The London native, who is the son of famed thespian Richard Harris, also boasts an impressive stage résumé that includes the New Group's Obie-winning production of "Ecstasy" and the New Jersey Shakespeare Company's acclaimed experimental version of "Hamlet."
Recently, he chatted with Back Stage about auditioning, first inspirations, and why his characters are never quite normal.
Back Stage: What was your audition process for "Mad Men"?
Jared Harris: You don't get the script; you just get the side pages. They don't want any information to get out. The scenes I had were the two scenes with Pete and Ken Cosgrove where I offer them both the same job. I had no idea why I was doing it, so of course I got it completely wrong. I did it, and [creator] Matt [Weiner] went, "No no no." He said that [Lane] wasn't the sort of person who thought about whether something was a good idea or a bad idea; he just did his job. I changed it and I did it and he loved it. It was instant character change. It reminded me of that scene in "Mulholland Drive" where Naomi Watts does the audition and they give her the note and she does it completely differently. That's the benefit of being in the room rather than going on tape. When you're in the room with the creator, they get a chance to make an adjustment and put you on the right track.
Back Stage: Did they tell you more about your story line once you landed the role?
Harris: I had a chat with Matt, and he said, "You're a company man; you're kind of like a Roman governor. Your attitude is to allow things to run as smoothly as they can and then slowly tighten things up from the inside. You're not there to make waves." I said, "Yeah, okay, that's good, but I want an idea of what's going to happen, because you can do things onscreen that are very hard to shake loose. I might sign on to the show and suddenly find out my character likes to drown puppies or he's an ax murderer or something." He said, "That's an interesting idea, but no. At the moment, I'm not planning on you being an ax murderer."
Back Stage: What was your first inspiration to act?
Harris: Duke University. I went to Duke and auditioned for a play. I was curious about it because of my father. But I wasn't encouraged to think along those lines. My younger brother was considered a natural performer; he's a marvelous actor. My older brother wanted to be a director, and they thought I'd be a good lawyer or something. I was the middle child and very argumentative. But I was curious about it, and in my mind I always thought I was going to audition just one time for a play, and if I got cast, I'd think about it, and if I didn't, I'd never think about it again. But something about it attracted me, and I ended up in an Agatha Christie play. It was a very small part. I loved it.
Back Stage: How has coming from an acting family shaped you as an actor?
Harris: I wouldn't have had any exposure to it as a world, a career, a life if it hadn't been for my father. I'd have just been someone who was buying tickets to the movies and the theater. I don't know if it ever would've occurred to me to strike out and pursue it. I don't think so. One of the things my dad would do was he loved to sit around the dinner table and discuss performances he'd seen, and he'd break them down. He'd describe these moments that were just seared into his memory. He'd talk about the interpretation. He saw Olivier's Hamlet and Scofield's Hamlet and Burton's Hamlet, and he'd talk about what was unique about each of them. It was fascinating.
Back Stage: You've said, "I've auditioned for normal characters. But I never get cast." Why do you think that is?
Harris: I don't know—the red hair, maybe? But it's true: I don't really get cast as normal people. If I'm the guy next door, he's probably buried a body somewhere in the garden. I remember in the beginning, it would drive me crazy. I was fighting against it and desperately trying to push myself to be considered in different areas in terms of the romantic leads and different types of characters. But in the end, you kind of go with the flow.
I came over to America quite early on. I don't know what it would've been like if I'd stayed over in England. In this country, they love English actors playing baddies. Sometimes they're really good parts. I remember being in a Shakespeare class and the teacher was talking about the difference between academics who study literature and actors. He said, "The reason why you must go and see these plays live is actors understand which are the good parts." An academic would think "The Merchant of Venice" is about the merchant of Venice, but it isn't: It's about Shylock. That's the best part in the play, and the actor understands that's the best part. If there's a script out there with a really good bad-guy role, good actors know about it.