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Sherlock Holmes bad­die Jared Har­ris tells Don­ald Clarke about his event­ful life, p6

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

IF EVER an ac­tor were mar­i­nated in the­atri­cal roy­alty it would be Jared Har­ris. You are al­most un­cer­tainly aware that the im­pres­sively creased char­ac­ter spe­cial­ist is the son of Richard Har­ris. But he has also served time as the step­son of Rex Har­ri­son and the son-in­law of Ed­ward Fox. Sad­dled with all that per­sonal hin­ter­land, Jared, now 50, was never likely to drift into plumb­ing or quan­tity sur­vey­ing.

“Here in Eng­land peo­ple of­ten as­sume that my cho­sen ca­reer demon­strates a highly embarrassing lack of imag­i­na­tion,” he says. “‘Oh, it’s un­likely light­ning will strike twice. In Amer­ica it’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Maybe it’s ge­netic. Who the hell knows? Let’s take a look, any­way’.”

Over the last 30 years, Har­ris has nur­tured a healthy ca­reer play­ing cut-throats, sneaks and ec­centrics. You’ll know him from I Shot Andy Warhol, Sylvia and Ben­jamin But­ton. More re­cently, he has turned up as Lane Pryce, cor­po­rate purse-string mon­i­tor, in the peer­less se­ries Mad Men. In­deed, there are few ac­tors busier.

This week, Har­ris takes on the role of Mo­ri­arty, the mae­stro of mas­ter crim­i­nals, in Guy Ritchie’s fol­low-up to 2009’s mirth­some Sherlock Holmes. It’s a smart piece of cast­ing. There is si­mul­ta­ne­ously some­thing grand and scuffed about Har­ris. He comes across – on screen and in life – as a man who has been prop­erly brought up, but who wouldn’t mind shar­ing a flagon with the lo­cal cut­purses.

It’s hard to tell if the Mo­ri­arty who ap­pears in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shad­ows would de­light or ap­pal Arthur Co­nan Doyle. Af­ter all, the vil­lain only ap­pears in two sto­ries.

“Yes, he doesn’t re­ally ap­pear,” Har­ris muses. “But he is talked about a great deal. And those sec­tions were more use­ful than the ones where he ac­tu­ally ap­pears. The guy who ap­pears is 6ft 2in and older than I am. He has a high-domed fore­head and a man­ner­ism where he shakes his head from side to side like a snake. I tried that and it didn’t work. It just seemed mad.”

It is im­pos­si­ble to hear Har­ris talk and not search for re­minders of his dad. He has a slim- mer build and a less flat­tened face (blame rugby) than the late Lim­er­ick­man. He is not quite so hearty. But you get the same slightly fruity enun­ci­a­tion and the same hun­gry de­light in spilling a good anec­dote.

Richard and El­iz­a­beth Rees-wil­liams, Jared’s mother, split up when he was eight years old. But the soft-hearted Ir­ish­man, who fa­mously lived at the Savoy Ho­tel when in Lon­don, re­mained pals with his ex-wife and kept a close eye on his three sons.

“Oh, they stayed very close,” Jared says. “I think, in the end, mum was one of the few peo­ple that he felt knew him and whom he trusted im­plic­itly. He had a cou­ple of friends like that. She was there ev­ery day. It was she, along with my brother, who even­tu­ally per­suaded him to leave the Savoy Ho­tel and go and see a doc­tor.”

The story goes that, as he was wheeled to the am­bu­lance, Har­ris spot­ted some guests en­ter­ing the posh ho­tel and bel­lowed: “It was the food!”

“That story is ab­so­lutely true,” Jared says. “Ab­so­lutely true.”

Richard can­not have been the eas­i­est man to get along with. But Jared re­mem­bers him with touch­ing af­fec­tion. Ev­ery now and then, the ac­tor would de­cide it was his turn to host Sun­day lunch. He would tell the boys to make sure they wore the nice suits that he’d bought them. “‘Don’t em­bar­rass your mother. Put on a BLOODY TIE!’ he’d say.”

