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Mad Men’s Jared Harris (Lane Pryce)

Sterling Cooper's British Boss

May 13, 2015 Jared Harris Bookmark and Share


[As a tribute to AMC’s award-winning drama Mad Men—which wraps its seventh and final season this Sunday, May 17th—we’re speaking with the actors who played several of our favorite characters on the show. We’ll be discussing many specific moments and episodes from the series’ run, so please take warning: these interviews will contain many spoilers for those not caught up on the show.]

Lane Pryce relocates from London to New York following Sterling Cooper’s merger with Puttnam, Powell, and Lowe at the top of Mad Men’s third season. Lane was installed as the British firm’s physical presence within their American counterpart, and was tasked with lowering the company’s overhead costs—which, naturally, put him at odds with the show’s lead characters, including Don Draper. When it’s revealed that they’re about to be bought out by the even ad larger agency, McCann Erickson, Lane sides with his new American allies and becomes part of the newly-formed Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

In his new role, Lane just barely manages to keep the fledgling agency afloat as they run up against financial problems. He’s slowly worn down professionally and personally. Upon learning he owes significant back taxes to Great Britian that he’s unable to pay, Lane forges Don’s signature on a bonus check. He’s discovered, and Don is forced to fire him. When the partners of SCDP see him again, he’s hung himself in his office—his resignation letter serving as his suicide note. Lane’s death came as a shocking surprise at the end of season five, and had a rippling effect that forced many of the fearless-seeming ad men to come to terms with their own mortality.

However, his character’s death didn’t mean the end of Mad Men for actor Jared Harris; he returned this final season to director its third episode, “Time & Life.” He’s appeared in more than 70 films and TV shows, including Fringe, Lincoln, and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. This summer he’ll appear in both the new Poltergeist film and The Man From U.N.C.L.E..

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: I appreciate you taking this time to chat Mad Men with me.

Jared Harris: I’m looking forward to it! It’s a subject that’s near and dear to my heart. [Laughs]

Let’s start way back. Can you tell me about your audition for the show? I know Mad Men had a somewhat unorthodox casting process, in order to keep the storyline secret.

That all has to do with a concern that Matt [Weiner] has that leaks from the scripts, and stuff like that—they’d come out from the agencies, because they’d get the script and copy it and send it around to everybody. It’s very hard to keep plot points a secret, so he changes the scripts and changes the names and the people. You wouldn’t know who you’re having a scene with, because it doesn’t say. For example, my audition was the scene where [Lane] offers Pete and Ken the same job, but it doesn’t say “Pete” or “Ken.” It was some made-up characters, and then some of the dialogue and information in the scene was changed with generic stuff, so you wouldn’t know what was going on.

It was quite like the scene in Mulholland Drive that Naomi Watts has, because I had no context! I thought the character was a Machiavelli, because he was offering the same job to two different people. Like a cat playing with mice. There was no explanation for this. When I did it, Matt went, “No, no, no, no, no. You haven’t got it. The guy knows it’s a stupid idea, but he’s been told by his bosses to do this—to offer the same job to the same person. He totally knows it’s dumb, and that it will create a conflict within the office, but it’s what he’s been told to do. He’s the sort of person who does what he’s told.” And so I was like, “Oh! Well, that’s completely different.” I went off and came up with an instant character. I think, in contrast to how badly I’d done it before, I suddenly looked like a genius.

What sort of trajectory or scope did you have for this character when you were starting out? When Lane was first introduced, a lot of viewers wouldn’t have guessed he’d become such a major character.

No, I’d been told it was just one episode, and if Matt liked what I did, it could be as many as ten. It wasn’t a guarantee. It was dependent on whether or not he was interested in the character, and what I did with it. When I talked to Matt about it, he told me the same thing. I said, “I need some idea of what you’re looking for in the character.” And I think his instructions were [to play it] like Alec Guinness in The Bridge Over the River Kwai. I went and watched that immediately, and I started to understand what he meant by it. Thematically, that character makes sense because of what ends up happening. In Bridge Over the River Kwai, he’s doing a job that he shouldn’t be doing, and in the end, of course, there’s a big turnaround. But I didn’t know that, either. I didn’t know that until the day before the read-through for my last episode.

