Jared Harris

The actor talks about his role in the film, working with Brad Pitt and David Fincher, Fringe and more

Jared Harris has the acting bug in his genes, but that doesn't mean he didn't forge his way through the biz on his own. Jared, the son of legendary actor Richard Harris, became first known for his portrayal of Andy Warhol in the 1996 indie I Shot Andy Warhol, which lead to a spate of work throughout the 90s that lead to bigger studio films like roles in Mr. Deeds, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Ocean's Twelve and Lady In the Water. Harris' latest role was in the Best Picture nominee The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which will be released on DVD, a very rare new-release Criterion Collection two-disc DVD and Criterion Collecton Blu-ray on May 5. I had the chance to speak with Harris, who portrayed Captain Mike in the film, over the phone, and here's what he had to say.

Can you just talk a little bit about how you first came on Benjamin Button, and what was your first reaction after reading Eric Roth's script?

Jared Harris: Yeah. I went and auditioned for (casting director) Laray Mayfield. I scrambled to learn a Cajun accent, because originally the character was Cajun, and then I went in to meet (director) David (Fincher), and he was editing Zodiac at the time. I was sitting in his office, waiting for him to come in, chatting with Laray, and the door suddenly burst open, he comes in and I can hear the editor working in the other room. He sits down and goes, 'OK, just go. Start." This was the first meeting and we worked through it, you know. He made a couple of notes and he went, 'Great. I'm going to meet you' and he dashed back to editing Zodiac. I thought, 'Damn, that didn't go well at all.' I thought, 'Oh well. That's the end of that one. They can offer it to a big star or something,' which I imagine as well, in a film like that, because it's a juicy part. Then I got it and I got a hold of the script and it was amazing, really. The script is thick, it's 160 pages, because it's got all that description in it. It's quite hard to imagine how this is going to work. It was like there were five locations on every page. At the same time, it was so moving, so the accumulating effect of that story is incredibly moving, in a quite mysterious way as well. It doesn't make sense, in a sense that no one has lived that life and yet, at the same time, there's something so deeply affecting about it. It kind of circumvents one's logic and gets at something underneath and start tripping stuff up like that. Every time I've seen it, I've reacted to different things in the story.

There were a lot of comparisons to Forrest Gump from this film, especially since Eric Roth wrote both movies. I was wondering if you can talk about that a little bit and what your thoughts on that are.

Jared Harris: Yeah. Have you read Hamlet?

Not for a long time.

Jared Harris: You know the story, though?

Yes.

Jared Harris: Have you read MacBeth?

Yes.

Jared Harris: And what about Julius Ceasar?

Yes.

Jared Harris: All three characters are faced with the same problem. They are excited by supernatural cases, in two of them, to commit revenge, and to go and murder. The central crux of that story is based on the struggle that the character has as to whether or not they should do it. One of them does it in the first act, MacBeth, one of them does it in the third act, Brutus, and one of them does it in the fifth act, Hamlet. So, I think writers draw from the well of their experience of their life, and in a sense that you can start to see patterns in people's writing, like it's an inevitability that that will happen. They're drawing on their imagination and their experiences of their lives. I think that's something that's interesting. I don't think it detracts from one's experience of the piece of work on its own terms. They have different messages and different ways of using those structures and those stories.

You touched on it a little bit about how big and expansive this production was. There were several locations that were used for this, so where were your primary locations and can you talk about those locations at all?

Jared Harris: Yeah, well I was working on it for about a week, 10 days in New Orleans, and it was a big deal for the movie to be down there. And, of course, the city is thrown open to you, whenever you go and shoot in the city. It's really the best way to go and visit a city, because you get to go see stuff that other people can't get into. It was amazing working down there because you could see that the city was really on its knees and trying to get back up and dust itself off and put itself back together. Although it was a year later, there was still a lot of devastation around. The tourist parts of the town were full, but the other parts of the town were empty. It felt very special to be there, at that time, because we were so welcomed. The rest of the time I shot, I was here on a soundstage at Sony. But that was quite special to me too, because I was working on exactly the same soundstage that my father worked on when he shot Mutiny on the Bounty.

Oh, really?

Jared Harris: Yeah, with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard.

Very nice. That's awesome.

Jared Harris: Yeah, it was.

Your scenes are mainly with your crew and, of course, with Brad Pitt. I thought Brad was just astounding in this, so what was it like being around him on the set every day and what did you take away from working with someone like Brad?

Jared Harris: Let's see. He's incredibly good looking. He's very very charming. He has a fantastic sense of humor. He's very generous, he's very talented, he's funny. He makes you a little bit sick. You're like, 'The f*&k? How can someone have so many cards?' It drives you nuts but everything you see him in, he's not acting, he's that cool. He's that guy that everyone thinks they'd like to be. He is that guy.

I read that Brad had a really expansive make-up process. Did you have to undergo that kind of stuff at all, or were you around for any of that?

