Interview: Jared Harris on ‘Fringe,’ ‘Mad Men’ and His Legendary Father

It’s certainly not hyperbole to say that actor Jared Harris is having a really good year. After slogging it out in the thespian trenches as a successful character actor for the last two decades, Harris is moving into the next circle of fame with some high profile parts that are bringing more attention to his career.

It started with his affecting portrayal of Captain Mike in director David Fincher’s big screen hit “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (now available on DVD). He then followed that up with his creepy yet engaging turn as a bioterrorist locked up in a German prison on J.J. Abrams’ latest TV hit, ‘Fringe.’

Last week it was announced that his summer dance card is going to be filled with some ‘Mad Men,’ as he’s joining the third season of AMC’s hit playing Lane Pryce, the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency’s financial officer. And he’ll also be moonlighting with Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser in the big screen medical drama “Crowley.”

Quite the amiable Irishman, Harris recently took some time to chat about “Button” and ‘Fringe,’ which airs its first season finale tonight on Fox.

Let’s start with “Benjamin Button.” That film really got the attention of many and for you in particular playing Captain Mike. How did you get the part?

Harris: I went to go and audition for it. At that time, you go in and you think ‘Wow, this is juicy and they’re bound to hire someone incredibly famous to play the part.’ In a way, it takes the pressure off you and you think I can do whatever I like.

With that freedom, what was your take on how you auditioned for Captain Mike?

Harris: I knew many people just like Captain Mike having grown up in Ireland. He was very familiar to me already. Also the themes of Captain Mike, being a frustrated artist, as an actor you are never in control of your career and frustrated that you never get the roles you want. I felt like I knew what that part was like. And everyone’s relationship with their father is very complicated, in the sense that you absolutely adore your parents and at the same time you are struggling to create your own identity. Here is someone who got sucked into the family business and he hadn’t been strong enough to break free from the gravity of his father’s planet, if you like. I felt like I was in very familiar territory and didn’t need to do tons of research.

Benjamin Button unfolds like a novel yet there was all this crazy technology needed behind the scenes in order to portray Ben’s regression from old baby to young geriatric. As an actor did it feel like you working on some high end sci-fi film?

Harris: I remember the first time I did a scene with a man in this blue stocking hood, and that was Robert Tower. There were fourteen cameras there and I didn’t know which one was the actual film camera! All the other cameras were reference cameras. At some point someone had tried to explain this process to me and my eyes glazed over quickly as I thought, ‘I’m an actor so I’m stupid. Don’t try to explain technical things to me.’ Obviously David (Fincher) could see he lost me quite quickly. So I saw all these cameras and I thought all of them were recording the performance so I was trying to give a performance to all 14 cameras. David looks at me and says, “Jared, what are you doing? It’s that one right there!” (Laughs)

You also got to work with Brad Pitt, which isn’t a bad gig?

Harris: I’ve got to tell you, my friends and ex-wife were all very, very excited when they heard I was doing a movie with Brad Pitt. And then they were all quite crushed when I told them that only half my scenes were with Brad and the rest were with a guy with a blue stocking on his head. But the actors they got [to do that] were real actors and they were prepared on how to play the character. It was all guided from above by David. And the actors were wonderfully responsive so you were playing off something. It was much better than trying to do those scenes with a digitized character and you are staring at a tennis ball. It’s so difficult to do anything with that.

With all the critical acclaim for the film, did you have a moment where you knew in your heart that it was going to be a hit?

Harris: For me it was that very first moment with the voice over and Benjamin starts describing what his job was on the boat. He talks about Captain Mike and I thought, ‘Wow, I am in this movie!’ I really welled up. When you first start acting, you truly think that every movie that you are in is going to be a classic and it’s going to be amazing. It doesn’t happen. (Laughs) Every movie could be and wants to be, but so many things have to come right for it to happen. I think if you can count your good movies on one hand, you’ve had an amazing career. And with this I thought I’m in one of those movies.

You’ve had another great character on the small screen with your recurring role on ‘Fringe’ as the enigmatic ZFT bioterrorist David Robert Jones. He busts out of a German prison and then is a bit obsessed with Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv). Did you know Jones would become so important to the series?

Harris: I had a very good idea that the character was coming back just from the title of the episode, “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones.”

Is ‘Fringe’ your kind of show?

Harris: Yes. From even just seeing the promos, I knew that I was going to love the show because it’s right up my alley in terms of conspiracy theories…which I love.

How do you view Mr. Jones – evil or maybe not so much?

Harris: I think you could sense that there was a great bit of ambiguity about the character which was useful. He’s a bad guy that might be on the right side. He just might be fighting for the good guys. Those guys are always great parts because you leave the audience guessing about what side he’s really on. He’s one of those guys that if he’s fighting for the right cause, he’s a tremendous ally. But if he’s fighting on the wrong cause, he’s a formidable opponent. He’s an anti-hero who is fighting for the just cause.

Have they spoken to you yet about Fringe season two?

Harris: Well there’s still an episode to air yet (ed note – tonight’s finale “There’s More Than One of Everything”) (Smiles) I have no idea what’s going on. J.J. Abrams will send a hit team out to get me if I say anything.

Lastly, many people might not be aware that your father was the legendary actor Richard Harris, aka the original Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films. So we have to ask, where is Jared Harris’ part in a Potter film?

Harris: You know what Don Heyman was my father’s best friend so I know (Potter producer) David Heyman really well. Really, I have the same damn question! There’s only two left! What’s wrong?

We think there needs to be an organized push now. You’re running out of time.

Harris: I’ve dropped hints at a couple of lunches and apparently they haven’t been taken up. So I agree. Start a campaign!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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