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When he was a child, Jared Harris’s parents – actor Richard “hellraiser” Harris and actress Elizabeth Rees-Williams – were convinced their middle son would never follow them into their profession. “I was very, very shy and they thought I’d be something like a lawyer or teacher,” explains Harris.
Fortunately for his ever-growing fan base, Harris, 59, still found his path. After English boarding school, he chose to go to university in North Carolina, mainly to escape his family’s expectations. “I thought if I went somewhere where I didn’t know anybody and they didn’t know me I could start all over again,” he says.
He gingerly started acting in student productions, then spent three years at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. After graduating at 28, he spent nearly two decades working steadily but relatively anonymously, before his poignant portrayals of advertising executive Lane Pryce in Mad Men, followed by George VI in season one of The Crown, took his career to the next level.
Harris cemented his reputation as one of Britain’s finest actors, though, in HBO’s 2019 miniseries Chernobyl, winning an Emmy nomination and a Best Actor Bafta for his haunting performance as the tormented Soviet scientist Valery Legasov, who tried to tell the world the truth about the disaster. Harris’s ability to convey the deep emotions swirling beneath his character’s reserved persona was a revelation.
Now we’re set to be treated to another tour-de-force, with his performance as Captain Francis Crozier in the AMC drama The Terror, whose first season is a fictionalised account of the real-life 1845 expedition of two ships – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – to the Arctic to locate the Northwest Passage. As well as facing hunger and illness, the crew (who, in real life, vanished without trace) are stalked across the ice by a monster.
It is a thrilling, atmospheric drama boasting a top-notch cast: not only Harris, but Tobias Menzies (Prince Philip in the last two seasons of The Crown) and Ciaran Hinds (Mance Rayder in Game of Thrones), who are all on top form. Yet despite such credentials, The Terror has – bizarrely – only been available in the UK on a pay-per-view basis.
Only now, more than three years after filming – split between a Croatian island and Budapest soundstage – wrapped, has it finally found a home on the BBC.
“I’m just so thrilled people will see it in the UK,” says Harris, sounding genuinely choked-up. “The Terror was one of the best-written things I’ve worked on, right up there in terms of Mad Men and The Crown, but what happens to these things is always in the hands of the gods. So many films and television shows take a while to catch on. It’s a Wonderful Life was not a big hit when it came out, but it found a life afterwards. The Wire was not a hit initially, but by its last season it was being compared to Charles Dickens.”
Speaking down a crackly line from the Canary Islands, where – after a Covid-induced pause – he has resumed filming the Apple TV series Foundation, adapted from Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi novel, Harris comes across as far more flamboyant than you might suspect from his roles, which often specialise in noble restraint. Clearly, he absorbed lessons in charisma from his father, who was as well known for his penchant for week-long benders as for his two Oscar nominations.
“Dad knew what he was doing,” Harris says fondly. “The box office would be going down on one of his films, so the producer would call and say ‘Make headlines’, and he’d go out there and he’d do it. The hell-raising was part of an image that he cultivated, for sure, sometimes to the detriment of being taken seriously in his career, which is a shame because he took acting very, very seriously.
"So did Peter O’Toole, so did Burton – acting was massively important to them all, but sometimes their antics overshadowed that. But some people just have incredible constitutions where they can withstand terrible punishments and then go and do a great job the next morning.”
I’ve always envied those people, I say. “I used to, but not any more,” replies Harris, who now lives in Los Angeles with his third wife, television host Allegra Riggio. “That behaviour catches up with you and eventually you pay the price. Those people don’t experience hangovers, and it’s the hangover that will save you,” he chuckles.
Harris’s affection for his father is palpable, but he stresses his and his two brothers’ (director Damian and actor Jamie) passion for drama was sparked more by their mother, who, after divorcing Harris, married Rex Harrison (“Rex didn’t really like children”), followed by businessman Peter Aitken, whom she replaced with his cousin, disgraced MP-turned- clergyman Jonathan Aitken.
“My mother’s been married to some huge personalities and she’s stood up to them, held her own with them, hasn’t disappeared in their shadow at all. She has a huge spirit,” he says.
Harris pinpoints his career’s turning point as the 2008 David Fincher film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where his turn as tugboat captain Mike stole the show from its star Brad Pitt. “You need to do something that lands in the public’s imagination. A lot of people in the industry saw that.”
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was one of those people. And Harris’s role in that series lead to the part of Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, while Steven Spielberg picked him for Ulysses S Grant in Lincoln. “From there, you can start to trace a line.”
His 2021 diary’s already packed – there’s Foundation to finish filming, the forthcoming Britbox series The Beast Must Die to promote, while shooting will soon start on another Holmes film. “Yet, like all actors, I’m still convinced my next part will be the last,” Harris sighs.
The sense it’s all a matter of luck still dominates: with characteristic self-deprecation, he admits he was only offered Chernobyl’s Legasov after Daniel Day-Lewis rejected the role.
“And, weirdly, when I went into the costume fitting for Moriarty, the room was full of designs they’d drawn up for Daniel – they’d been chasing him for a long time for [that] part [too]. Then they chased Sean Penn, but they couldn’t make a deal with him, so a week before shooting started they came to me.” Harris roars with laughter. “Thank God they haven’t invented cloning yet. Then I really would be in trouble!”
The Terror starts on Wednesday March 3 on BBC Two at 9pm