How Jared Harris emerged from his famous father’s long shadow

Harris is set to star  in Foundation, an  ambitious new   Apple TV+ science-fiction series. Photograph: Ryan Collerd/New York Times
Revered for his ability to bring fragility to dark material, Harris's belated breakthrough in Mad Men and Chernobyl established him as a formidable talent in his own right

Ask David S Goyer, the creator of Foundation, why Jared Harris was his first choice to star in this ambitious new Apple TV+ series, and he will point to one meaningful moment during filming. Foundation has been a cornerstone science-fiction text ever since Isaac Asimov wrote the series’s first stories, in the 1940s. Harris plays Hari Seldon, one of the genre’s best-known characters: a mercurial and remote mastermind, seen mostly through others’ eyes. It’s a tricky part to write and even trickier to act.

“By his very nature Hari has to remain elusive,” Goyer says. But Hari is also the story’s “emotional and intellectual glue.” So at the end of a scene in which he details apocalyptic prophecies, Goyer asked the episode’s director to keep rolling after Harris finished his lines. “Even though he’s not saying it verbally, I wanted to feel the tremendous weight on the shoulders of this person,” Goyer recalls. They extended the scene long enough for Harris, still in character, to slump back and sigh, quietly conveying who Hari really is when no one’s watching.

It was a subtle, intuitive gesture that made a man known in Foundation as “the smartest in the galaxy” feel more like a real person. Talk to just about anyone who has worked with Harris and they’ll tell similar stories about his moments of actorly grace and his attention to the tiniest details of his characters.

Jared Harris and Lou Llobell in Foundation
Jared Harris and Lou Llobell in Foundation

Naren Shankar, a writer and producer on the science-fiction series The Expanse, says Harris built a lot of his charismatic, rabble-rousing character in that series, Anderson Dawes, around the tattoos Anderson sports, working with the writers to understand the whole history behind the ink.

Matthew Weiner, the Mad Men creator, describes how Harris once set the tone for an entire scene just by adjusting his tie after his character, Lane Pryce, emerged from a night of drinking and carousing – an unscripted gesture that spoke volumes about a man trying to reassert his dignity at an undignified moment.

Over and over he is described as an actor who prepares diligently, poses challenging questions to his collaborators and consistently brings a fragile, relatable humanity to some dark, heavy material. Harris, who is now 60, has been busy over the past five years, anchoring complex dramas like The Terror and Chernobyl while also taking on smaller roles in ensemble-driven series like The Expanse, The Crown and Carnival Row. At this point in his career, he says, he looks for projects where the writing is good and where the creative team is open to collaboration.

“I always ask that question of the person when I’m talking to them, in the early stages of whether I’m going to come on board or not,” he says in a video call. “What kind of a relationship do they want with the actor?” Harris is calling from the US, specifically Pennsylvania Amish country, where he is shooting a movie. (When he’s not working he splits his time between Los Angeles and New York City with his wife, Allegra Riggio. ) In conversation he is as those who’ve worked with him have suggested: full of ideas, and inclined to throw questions back at the person he’s talking to, to go deeper into the subject.

Jared Harris. Photograph: Ryan Collerd/New York Times
Jared Harris. Photograph: Ryan Collerd/New York Times

It’s a process that TV writers such as Goyer, Weiner and Shankar especially appreciate, because making a television series takes a long time, and it helps to have actors who are committed to making every scene feel more alive. Harris describes the way he works with writers and directors as “developing how you’re going to arrive at where they want their story to arrive at”.

“You’re not changing the story,” he says. “But you might be coming up with different routes in.”

After spending the first 20 years of his career playing mostly character parts in indie films like I Shot Andy Warhol and Happiness, Harris was nearing his 50th birthday when he joined Mad Men, in a role that turned out to be his belated breakthrough. It was his three-season stint as Lane Pryce, a buttoned-up British financial officer who takes big chances when he joins a New York ad agency, that finally allowed Harris to emerge from the long shadow of his father, Richard Harris, one of the most revered actors of the 20th century.

Weiner saw the parallels between Pryce and Harris: a respectable but perhaps overlooked pro’s pro, invigorated by an opportunity to reinvent himself in the United States. “He’s had a very interesting life,” Weiner says of Harris. “He knows who he is, and he knew who Lane was.”

I loved the fear of performing. I loved the camaraderie. All of those sort of restrictive rules that we put up around ourselves, specifically as English people, they all had to disappear fast

Similarly, in the AMC horror anthology The Terror – which Harris rates alongside Mad Men and Chernobyl as his best work – he played a morose naval officer who rediscovers his will to survive on an arctic expedition gone awry. David Kajganich, a writer-producer that season, described this rare leading role for Harris as a part that resonated with the actor’s own experience: “A man who had proven himself as a sailor time and again but had never been given full command of an expedition.”

It was never a given that Harris was going to go into the family business. The son of Richard Harris and his fellow actor Elizabeth Rees-Williams – and, briefly, the stepson of the actor Rex Harrison, to whom his mother was married for a few years in the early 1970s – he grew up as a shy child whose parents urged him to consider a career as an educator or a lawyer.

Neither of those jobs appealed to him. Looking at colleges, he knew only that he “just wanted to get out of England for a while”, he says. “I wanted to go somewhere where nobody knew anything about me or my family and I could start to figure out who I was.”

