The villain

 

IF EVER an actor were marinated in theatrical royalty it would be Jared Harris. You are almost uncertainly aware that the impressively creased character specialist is the son of Richard Harris.

But he has also served time as the stepson of Rex Harrison and the son-in-law of Edward Fox. Saddled with all that personal hinterland, Jared, now 50, was never likely to drift into plumbing or quantity surveying.

“Here in England people often assume that my chosen career demonstrates a highly embarrassing lack of imagination,” he says. “‘Oh, it’s unlikely lightning will strike twice. In America it’s completely different. Maybe it’s genetic. Who the hell knows? Let’s take a look, anyway’.”

Over the last 30 years, Harris has nurtured a healthy career playing cut-throats, sneaks and eccentrics. You’ll know him from I Shot Andy Warhol, Sylviaand Benjamin Button. More recently, he has turned up as Lane Pryce, corporate purse-string monitor, in the peerless series Mad Men.Indeed, there are few actors busier.

This week, Harris takes on the role of Moriarty, the maestro of master criminals, in Guy Ritchie’s follow-up to 2009’s mirthsome Sherlock Holmes. It’s a smart piece of casting. There is simultaneously something grand and scuffed about Harris. He comes across – on screen and in life – as a man who has been properly brought up, but who wouldn’t mind sharing a flagon with the local cutpurses.

It’s hard to tell if the Moriarty who appears in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadowswould delight or appal Arthur Conan Doyle. After all, the villain only appears in two stories.

“Yes, he doesn’t really appear,” Harris muses. “But he is talked about a great deal. And those sections were more useful than the ones where he actually appears. The guy who appears is 6ft 2in and older than I am. He has a high-domed forehead and a mannerism where he shakes his head from side to side like a snake. I tried that and it didn’t work. It just seemed mad.”

It is impossible to hear Harris talk and not search for reminders of his dad. He has a slimmer build and a less flattened face (blame rugby) than the late Limerickman. He is not quite so hearty. But you get the same slightly fruity enunciation and the same hungry delight in spilling a good anecdote.

Richard and Elizabeth Rees-Williams, Jared’s mother, split up when he was eight years old. But the soft-hearted Irishman, who famously lived at the Savoy Hotel when in London, remained pals with his ex-wife and kept a close eye on his three sons.

“Oh, they stayed very close,” Jared says. “I think, in the end, mum was one of the few people that he felt knew him and whom he trusted implicitly. He had a couple of friends like that. She was there every day. It was she, along with my brother, who eventually persuaded him to leave the Savoy Hotel and go and see a doctor.”

The story goes that, as he was wheeled to the ambulance, Harris spotted some guests entering the posh hotel and bellowed: “It was the food!”

“That story is absolutely true,” Jared says. “Absolutely true.”

Richard cannot have been the easiest man to get along with. But Jared remembers him with touching affection. Every now and then, the actor would decide it was his turn to host Sunday lunch. He would tell the boys to make sure they wore the nice suits that he’d bought them. “‘Don’t embarrass your mother. Put on a BLOODY TIE!’ he’d say.”

When they arrived, Richard would invariably be dressed in the most inappropriate manner imaginable: a green Naf Naf jumpsuit and faded sneakers.

“We’d head to Savoy Grill and the maître d’ would say: ‘Afternoon, Mr Harris. Are you lunching with us?’ ‘You know I am.’ ‘Are you dressed for lunch?’ ‘I am.’

“He would then bring us to a booth, bring out this Chinese screen and cover us so the rest of the guests did not have to be so affronted. Dad just loved to cause them trouble.”

By this stage, Jared’s mother – currently attached to former Tory MP and erstwhile jailbird Jonathan Aitken – had married the notoriously self-important Rex Harrison. Harris is diplomatic about interactions with that grand actor.

“He had better relations with adults than with children,” he says. “He just wasn’t interested. He didn’t have the patience to maintain a conversation with kids. But that’s the only way I experienced him. He lived the life of an old-fashioned movie star: chauffeur, butlers. The great quest of his life was to find the perfect butler. He used to send wine back even if it came from his own cellar.”

Following education at boarding school in England, Harris took time off and travelled the world. Keen to escape his genetic baggage, he eventually enrolled at Duke University in North Carolina. He didn’t have any serious plans to act, but, on a whim, auditioned for the dramatic society in his first week. He has remained tied to the family business.

Richard, as many actors do, warned his children to stay away from the theatre. But Jared eventually convinced dad he was seriously committed to his new vocation. Sure enough, though he has yet to secure superstar status, the younger Harris has never been idle for too lengthy a spell.

There was a ropy period when, after a season at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he spent six months contemplating the wall and imagining the road not taken. But he soon carved out his own area of specialisation.

In Mad Men,that sleek tale of US advertising creatives in the 1960s, Harris plays the bean-counting financial officer inserted by the firm’s British parent company. Though the series has never racked up huge viewing figures, it has had an extraordinary influence on popular culture. Every unimaginative drone is now developing a show or movie featuring men wearing slim, two-button suits. “Even though it is set in the 1960s, it is examining a culture war that is going on now,” he says. “The idealised America represented in the 1950s – where white men were at their most dominant position and every home had two kids – runs smack bang into turbulence of the 1960s. In America, the changes wrought in those years are still being fought over. That’s why it registers”

That and the booze, fags, and casual sexism? “Yeah, yeah. The casual sexism. Ha ha! Though I don’t think Lance gets to do much of that.”

Long resident in New York, Harris recently divorced actor Emilia Fox (daughter of Edward), to whom he was married for five years, and moved to sunny Los Angeles. “I had a really good time in New York, but it smells like a giant urinal,” he laughs.

Life appears relatively idyllic. Rather than reeking of urine, his garden is scented by jasmine. There’s a lemon tree in his front garden.

“You get used to being alone again,” he says. “You adjust. I do a big Sunday lunch every week. A big leg of lamb of whatever.” Let’s pretend that, in tribute to a great man, he occasionally dons a yellow jumpsuit and drags round the Chinese screens.