Despite appearing in only two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Professor James Moriarty is considered Sherlock Holmes’s greatest nemesis and detective literature’s first super-villain. We caught a glimpse of the nefarious professor in the last Sherlock Holmes film, mainly via his assistant Irene Adler. But now, in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, we finally come face to face with Moriarty, played by Jared Harris (of Mad Men). Moriarty is both cultured and cruel, someone who plays with real lives with as little compassion if they were pawns on his chess board. Vulture chatted with Harris about playing the villain, beating Guy Ritchie into a bloody pulp — at least at chess — and psychic phenomena.
You’re playing an evil genius. Do you think you could match wits with Sherlock Holmes?
Me? [Laughs.] No, I’m just a dumb actor. Moriarty, he’s the genius.
So what would happen if you played chess with Robert Downey Jr.? Who would win?
I’m not sure if we ever played together. [Yells to Robert in the next room.] Have we played each other? See, if Robert wasn’t allowed to talk, I would win, but he makes me laugh too much, so if he could talk, we would just start chatting away. Guy Ritchie and I played, but we beat each other into a standstill. It was a fairly ugly game where we had one king each at the end and nothing else left.
When Sherlock analyzes Moriarty’s handwriting, he calls him, among other things, narcissistic and “morally insane.” What do you think your handwriting would say about you?
I had it analyzed once, but all I remember is that they said I was “really passionate.” That’s a good thing, right? It was on some talk show in Nashville, and I got this guy to do my Tarot cards and charts and whatnot, and of course, they all say nice things. No one ever says, “Don’t leave your house on the 13th,” because if someone did leave their house, nothing would happen. It’s all bullshit, but it’s entertaining. In fact, Houdini used to spend a lot of time going around investigating psychic claims and he debunked everything. Michael Crichton, who trained as a doctor, wrote this book Travels, and one of the things he explored in terms of his different journeys is the supernatural. He came out saying that most psychics are frauds who just have uncanny insights. There are some people who have some sort of connection, but I don’t think if I were to go off and study tea leaves that I could develop that ability. Edgar Cayce was a physician living in Virginia in the late 1800s. He would go into a trance and be able to diagnose you, and he was incredibly accurate. There was something about the state he could put himself in, because he would start to go to sleep and just stop himself and maintain some part of his consciousness while accessing another part. [Pauses, considers.] Now I sound like a right fucking wacko — what did you do to me? [Laughs.]
You almost played Percy Alleline in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. At what point did you ditch that to play Moriarty?
You know, I was trying to work it out to do both, but then both came at the same time, and I couldn’t work out the schedule. If you have a chance to play Moriarty, come on! [Laughs.] You got to do it. You got to say yes. But in the end, it was about the first ADs getting together and working out a schedule. I was going to be in The Departed, too, did you know? Every actor would love to work with Martin Scorsese, but sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.
Anyone who’s read the Sherlock Holmes stories sort of knows what to expect at the Reichenbach Fall, but falling over a waterfall doesn’t have to kill either of you. Would you want to come back for a third installment of the series?
It wouldn’t be a question of whether I want to or not — that’s a discussion happening in other rooms with people who have a higher pay grade!
Well, you were able to thwart death to return as another nefarious villain, David Robert Jones on Fringe.
We were supposed to keep that a secret, but when I got to the airport, somebody was standing there with a sign, waiting to pick me up. I had to go through immigration/customs, so it took two hours, and meanwhile he’s standing there with a sign. By the time I got out there, there was a crowd waiting for me to sign pictures for them, so it got blown. It’s out there. But I’m not going to tell you anything! [Laughs.]
Will we see more of Lane Pryce’s private life on the new season of Mad Men? Or his relationship with his father?
I thought that was a brilliant, insightful piece with the father, that one scene. It told you so much about the character, but without it being some sort of dreary monologue, “My father used to beat me,” or some shit like that. Who cares? But this was shocking, and you understand why he wants to leave his British life and what are the reasons that propelled him to want to stay in America.
You’re also playing Ulysses S. Grant right now in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which makes you the second Brit he’s cast as an American president.
Well, I’m half Irish, half Welsh, and I was raised in England — but I don’t think that matters. Should I be upset that Meryl Streep is playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady? Or that Kevin Costner played Robin Hood? I actually like that film. I’m not embarrassed to admit that.