Earlier today I was able to conduct an extended interview with an actor whose work I greatly admire: Jared Harris. During our wide ranging conversation, we talked about making the jump from independent movies to big budget Hollywood blockbusters, Mad Men, his upcoming John Carpenter movie The Ward, Fringe, and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. With our conversation covering so much ground, I’m breaking it up into smaller parts and I’m starting with the sequel to Sherlock Holmes.
In the sequel to the 2009 Guy Ritchie film, Harris plays the villain Moriarty, Holmes’ nemesis that was referred to at the end of the first flick. While I knew Harris wouldn’t be able to say much about the story and what role he plays in the sequel, that didn’t stop us from talking about how he got involved in the project, what kind of research he did, what it was like working with Robert Downey Jr. and Ritchie, whether he thinks his version of Moriarty knows he’s evil, and his thoughts on unnecessary exposition in movies (which I completely agree with). Hit the jump for what he said.
Look for more with Harris in the coming days. And if you missed my tease about visiting the set of Sherlock Holmes 2, click here.
Jared Harris: I met [producers] Joel Silver and Susan Downey in the summer, and there was interest at that point. There seemed to be sort of two ways of going with it. There was obviously, as there always is in this business, there was interest in getting another star for the marquee, and all these wonderful names were being batted around. And there was another feeling that it might be better to have a character actor play the role, so that you just experience the character and you weren’t looking at somebody going, “Oh look there’s somebody really famous playing the part.”
They just wanted to experience the character. So there was a creative discussion that went on for quite a long time amongst the powers that be. And it was in those sort of things of, “They’re interested, oh it’s gone away, it might be coming back, oh they’re interested again, oh no it’s gone again,” that went on for a long time. And then I happened to be in Switzerland with a group of friends and I suddenly got a phone call saying, “If you can get to London tomorrow and meet Guy, they’re interested again.” So I flew to London and auditioned for Guy.
When you’re playing a character like that, that is so iconic, how much pressure to you put on yourself to research and to look at all the ways that it’s been played in the past? Or do you sort of stay away from all of that material to craft your own version?
Harris: Well you want to craft your own version but you also need to be in the same genre of film as everybody else, and you wanna stay true to, as they have with the series, to the spirit of Sherlock Holmes whilst making the character into sort of a, it’s like a superhero movie, it’s slightly in that genre of films, he doesn’t have any superpowers except he’s got a super intellect. So I did look at other stuff, I’m a fan of the Sherlock Holmes series; I watched them in the Bahamas with my father, every single one. Interestingly Moriarty is a character who—certainly in the books, you only meet him twice. The description of the character physically, I wasn’t tall enough and probably old enough for it. And also that part I really didn’t want to do. I just felt like there was another physical look to the character that would be more interesting, and also you know it’s been done.
They did it verbatim from the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes, and you can see it on YouTube you know? So we went back and forth about trying to come up with a look, and I was given a lot of input into how I wanted to look. There was a certain amount of thrashing around in terms of the character itself, with Robert and with Guy, and all the people involved in creating the series. Lionel. So I had some input into that, but I hadn’t been with the whole thing as long as they have so, I mean it’s very much a spontaneous thing to what happens when you get there on the day. So you can do all your preparation and be ready for everything and then none of it’s useful.
When promoting the first Sherlock Robert Downey Jr. talked about how the morning when he’s gonna shoot something, he will always try to take the scene apart and he’s always constantly tinkering and things. Did you find that process with him enjoyable? Was he difficult? Did it keep you on your toes?
Harris: He’s not difficult at all. I experienced him as being incredibly generous, very very charming, incredibly accessible person. I genuinely, genuinely have a great deal of affection for him, and I admire his talents and his work. The style of work, what you described, it worked on the first one, so no one would argue with the fact that it works. And for me, I understand that there are two sort of antithetical forces at work. One of them is, from Robert and Guy’s side, they want to tell a story in a way that you feel as though you haven’t seen a story told like this before. Which means that they’re right out on the edge. Now, there’s a lot of money involved and the people who are responsible for spending that money are constantly looking for ways to “manage their risk.” And the conventional wisdom for managing that risk is familiarity. That’s why they want movie stars that the audiences are familiar with to be playing these roles, they want the story to be familiar because then the audience knows what kind of experience they’re gonna get, they wanna tell you what the experience is and they show you the whole movie in the three minute trailer, so that you see the trailer and you’ve pretty much seen the movie. And that’s a totally antithetical side to what it is from someone who’s telling you a story. You know you don’t tell someone the punch line first and then give them the set-up.
So it’s a totally antithetical way of solving that problem, and I got that what they wanted to do was to be able to always find a fresh way to present a scene and present it, and that meant taking out plot. Because what often you see happens is, and when in doubt a lot of movies just restate the plot, and if you don’t have a good grip on character, characters don’t reveal themselves they just tell you what has happened, what is happening or what’s going to happen, and that’s what they use for dialogue. And Robert and Guy try to pull out as much plot and exposition as possible, because exposition is dull for the audience. When you go to see a play, the first 20 minutes of a play often you find yourself just tapping your feet because the author is setting up the circumstances of his story, and it’s called exposition and you’re watching exposition. So they understand that and they try to pull out exposition. And on the other side of it, they have a concern that the audience won’t be following the story, especially one that is as complex and has as many twists as a Sherlock Holmes story, and they worry about losing the audience, so they try and put more of it in. So there’s an interesting little battle that goes on between the two of them. And I just watched and admired their skill in being able to tell a story as efficiently as they do.
[Answering a question unrelated to Sherlock Holmes, Harris brought the conversation around to Moriarty again]:
Going back to what you were asking about with Moriarty and with playing villains in general, and about the interface with plot and exposition and stuff like that—don’t tell them anything! Iago is one of the great villains of all time, there is no explanation for why he does what he does. None. People are fascinated by evil because it’s mysterious and it doesn’t seem to have a rational behind it, and the second you say that Hannibal Lecter was abducted as a child and he had to eat his sister or something like that, it becomes immediately mundane. The character becomes mundane. Don’t explain. That’s what’s fascinating about it.
I agree. The less you know, the more the audience is forced to think about it themselves, I think is a much better experience for everyone.
Harris: I agree. There’s certain things that you need to know going forward because you don’t want the audience to get left behind, but in terms of your villain, you need to know what your villain is doing, but why the villain is doing what they’re doing? I don’t think that’s important. Alan Rickman played a very, very good villain in Die Hard and it wasn’t until almost the end of the story that you discovered that he was trying to rob the place. The longer that you don’t know, even what they’re up to, the better it is. Once you unpack the bad guy’s, what he’s up to, the interest in the bad guy diminishes immediately.
Does your Moriarty think he’s a bad guy? Does he know he’s evil?
Harris: I think that for me—and this is again my rational, it’s never explained in the story and I don’t really think it needs to be—but for me, the character’s amoral. He’s moved beyond the concept of there being a heaven and a hell and a God and a devil, and there being good and evil, he doesn’t believe in it. And if you don’t’ believe in that moral construct, then everyone is free to do whatever they want. He sees that whole approach to viewing the world and everything around them as being a childish construct. He doesn’t believe in the whole idea of there being good and evil, so he couldn’t conceive himself as being either good or evil. He’s just doing what’s good for him. It’s like asking, if you’re a fish, how could a fish conceive of space? You swim in the water that you swim in or the atmosphere that you’re in. For him it just doesn’t exist. The whole idea doesn’t exist.