Jared Harris: A Chameleon-Like Actor Reflects The son of acclaimed British actor Richard Harris reflects on his diverse acting roles in films such as Happiness and I Shot Andy Warhol in a 2001 interview on Fresh Air. Harris currently stars as Lane Pryce on the AMC drama Mad Men.

Jared Harris: A Chameleon-Like Actor Reflects

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When the TV series "Mad Men" drew to a close last season, there were big changes in store for the agency Sterling Cooper. The most powerful people at the agency: Don Draper, Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper had hatched a plan to break away from their British parent company to start their own firm. They sought help from British executive Lane Pryce, the only person with the authority to sever their contracts.

Heres a scene from the last episode of last season. Pryce is with Draper, Sterling and Cooper going over there plan.

(Soundbite of TV series, "Mad Men")

Mr. JARED HARRIS (Actor): (as Lane Pryce) If I were to send a Telex at noon today that you're all being sacked, it's after close of business in London. It would remain unnoticed until Monday morning there, 2 A.M. here. That gives us today and the weekend to first gather accounts and then a skeleton staff to service them. And, of course, we would have to obtain all the materials required for continuity of service.

Mr. JON HAMM (as Don Draper) Obtain? We have to steal everything.

Mr. HARRIS: (as Lane Pryce) Anyone approached most be of certainty. If news spreads, theyll lock us out.

Mr. HAMM (as Don Draper) Do we vote or something?

Mr. HARRIS: (as Lane Pryce) Well, gentlemen, I suppose youre fired.

Mr. JOHN SLATTERY (Actor): (as Roger Sterling) Well, its official. Friday, December 13, 1963, four guys shot their own legs off.

DAVIES: The British executive Lane Pryce, who helps mastermind the break-away, is played by Jared Harris. He's the son of the late Richard Harris who, in between his roles playing kings and aristocrats, had the 1968 hit of Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park." And Jared Harris' stepfather was Rex Harrison.

Before being cast in "Mad Men," Jared Harris' film roles included "I Shot Andy Warhol," "Happiness" and "The Other Boleyn Girl." And he had a recurring role in the FX series "The Riches."

Terry Spoke to Harrison in 2001.

Since weve been on the topic of "MacArthur Park," let's begin our interview excerpt there.

GROSS: What did you think of the record when it came out and what was happening in your life that year - 1968?

Mr. JARED HARRIS (Actor): I was enduring my first year in prisoner war camp. It was a private school called Lady Cross.

GROSS: It was like a high school?

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, it was a boarding school.

GROSS: So everybody in the school most have known this. Did this help or hurt your reputation?

Mr. HARRIS: Did they know? I dont - I remember seeing him on top of the pops singing "My Boy," but not that one.

GROSS: Wow. I guess it wasnt that big in England, huh?

Mr. HARRIS: No he was. But he wasnt - you know, I was at a boarding school, you know, you didnt have radios.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HARRIS: You weren't allowed to watch television. And you didnt have access to, you know, where would you hear it? You didnt have little record players or CD's or anything like that.

GROSS: Well, when you saw your father and your stepfather acting, was it acting or the actor's life that you found appealing?

Mr. HARRIS: I wasnt aware of my dad being an actor when I was young. I remember there was an Australian children entertainer on television called Ralph Harris and when I'd say my father was an actor, kids would say, you know, oh, is he Ralph Harris? And I had to say no and then they would lose interest, so I was disappointed he wasnt Ralph Harris for a long time. But I wasnt aware of him as an actor.

I think obviously, I had the benefit of both his success and my stepfather's success and being privileged to go and see a lot of the world when I was very young, you know. So that rubbed off - a taste for that rubbed off definitely.

GROSS: What were the Richard Harris and Rex Harrison movies that made the biggest impressions on you when you were young?

Mr. HARRIS: I remember seeing "Camelot." I do remember seeing "Camelot" and a film called "The Snow Goose."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HARRIS: Oh. I think those were the first films he made that kids could go and see. My father mostly was in mature themed movies. And Rex, I remember seeing him in "Cleopatra." He played Caesar opposite Elizabeth Taylor.

GROSS: That must have been fun.

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. I love - "Cleopatra" is great from all his battles and everything.

GROSS: When you started acting, did you feel that there was anything you had to live up to from your father and stepfather's reputation, or that you would be compared to them in any way?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I've obviously compared myself. I - it was important to me to establish myself on my own terms. I had opportunities to act with him very early on. In the movie "The Field," they had trouble finding somebody, and I was talking to the director about playing his son in "The Field." And he was leery of it and so was I. And it was important to me for me to be established and recognized on my own right before I went and, you know, I guess went down that route, you know, tried to coattail, you know,? I didnt want to do that. Otherwise, you know, I wanted to fail on my own terms.

If I was - you dont know if youve got - everyone - everybody has to think that theyve got something special to get into this because the chances of succeeding are so slim. But if I was going to - if I had nothing special and I was going to fail, then, you know, I wanted to do it on my own terms and rather than sort of be fooled, you know.

