One of the more pleasant surprises on the list of Emmy nominees for outstanding supporting actor in a drama was veteran character actor Jared Harris, who played the forever put-upon Lane Pryce on “Mad Men.”
(Note: This interview contains spoilers for Season 5 of “Mad Men.”)
The fifth season of the AMC program showed Lane’s slow downfall from steadying office wet blanket to someone who was so sad and desperate that he embezzled funds from his own firm. The season’s next-to-last episode was Lane’s last, as he did himself in, ironically leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in better shape than it was when he was alive.
Harris took a break from filming a movie in Vienna to talk to Zap2It about his Emmy nomination, why he loved Lane so much, and what he was tempted to sing when he was shooting his final scene.
Zap2It: In the interviews after the nomination happened, you called it a surprise and a longshot. Did you have any thought at all that you would be on the list?
Jared Harris: Not at all. I mean, I hadn’t paid attention to it and I’d seen something, about a couple weeks before, showing those sort of odd things or percentages or chances of being nominated and I had a zero percent chance. I just didn’t pay attention. You get on with work. You’ve got to get on with stuff that you’re doing. So, I didn’t pay attention to it. I didn’t actually know that that was the day the nominations were coming out.
Is that the type of thing that you just superstitiously don’t care about? Or do you pay attention to that kind of stuff?
I think you can be. I think otherwise you’re sort of focusing on the wrong thing. You have to be focused on the work. You have to focus on the job. You have to focus on the projects you’re doing. I think that there’s at least 40 actors that could have been nominated this year and who did outstanding work, and none of them would have been out of place. So, I don’t think you can approach it from that level. It isn’t about … you don’t do a job thinking “If I play this scene right, maybe I’ll get an Oscar” or something stupid like that. You’re focusing on the wrong stuff if you do that.
But when you do get the news, what’s your reaction to it?
Well, like I said at the time, I didn’t expect it. I was very surprised and I was a little bit in a sort of state of disbelief. It took sort of a couple of days for that to sink in. And that sort of old hoary cliche of it’s enough to be nominated — I was very excited about it and I understood what people meant. It’s extremely gratifying for people to think that your work deserves attention. So, I mean, that’s incredibly gratifying.
Why do you think the character of Lane got the extra attention this year as opposed to the other years you were on the show?
Well, I think Matt [Weiner] decided that it was time to say goodbye to Lane at the beginning of the season, and he worked it out in a really, really magnificent way, in a sense, in a heartbreaking way which is true to the show. I think that it had a lot to do with that last episode. And I think in terms of a connection that that character makes with the audience, I think everybody feels like they just don’t get a break in life, you know, everything keeps breaking the wrong way for them.
And this is a guy, he didn’t get a lot of luck, did he? Things just didn’t work out for him, and he’s a large component of that himself. But I think people respond to someone who feels like he’s, the guy’s a sort of — he turned out to be an underdog, which is a weird thing because he came in initially in the story, he was there as a sort of potential antagonist character for Don. But he kind of worked his way into being part of the, really part of the whole company and understanding the company and loving what it was they were trying to do and loving America, loving the idea of reinvention.
Lane seemed to have been like an everyman in an office full of alpha-males, in a way.
I agree. Lane was definitely not alpha. He was a loyal second in command or a loyal … I mean, essentially, that part of the guy’s character was established right in the very beginning of Season 3. He’s told to run this new company in a specific way by the people back in London. He thinks it’s a stupid idea in terms of offering the job to both Ken and to Pete, but he does what he’s told. So, yeah, I agree. I think he was someone who was loyal who got s**t on. And I think that probably resonates deeply with a lot of people.
A lot of people get dumped on a lot more often than not.
Yeah. I think that if you do the game and you play it properly and people will recognize the hard work that you put in, and it doesn’t get recognized, and it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the attention and nice guys finish second and a**holes finish first.
That’s in any walk of life. Even in your profession, I’m sure it’s that way too.
