Jared Harris is on-screen for no more than 20 minutes in Todd Solondz’s new film, Happiness, but each one of his scenes is a model of pitch-perfect comedy. As Vlad, a rumpled, mustachioed Russian-émigré cab driver, Harris pulls off an alarmingly convincing feat of greaseball seduction, culminating in a showstopping rendition of “You Light Up My Life.” It’s all ultimately in service of Solondz’s particularly merciless brand of satire, an approach that the London-born actor says he understands. “English comedy’s cruel,” he says. “I’m used to that. But I think there’s a humanity to the characters here.” Having previously worked with Happiness producer Christine Vachon on I Shot Andy Warhol, in which he played the artist himself, Harris says he felt compelled to sign on to Solondz’s film partly because “Vlad is about as far as you can get from Andy Warhol.”
After a childhood spent mostly in boarding schools, Harris—the son of actor Richard Harris—left England to study drama and literature at Duke University; following a brief stint at home with the RSC, he moved to New York. A few high-profile roles at the Public were followed by some colorful supporting turns in indie films (Nadja, Smoke, Dead Man). He’s still mostly known for his uncanny Warhol facsimile in Mary Harron’s Valerie Solanas biopic, though he concedes it was an odd kind of breakthrough performance. “Really, how many artists in white wigs can you play?”
The quirky character parts have earned him notice in Hollywood, but he says he’s most commonly offered “a snarling villain of some kind. I remember one week a couple of years ago, I was called in to audition for three roles: a serial killer, the ghost of a serial killer, and a computer-generated serial killer.” Still, Harris has since snagged his first lead performances—in Michael Radford’s offbeat romance B. Monkey and Michael Almereyda’s mummy movie Trance, both due out next year.
Not bad for someone who says he fell into acting because he was “crap at everything else. It’s the last thing in the world my parents expected of me. I was really shy as a child. My father tried to dissuade me at first; he thought I didn’t have the personality.” On the subject of his father, Harris says, “It’s not like being a Richardson or an Olivier, where that seems to help you get in the door. [My father] never hung around in London, so he didn’t develop relationships within that world and he also didn’t hang around in L.A.—he’s a tax exile in the Bahamas.”
Harris is forthcoming about his own reasons for not living and working in Britain. “If you don’t look like Rupert Graves or Hugh Grant, they’ll have you playing the gardener,” he says. “I get the sense when I go back that if I wanted to work there again, I’d have to get to the back of the line, and I don’t want to. Fuck it. I’m happy here. I’m staying if they let me.”
The 36-year-old actor, who’s not embarrassed to admit that he enjoyed working on Lost in Space, seems eager to get in on more big-budget action. “I think you can say snooty things about Hollywood if you don’t go to Hollywood films, but I do. I love ’em. I’d love to be in a Jackie Chan movie, or in the new Austin Powers movie, or in a James Bond movie, just that one scene when all the double-0 agents are being given their missions….” He laughs and points at the tape recorder. “Put it in the piece…’Willing to sell out, no reasonable offer refused.'”