British actor Jared Harris has made a career of disappearing chameleon-like into his roles — the pop art icon Andy Warhol in “I Shot Andy Warhol,” the rough-and-tumble sailor Capt. Mike in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and the fastidious bean counter Lane Pryce in the AMC television series “Mad Men.” For his latest performance, Professor James Moriarty in the new film “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” he brings the arch-villain out from behind the curtain and into the spotlight.
Harris takes center stage as Moriarty to duel the megawatt duo of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, who reprise their roles as the world’s most famous detective — re-imagined as a streetwise but still inordinately perceptive brawler — and his capable sidekick, Dr. Watson, in Guy Ritchie’s new sequel to his 2009 blockbuster. A fan of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories and the old movies starring Basil Rathbone, Harris enjoyed Ritchie’s steely take on the Holmes mythos and was undeterred by the notion that it was inauthentic.
“The traditional view [of Holmes] is a sanitized view,” Harris, 50, said recently over a cup of coffee in West Hollywood. “It’s one that’s been passed down through whatever prism or filter they had about that era back in the ’50s or the ’40s or whatever. But I would bet that if you could get into in a time machine and go back to that time, it would probably be a lot closer to Guy’s version. It was filthy and dirty and violent and dangerous.”
As Downey does with his rakish version of Holmes, Harris brings grit and edge to the detective’s nemesis, whose outward appearance as a respected academic conceals his true identity as a ruthless criminal engaged in warmongering and arms dealing. Moriarty is a dark inverse of Holmes: equally brilliant but sociopathic and able to match the detective’s brawn as well, being a former boxing champion at Cambridge.
Susan Downey, a producer on the film (and the wife of Robert Downey Jr.), said that Harris was cast for his ability to play both sides of Moriarty convincingly, and that a more recognizable star might not have inhabited the character as completely. “With Jared, he can play the intellect, and then when he needs to flip the switch, you can see the menace behind his eyes,” she said.
Harris said the greatest challenge in playing Moriarty, arguably fiction’s first supervillain, was avoiding cliches. “I didn’t want to do the bad-guy monologue,” he said, “and I didn’t want to say anything unless there was a really good reason for it.
He responded with a less-is-more approach, figuring that much of Moriarty’s power comes from his sheer inscrutability. “I think that he doesn’t have that morality chip that other people have,” Harris said. “He just looks at things and says, ‘If I can do it and it can be done, then why not?’”
Harris identifies a bit more closely with his character on “Mad Men.” Like the actor himself, Lane Pryce is a British expatriate enamored with his new home. “He loves it in America; I feel the same way,” Harris said. “I think there’s the opportunity to become the person that you fantasize yourself being.”
For Lane, that has meant coming out of his shell and forming the new ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. For Harris, that opportunity initially took the form of leaving London to attend college at Duke University, where the fame of his father, the actor Richard Harris, wouldn’t weigh on him.
“I went somewhere where no one knew anything about me and I could do what I wanted to do — which actually was, I really wanted to try acting,” said Harris, who graduated in 1984. “I couldn’t do it in England. In England, they would have looked on it as a sort of appalling lack of imagination.”
Despite their biographical similarities, “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner said Harris and Lane are very different from each other. “I look at him like someone who puts on a mask almost to play [Lane],” Weiner said. “He’s such a real person, and he’s not related to Jared at all. It’s pretty astounding.”
Weiner added, “That character could have been such a one-dimensional blowhard, and [Harris] immediately imbued it with this mixture of rigidness and a sense of humor and being bewildered sometimes and also being powerful. You can’t write that.”
Harris’ success on the big and small screens has won the actor the opportunity to play one particularly high-profile role next year. He will portray Ulysses S. Grant in the Steven Spielberg historical drama “Lincoln,” which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president and a number of other marquee actors, including Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“You know you’re on to a winner when the part is robbing you of sleep,” Harris said.
— Oliver Gettell
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