Jamie Harris: "It's not a lot of fun playing a racist"

by Helen Hoehne July 10, 2020
Jamie Harris

Getty Images

Jamie Harris has established himself as one of the top British actors in Hollywood, having inhabited a wide range of characters in a career that has taken him from stage to television and motion pictures. Jamie landed his first film role opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in In The Name of the Father, directed by Jim Sheridan. Since then he’s established a prolific career performing in over forty movies and has worked with many top directors such as Terence Malick, Brad Silberling, and Christopher Nolan. Jamie will next be seen guest-starring in J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele’s hotly-anticipated HBO series, Lovecraft Country, as well as reprising his role as Seargent Dombey in Season 2 of Amazon’s Carnival Row. Up next, Jamie will be bringing a new character, Rory, to Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic, West Side Story.

Production on the second season of Carnival Row stopped in March this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Were you in Prague at the time?

I was in Prague, three weeks away from finishing season two. There were four productions going on in Prague and we were all staying in the same hotel. It was strange because I actually knew a lot of the people from the other productions from California, so we were all chatting away when all of a sudden, within 24 hours every production had been closed down. At the time the producers were saying listen, guys, we'll see you here again in a month. That was four months ago.

When can you resume?

I think we will go back either end of August or beginning of September to finish season two. Of course, these dates are not set in stone but we are hoping for the best. All I know is that it will resume at one point and then there is talk about going straight into season three just to keep things going.

Carnival Row is a hit with audiences. What do you love about the show?

It’s a fantastic fantasy, which is unfortunately very relevant today. I think visually it’s beautiful and the storylines are gripping. I admire the imagination of creating that whole city which is literally all built. It’s fascinating to walk through. The nationalism, which is now becoming so prevalent in our world strikes a chord. I play a racist nationalist police officer. It’s not a lot of fun playing a racist but you can make it very interesting to find out why they are that way. I strongly disagree with a lot of my characters and their views but I do find it fascinating for an actor to be able to play a character they don't agree and identify with because it forces you to really dig deep into the character and to read a lot of background material which I love doing.

You have another TV series Lovecraft Country which premieres August 16 on HBO. What can you tell us about that show and your role?

It’s a wonderful story written by Misha Green about a son who travels across America in search of his father. It shows a country that is deeply divided by hate in the ‘50s. It's really not that different from today sadly enough. Added on to that is a kind of coating of black magic monsters and demons which is the whole Lovecraft element, a sort of symbol of what we as humans have eating away inside of us. I play another racist cop and it was fascinating to delve into that one as well because it's a very different character to Carnival Row.

The series is executive produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams. Were you a fan of their work?

A huge fan! I love that genre of film. What I love about it is, no matter the subject, or the storyline, it's always based on something very real. It's always a metaphor for something and it's telling you something about yourself as a society.

The series deals with racism in white America in the ‘50s. Perfect timing given what we've seen lately.

I think with each week and each month that passes, it’s more and more relevant. It’s shocking what is happening in this country and also in the world. And it's shocking that people feel emboldened enough to say it out loud. I think it may always have been there but now it's just become prolific and scary. Both shows Lovecraft Country and Carnival Row for different reasons are highly relevant now. With locking kids on borders in cages. With all the shocking things that we seem to be able to do towards each other. I think it's becoming more and more important to tell stories to shame ourselves to stop doing it.

You come from an acting family. Your father was (Irish actor) Sir Richard Harris. What’s the best advice you’ve received from him?

The first film I ever did was called In the Name of the Father, and the first scene I ever did in that film was opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. I couldn't sleep the night before. I was so nervous. So I called my father up that morning. I said this is an SOS call, you have to help me. What the hell am I going to do? And he said, my best advice is, get to the set early when nobody else is there. Run the scene in your mind on that set. Take a place that is a position of power. Sit down. Whatever you do, do not stand up. I asked why and he said because it's your first scene opposite a huge actor and you're going to fidget and move around, you will look weak. And so that's what I did.

Was he happy that you followed in his footsteps?

I think my father always thought that I would follow in his footsteps although at the beginning of my life I really didn't want to. For some reason every conversation and every dinner we had always reverted back to either acting or religion. I grew up thinking that’s the last thing I want to do. So initially I joined a band. I couldn't play an instrument so I decided that I'd be the frontman, the sexy singer at the front of the stage. I'm not sure how good we were actually, but back in those days, I don't think you had to be that good. Everyone seemed to have a good time in the band. So I did that for a while and I did not get into acting until I met Irish director Jim Sheridan. He was the one that suggested I go to acting classes, to see if I wanted to become an actor. I did in London and fell in love with it. I love becoming obsessed by something.

What are you obsessed with at the moment?

I've always fancied myself as a writer. I had this passion script I've always wanted to write but always put off, and now because of the pandemic, I can do it. It’s actually a blessing. I've written a rough draft and I'm now going into the second draft so I'm really excited.

You have two older brothers, one is well-known actor Jared Harris, and the other is Damian Harris who is a writer and director. Were they role models for you?

They were role models in many ways. But all three of us took different journeys in life to get to where we are today. And one of the sad things about the lockdown is that my oldest brother Damian had just got the finances to direct a film which may be the first time outside of Carnival Row that Jared and I would have acted together. It may still happen but we don’t know when.

What do you guys talk about around the dinner table?

Religion has been banned from any conversation. We may talk about projects but coming from England we talk about soccer a lot. We would have loved to be soccer players.

Are you competitive with each other?

No, we are very different personalities. We're actually very supportive of each other. We are only competitive when it comes to football.

You have a role in Steven Spielberg’s production of West Side Story. What can you tell us about that?

When I read the script, I was bowled over by how beautiful it was. It was absolutely engrossing. I play a character that is new and was not in the original. He is a Northern Irish bar owner. I was hoping Mr. Spielberg would ask me to sing and dance but he didn’t.

Was this the first time you met Steven Spielberg?

It was and I think I had a pretty sleepless night before that meeting as well. When I met him, he was just the absolute definition of a true gentleman. He was so calm and kind. And so interested in any subject that you might have been talking about. He and Tony Kushner are just unbelievable people. It was a real honor to work on that. Every member of the crew was seriously the best at what they did. And it made the atmosphere on the set so relaxed. It was an absolute joy. At the end Mr. Spielberg came up and hugged me and said, you look sad. And I was, I was sad that it was over.