in prominence, and is now one of the most engaging faces in the entire series.

It was a real pleasure, then, to speak to Mr Harris about his role in Mad Men, what it was like to work with John Carpenter, and also about his appearance as Moriarty in the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes sequel…First, I really enjoyed your performance in The Ward. What was John Carpenter like to work with?

It was great, and I’m a big fan of his. I remember very, very clearly going to see Assault On Precinct 13, and seeing Halloween and The Thing. Star Man. Escape From New York. I saw all these movies, so it was a thrill to work with him.

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He’s very concise, and has a very disciplined way of working on set. When you’re on set, and around the camera, there’s no chit-chat. Any conversation you’re having is focused getting the next shot done. There’s no messing about. If you want to go and socialise, there’s a socialising room at the back – you go back there and talk. That generally goes for the actors, because the crew are there and working. But if you’re hanging around and waiting, you end up talking about the game on TV last night, or dinner, because it was all shot on location – where you’re going to eat, good restaurants and so forth.

His thing is, you can either talk about the dinner you’re going to have, and miss it because you’re going to go two hours over schedule, or you can shut up and get the stuff done, and then you can actually go to that place.

So it was quite a brisk shoot then, I take it.

Yes it was. But it was all good-natured. [Carpenter’s] a very engaging man, and he’s got a great sense of humour. He kind of teases you. It was a beautiful place where we shot, near Washington. It was an old town that the real estate people hadn’t reached yet, so there was a lot of the old town left, built around this river. A gorgeous part of the country. And we shot in a real mental institution, as well.

Was your part written for an English actor?

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It wasn’t specific. I spoke to John about it, and we talked about accents, and he said I should use my own. I was happy about that, because I actually help, because there’s a fine tradition of English people playing bad guys.

How did making The Ward compare with your experiences on Mad Men?

Well, on The Ward you could talk about scenes and the script. You could fill holes in there, and fix things. That’s normally what happens with a script – you get on set and things change. On Mad Men, there’s none of that – you say it exactly the way it’s written, and do everything that’s written in the script.

Now, that’s the creator [Matthew Weiner] – he’s thought of everything. The amount of attention he pays to what’s happening and why it’s happening – he writes things in a particular voice. But you can ask him questions, and things like that. Often, writers don’t like lots of questions.

In some ways, it makes things a lot easier. For example, you don’t question a Chekhov play. You can’t change any of the dialogue, so you just have to make it work. Sometimes, I think actors will change things because they find it difficult, but it’s the difficulties that are interesting – they’ll iron out the wrinkles to make it easier for themselves, and so take away the little nuances and complexities.

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How did you approach playing Lane Price in Mad Men, given that you’ve often played more counter-culture 60s figures, such as John Lennon and Andy Warhol?

It was very much a thing of getting up to speed. I only had that first episode – I didn’t have that much information. So you’re trying to figure it out as you go along, but what I eventually came about in my mind is that he was a social climber in England. He wasn’t someone who came from that [upper-class] background. He has a kind of radio English accent, which he’s picked up by listening to the BBC or something like that.

He comes from a different background – I always thought he was a very smart kid who went to a little grammar school. Probably went to a good university, but was perhaps a bit of an odd man out there – the other people came from rich backgrounds. I think what decided to do was assimilate, to try to make himself sound the way other people sound. It’s a very English thing. And he did that, but everyone knows where he’s come from – there’s a glass ceiling to how far he can get. The people around him never let him into the club.

And all these guys, they’ve all had wartime experiences, so I think that’s a symptom, their having witnessed things that have become parts of their characters, things that they’re not proud of, that are hard to live with.

Did you have much input into the way Price’s character developed, because obviously, he started as quite a small character, and now he’s far more central.

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Matt said he was watching what I was doing, and we were just playing off each other, in terms of what the possibilities for his character were. I’m not sure if that is true. I’m pretty sure that in his mind, Lane was eventually going to be a part of that group from the start. I’m not sure.

But the dialogue that you have, if you show up and play the scenes, your instinctive approach to how you play them may surprise him, and he’ll see other qualities in the character – to see him as three dimensional, as a human being. He’ll become curious about it and start writing for that person.

It feeds back on itself, in away.