You’re not going to get me to say anything on that, man. No, you know what, you’ll find it. … I think on my side of it, from the creative point of view, you can tell the people who really care about the work and people who are in it for something else. And the people who are in it for something else, they come and go quickly. And the people who really give a damn about the work and that’s what they’re passionate about, they’re still there 10, 20, 30 years later. People are constantly, you know, they’re inspired by the work they do because they’re coming from an honest place.
What was the change in Lane that you enjoyed the most?
It’s interesting because I think there’s sort the yin and the yang of it would have been … there was a lot of possibility opened up when he went on the night, on the piss with Don. And you saw that there was a possibility of this different character there, different personality, someone who was willing to be led astray, if you like, and lead a new life.
Then the other side of that is when the father shows up and clobbers him over the head. And he’s not strong enough to stand up to the sense of responsibility and duty and what is expected of him by that traditional approach to life that he grew up with in England. And that’s too deeply ingrained in him to be able to actually say, “F**k it, I don’t care. I don’t care what you think. I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it. This is the way I’m going now.” He thinks that he can do that because that’s what he says to his girlfriend, but he can’t. He doesn’t have the balls to do it in the end. That’s probably the turning point right there.
Because there’s too much going on back home and that he’s loyal to.
Yeah. There’s also that weird thing that English have about being embarrassed or not doing the right thing that he decides to do something that he’s not … he’s not happy about it. In fact, he goes back to the manager, he’s not happy.
I always like one of the little details in Lane’s office, the Mets pennant.
Oh, yeah. Yes. I used to think Matt got a big chuckle out of that.
Was that Matt’s idea to be a subtle sign saying Lane wants to stay here in the United States?
There was a lot of that on his desk. It was tiny little details. There was a small little Empire State statue, memorabilia, that he had on his desk. There were World Trade Stamp postcards and all sorts of tiny little details that the props department had put there. They just weren’t, obviously, as visible as the Mets. I mean the Mets mi
ght have been a joke only because they were so unsuccessful [at the time]. That it’s like even in picking a baseball team, he picked the wrong one.
By the way, he would have, Matt would have thought of that. It wouldn’t have been accidental in terms of which team he would have picked.
You’ve told the story about when Matt pulled you aside and said, hey, we’re saying goodbye to Lane. Was there any inkling that you had, looking at the way the story was going, that Lane was going to say goodbye?
No. I mean, we read stuff in the press about the negotiations that go on and you don’t know how that will play in or not. Matt liked to shake things up anyway. He doesn’t like to end a season with the audience thinking that, “Oh, that’s OK. I don’t need to tune in for the next season.” He likes to shake things up. So, I think that also there was probably little, obviously in the writing and stuff like that, you can see these little hints and echoes of something happening.
I thought it would come down to probably one of about five people, and I was definitely one of them. That if that was going to happen, it would be one of five characters and … so, like I said, when he called me, I wasn’t surprised. I was disappointed because I loved being there. I loved working with them all. It’s an amazing place to work. But I wasn’t surprised.
There were allusions to suicide all season and people were thinking that Pete might be the one to kill himself.
Yeah. But [Weiner] likes to fake people out too. He loves to fake the audience out. He loves to get you thinking then … I really thought the girl in the photograph was going to show up or something was going to happen with her, from the wallet. He tries to keep his audience guessing. He doesn’t want them to figure out the way that he, you know, the way he lays stories out and some of them are … they’re not red herrings because they actually matter there and they’re about the characters instincts and desires. And that was an example of Lane starting to take risks and of course, that’s important because he takes this enormous risk. Later on in the season where he forges the check, and if you hadn’t established that there was already an appetite within this man for taking risks, that would have seemed out of place.
You’ve also talked about the scene where Lane tries to commit suicide in the Jaguar and the Jaguar doesn’t start. That’s a fun in-joke because they had been talking about Jaguars not working all season. When you saw that bit, did you chuckle to yourself?