Was there a moment when you realized the character would be sticking around for a while?

No, not really. It was exciting, because he’d kept writing me into more episodes. One of the things I remember thinking, from a character point of view, was that Lane Pryce would know what got Duck Phillips fired. Duck got fired because he went mano-a-mano with Don Draper. He discovered that he was expendable and Don Draper wasn’t. So Lane would know that was what happened with Duck. He would know not engineer a confrontation with Don; that whatever issues he had with him, he would find another way to resolve them. And that kind of fit in with the general way of the character; that he was incredibly deferential, and not ego-less, but he understood that he was just a cog in the machine. He knew he wasn’t the bright, sparkly one; that he wasn’t the hero.

You know, it was very telling in the fifth season, when they’re talking about Lane’s war experience. And it was a very important issue within the show, because many of the male characters would have had to have served in the War, and what they’d done was important. Lane’s experience was that he was a very un-flashy sort of quartermaster. Prior to that, I imagined Lane’s war experience—only because it made me laugh, in a way—do you know the Merchant Navy? These guys were very important in bringing over the material and supplies from the United States over to Britain. They were part of the Royal Navy, but they were completely unarmed and they essentially were just sitting ducks in the Atlantic. They suffered appalling losses. You basically just gripped the side of your ship and hoped the Germans didn’t find you. But I could imagine Lane taking these very fraught journeys back and forth across the Atlantic. [Laughs] But until I knew what his experience was, it was something very unglamorous and un-flashy like that.

He became one of the show’s more beloved characters once he was a series regular. I have my own theory, but I’m curious why you think fans responded to him so well?

Oh, I’m not sure… what do you think it was?

For me, personally, it had to do with the same world that we’d seen all of these other characters navigate and survive, but every step of the way it seemed to chew Lane up and spit him out.

Yeah. [Laughs] Yeah, nothing worked out for Lane, in that sense. He wasn’t a vindictive person. In the beginning, I remember all of that early stuff—the first five or six episodes—where you’d read things that people would say about the show and the characters. People at the time thought Lane was an antagonist to Don, which he was, partly. Certainly initially. They resented the fact that these British people had come over and they’d taken over the American company. A lot of the affection, it seems, that the fans have for the show was very specifically around the actual advertising agency. Lane had come in literally as the physical presence of the British takeover, so there was a lot of resentment towards him. And, I suppose, there was a certain amount of ambiguousness.

Once [Lane] switches at the end of season three and helps them with what they want to do, and becomes a part of the company—I think everyone’s feelings changed over. It was interesting because that was sort of true even in the read-through. Humor is a very important commodity on Mad Men, and Matt is a very witty person. He’s also a very witty writer. There’s a joke in almost every scene of Mad Men. They’re not all laugh-out-loud jokes, but every scene is written with an eye towards humor. Lane never got a laugh at the read-through until that very last episode, when he says “Merry Christmas” to his bosses and hangs up the phone. That was the first laugh that Lane got, and I think it was a turning point, as well, in the audience’s affection towards Lane. They saw that he was going to come on board and be part of the team.

I know the read-throughs were where a lot of the cast would find out for the first time what would happen with their characters from episode to episode.

You get the script the day before the read-through, but that’s still not much time.

As you were doing the show, were there any paths you guessed Lane’s storyline might take that you wound up being wrong about?

Oh, like India? [Laughs]

Right! Were your afraid your character was going to be shipped off to the other side of the world?

Well, Matt told me when the script arrived, “It looks like you’re being shipped off, but don’t worry, you’re not going anywhere.” I thought he had an obligation to tell me that because I was on a week-by-week basis, depending on my availability and whether he wanted to write something or not. I was shooting some movies at the same time I was doing the show that season.

