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It Works Because of Jared Harris

In ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Chernobyl,’ and most recently ‘Foundation,’ the criminally underrated actor has brought unexpected weight to less than flashy roles

AMC/Apple TV+/HBO/Ringer illustration

While many science-fiction and fantasy series aspire to be the “next Game of Thrones,” few can compete with its massive scope: an immersive world with shifty politics and a sprawling, pseudo-medieval history that happens to feature dragons and ice zombies. But scope isn’t a problem for Apple TV+’s Foundation. Based on legendary sci-fi novelist Isaac Asimov’s book series of the same name, Foundation takes place over a thousand years and spans an entire galaxy presided over by a far-reaching Galactic Empire—no, not that one. The show begins with renowned mathematician Hari Seldon predicting that the Empire will fall and the galaxy will enter an interstellar Dark Ages that could last as long as 30,000 years. Since destruction is inevitable, Seldon’s solution is to form the “Foundation,” a scientific community intended to preserve the best of civilization for the generations to come. Foundation is … a lot, and that’s before we get into the Empire’s god-king, who has been cloning himself for centuries to ensure an endless, immortal rule over his kingdom. (In practice, this means the series will always have professional handsome person Lee Pace wearing regal garments across many centuries, which is a lawful good.)

Rather, the main hurdle for the new series is buy-in. For Foundation to really click, Hari Seldon needs to pop off the screen—he is, after all, trying to convince an entire galaxy and its egomaniac emperor of their imminent doom using mathematical concepts that barely anyone understands. Thankfully, they have the right man for the task—someone who has a commanding presence over a room, even when discussing the driest possible subject matter. That would be Jared Harris, an actor who just a couple of years ago delivered a riveting monologue in the finale of HBO’s acclaimed miniseries Chernobyl in which his character explained how a nuclear reactor works with a bunch of red and blue placards in a courtroom. Somehow, this glorified TED Talk turned into can’t-miss TV:

Screenshot via HBO

Such is the power of one of Hollywood’s most familiar and underrated character actors. Harris is the son of Oscar-nominated actor Richard Harris—an actor known for his appearance in the first two Harry Potter films as Albus Dumbledore before his passing, but also for his hell-raising lifestyle in the ’70s—but he doesn’t have the same boisterous aura as his father. Rather, he specializes in the kind of moody, understated everymen who become burdened by overwhelming responsibilities. With that in mind, predicting a galactic doomsday scenario or investigating a nuclear plant explosion in Ukraine is very much in Harris’s wheelhouse.

While Harris has plenty of film credits to his name, including a turn as the iconic villain James Moriarty in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, television is where he’s broken out as a scene-stealing ensemble player. Most viewers’ first association with Harris on the small screen is Mad Men’s Lane Pryce, Sterling Cooper’s financial officer introduced in Season 3. Showrunner Matthew Weiner originally envisioned the character appearing in a single episode, but he ended up sticking around through three seasons and more than 20 episodes. It’s a testament to Harris’s multifaceted, Emmy-nominated performance that Lane’s final fate is one of most devastating moments of the series. (His old-timey boxer stance before beating the shit out of Pete Campbell is also GOATed.)

Following Mad Men, Harris took on supporting roles in The Expanse and The Crown, the latter of which included flashback scenes for his character, King George VI. Obviously, The Crown had to move past George VI quickly to accommodate Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth II, the show’s true regal centerpiece. But Harris’s additional scenes revealed a warm paternal side to the late monarch while further emphasizing the enormous weight George VI carried when his brother abdicated the throne, which led to an isolating and overwhelming predicament that Elizabeth II also encountered. Meanwhile, on The Expanse, Harris played the interstellar freedom fighter Anderson Dawes, who gave Harris an opportunity to embrace a character with a volatile streak—and also try out a bizarre, you-need-to-hear-it-to-believe-it Belter accent, a mash-up of six different languages to represent the show’s oppressed working class in the far reaches of the solar system.

