HBO’s Chernobyl, besides being a surprisingly far-reaching hit for the network and an unexpected source of Twitter memes, positioned Mad Men actor Jared Harris firmly back into the mainstream as one of the best character actors on television. His acting style is so often deceptively understated that when the façade cracks and real, human emotion breaks through, it’s as shocking as any of the graphic mutilation in Craig Mazin’s historical miniseries.
Harris has, for lack of a better phrase, just one of those faces. He shows up to our interview in a short-sleeved colorful button-up that I could not pull off, and does that thing where he rests his sunglasses on the neckline of his shirt (something most of us cannot pull off, frankly). The 57-year-old Londoner has a brilliant, calming, hypnotic voice. If anyone wants to make a biopic about the world’s greatest grocery store PA announcer, here’s your guy.
As ubiquitous as Harris is right now, you’ll be hard-pressed to find him in many big-budget movies. He’s only just locked in his first Marvel movie, making him legally the only living actor to not have already had that on his resume at this point. Has he been shunning the great Hollywood machine or has it been shunning him? GQ grabbed a coffee with Harris in early August to talk about everything from political misinformation campaigns, to the hilariously unsubtle studies of masculinity in Mad Men, to his favorite on-screen death (there have been a few.)
GQ: You've hanged yourself twice now on prestigious television shows.
Jared Harris: Yeah, a lot of people latched onto that. I talked about it with Craig [Mazin]. I wasn't going to turn the job down because of it.
So you had concerns around... a very specific kind of typecasting?
I hope it's not something that would pop into people's heads and pull them briefly out of the story. I don't want people to think it's become a fetish of mine. I've been killed in much more interesting ways than that. I actually went on Twitter and listed all the different ways that I've met a very grisly end.
What do you think is your favorite?
Being cut in half by the space-time continuum. That's in Fringe.
Oh of course. I think I'm one of the lucky few people who actually watched all of that show as it aired. I think it was let down by people connecting it to Lost so early on.
How very nice of you. Not unlike Star Trek, it's a cult hit that thing, not a huge following but a passionate one, and then never branched out beyond that. I think part of that was also you said, you referenced Lost and that was stupid because, similarly, they didn't know where they were going to end up. They were always nervous about painting themselves into a corner that would limit an option later on. I think that's one of the things where if you start building a world, and it's not complete, that's what ends up happening.
Otherwise, if you've created a series where you know how it's going to end, you make more confident choices. But then that might go wrong, too. There's a famous example of that recently.
Let's bring that back to Chernobyl which... there was no other way that was going to end.
You're not going to do a Tarantino on it.
What was your relationship with the Chernobyl story? First of all, as it was happening and then later researching this role, around the misinformation and the true fallout.
I was alive at the time. I was living in London. I remember very clearly all the news reports and the warnings. I remember... "hysteria" might be too strong of a word, but in the absence of information, there was speculation. It could burn all the way through to the earth's core. No one really knew and that was the problem—it never happened before
The stuff about the suppression of the truth didn't surprise me, it was the Soviet Union. It's a single-party system, not unlike 1984, which was also very much in the news at that point as well. The state was controlling the narrative and anything that is inconvenient to the parties' narrative is excised from the stories.
What surprised me the most, though, was I wasn't aware of [Valery Legasov, my character] at all. He had been successfully scrubbed from the story as they had threatened to do to him. And even in the research books that I read, you hardly find any mention of him at all. There's some footage online of him, not a lot.
At a certain point, I feel he must have expected and accepted that?
I think the last card he had to play was that he knew that he had been successfully taken out of the story and that the truth had gone with him. The only way he had of affecting change in the outcome was to make a statement.
This was only a few decades ago, really. It's easy for armchair critics to think, well that was then, this is now. I think we're seeing that misinformation and the bluster of governments is still such a huge—
Oh my, yes. I think that now largely because it's been bolstered by the manipulation facts on social media so much that people are willingly choosing their sources of information, so you can become willfully ignorant with what the other points of view are. You just trim them off.
If Chernobyl happened today...
There would be websites that suggest that it was a dastardly plot by Western operators and Western security cells.
It's astounding how scary radiation is and how it works. This felt like a horror series sometimes.
Those guys had no idea. They thought they were just going to a fire. No one was properly trained to deal with it. And even after that, they were told that vodka protected you: keep drinking vodka.
Okay, well there are worst things to tell someone who's going to die, so I suppose ...
The thing is, that's to assume that they wouldn't have done it and they take their dignity or their choice away from them. They would have, and they did.
And it's true that the world will feel the ramifications of Chernobyl for thousands more years.
The half life some of those elements is 25,000 years, so it means that it's going to be most virulent for 25,000 years and then spend the next 25,000 slowly degrading, so that's 50,000 years for some of it. When you think about ... We're in 2019, right? You can go back to 3,000 BC with Egyptian civilization and Babylonian, Chinese, so five times longer than humans have been recording their civilizations on the earth, that's still going to be a problem area.
One thing I really admired about Chernobyl was: I feel like when an English-language show is set in a foreign country, there are generally two directions creators go, which is either give everyone an approximate accent, or have them speak in the native language of the setting. This does neither.
Yes, that whole thing is really ignorant but first of all, they wouldn't have been speaking English with any kind of accent. So that's number one, so admittedly it's dumb from that point of view. The same goes, they wouldn't be speaking Russian, they're Ukrainians. So, that's dumb from the second point of view, and third thing is, if you wanted them all to be speaking in their correct language, it would've been a production within that country hiring those actors.
