Interview: Jared Harris On Playing Doctor In ‘The Ward’

By  · Published on June 26th, 2011

Jared Harris must be one of the few lucky actors to play a non-evil doctor in a horror movie. The biggest convention John Carpenter avoids in his return to the screen is taking the possible role of a villain, and making a doctor that is actually interested in helping his patients. Harris doesn’t chew up any scenery and, as the actor points out, isn’t playing ‘Dracula’.

Speaking of Dracula, Harris revealed he’s a big admirer of Francis Ford Coppola’s version. Yes, not a very good transition, but how many people actually love that film? Not many, unfortunately.

And, of course, we did discus Mad Men. Last season was arguably the show’s finest hour. Matthew Weiner showed nearly the whole ensemble at their lowest and most vulnerable. There was no real reason to ask Harris about the next season ‐ considering it’s a bit far off from actually shooting ‐ but Harris and I did talk about Lane Pryce’s place in the “boy’s club” as well as the revealing drama of last season.

Here’s what actor Jared Harris had to say about not hamming things up, Carpenter’s professionalism, and great scripts making bad movies… and fair warning, our talk features spoilers for The Ward.

[Spoiler Alert]

To start off, I’m curious about how you approached Dr. Stringer. When you were playing a scene, did you play it knowing what’s actually going on, or did you play it as what Kristen sees?

That’s interesting, because I always kept in mind that there were two versions of the scenes. The way I played it had to make sense to both of those versions of the scenes. So to her, I need to appear threatening and uncooperative and mysterious. But to me and to what we know, that had to make sense from a different rationale, which is, first of all, dealing with people who are that crazy is scary. You are frightened of someone who is that mad. I mean, who has that kind of mental problem? There’s something that’s unsettling about it; there’s a kind of edge to it without justifying where the edge is coming from.

And then the uncooperative part is that sort of traditional psychological thing, which is they want you to make the discovery. They don’t want to make the discovery for you.

[Spoilers Over]

Do you constantly remind yourself of that, how far to play a scene?

Well, there were takes where I got hammy. “You’re not playing Dracula here, Jared,” and I toned it down. I just figured let them have the choice in the editing room, because you never know what’s going to work. I’ve never been precious about that. I used to be precious about it when I was younger; I wanted to control the process and everything. But then I realized that it was impossible to control the process, because you’re not going to be in the editing room. And you’re not going to know what’s needed at that point.

But I know how frustrating it is not to have what you need when you get to that point. A lot of actors do that now where they like to give the director options when they get to the editing room.

And they ended up going with a doctor not being hammy or evil.

Yeah. I thought that on that side of it we had a good thing going for us, which is I’m English and people expect the English person to be the bad guy.

[laughs] Or the Germans.

Yeah, or English people playing the Germans. So I thought that was going to help us in a way that I didn’t have to work so hard to create a threat and the possibility that I’m not a good person or I have evil designs here. And certainly, the way the story starts to unfold, you think he is. But then he won’t believe that this thing is happening and these people are disappearing. He doesn’t seem to be that bothered by it. He looks like he’s covering something up.

So yeah. Shit. I just forgot what your question was! [Laughs]

[Laughs] No problem. I was asking about Dr. Stringer not being a villain.

Oh, about being an evil doctor. He’s not an evil doctor. He’s trying to make his patient better. Personally, do I think the electric shock therapy is a legitimate way of solving something? I think that it’s not, personally. But I do understand that they use it even today. People still actually administer electric shock therapy as a treatment today, which is shocking. That wasn’t a bad attempt at a pun. I think he has some radical theory, of course, which is, script-wise, is perfect.

[Spoiler Alert]

I spoke to a psychiatrist about it and he said, “My God, no. That would just cause such trauma if you actually tried to have the different personalities kill each other!” He said you would just cause such damage. You don’t know what you’d do, really.

The goal really is to introduce the different personalities to each other. Because what happens, often, with these cases is that they aren’t aware of the other personalities. And once you start to introduce these personalities to each other, they actually start to disappear.

So actually, that scene where he’s got them all talking to each other and chatting to each other, in traditional therapy he’s a success at that point because they all were interacting with each other.

[Spoiler Over]

One thing I always take away from an interview with Carpenter is that he has a boyishness to him. With that enthusiasm, what kind of environment does he create on set?