One of the things that Matt said very early on—that I read—was that the show was about Don Draper, 100%. And if Don Draper decided that he was going to go live in India for five years, then that was the end of all the other characters. Don Draper was going to go wherever he was going to go. Whatever he decided to do—if he decided he was going to join the Navy, then the show would be about Don Draper in the Navy. So, wherever Don was leading the show and leading the company was where everybody else was going to go. In that sense, one didn’t feel there was any sort of autonomy in where one’s character might go.

There were some surprises. The Playboy bunny was a surprise! And being smashed in the head by the father was brilliant. It told you so much about the character. In a way, that single action seemed to define Lane, and who Lane was going to be, and his eventual outcome on the show. If that had been resolved in a different way, I don’t think that season five would have ended that way. But that, with the father—it encapsulated Lane’s fate, in a way.

You’ve sort of answered my next question—I was going to ask whether you thought, if things had played out differently, whether Lane could have survived that world.

Yes! Well, here’s the thing: when I was reading that last episode and, specifically, the fantastic scene with Jon Hamm, where he fires me—as I was reading it, it was really interesting because I could see holes in what Don Draper was saying. I saw opportunities that he could take, that there were different ways to get out of that situation. If Don Draper or Roger Sterling were in that same situation, they would never have been fired. Because they would have found a way around it.

There are all sorts of things that could have happened, but Lane just wasn’t built that way. One of the things that Lane was attracted to about America was that you could redefine who you are, and you could redefine your fate. He didn’t know how to do it, because he grew up in England. He liked the idea that it was possible, but he didn’t how to do it. So, he was stuck with the cards that Don was dealing him at the time. He couldn’t change them, whereas Don or Roger would have taken the cards out of his hand, reshuffled them, and dealt themselves some new ones.

It helped define who this character was in my mind, and understand him. That he could take this route, or he could take that route, but he doesn’t. That tells you a lot about Lane.

I know Matt broke the news of Lane’s fate to you by inviting you up to his office and offering you a glass of nice brandy. Did it take you long to come to terms with your character’s death?

Well, I was upset, as in sad that it was coming to an end. It was a fantastic opportunity and a great creative period; a wonderful place to work; and, the material was amazing. It was great company, and all of that was going to come to an end. And I was going to miss Lane! I’d really felt like I was starting to—you know, I knew what he smelled like. It was a mixture of talcum powder and cologne. Things like that. I was getting a very visual sense of the character. But at the same time I knew, wow, what a great opportunity. I would never have been nominated [for a Primetime Emmy] had he not written that episode for me. You understand that it came at a price. [Laughs] That wasn’t a pun.

I shed a little tear in the car on the way home. I came home and my wife was here, and she could tell that something was up. I thought, “God, what do I do now? Do I lie to her? I’ll have to keep this bloody lie up for a year or something.” I just thought, “Heck, I can’t do that.” I don’t have that kind of mindset. So I told her what was going to happen—we’re not supposed to tell anybody—but she can keep a secret.

Do you think your character was killed off partially because fans liked him so much?

[Laughs] Matt would be the one who could answer that. I’m not sure. He’d engineered the whole season around that. There was a feeling around base camp that someone was going to be thrown overboard at the beginning of the season for some reason, and I was a logical choice. It certainly had a good impact. I understood the value of that being a big surprise, and being as shocking as possible.

I’d made a deal with Matt. He made it possible for me to go and shoot Lincoln at the same time as I was doing my last three episodes of Mad Men. It was very kind of him to do that, and he realized it was a great opportunity for me. So privately, in my mind, I made a deal that I wouldn’t go up for pilots the next season, so that people wouldn’t know I was no longer on the show.

That scene itself—when they find Lane hanging in his office—did you have to work yourself up to it, emotionally?

Well, you’re not feeling anything. You’re dead. [Laughs] They did a fantastic job. It was very morbid. In the makeup trailer they had all these source material photos of people that had hung themselves that I suppose you can get from the morgue, or wherever. They did a study of what the lividity was like, and of the blood pooling. They did an amazing job recreating that. I remember I almost had to put a paper bag over my head to walk from the makeup trailer to set, just in case anybody who shouldn’t be watching was watching as I walked across the lot. It wasn’t a paper bag, but a big, old umbrella in the middle of the day. But, yeah, that was the makeup department which, like everything else on the show, was incredibly well-researched.