When they ar­rived, Richard would in­vari­ably be dressed in the most in­ap­pro­pri­ate man­ner imag­in­able: a green Naf Naf jump­suit and faded sneak­ers.

“We’d head to Savoy Grill and the maître d’ would say: ‘Af­ter­noon, Mr Har­ris. Are you lunch­ing with us?’ ‘You know I am.’ ‘Are you dressed for lunch?’ ‘I am.’

“He would then bring us to a booth, bring out this Chi­nese screen and cover us so the rest of the guests did not have to be so af­fronted. Dad just loved to cause them trou­ble.”

By this stage, Jared’s mother – cur­rently at­tached to former Tory MP and erst­while jail­bird Jonathan Aitken – had mar­ried the no­to­ri­ously self-im­por­tant Rex Har­ri­son. Har­ris is diplo­matic about in­ter­ac­tions with that grand ac­tor.

“He had bet­ter re­la­tions with adults than with chil­dren,” he says. “He just wasn’t in­ter­ested. He didn’t have the pa­tience to main­tain a con­ver­sa­tion with kids. But that’s the only way I ex­pe­ri­enced him. He lived the life of an old-fash­ioned movie star: chauf­feur, but­lers. The great quest of his life was to find the per­fect but­ler. He used to send wine back even if it came from his own cel­lar.”

Fol­low­ing ed­u­ca­tion at board­ing school in Eng­land, Har­ris took time off and trav­elled the world. Keen to es­cape his ge­netic bag­gage, he even­tu­ally en­rolled at Duke Univer­sity in North Carolina. He didn’t have any se­ri­ous plans to act, but, on a whim, au­di­tioned for the dra­matic so­ci­ety in his first week. He has re­mained tied to the fam­ily busi­ness.

Richard, as many ac­tors do, warned his chil­dren to stay away from the the­atre. But Jared even­tu­ally con­vinced dad he was se­ri­ously com­mit­ted to his new vo­ca­tion. Sure enough, though he has yet to se­cure su­per­star sta­tus, the younger Har­ris has never been idle for too lengthy a spell.

There was a ropy pe­riod when, af­ter a sea­son at the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany, he spent six months con­tem­plat­ing the wall and imag­in­ing the road not taken. But he soon carved out his own area of spe­cial­i­sa­tion.

In Mad Men, that sleek tale of US ad­ver­tis­ing cre­atives in the 1960s, Har­ris plays the bean-count­ing fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer in­serted by the firm’s Bri­tish par­ent com­pany. Though the se­ries has never racked up huge view­ing fig­ures, it has had an ex­tra­or­di­nary in­flu­ence on pop­u­lar cul­ture. Ev­ery unimag­i­na­tive drone is now de­vel­op­ing a show or movie fea­tur­ing men wear­ing slim, two-but­ton suits. “Even though it is set in the 1960s, it is ex­am­in­ing a cul­ture war that is go­ing on now,” he says. “The ide­alised Amer­ica rep­re­sented in the 1950s – where white men were at their most dom­i­nant po­si­tion and ev­ery home had two kids – runs smack bang into tur­bu­lence of the 1960s. In Amer­ica, the changes wrought in those years are still be­ing fought over. That’s why it reg­is­ters”

That and the booze, fags, and ca­sual sex­ism? “Yeah, yeah. The ca­sual sex­ism. Ha ha! Though I don’t think Lance gets to do much of that.”

Long res­i­dent in New York, Har­ris re­cently di­vorced ac­tor Emilia Fox (daugh­ter of Ed­ward), to whom he was mar­ried for five years, and moved to sunny Los An­ge­les. “I had a re­ally good time in New York, but it smells like a gi­ant uri­nal,” he laughs.

Life ap­pears rel­a­tively idyl­lic. Rather than reek­ing of urine, his gar­den is scented by jas­mine. There’s a le­mon tree in his front gar­den.

“You get used to be­ing alone again,” he says. “You ad­just. I do a big Sun­day lunch ev­ery week. A big leg of lamb of what­ever.” Let’s pre­tend that, in trib­ute to a great man, he oc­ca­sion­ally dons a yel­low jump­suit and drags round the Chi­nese screens.

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