Very, very professional. And I really, really liked him. I appreciated it. There’s no messing around. There’s no chit-chat or small talk. If you want to hang out and make friends, there’s a green room; go down there and do it. Don’t distract the people who are trying to get the next shot.

Everything on set around the camera, the only conversations you ought to be having are about how are you going to get this next shot as quickly and as efficiently as you can. It’s solving that problem. It’s a series of problems that need to be solved. Which, again, is very much from a director’s point of view. Have you ever been on a set?

I have not.

Well, when you visit one you will see that it’s impossible to have a conversation with a director because he gets interrupted every 45 seconds by someone coming up to him with a new problem, and they have to make a decision. They have to make at least two decisions a minute. So, actually, it is a problem solving job.

So he’s not like Oliver Stone where he’s going to act furious or hit on your girlfriend?

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s true. Absolutely true. I mean what was funny to me is that he forgot! He didn’t know she was my girlfriend! I didn’t get on with him very well. He forgot that she was my girlfriend!

That movie turned out really well, though. Is that interesting for you when the quality of a film doesn’t match the experience of making it?

That often happens. You have no idea what a film is going to be like from working on the set. And every movie that you work on, the people are trying to make it be as… no one works for the movie thinking, “Let’s make the biggest piece of shit we’ve ever made.” You are all trying to make a film that will be successful on some level. Not every movie you make you are trying to go for gold and turn it into Oscar gold or something like that. There are of purely commercial ventures. But you want them to be entertaining to whoever you imagine your audience is going to be.

But yes, quite often I’ve noticed that really good scripts, really, really good scripts, don’t make good movies. It’s almost as if whatever it is has reached perfection. And once you reach a sort of level of perfection, you can’t improve on it. I’ve kept a whole bunch of scripts to movies that I’ve thought, “This is an amazing script!” and then the films just didn’t turn out well.

Then you read other scripts. I remember years ago reading Coppola’s Dracula. And it was a soft-core porn movie! And I read it, I was like, “What on earth is this? Jesus Christ!” And the film was amazing! I loved the movie.

It’s really underrated.

Yeah, I loved it! And it was the first time I really understood, first of all, that intangible quality a director brings to a project. And second of all, how hard it must be for those actors whose careers are riding on every single film that comes out, the big stars, how hard it is to make a decision. Because you can read the script and you are not going to get a great idea of how it’s going to turn out. And so much there is what the director brings to it. That’s such an important relationship.

I’d imagine, especially for movies like Dracula, you’ve got to put a lot of faith into your director.

Yeah. Yeah, you do.

I know I’ve got to wrap up about now, but I have to ask, do you think Lane Pryce is ever going to be fully a part of that boys’ club with Don and Roger? Will he end up like a Roger Sterling one day?

He doesn’t have Roger Sterling’s wit and lightness about him. I think he’s one of those Englishman who grew up during the war who had duty, duty, duty just whipped into them. He doesn’t have that carefree spirit about him.

Roger Sterling has a large part of a child about him still. I imagine whatever Lane Pryce’s experiences were with growing up, he had to grow up pretty fast. That said, then you get that weird scene with the father. It was so shocking, that scene where the dad beats him up. It explains so much about the character.

But yeah, I’d like him to loosen up a bit. The more loosening up, the better you can get into what the whole spirit is. But it’s also good to be there in the contrast to everyone else. And, you know, everyone has a funny bone; it’s being able to get more of the funny bone out.

Last season really showed characters at their lowest, like that scene with Lane and his father. What was it like when you got those scripts seeing characters breaking down that you wouldn’t expect to?

Great. I mean, that’s what you want. You want material that is grabbing and it’s challenging and it’s going to be exciting to do. And it’s easy to do as well, because if you’re in a scene where you are just basically counting up how many pencils you’ve got, it’s difficult to figure out a way of doing that without it just being mundane. And, of course, Matt [Weiner], the man’s a genius, so he understands what he needs to reveal about the characters and when he needs to reveal it. Largely, in that part, you are in good hands and you just hope that… He has 30 people to write for, so he can’t give everybody something to do in every single episode. So you want him to get juiced up about your character and give you something juicy to do.

The Ward is now on VOD and opens in limited release on July 8th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.