Harris hasn’t been featured on The Expanse since its second season—which feels like a lifetime ago given that the show has since been canceled by Syfy and revived on Amazon Prime—but Dawes is still lurking off-screen, and no one would complain if Harris found his way back to the series. That’s provided he even has time to fit the show into his increasingly busy small-screen schedule, of course. After years as a supporting player, he’s leveled up as an unconventional leading man bringing empathy to exceptionally grim subject matter, beginning with AMC’s The Terror. The show is an adaptation of Dan Simmons’s novel, a fictional account of the real-life British Arctic expedition that went missing in the 1840s. But the screen version of The Terror imagines that its doomed explorers succumbed to more than just a tainted food supply and brutal conditions: They were also stalked by a polar bear–like monster. Harris fits into the story as Francis Crozier, the expedition’s alcoholic second-in-command who’s thrust into a leadership position early in the series after said monster makes a meal out of Captain Sir John Franklin.

The crux of The Terror is seeing the lengths the men will go to when they’re reduced to the simple, primal desire of survival, which doesn’t exactly paint a winning portrait of the majority of the ensemble. But Harris’s Crozier strikes a rare chord of hope, evolving from a dour and reluctant leader into the last man in the expedition fighting against the inevitable with dignity. Crozier’s transformation feels like a fitting metaphor for Harris’s career: After years of being a role player, he shines when the spotlight is firmly on him. Ultimately, Crozier is the only crew member who survives the ordeal, but in his final moments on-screen, Harris carries the weariness of his character in a haunted expression while, of all things, ice fishing. To live after experiencing such death is a double-edged sword.

A similar terror (no pun intended) followed Harris in Chernobyl, in which he played Valery Legasov, the Soviet chemist who heads the investigation into what caused one of the plant’s nuclear reactors to explode. As Legasov soon finds out, the Soviet government is more preoccupied with controlling the narrative and downplaying its own culpability than considering the horrific implications of the disaster—they attribute fewer than 100 deaths to the incident when the real number could be in the tens of thousands. As Harris’s character memorably intones: “What is the cost of lies?”

Before Chernobyl aired, the real-life Legasov was barely a footnote in the historical records—the Soviet Union’s information suppression effectively did its job. But as the on-screen incarnation of the late chemist, Harris imbues him with a restrained yet palpable fury, reaching its apex in the series finale as Legasov lays out how human errors and flawed design made such an unprecedented disaster so preventable. The gripping sequence is a microcosm of what Harris accomplished throughout the series, turning a dense breakdown of nuclear reactor jargon into something both broadly palatable and emotionally resonant.

That Harris claimed his second Emmy nomination for Chernobyl was a fitting culmination of the actor’s late-career pivot into a leading man. Now, between Foundation and another meaty role in the recently released AMC miniseries The Beast Must Die, in which he plays a contemptible narcissist who may or may not have killed a child in a hit-and-run, Harris’s string of small-screen hits have continued into 2021. It remains to be seen if Foundation—and in turn, Harris’s performance—falls on the Emmys’ radar next year. But based on its sumptuous production value alone, Apple is clearly betting big on Foundation, and Harris is the person tasked to convincingly sell the sci-fi epic’s dense, galactic, and centuries-spanning mindfuck of a premise.

Harris being put in this position for an aspiring Game of Thrones successor is impressive in and of itself. For years, Harris slotted in comfortably as one of Hollywood’s most omnipresent That Guys, a character actor who could always be relied on to make the most out of a comparatively smaller spotlight. Those That Guy roles aren’t necessarily going away—Harris is slated to appear in the Jared Leto superhero-vampire vehicle Morbius as “Morbius’s mentor,” a role so ominously vague that fans are speculating whether he’s playing a famous Spider-Man villain. (Am I … excited for Morbius now?) But with prominent television roles starting to trickle in with greater frequency, it seems that the entertainment industry is finally picking up on what many noticed in the early days of Mad Men. Sometimes, all a show needs to do to succeed is step back and let Jared Harris cook.