Jared Harris: I was in the make-up chair for about five hours a day, and Brad was in for about seven.

So did you get a look at the whole aging process that he had to go through with this?

Jared Harris: Well, we did our make-up in the same trailer, the special-effects trailer. You would just see him sit there and patiently endure that process. It's painstaking because those pieces are so thin and they're very specifically applied in the right place, so it takes hours. Hours and hours and hours of sitting in a chair and having your face glued and then sticking stuff to your face. Then they've got to start painting your face and matching tones to your skin and aging it up or aging it down. It takes a tremendous amount of work to get all that stuff right. You just have to have patience, you know. He worked damn hard. I think the make-up took about seven hours to put on and then you can't just rip it all off. It would take an hour and a half to take it all off. That's pretty much an entire work day that he's spent there sitting in a make-up chair and they haven't shot any film. His days were close to about 20 hours long. He'd get maybe five hours of sleep then he'd be back on set again.

I've been an enormous fan of David Fincher ever since he started. You've worked with some really top-notch directors yourself, so how would you compare David's style to anyone else you've worked with, like Shyamalan or anyone else?

Jared Harris: I would say that they all have a thing in common, and that is they love actors. I think really good directors, they welcome other people's ideas, because, at the end of the day, any idea that they choose becomes their idea. The director makes a decision every thirty seconds on the set. He has to make a choice every thirty seconds about something or other. He wants you to do the best work you've ever done, and he will help you make that happen. In that sense, he's a leader, he's very much the general and he will stand out front and take the flak if there's pressure coming about time or something. He'll be a shield for that and go, 'No, we're going to carry on and we're going to get it right.' If you feel that you need or want some more takes, then yeah, you can have them.

Can you just describe an overall day on the set? It's a very serious film, so was it a more straight-laced set or...

Jared Harris: No, it wasn't because you've got all those guys in the crew on board, all the shipmates, so we were having a raucous time. We were coming up with scatological nicknames for each other. We were joking about and having a laugh. We had a great camaraderie, between all the guys on that boat, and I think it comes across, you can see that develop. We had a lot of fun and, of course, if you have a bunch of actors and you sit them down and you say we've got half an hour, thirty seconds later you're going to be getting into stories and anecdotes. It was great fun. I have to say, I think Richmond Arquette, he would've won the award for telling the most bizarre and amazing stories and he never repeated a story once, during the entire time we were there. His life experiences, the stuff he'd achieved and done in his life, and the different places he'd gone and he'd lived, the most outrageous things that would happen to him... he was hysterically funny.

So, Fringe is coming to a close. Will we be seeing you in any of the final episodes, and are there any plans for you to return next year?

Jared Harris: I'm not sure if I can say. I don't about returning, I have no idea what they're going to do, but with Fringe, anything can happen. I have no idea, but I think you might see a part of me in one of the episodes in the end of the season. I might make an appearance.

You also have Crowley and The Cellar coming up soon, so is there anything you can tell us about those, or is there anything else you're lining up to work on soon?

Jared Harris:Crowley is sort of a mix between Erin Brockovich and Lorenzo's Oil. It's about a father, played by Brendan Fraser, whose children have a very rare disease for which there's no cure and they're reaching the point at which that disease comes fatal. Harrison Ford plays a medical researcher who has the best hope of finding a cure, but he's working in an underfunded university. Brendan Fraser goes and bullshits him and pretends he's the head of a large medical research fund and persuades him to leave his job and come work full-time on the research for a cure for his kid. Harrison Ford leaves his job, goes to come work on this research then Brendan Fraser has to scramble to get money together to keep him going and the whole time it's a race against the clock and his kid is getting sicker and sicker.

Nice. So what do you play in that?

Jared Harris: I'm one of the researchers at the giant pharmaceutical firm who's at odds with Brendan and Harrison over the approach that they're taking, because these two guys are kind of mavericks who are constantly upending and trying to short circuit the research process to try to get to a cure as quickly as possible. There's all sorts of loopholes that you have to jump through to get FDA approval and all that kind of stuff, so we're working with the same objective, but sort of different ways of getting there.

So, finally, the film did really well in the theaters and the DVD is just amazing. So, for those who might not have caught it in the theater, what would you like to say to those who didn't see it to get them to pick this up on DVD?

Jared Harris: I'd say it's a perfect movie to watch on a good Sunday afternoon. It's one of those classic movies and I really believe it's going to become a classic, in the sense of It's a Wonderful Life or films like that which are classics now. I would say watch it on a big screen and it's an amazing tribute to the human spirit, really.

Excellent. Well that's about all I have for you, Jared. Thanks so much for your time, and the best of luck with your new films.

Jared Harris: Thanks, Brian.

You can see Jared Harris as Captain Mike alongside Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson when The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes to DVD, Criterion Collection two-disc DVD and Criterion Collecton Blu-ray on May 5.