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'Mad Men': Jared Harris talks about Lane Pryce, Don Draper and 'Yankophilia'

August 9, 2010 |  2:42 pm

Jared-Portrait_0026Until this week, when he dangled a giant, American steak from his belt buckle, Lane Pryce played the unenviable role of the office killjoy at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  A buttoned-up number cruncher, Lane clamped down on the agency's profligate ways and —most unforgivably — remains impervious to the feminine wiles of one Joan Holloway.  As played by veteran actor Jared Harris, Lane is a dutiful but humorless foot soldier who's both fascinated and frustrated by his American colleagues.

Born into a family of British acting legends — his father was Richard Harris and his stepfather was Rex Harrison — Harris has made a career playing oddball characters in films like "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."  Lane Pryce might be Harris' most strait-laced character to date, but plenty of the actor's potent off-kilter wit manages to shine through.  We caught up with Harris last week.

Without spoiling anything, can you tell us anything about where Lane’s story will go this season?

I think the whole season is about the opening line, “Who is Don Draper?” The theme of the season is identity, so within that context you explore a bit more into Lane Pryce’s identity.

Were you surprised by what happened at the end of Season 3?  It seemed like a huge step for Lane.

I wasn’t shocked, I was delighted. The groundwork had been laid in the episode where he was going to be sent to Bombay.  When they sold the company and didn’t tell him, it’s pretty obvious no one is covering his back and that once the company merges Lane won’t have a job. So he knew that at that point he was going to get a handshake and a gold watch and get chucked over the side.

Do you identify with Lane's sense of duty?

Yes. He’s very much company man. He’s a product of the class system in England, where the idea is you keep your head down, don’t make waves, wait your turn and you’ll have a go. Those are the rules under which he’d been operating.  He came to America, and one of the things he loved was that there was a romance and a freedom about being able to write the rules himself.

He’s really coming around to America.

Oh, he was coming around last season.  It’s like Anglophilia. He’s a “Yankophile."

Still, you get the sense that he's still adjusting to the American way of doing business. He clashes a lot with Roger and Don.

You can admire a place, but it doesn’t mean that you adapt that quickly. Roger, he thinks, is just lazy. Don is a loose cannon and makes up his own rules — there’s no company without him. He’s the creative [one], and Lane’s a bit in awe of him.  He’s scared of his influence and power. Certainly last season he was very well aware that Don had gotten rid of Duck. He had Lane’s job, and he had it for all of five minutes. And Lane knew that, absolutely he knew that. So he was very aware that he had to handle Don very carefully.

What happened between Lane and his wife?

As you would expect, she wants to go back to England, and he’s just started a new business. From what we know of her, that’s not something that would make for a happy marriage ... or happy breakfasts. It would make for quiet, stilted breakfasts

What’s it like working on the new set?  It must have been exciting to see it for the first time.

It’s great! They did camera tests so when you were involved you’d run and have a look up at it at first, we’d nip up there to see it. That was the best time to see it, it was in pristine condition.

You studied drama at Duke. So how did a nice English boy end up in the American South?

I wanted to go to school in America.  I went to some expert in London, we paid him a fortune, and he said, “You should apply to Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Yale.”  It’s just like someone saying, “I want to go to school in England, where should I apply?” and then you say, “Hmmm ... what about Oxford and Cambridge?” There was no way I would have gotten into Harvard or Yale. I got into Duke only because they had a certain quota of foreign students. But I loved it.

You come from an acting family, but you hadn’t acted before you went to college.  Why is that?

I wasn’t encouraged to do it, to tell you the truth.  I was very shy and uncomfortable.  My younger brother [actor Jamie Harris] was — is — very gregarious and has a lovely voice.  That was the reason I wanted to get out of England — to invent myself. My family thought I would be a lawyer or a teacher or something.  I was the middle son. I was always getting in arguments — and winning them.

So do you identify with Lane’s “Yankophilia”?

Absolutely, that was something that I recognized right away.

I heard you talking to Terry Gross about your audition for “I Shot Andy Warhol."  Did you have to go to similar extremes for “Mad Men”?

“Mad Men” couldn’t have been more different. They're very secretive, so you only have “side pages” of a scene where they’ve changed the character’s name so you won’t know who you're playing, and you can’t give anything away from the episode. You go in there and do a rough sketch that you think might work. I did the scene where he offers Pete and Ken the same job, and I got it completely wrong.  I thought, “Obviously this man is manipulative, sort of Machiavellian." [Show creator] Matt [Weiner] went, “No, no, no. This character isn’t Machiavellian at all. In his own mind he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, but he’s not going to question his orders.” I did the scene again, and I did it completely differently with that information in mind. I think probably because I’d done it wrong, and then I’d done it right, they noticed the acting more.  When you see a scene play quite differently within, like 30 seconds. You can show your range.

You’ve played lots of real-life characters: Henry VIII, John Lennon, Andy Warhol.   How does that compare to creating a character from scratch?

With a real person, the research is all there for you to look at, which is good. What’s difficult is that people have a very clear idea in their mind what the person is like,  particularly with very famous people that are near and dear to people’s hearts, like John Lennon, they get upset if you’re not painting him as a saint.  The other important thing is you can’t just mimic them; they are still fictionalized characters.  Because it isn’t an attempt to say, “On July the 15th, John Lennon went to post a letter, and then he went to a café and had a slice of cold toast and tea and wrote a song." It’s a fictional account. You have to apply all those things about inventing a character, but all the externals are there already. That part’s tough, but if you can do it well, it’s flashy.

Lane is a bean-counter.  Do you think that it’s a natural role for him, or do you think he has bigger dreams?

I don’t think he’s someone who could do something else. He’s aware of what his limited gifts are.

He’s supposed to be posh, isn’t he?

He is posh, or he’s certainly trying to pass off as posh.  The thing is, in England, you have to sound like you went to the same schools as the people who inhabit the world you're entering.  In that sense, Lane reminds me of my stepfather, Rex Harrison, who was from Liverpool, but he developed the reputation of being the quintessential English gentleman.  He created that image for himself, but of course he wasn’t born that way. Back then, if you talked with a Manchester or Liverpool accent, you’d be playing tradesman and you’d have walk-on parts.  If you wanted lead roles, you had to adopt a persona that wasn’t yours.  That’s very similar to Lane’s experience. He didn’t just want to be a clerk, so he was going to fake it. 

Coming to America, were you able to escape the legacy of your famous father and stepfather?

The only difference is over here, people think there’s a possibility that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, they have the idea that there might be an innate gift that might have been passed on in the blood.  Over there, they think it’s a desperate lack of imagination. [does stuffy English accent] “This is awfully embarrassing. Let’s save ourselves the humiliation. Lightning doesn’t strike twice after all.”

Last question.  You’ve worked with Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt and Jon Hamm. Who is the best looking?

Are you serious? Well, Harrison Ford you’d want in your corner if you were fighting off hordes of bad guys.  I would imagine that going out on the pull with either Brad Pitt or Jon Hamm would be really a lonely experience. I don’t think you’d get a look in. They’re all far too good looking for their own good.  Yeah ... it’s not good.

— Meredith Blake


'Mad Men': 'Gentlemen, shall we begin 1965?'

'Mad Men': 'Thank you for bringing my keys'

'Mad Men': Who is Don Draper?

Television review: 'Mad Men'

'Mad Men': Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce

Photo: Jared Harris stars as Lane Pryce.

Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

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