Actor Jared Harris exited “Mad Men” in spectacular fashion at the end of season five when his character, Lane Pryce, hung himself in his Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office. But Harris was back on the “Mad Men” set this season to direct the April 26 episode “Time & Life,” which had more than a few momentous moments for the remaining gang. Harris spoke with Variety about the experience of directing his first episode of TV, working with his old colleagues in a different way and the art of playing drunk.
How did you get this directing gig?
When Matt (Weiner) told me that Lane Pryce would die, he told me he was ambivalent about it and told me ‘I want to work with you in the future.’ I said ‘How about directing?’ He didn’t say yes right away. But Matt has brought people up through the show (as directors). Jennifer Getzinger was a script supervisor. Michael Uppendahl came up the ranks. One thing Matt likes about that is that you understand the show from the inside. You know what the show isn’t. You understand the style of it and the way he wants stories to be told.
How did you prepare?
I shadowed Mike (Uppendahl) on the season six episode “The Crash.” I am really passionate about directing. I really wanted to do it. I had directed theater before. From a directing point of view on a show like this, you’re not coming in to reinvent the wheel. The wheel has been designed already.
What did you find most challenging?
One’s job is to come in to the show, get a strong grip on the story and communicate the story. I understand what the actors go through. I can’t tell them that I have any insight into the characters that they don’t have — after playing them for seven years, that would be insulting. But what I do know is that I’ve had the script for four weeks longer than they have. I’ve read it 100 times. I’m aware of all the nuance and details of the story — what’s connected to what scene and to prior episodes. I needed to communicate that story to the actors.
How was it for you working with old colleagues in a new way?
It was exciting and great to be back working there again, and working in a completely different way. Appreciating the tremendous about of work that is put in on every episode, work you don’t see when you’re just working on the stage floor. Before the first thing is brought on to the stage for any scene, it’s gone through an incredible vetting process, incredible preparation and deliberation. It’s incredibly impressive. (The production team) knows what Matt wants, and he’s excited by all the work that they put in. They’re excited that their work means something to him.
Was it a gift to have such great scenes with Jon Hamm and John Slattery?
Those guys have such a fantastic rapport with each other — you’re really turning on the camera when you direct them. They enjoy each other offscreen, and you can feel that on screen between them. They’re sort of special scenes to get. From a directing point of view, it’s a great because you know that you might gain some time (in overall filming schedule). They’ll nail it on the first take, and you’ll do two more just for options in the edit.
The scene in the bar was long and melancholy. Is it hard to play drunk? Is it hard to film a drunk scene?
The maxim about playing drunk is to try to act sober. Because that’s what you do when you’re drunk; you’re struggling to mask the fact that you’re drunk. But that’s something they know as actors. If you think about Jon Hamm in season four and the spiral that (Don Draper) went down in the first seven or eight episodes of that season. The variety of levels he brought to playing drunk — it was a master class. Not since Peter O’Toole in “My Favorite Year” was there a better drunk performance. It’s really incredibly challenging to find different ways to play it.
How did you feel about what happens to Don in this episode?
That character is someone who is a cipher. He doesn’t give anything away. Who is Don Draper? That question is something he’s answered internally for himself. You’re never going to get that answer verbally, but if you watch what he does in scenes where he isn’t speaking, you know exactly who he is. A lot of attention has rightly been given to Matt and the writing of the show, but “Mad Men” isn’t “Mad Men” without (Hamm) and Elisabeth (Moss). Matt has written toward their performances and made them collaborators. I don’t think people quite appreciate the nuance and depth of the performances that they’ve given. If his character had held a gun and shot someone I have the feeling (Hamm would) have an armful of awards.
You also got to film a very big moment for Peggy with her revelation to Stan.
That scene with Peggy and Stan was the emotional heart of the whole episode. Page-count wise it was the longest scene in the episode. On one level from her point of view, it was a very serious scene. From Stan’s point of view, which any man can appreciate, there’s a certain level of humor because he constantly says the wrong thing. She hasn’t shared the information with him, so he’s sticking his foot in his mouth. And then he has that intuitive understanding of what she’s talking about. It was a lightbulb moment. People sometimes talk about the distance between (characters) on the show. But there are incredible connections formed in moments like that. It’s the great genius gift on Matt’s part — he understands that touching somebody isn’t about the physical act, it’s about the emotional connection.
Don getting cut off at the knees while trying to pitch McCann-Erickson was brutal.
The question is how do you deal with that? It’s the shock and the exhilaration. They get handed the biggest win … and it cuts directly from that to them toasting Bert Cooper. Certainly the feeling that one gets from that is a feeling of demise.