Were those last days on set very emotional for you?

Yeah. You know, on your last day they always pop a bottle of champagne, and stuff like that. You’re standing there, “I’m unemployed again. What are you all clapping for?” But I’d asked Matt if I could direct by that time already. He was open to the idea, but he was going to think about it. He’d said, “I want to work with you again.” But obviously I couldn’t come back on the show, because I was dead.

Like I said before, it was a fantastic atmosphere. As one has moved on from it, one appreciates just how rare it was that you have somebody that has such a specific and accurate standard of what he wanted to achieve. And everyone, I think, loved what that was. The buck sort of stopped with him, and people appreciated that. You’d do good work and bring it in. On every level of every department, he was interested in what everybody was doing. Down to the props that the children play with; the stuff they leave behind at the picnic. Every single thing was being checked by him. You could see the very close interaction between [production designer] Dan Bishop and [costume designer] Janie Bryant, and the way the color palettes match between the set design and the costumes. It’s all absolutely, 100% spot-on. You see that he cares about everything, and that if you make an effort, he will appreciate the effort that you make.

I’ve done work in other places and on other shows, where people would let ridiculous things fall through the cracks, or there isn’t one person in charge. You appreciate how special that work environment was.

Can you tell me what it was like to work with this cast in a new capacity, as their director?

I knew they were good, obviously. Mad Men wouldn’t be Mad Men—and this sounds like an obvious statement, in a way—without Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss, and Slattery, Vinnie [Kartheiser], and Christina. The characters wouldn’t be the same. [Matt] cast well, but he responded to what they were able to do, and what they were able to show. In that sense, they were collaborators in the writing process. They haven’t gotten the credit that they deserve. A lot of attention has gone toward the writing and toward Matt, and that’s absolutely fair because he’s done an amazing job. But it’s kind of overshadowed the incredible, fantastic work that those guys have done. I’m hoping that they get recognized for it, because they deserve it.

Jon Hamm, in particular, if you look at what he does, he’s playing a character that on some level is unknowable to himself. He’s certainly unknowable to the people around him. That’s quite a tough thing to play, in the sense that you have to know what the character doesn’t know. If you watch what Jon does when he’s not saying anything, it’s so detailed, and nuanced, and absolutely accurate … it tells you more about Don than when he opens his mouth to speak.

What’s the collaboration with Matt like when you’re directing?

You have a good, lengthy prep period. You go to all these very different meetings, and you learn what it is that he wants. You figure out what the story is going to be. You already know what the style is, because you’re not going to come on to Mad Men and do a Michael Bay on it, you know what I mean? The style has been created and set, and the crew all know exactly what that is. [Cinematographer] Chris Manley knows exactly what a Mad Men shot is and what a Mad Men shot isn’t.

Your responsibility is the story. You make sure you understand the story. Because you get the script weeks before the cast, you read it 100 times. Your job is to mostly remind the actors of it—you can’t tell them anything about their characters they don’t know already. Your job is to remind them of the story because they only got the script the night before. You shoot everything out of sequence. Everything is so well-plotted and structured in Matt’s scripts over one episode and over a season, that you tie things in.

Looking back at Lane again—can you share any of your favorite moments for the character?

[Laughs] Well, I have a soft spot for the episode where England wins the World Cup and I have the punch-up with Pete. That’s a good one. I also have a soft spot for the night on the town with Don.

Did it feel as good for you, getting to knock out Pete Campbell, as it did for everyone watching the show at home?

Well, I love Vinnie, so no! He’s one of the first people that I bonded with on the show. You’d come on and it’s all professional, but they know each other. They’d sort of created their groups that they have. There are certain things you do when you start on a show or a play, where you’re investigating and talking about the piece and the style, all of that. Well, that had all happened two years ago. So you come on to the show and you have all of these beginner questions, and nobody is having those discussions. But Vinnie was the first person I had my scenes with, and I bonded with him. I adore him. He’s a fantastic actor.