Yes. One of the chats we did have was, Matt wanted to explain why the character wasn’t going to be accepted. He thought that maybe the character was Jewish. And I said, you know, he has such a defined sense of class that he doesn’t need to be Jewish – he can just come from the wrong background and go to the wrong school. And that’s where he got that line of, “I’ve been here for however many months it was, and no one’s once asked me what school I went to.”

There was a sense of liberation the character has, and social mobility that he has in New York City that he didn’t back in England.

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The character’s also quite a sharp contrast to Moriarty, in the next Sherlock film. What did you bring to that character? Is he very different from the one in Conan Doyle’s stories?

Well, yes and no. It stays true to the spirit of the books without being a slave to them. The dialogue has a much more modern feel to it. But in the books, Moriarty only appears twice. He’s spoken about a lot, you sense the man’s presence.

I mean, Sherlock Holmes has been done so well in the past. I’m thinking of Eric Porter and Jeremy Brett in their Sherlock Holmes series. So you kind of go, well, it’s already been done, and done very well, so let’s try and do it differently, and maintain the same sense of the history of the character. And I think, also, you have to be careful now, it’ll fly down straight into parody without even meaning to – you could do that in a sentence.

So I thought we took the approach of less is more, and also that old cliché of having the story tell you what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. One of the things I wanted to do was never explain myself. I think there’s a lot more power in that, you know? Hannibal Lecter never explained himself in Silence Of The Lambs. He never says why he does what he does. In fact, the only bit where he says what he does is at the end of the movie, where he goes to Jamaica to follow his old tormentor.

Is it a concern, though, what you said earlier about British actors being typecast as villains? Are you careful about the roles you choose because of that?

There are three reasons why someone might take on a role. There has to be something about the part that fascinates me, that I haven’t done before. The other reason to take a role might be because I want to work with somebody, a director or an actor. The third reason is that your landlord doesn’t take potential cheques – he wants real ones.

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You could go two ways with it. One way to guarantee you’re going to work more often is to allow yourself to be pigeonholed, because those on the business side want to see you do things they’ve already seen you do. They feel safe that way. They want to manage their risk. They want all the actors to play someone they’ve seen them play somewhere else before.

Then they say, “He’ll play this person like that, and this actor will play that character like that.” That’s what they’re counting on. They don’t want you to show up and do something different.

Johnny Depp showed up on Pirates Of The Caribbean and came up with this crazy interpretation, and he had everyone at the studio screaming at him on the phone, telling him he’s ruining their movie. They’re terrified of taking risks. They don’t want to take a risk in casting you.

I personally like to change it up. But it’s harder to build up that momentum in your work. In terms of playing the villain, sometimes the villain parts are the best parts. And quite often, the good parts you have to fight to shed as much cliché as possible, and then you can get down to something interesting, a good nugget.

That’s the interesting thing about Lane Price, I think, to go back to him – you kind of expected him to come in as an antagonist, to lock horns with Don Draper, but he’s actually someone far more interesting.

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Yes, yes. Some people never loved that. If you read some of the things people have written about it, they never saw him as being that person. Which I always saw as being really funny, because, [Chuckles] they sold the company. No one forced them. They decided to sell the company, so it’s always funny when you’d read, “These bastards have come in and changed everything.” And you go, yeah, because they sold it! It’s like someone’s bought your house and changed it, you know? You sold the house.

But that’s one of the things that Matt put in there, in the first episode. One was the mis-direct of offering the same job to two characters, so that we had that rivalry between Lee’s character and Aaron’s character. But then there’s that line later on, that the idea hadn’t come from Lane, it’d come from the office in London for some reason. Lane’s doing as he’s told – he thinks it’s a stupid idea, but he’ll do it, because he’s a loyal guy and he does as he’s told. In fact, he’s a like a soldier. There’s a chain of command.

I’ve heard that Mad Men’s been commissioned for three more seasons. Are you definitely on board for all those?

I’m pretty sure I’ll be in the next season, but after that, I’ve no idea. There was talk about them wanting to change up the number of regulars there are, and so someone’s head’s on the chopping block, you just don’t know whose it is. You can be pretty sure it’s not Jon [Hamm], it won’t be Elisabeth [Moss], it won’t be John Slattery, and it won’t be Vinnie [Kartheiser], and it won’t be Christina [Hendricks], and it won’t be January [Jones]!

Jared Harris, thank you very much.

The Ward is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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