The Jared Harris interview | 'If you don't feel terrified as an actor, you're not doing the job right'

·7 min read

Jared Harris is a BAFTA-winning actor arguably best known for his role of Valery Legasov, the Russian administrator in HBO miniseries Chernobyl. His other credits include Mad Men, The Crown, and Game of Thrones among others. His next TV show is Foundation, an adaptation of the the science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov.

Ahead of the premiere of the first season that is based on the first of the the series of books by Asimov, Harris talked about what he found sumptuously terrifying about his new character, the challenges of bringing to life a fictional but iconic literary character, and how Foundation falls in line with the other great TV shows he is known for.

Edited excerpts from the interaction below:

Your father Richard Harris breathed life into the character of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. When you take on a role like Hari Seldon, that is also as widely cherished in literature, is there an added pressure of doing justice to it on screen?

No more so than taking on say Ulysses S Grant (in Lincoln) and John Lennon (in Two Of Us). You do have a responsibility to that legacy. In the case of Hari Seld0n, he cast a huge shadow over the entire series of books, and he also casts a huge shadow over this first season. A lot of work is done for you. If there's determination by the writers to project that on screen, then that helps rather than trying to persuade them to do it.

This was trickier than playing the historical characters because you don't have that reference to go to. It's largely imaginative. But I did find that I was able to go research on the lives of the famous scientists who've made discoveries to see if there was any story I find useful. At the end of the day, you have to use your reference points, experience, and reality to build an authentic character. But it didn't keep me awake more than any other character I've played.

Because I'll tell you: if you don't feel terrified, if you don't feel those serpents of fear coiling in your stomach, then you're not doing your job right.

What exactly terrified you about this character?

I think the biggest challenge was that one doesn't lean on the character being a convenient expositional device. He's actually a properly functioning human being throughout the story with the same kind of jeopardy and fallibility as other human beings. What I was the most curious about, and that I discussed with David Goyer, was the things he didn't know. We were rigorous about that fact, rather than making the assumption that he knows exactly how people are going to react and respond. That would be extremely tedious. We made decisions about that, which allowed me to be alive in the moment, just that we're in life. I have no idea how the next five minutes are going to go about. I have some security about it, but we don't know for sure. So you can be alive within a scene like that.

Jarred Harris in Foundation
Jarred Harris in Foundation

Jared Harris in Foundation

How differently has the character been translated from the books?

If you've read the books, Hari Seldon is in his 70s, confined to a wheelchair. But I've got a long way to go before I hit that number. In my mind, we're accessing a version of Hari that's younger than the one in the books, but it's still the same character. Indeed, if you go back to the prequels that were published subsequent to the initial books, you'll see that he goes back in time and presents the younger versions of the character. I read those, they were very helpful to me.

The responsibility is to make sure that you remain true to the spirit of the character despite the different demands in terms of storytelling. It's a visual medium. You can't literally translate the book on screen. There are parts of the book where there are conversations that go on for 30 pages. People aren't going to sit and watch that. Conversely, what Asimov does in the books is he describes huge events in one line like, "Oh, and the empire fell." So you have to find your narrative and dramatic opportunities almost within the spaces of what's there in the books, bring that to life, and try and maintain the philosophical musings on life that Asimov was interested. And that's still preserved in our story.

You must have got a nose for great television by now, given that you have been part of landmark shows like Mad Men, Chernobyl, Game of Thrones, and The Crown. What was it about Foundation that made you add it to the illustrious list that I just mentioned?

That's a good question. Yeah, there's a common thread between Mad Men, The Crown, The Terror, Chernobyl, and Foundation, and that's in good writing. When I read the first draft, I could feel that David (S Goyer, co-writer) and his team were in full command of the story. There were some big ideas they were setting up, they were taking a swing at some big themes. There were some beautiful, poetic stuff. My favourite passages in the whole series is the first 20 minutes of Episode 3.

Speaking of big ideas, Seldon is seen making tall claims and pronouncing predictions in the show. People accuse him to be a prophet. How do you look at this conflict between science and religion that runs across your character arc?

It's sad but true, isn't it? It's not fantastical to imagine that someone in his position would be silenced, and they'd want to get rid of him. If you have that kind of knowledge or understanding, it must be deeply frustrating to be ignored and sidelined. One can see that happening now with the experts, who constantly give us advice on how to handle the situation (COVID-19), are being ignored. The difference here is that Hari Seldon has more or less anticipated that he'd meet that resistance, and he's not waiting for permission. He's come up with a plan for how he can go ahead with his efforts to provide a bridge out to the coming apocalypse.

And what are the larger themes you mentioned that the show touches upon?

One of the great things you can do with sci-fi is that you can tell a straightforward nakedly entertaining adventure story that travels across planets and space. If you want to see it only as that then you can, and you'll have a good time at that. But good sci-fi also has the ability to comment on the times the people who are watching it are living. It's not hard to see what those parallels are when you watch the show. It doesn't set out to give a message. But if you're reasonably aware of what's happening, you'll spot the parallels immediately.

If you were Hari Seldon, what part of our humanity would you want to preserve?

Well, a part of his goal is to preserve the story of mankind, in all its cultures, richness, variations, and discoveries. So it's not just practical. It's not just about how to build a combustion engine. It's about how to build cultures. We have an intuition of the kind of lives people have lived thousands of years ago through the culture they leave behind. And that's the story he wants to protect.

Foundation will premiere on Apple TV+ on 24 September, and a new episodes will drop every Friday.

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