GROSS: Is there anything that youd seen in your father or stepfather's careers that either influenced you or convinced you to do it differently?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, Rex Harrison had and my father still has incredibly successful varied careers. So I'd be thrilled if I could get mine up to that kind of a level. I think the lesson that I remind myself is, is not giving up. You know, they didnt want Rex Harrison to play the part of Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," when they were going to make the movie. They didnt want him for it. And he played it on Broadway and he played it in the West End. But he wasnt a movie star and so they were going to get somebody else and they, of course, were campaigning for him to play this part. And so, they demanded that he audition for it and send a photograph of himself in, you know. And they were trying to, you know, they put him from some very humiliating, or attempted to put him through humiliating hoops to get this part. And he sent a photo of himself straddling over one of those little, you know, boys that piss into a fountain, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

And he sent that in as his picture.

And then similarly, they didnt want my father for the role in "Camelot" either, to play King Arthur. They wanted Richard Burton. And when he turned it down they were going elsewhere and he had to - he campaigned like hell to get that part. I mean even to the point of tracking down Jack Warner in some party out in Palm Springs to convince him to give him a shot at this role, you know? So those are the things that I remember.

When you see something that you know youre right for, go after it and, you know, not to give up while you still have that - the desire and the ambition.

GROSS: The movie that I think you first became really known for was "I Shot Andy Warhol" in 1996. And this movie is about Valerie Solanis who wrote the "SCUM Manifesto" and actually shot Andy Warhol, seriously wounding him and nearly killing him.

Lilly Taylor played Valerie Solanis. You played Andy Warhol. How did you get the part?

Mr. HARRIS: I auditioned. You know, I knew it was a part that they would cast an English speaking actor - I mean an English actor for. Generally, when your over here, if youre English, you to tend to get the parts that - well, this sounds a bit silly, not that nobody wants but, you know, you get the kind of odd parts, the character parts or the sort of the, the kind of, the villain parts. So I knew this was an American role, which was an important thing for a foreign actor working in this country to get is to try and get your first American roles, you know?

So, I was all gung-ho to try and land this part and played some little mind games to get it.

GROSS: What did you do for the audition?

Mr. HARRIS: You know, I went in and met them first and I had a beard and everything and I deliberately tried to look as unlike the guy as I could and then said I'd like to come in, but dont ask me to come back here in two days time or three days time. I said, you know, give me two weeks or three weeks to really focus on this and try and get it right and you'll have an idea of how close I can get. And if youve got any material and tapes and stuff like that, you know, I've loved to get that because it'll, you know, it'll give me a, cut short my that process. So, which is what I did.

I studied for a couple of weeks and I came into the audition and I thought I'd be too weird if I sat down talking as I do now and suddenly put on this persona. So I went in and did the whole thing as Andy.

And then I thought, well, he would do something to try and flip the tables on these people because he didnt like to be put on - he liked to be in the spotlight but not having it pointing at him. He kind of - he liked to be pointing the spotlight. So I tried to figure out how to turn the tables. And I got a hold of a little video camera and made a movie of them auditioning me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, you play Andy Warhol as if he's pretty disconnected from his body, and almost as if his body doesnt have much weight or energy.

Mr. HARRIS: I thought that's true looking at the photos of him and seeing him move around. I think he'd become pretty disappointed in his sexual experiences and I think he hated the way he looked and he hate his body. He didnt like the way it looked. As before he got shot, he's deteriorated greatly after he got shot.

And I also noticed that in all of his pictures he always covered up his crotch.


Mr. HARRIS: And he always in the way he stands, he always sort of covering it up and shielding himself.

GROSS: So what does that mean to you?

Mr. HARRIS: I dont - well, I think that, and I think that he was uncomfortable and was disappointed in the act of sex and was in some way disappointed in his physical being, you know?

GROSS: Now, I think of you as being a real chameleon in some of your movies, and I think it's great for you as an actor. I think the only problem would be that people dont necessarily recognize you from role to role and therefore, it might be a little harder to build up a reputation for being Jared Harris.

Mr. HARRIS: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's been a problem?

Mr. HARRIS: Absolutely. Good for the craft. Crap for the career.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: It is. In this country a good actor is confused with a famous actor.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HARRIS: You know, so yeah, that is, that's made it a longer journey.

GROSS: Jared Harris, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HARRIS: Is that the end?

GROSS: Yes, it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: Is it? Oh, I've enjoyed it. Time just flew by.

DAVIES: Jared Harris, speaking to Terry Gross recorded in 2001. Harris plays the British ad executive Lane Pryce in the AMC series "Mad Men." Its fourth season begins Sunday.

You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter on nprfreshair. And you can download podcast of our show at freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

We're closing with Dutch saxophonist and bandleader Willem Breuker, who has died at the age of 65. For years, he led the Willem Breuker Collective. This was recorded in 1987.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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