When [Matt] took me up to his office after the read-through of episode 10 and he told me what was basically going to happen over the next three episodes and then he got to that bit, I mean, I’m not exaggerating, I actually laughed myself off the couch. I fell off the couch laughing. I mean, it was really funny. How could you not appreciate that? I also appreciate the … how clever he is again, in terms of faking an audience out? He set this whole thing up where you think, “Oh shit, he’s going to do this,” and then you get a laugh out of it. And I would think there would be quite a few people who watched it and you thought, “Oh, it’s going to be OK.” Because he built that tension up and then broken it with the laughter and you think that it’s going to resolve in a completely different way now.
The way it ended up was more definitive because now we see Lane in his office with his tongue sticking out and his face grey. How long were you up there?
I mean, you don’t have a lot of time to shoot stuff anyway. So, I think that whole sequence might have taken a couple of hours and I was hanging up there for maybe 40 minutes or something. So, not all in one go. It was difficult. I mean, I really, I kept having to resist the urge to break into a Monty Python song, but it wouldn’t be fair because you only get one or two takes and I didn’t want to mess with the other guys.
But, yeah, it was sad. Every time I saw Matt, I would say, “You’re sure you want to do this? Isn’t there some other way?” I was just teasing, you know? I wanted to make it as difficult for him as it was for me. So, every time I saw him, I’d go, “Hey, maybe we can end this differently or any new pages, a rewrite maybe?”
Maybe come back as a ghost next year or something or in a flashback or something like that?
I don’t think Don Draper will be dreaming or flashing back to Lane Pryce.
I don’t think so either. By the way, when you said Monty Python, now I start thinking of you singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” while you’re hanging there.
Yeah. That’s what I was thinking of. Exactly. Isn’t that a great way … I thought we should have ended that [Olympic closing ceremony] with that song. That would have been funny.
When you were talking to reporters right after your last episode, you had alluded to the fact that they said goodbye to Elisabeth Moss. Did you regret saying that?
No. That was a case of a journalist just trying to make a name for themselves. I mean, it’s pretty obvious from how I answered that question that I don’t know what Matt’s got in his mind and that, given that he did not tell me what was going on with my character until episode 10, why on earth would he tell me what’s going on with anybody else’s character? But I was saying that, you know, it’s one of those ones that you get damned for trying to answer questions. She was asking me if I had a going-away party or was there some sort of … I don’t know. I forget actually what the question was but it was very, like, going-away party or gift or something like that. And maybe that’s the reason why they don’t do them. So nobody knows who’s gone and who isn’t. In my case, it was pretty obvious that I was gone.
I had no idea that her character was going to be coming back in the next episode. I have no idea. I haven’t read that script. So, that was really an opportunity for that person to sort of try to make hay out of it. But she asked me, in follow-up, is that what I meant and I answered it. I have no clue what he’s planning.
And he ended up signing her to, what, a two- or three-year deal. So, I mean, that takes care of that.
Again, I only know what has been, on that, I would only know what has been printed in the press. I wouldn’t even know how true any of that is. So, there’s no reason for any of the actors on the show to discuss their deals with the other actors. So, I have no idea in terms of what’s been negotiated. I can’t imagine the show without that character. She’s so important to Don. But I, again, I’ve no clue. You read stuff in the press and you have to read it with a huge grain of salt.
Are you going to be there on Sept. 23 for the Emmys?
Definitely. Yeah. Absolutely. I’m looking forward to it. I mean, it’s my last chance to join all these guys and a good piss-up. So, definitely.
So, basically you’re looking forward to what happens after the Emmys and not as much during the Emmys?
Yeah. Those shows are … I mean they’re … that’s fine and everything, but really it’s a great chance to get together with your colleagues and have fun together.
Good luck — and I wish Lane was still there…
I do. I mean, I also recognize that [Matt] wrote me two seasons’ worth of story in this season and the character went out in a really memorable way. I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of the show. I wasn’t there in the beginning, so I don’t feel like I deserve to be there at the end. But I am aware that that show is just going to get bigger and bigger as it builds toward that last episode of Season 7. Obviously, I’d love to be a part of that but I won’t be.
Well, at least you can watch like the rest of us. Right?
Yeah. I know. That’s the other
bad thing though, is that I have to sit and wait for the damn thing to air to find out what happens.