An interview with actor Jamie Harris
Jamie Harris is an actor known for Carnival Row, The Prestige, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The New World, and A Series of Unfortunate Events. I spoke with Jamie about his acting heroes, In the Name of the Father, working on Carnival Row, growing up in an acting household and the upcoming film Brave the Dark.
Did you receive any formal acting training?
I did. In London, New York, and in California. It was all really based around theatre, which is very important because the audience is further away. You have to know how to project your voice and how to throw an emotion, so to speak. Whereas camera work for film or television is very different because the audience is right beside you. At times, they’re almost in your head. So, you really have to be able to internalize a lot, and for that, I think actually, the best form of training is on the job training.
Who are your acting heroes?
My heroes have always been the likes of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and James Mason. I loved Peter Sellers. I have all his movies. Recently I watched Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, and it was just a phenomenal performance. The sort of actors of more my childhood that I love, people who are able to put slapstick or put comedy into a serious moment, that's priceless and very hard to do.
How did you land the role of Deptford Jim in In the Name of the Father?
I'd worked with Jim Sheridan as an AD on the field. When the filming had finished, I stayed behind in Dublin and he sort of hired me as an assistant in the editing department. I really didn't do an awful lot, but I hung out with Jim most nights and we'd go and we'd have a drink and talk. Cut to many years later, I was living in California and I heard he was casting In the Name of the Father. I just finished a film with a director called Ash. I got a couple of scenes from him and I sent them over to Jim in Ireland to see if there was anything at all for me in the film. He came back to me and said, “yeah, Deptford Jim.” Funny enough, I just shaved my head. It was really short. It had been really long when he said no, but you have to have really long hair, so I ran out and got this sort of wig sewn in to sort of try and make it look more realistic.
How did you get involved with Carnival Row?
That was very straightforward. My agent heard it was going on with a really good casting director in California, whom I happen to know. So, I got an audition for a different character, actually, a smaller character. He was half horse, half man. I think he only had really one scene in it. I auditioned for that. Then they cut the role and asked if I would consider auditioning for Sergeant Domby, which again was a smaller role originally. So, I did and got the role through that. It took a long time for the whole thing to come together. I didn't hear back for a while. And then the role got bigger and bigger as, as filming went on. But it was pretty much a normal process.
Could you discuss your approach to creating Sergeant Domby? What research was involved?
Well, as I said before, you only get two scripts at a time. I got a pretty basic idea of what they wanted from the character. And I went to a very good acting coach and we discussed him a lot and tried to work out why he was what he was. I read the book Hillbilly Elegy and I tried to understand what makes a nationalist, stroke racist. I sort of built on it from that. Then when I got to Prague, I had the head shade put the uniform on, and visually, Domby was really the character. I really wanted to build his background and get his family and his morality and his religion in place in my head so that I could perform him better and it would come from a real place. As the character developed, I got on very well with John Amiel, who was directing the episodes. He allowed a lot of improvisation to sort of add a little bit more humor to him and a bit more humanity to him. But for that character, a lot of my research and a lot of the work was done before I ever stepped on set, because I really wanted to make sure he was a three-dimensional character. I didn't want him just to be brutal, I wanted him to have some humanity. That came about from having a family, from having a father, his kids, his wife, and really believing as he did in a certain religion and protecting the city that he valued and he grew up in. It was very important to do all that and then try and add different colors on it. That being humor and friendships within the characters on set.
You also play a role in the upcoming Brave the Dark, directed by your brother Damian and also co-starring your brother Jared. What was the process like collaborating with them?
Collaborating with them. That was very different, actually, because with films, especially of a certain budget, there really was no collaboration. The script was rewritten, rewritten. I was in Prague filming Carnival Row when we got the start dates. When I came to set, they're already halfway through shooting and it was a bit odd because there was a slight mess up with production.
When I arrived, I had to take a night flight, go straight from the airport, having not slept, to set and to film. There really was no collaboration with either Jared or Damien. I'd worked on the character. I got the background and I just went in there and did it. I think, certainly in films, that's more likely the case. You just come in, you have your work done, you know exactly what you're doing, which makes you very open when you're on set because you've got such a strong basis to act with that. You're very rooted as a character, which means that you can move with anything new that maybe comes up. But there wasn't too much collaboration on that.
Can you tell us a little bit more about Brave the Dark?
I just watched it again recently for the second time and it's a wonderful movie. It's a small story, really. It's a true story. It's a very kind story. It's about a teacher and a student and the students having a hard time in life. He had a terrifying upbringing and childhood and really trying to negotiate his way through life. The teacher very much becomes a father figure to him and it's about kindness, love, spirituality. It's a beautiful story. It was great to be a part of a story like that because they're very rarely made anymore. Just a lovely, honest story about kindness and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really recommend it for anyone to go and see.
How has growing up in an acting family informed your work as an actor?
Well, at first it made me not want to be an actor with all the sort of dinner conversations which went on until really late at night about acting or religion or politics. It sort of drove me into more of a musical way of thinking and I joined a band for a few years in Ireland. I arrived at acting much later. It did inform me being around such strong characters. It creates a strong character of wanting to be heard and throwing your opinion into every situation and getting reactions from people purely to get the reaction, regardless of whether you believed in what you were saying or not. So, it was a lot of fun and quite chaotic in how it informed my work as an actor. You see just how much work one does at home to create a character before ever going on to set and I think that's quite often lost these days. You'll see people just show up on set really having done very little work, which I think is a bad thing. You also need to have the ability not to bring your work home with you in regards to your family. I'm now husband and father of two kids, and you want to keep two things as separate as you can from each other.
You’ve worked with directors such as Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Terrence Malick, and Jim Sheridan. What’s the biggest thing you have taken away from working with them?
Well, they surround you with the best actors, my Lord. When you're acting opposite such great people, it makes your job a lot easier. Also, the sets are so creative. Each person is the best at what they do. Therefore, when you walk onto a set, if you've done your homework, it really is a joy and a very kind of relaxing atmosphere. I think that comes with experience, really, I guess, because I've also worked with new directors and they're very nervous on set, and nerves create tension. So, it is wonderful to work with such people. All of them are actors, directors, and therefore the actor is the story, and therefore that is vitally important to them. It is an amazing experience, one of which I would love to have again.