You don't go see Romeo and Juliet and complain they aren't speaking it with Italian accents or Hamlet, they're not doing the Danish accent. Or even when watching Westerns, they're doing it with American accents but that accent didn't exist back then. They were Dutch, Irish, Scottish, German, French, Italian...
I'd love a Scottish-Italian Western. Did you see Death of Stalin?
Yes. I think one of the liberating things was it didn't bother anybody with an accent.
Would it be fair to say, to a layman, your first major mainstream role was Mad Men?
You began that show in 2009 when you were 47. Was there a point where you were worried about ever getting that big role everyone would see?
I did off-Broadway and small movies for such a long time because it was fun. The work was fun and interesting. And I didn't have to worry about money, so I was lucky. I suppose I'd say is that your realization that, that the industry changed in the sense that you couldn't break through that way, with small films. I went to Sundance many times. People just weren't going to notice. Hollywood wasn't paying attention.
I also think something changed around the time Scream came out. There was a sudden shift when suddenly the adult in the show or movie or play was the uncle or the parent, and all the focus was about the teenagers. So that was no longer true.
So Lane Pryce: How would you describe him?
Matt [Weiner] told me originally he was only planned for one episode. I don't know if I believe him, and if he liked what I was doing, he'd bring me back for more of what I was doing.
It's a fascinating genre of show already. The way it would balance the utter despair of the human condition with a scene of someone getting their foot chopped off by a secretary.
"Just when he got his foot in the door."
Oh my god, was that a Lane line?
Roger, I think. I mean, that show was essentially ... There were many layers to it. It was certainly saying the American Dream was basically a lie to American public. The supposed freedom of the American experiment is: it doesn't matter where you came from, you can become what you want to become. But at the same time, as we see with Don Draper, that is impossible.
Even just thinking about the name now, Mad Men, it offers more clues than it did before. We're constantly reassessing masculinity at the moment.
And I love that that's going on. So you think about Leslie Howard, he was in Gone with the Wind, but Leslie Howard was famous because he wept on screen. He was the first male star to weep on stage, so it's certainly being redefined. That series starts in the late '50s for a reason. Don is a man of the '50s. He has that sort of strong, silent ideal image of himself and who he is, and that's wrong. The popular phrase now is "toxic masculinity." And he has that inability to be able to express himself and self-medicate, but it is very much viewed by examining that culture.
One of the things [Matt] enjoyed was that the most liberal character in the whole story was Pete Campbell. Not the most popular character, so he kind of enjoyed messing with the audience's heads that way. There was a tremendous surge of progressive politics of change in the society and the idea that we finally started pointing a certain direction, and that lasted for the better part of that decade, and then there's that tremendous swing back to try and undo all of those advances that were made during that period, put all that stuff back in the box, you know? And that's what the culture is all about right now.
Doesn't it become frustrating that it seems like a lot of politics or history just seem to be the doing and undoing of things constantly?
Yeah, the not learning.
People say we learn from the mistakes of the past, but—
Only if you crack a book and study what they were. Yes. And there's so many ways we're all guilty of it.
You could easily draw through lines between Chernobyl and global warming.
Oh, absolutely. There's a situation where no one's paying attention to the scientist because it's an inconvenience to the political narrative they didn't want it to be true, therefore it isn't true. Exactly what's happening now. I look back, I would argue that Craig's ultimate point it, whether you believe in the truth or not, that reactor's going to blow up. It doesn't matter what you believe, and similarly, our climate is blowing up, whether we believe it or not. It's going to do what it's doing, whether we say it's happening or not. And that's the ultimate truth. Stick our heads in the sand, and drown.
And just how powerful and scary denial in the name of avoiding conflict can be.
It's not a Soviet problem. I mean, I was thinking about this the other day. It's probably more akin if you try and where does this exist in the West, it would be more akin to corporate culture.
Your participation in mainstream Hollywood movies has been pretty minimal. Is that on purpose? Because I remember you as Moriarty in the second Sherlock Holmes. Did the experience of that put you off or something?
No, I actually really enjoyed it. I know it didn't necessarily hit great critical heights. I loved working with Robert [Downey Jr.] It wasn't that. I find that... these studio movies all have the same constructed story they think they're good at. They're all star vehicles, and the story is told in the singular point of view, so I'm either hindering or assisting that star's journey through the story, there's very little nuance there. I find it pretty boring, to tell you the truth. And what you're expected to do, if you join those things, is find some way of grasping the fact that this is reheated, leftover food.
I would have jumped at it when some of the studios were making those older films. I fell in love with movies in the '70s when the studios were making those types of movies, and I naively thought that that would always be the case.
I'm sure you've been approached by a good few franchises over the past few years.
[The producer] Joel Silver said to me, "Jared, you know you're going to be asked to play every bad guy in Hollywood." I wasn't asked to do a single one. Not once.
But honestly, to answer your question, I think the studios gave up trying. They did that about 15 or 20 years ago, or maybe earlier. They were trying to get 12 to 22-year-olds to come to the movies, and they slowly pulled back in doing complex stories and complex art. And television stepped into that void. If you think back, it didn't start with The Sopranos, but it introduced a lot of people to the medium telling really complex, nuanced stories about characters that you're not sure how you felt about. I'll be happy doing that for the rest of my life.
HBO’s hard-to-watch historical miniseries is much more than just run-of-the-mill prestige TV.
Originally Appeared on GQ