Jared Harris gets sinister in this month’s Sherlock Holmes sequel.He’s played John Lennon and Andy Warhol, cab drivers and drunk accountants, but in this month’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Jared Harris plays the archnemesis of Holmes himself: the wicked and brilliant Professor Moriarty. “He is a template for the supervillain of contemporary stories, cinema in particular,” Harris says. “There is the serious version in the James Bond films and the parody version in the Austin Powers movies, and the space between them is only one bad line of dialogue. You know,” he adds, breaking into a spot-on Dr. Evil voice, “ ‘One million dollars!’ ” Fortunately, the 50-year-old Brit, who will reprise his role as Lane Pryce on Mad Men next year, stays on the right side of that divide.
American Way: As a self-described character actor, you’ve “lived” a lot of very interesting lives.
Jared Harris: In my heart, I’ve carried two pillars of actors I admire. One is the whole Laurence Olivier thing — the ability to transform any way he wishes. The other is that blistering screen persona that was Marlon Brando. If I’ve aspired to anything, it’s been to build a bridge between the two without looking like an [idiot].
AW: Here we are with another Sherlock Holmes film. Why is this character so perennially appealing to audiences?
JH: The stories are puzzles with a hyperintellectual lead character who solves the crimes a moment or two after the most discriminating audience member has, allowing everyone to feel good about themselves. I think audiences like to feel like they’ve solved the case and saved the day.
AW: One of your great early roles was in Jim Jarmusch’s improvised Western, Dead Man.
JH: Yeah, not a line of dialogue given to us.
AW: With a big-budget blockbuster like Sherlock Holmes, I assume that not so much is left to chance.
JH: Well, the sets are built and the basic plot is there, but oftentimes a director will allow his actors the luxury of moving the story from A to B in the quickest, most colorful way possible.
AW: Which is different than Mad Men, where the script is essentially scripture.
JH: You don’t even dare to change the punctuation. [Laughs.] And I love working like that too.