Actor Jared Harris '84 has an uncanny ability to disappear into a role. He's portrayed iconic figures such as Andy Warhol and John Lennon on film; performed onstage with the Royal Shakespeare Company; played dark and weird characters on television (Fringe, The Riches); and created indelible eccentrics on film (Captain Mike in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). In his latest incarnation as Lane Pryce onMad Men, Harris nails the complex character of the new chief financial officer for the Sterling Cooper ad agency.
As a teenager, Harris briefly considered becoming a lawyer, but acting was in his blood; his late father was the acclaimed Irish actor Richard Harris. He decided to come to the U.S. for college and selected Duke because of its size and liberal-arts emphasis. Bucking the requirements for a departmental major, Harris opted for a Program II major designed around the arts. He took acting and theater classes, augmented by courses in history, English, and literature. And he wrote and directed Darkmoor, a feature-length film.
"The dialogue was pretentious, but the film looked great," he says, acknowledging the work of classmate Jeff Bennett B.S.M.E. '84, who taught himself cinematography in order to work on the film.
Harris' chameleonic acting talents have kept him steadily employed for more than two decades. He plays psychiatrist Dr. Stringer in director John Carpenter's The Ward, a psychological thriller set in a mental institution. (Another Harris classmate and Darkmoor collaborator, Doug Mankoff '85, serves as the film's producer.) He's also in Extraordinary Measures with Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser.
While not yet a household name, Harris has plenty of scripts coming his way. In deciding which parts to pursue, he says, "Either the part or the people involved in the project—the director or cast—has to excite me." The large-scale production of Benjamin Button was "the type of project I dream about," he says, but his favorite roles have likely been seen by far fewer viewers—his leading role as Captain Anderson in the BBC adaptation of William Golding's trilogy, To The Ends of the Earth, for example.
Harris is also looking forward to going deeper into the enigmatic Lane Pryce character on Mad Men when shooting resumes this spring. "Lane Pryce was brought in as an adversary, but he genuinely loves being in America," he says. "He likes the freedom and the chance to reinvent himself."
On a Mad Men blog, Harris says his stepfather, actor Rex Harrison, provided inspiration for the Pryce character. "There's a certain genteel quality in the way he carried himself, and at the same time, he was
absolutely bloody minded and could have a filthy temper."
Regardless of the roles he takes on, Harris says that it's rare for him to actually watch his work once a project is completed. "I'm very hard on myself because the performance never matches what I thought it should be," he says. "Instead of seeing the whole character, I'll notice that I'm holding tension in my left cheek. It's too distracting."