It was funny because it was this weird mix of two boxing styles: sort of that old-fashioned, very upright, fists-in-front-of-you style, versus bobbing and weaving. That’s funny. And it was unexpected, because Lane is so restrained. But, in terms of answering your questions: Lane had been grooming Pete Campbell, you know? He’d been grooming all through season four and up to this one. He saw Pete as an ally. Other people saw different sides of Pete because he’s on a show, but Lane doesn’t know he’s on a show. All he knows is he’s working in this environment, and he sees this guy and knew he needed an ally. He thought he could work with this kid and groom him to be a very important piece of the company puzzle. So, I think that, from his point of view, was more about betrayal, and that’s something he says before he walks out of the office: “Consider that the last piece of advice that I’ll give you.”

Pete had expressed a view that [Lane] was redundant, which he then echoes in a scene with Joan, [he asks] “What do I do here?” and she says, “You’re important.” And then he says, “You could do what I do.” That was the first time I thought Lane was in trouble. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about the show. If someone isn’t good at their job—their fictional job at the agency—or wasn’t necessary to the agency, that’s a sign you’re being ushered toward the exit. That happened with Michael Gladis’ character [Paul Kinsey], as well.

Do you have a favorite scene or episode of the show that Lane wasn’t part of?

The one I directed. [Laughs]

Oh, wow. Robert Morse’s exit was amazing. And the episode at the end of season four is amazing, where they go to Disneyland. There are so many, it’s so difficult of the top of my head.

You just did a film with one of my favorite current filmmakers, Kelly Reichardt. I don’t know if you’re allowed to say much about it yet, but can you tell me about working with her?

I had a great experience. Almost all of my scenes were with Laura Dern, who is wonderful. I’m a big fan of hers. We shot it up in Livingston, Montana, which is a beautiful town. What an amazing state that is; the countryside is so beautiful. And it was a really good script. It’s sort of a story about loneliness; about people who are trying to connect. It’s a very, very touching piece, based on short stories by Maile Meloy, a wonderful writer.

The next thing we’ll see you in is the new Poltergeist. From what I can discern from the trailer, you seem to be a ghost hunter.

I was excited because this part wasn’t in the original … This guy, he’s a ghost hunter on television. So there’s a feeling—you don’t know if he’s a fraud or not. Whenever you watch those shows, you’re always wondering if it’s real or if they’re just acting. So that was an interesting twist to take on it. There’s an element of doubt about his genuineness. That part was fun.

Plotwise, it’s similar. But in terms of its tone and its treatment and approach to the material, it’s very different from the original ... It’s not like the exercise where they remade Psycho, which, by the way, I think is a completely valid experiment. One of the things I always wanted to do would be to make Hamlet, and have two or three different actors play the part, but have everything else be the same. That, specifically, is such an interesting thing, because it exposes something within the humanity of the person who’s playing the role.

The reality is that many people who buy tickets to the movie won’t have seen the original, because people don’t watch old movies, which is a sad thing but there’s a great library of fantastic material out there. Which, I suppose is why they’re able to remake stuff: because a lot of people don’t look at old movies. But people of the right generation will have seen the original, and I suppose in their minds they’ll compare it, although they’re totally different movies and totally different treatments of the material and approached to the story.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. also hits theaters soon. Can you tell me about your role?

I suppose it’s a buddy movie. Napoleon Solo works for the CIA, and Illya Kuryakin works for the KGB, and they have to team up. I’m what you might call Napoleon’s CIA handler, if you’d like. I’m his boss. It was good fun. Guy Ritchie has a tremendous sense of humor, and he’s always looking to do a scene in the most fun and interesting way possible, so that it isn’t just someone delivering exposition and plot.

It was fun! It was a little like what you imagine walking on to an old Bond movie would be, you know what I mean?

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For more information about Mad Men, head to AMC’s website.



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