He landed at Duke University, in North Carolina. (Savouring the irony, Harris notes that, as a foreigner, this “white English guy” counted toward the college’s diversity quota.) There he found his way to the theatre department and discovered his calling when he was cast in the play A Murder is Announced, based on the Agatha Christie novel.

Matthew Weiner saw parallels between Jared Harris and Lane Pryce, his character on Mad Men. Photograph: Michael Yarish/AMC
Matthew Weiner saw parallels between Jared Harris and Lane Pryce, his character on Mad Men. Photograph: Michael Yarish/AMC
Jared Harris considers his performance on the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, along with those on Mad Men and The Terror, to be his best work. Photograph: HBO
Jared Harris considers his performance on the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, along with those on Mad Men and The Terror, to be his best work. Photograph: HBO

“I loved the adrenaline rush,” he says. “I loved the fear. I loved the camaraderie. I loved the way you had to quickly get to know each other. All of those sort of restrictive rules that we put up around ourselves, specifically as English people, they all had to disappear fast.”

Given that Harris’s father, who died in 2002, was as notorious for his booze-fuelled mischief as he was for giving riveting performances, it might sound strange to say the two men share a work ethic. Harris acknowledges that the stories about the actors of his dad’s hard-drinking generation were mostly true, but he also insists that they played up that image as a way of generating publicity.

I remember so clearly hearing the first laugh I got from my father in the audience, in the first five minutes. He was really surprised and thrilled

“The thing is, all those guys, they all took their careers very seriously,” Harris says. To some extent his father fed that image, he adds, “to the detriment of his reputation as an actor. Because now it’s ‘hell-raiser Richard Harris’. Always that first.”

Sometimes the children of celebrities bristle at any mention of their family connections, but bring up Richard Harris and his son’s face brightens. (And make the mistake of referring to Richard Harris, a proud Irish man, as being part of the great tradition of English theatre, and you can expect a playful rebuke: “Not English! Them’s fightin’ words.”)

Richard Harris in 2001. Photograph: Daniel Smith/Getty
Richard Harris in 2001. Photograph: Daniel Smith/Getty

Harris takes pride in his connection to that theatrical legacy – not only that of his father but also that of Peter O’Toole, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and the rest. “I grew up admiring them as sort of distant mentors that you look up to, trying to figure out how they did it,” he says. “But I was also very attracted to the American tradition, watching Montgomery Clift and James Dean and Brando, Hackman and Hoffman and Pacino and De Niro. Always looking for how they do it. How does Robert Duvall do that?”

It took a lot of convincing to get Harris’s parents to come see him act when he was at Duke. “To be honest, none of them really had any expectations, hopes or confidence, really, that I would do anything other than stink the stage up,” he says. His father finally gave in and came down to see him, postgraduation, in the play Entertaining Mr Sloane.

“I remember so clearly hearing the first laugh I got from him in the audience, in the first five minutes,” Harris says. “He was really surprised and thrilled.” They went out to eat that night, with Richard Harris suddenly eager to share tips and anecdotes, peer to peer. “I never tired of him describing performances that he’d seen,” Jared Harris says. “Olivier’s Coriolanus and his famous death scene. Paul Scofield’s Hamlet. He would reenact these performances and discuss why this person did this at this moment.”

What Harris got out of those conversations was an understanding that even an actor’s smallest gesture can help “shape the world” of the character. In Foundation that emphasis on the finer shading was crucial because he was playing someone who can’t reveal everything he knows. (This air of mystery extends to talking about the series itself, which has multiple twists the actors and writers can’t discuss yet.)

“You’re playing somebody who holds his cards close to his chest,” Harris says. “And that’s fun because having a secret is a very important, useful thing as an actor. Even if you’re playing the postman or the man who’s delivering milk, being able to infer to an audience the existence of an inner life is one of the main things that you have to be able to get across.”

Jared Harris at home with his father Richard Harris, his mother Elizabeth and his brothers Damian and Jamie. Photograph Evening Standard/Getty
Jared Harris at home with his father Richard Harris, his mother Elizabeth and his brothers Damian and Jamie. Photograph Evening Standard/Getty

Sometimes Harris’s preparation can be subtle, as in his performance as Gen Ulysses S Grant in the movie Lincoln, for which he latched on to a historical titbit about the general and always kept a cigar stub in the pocket of his costume. And sometimes his deep understanding of the material produces poetry, as in a Mad Men scene where Lane Pryce seals his own doom by forging a signature and then dries the ink by flapping the paper in the air – as if, according to Weiner, he were “waving goodbye”.

Asked to define the particular quality that Harris brings to a project, different collaborators have different answers. Weiner speaks of how Harris can be at once “nonsentimental” and “emotional”. “When the character gets into their emotions, not only is it with great difficulty, but it’s like they can’t hold it any more and they’re regretting it while they’re sharing it,” he says. “It’s just very painful and very deep.”

Harris, though, doesn’t think he has any particular note that he plays more perfectly than any other. “I try to throw them off the track, all the time,” he says. “Brando talks about acting as inviting the audience to follow you as though you’re walking through the back alleys of a city,” he adds. “You take unpredictable left and right turns and try and shake them off. Then you let them catch back up with you again.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times