There comes a moment when you’re interviewing an actor who’s been killed off a show when you realize that your own grief over the character’s death is nothing compared to the actor’s grief over the loss of an amazing role. After last night’s self-offing of Lane Pryce on Mad Men, Jared Harris is in mourning — and you can’t blame him. From the day he joined Sterling Cooper in season three, Lane’s humility and restraint have been a delightful contrast to an office ruled by self-interest and booze. It’s the reason you root for Lane when he finds glee in the occasional lapse, whether it’s dallying with a Playboy bunny or drunkenly slapping a steak on his crotch. Sadly, Lane’s days became numbered in season five when his finances took a major tumble. Harris spoke to us from London about playing a corpse, agreeing with Don’s decision to let Lane go, and feeling depressed over his character’s demise.
Harris: Hi, Mina, how are you?
I’m good. A little depressed, after last night …
At the risk of sounding melodramatic.
Uh. I was, yeah. It’s sad. Disappointing, of course. But then, what a great way to go out. I had a fantastic story line and then what a great last episode that was.
You’re in London now, so I take it you were fast asleep when Lane did the deed last night?
Have you been reading the eulogies online?
I haven’t because I’m working on a film here, so I haven’t had a chance to do all that. I got a text message and a couple of e-mails, but I haven’t got online and looked through all the stuff. I hope they’re being nice about it. I hope they’re not saying, “Ding-dong the wicked witch is dead” or something.
When did you first find out about Lane’s death? How did Matt Weiner break the news to you?
After the read-through for episode ten. He said he wanted to talk to me in his office. And, let me tell you, whenever someone says that to you, you know it’s not good news.
What did he say?
“I wanna talk to you in my office.” And then he offered me some extremely expensive brandy, and that’s how you know you’re fucked. Yep. But there was talk around base camp from the pre-shoots that something was gonna happen to somebody. We kind of felt it in the air.
Yeah. It was foreshadowed all season long —
Well, we hadn’t even got to that. We weren’t even shooting yet and there was a feeling about it. Yeah. [Matt] likes to shakes things up. He likes to pull surprises and stuff like that.
Was there a fear among cast members, like, What if it’s me?
That’s what it was, that’s what I’m saying. There was. Obviously, you know [chuckles], some people are in a lot better position than others. Vinny [Kartheiser, who plays Pete Campbell] and myself would get thinking, It could be me, it could be you, it could be Rich [Sommer, who plays Harry Crane], it could be Aaron [Staton, who plays Ken Cosgrove] — but then what would be the point of that, since they had just worked out how to bring Ken Cosgrove in? And then there was the whole developing story line. You were trying to figure out where the thought process was gonna go and, really, we were kind of staring across at one another like, Shit, I think it’s gonna be one of us. So.
Did Matt explain why he picked Lane? Did he go into at length with you?
I think one of the reasons was because the character was a popular character, people liked the character and it would have a really big impact. And then also, it felt right in terms of the idea of the guy being somewhat marginalized. He didn’t have a lot of political allies within the company. You know, it’s not a sexy job, being the guy who keeps the books and [keeps] the ship on course. He obviously provides a service to the company because he takes Sterling Cooper and turns it into an extremely profitable company, and he sees them through those difficult times in terms of keeping the company solvent. But no one likes someone who says no, so I don’t think they would look on him as being a very popular person within the office. And also, it’s one of those things where no one really knows how that works. It’s sort of taken for granted by the creative types, and it’s either something that they miss tremendously or they don’t notice at all. Who knows what happens next?
What was your first reaction when Matt told you? Was there an instinct to kind of fight for your character?
There’s never any of that on the show. It’s very, very clear that you say everything as written, including punctuation, and you do everything that is in the stage directions exactly the way it’s written. So no, absolutely not. Also, they built the season towards it. And being the character being used in that way, I could see the benefit of that. The downside of it is I no longer work at one of the most enjoyable work experiences I’ve ever had in my career and that part is sad. It was also one of the easiest jobs in a way because you never had to worry about anything: The scripts were amazing, the costumes were amazing, the sets were amazing. It was just such an easy place for an actor to work. All you needed to be concerned about was how were you gonna play your part, and that’s quite rare that you come across situations like that.
What did other cast members say to you once they found out about Lane? Do they try to console you? Keep things humorous?
It comes out slowly. Jon Hamm knew about it from the very beginning. Before each season, apparently, Matt and Jon go out for a dinner and he discusses his ideas for the season with Jon and it was one of the stories that he wanted to build up to. But everyone else, no one knew. The person who normally finds out first is John Slattery, since he’s a director, but he also knows where to find the scripts. And then they’re not quite sure if you know, so there’s this little weird game where you’re standing at the catering line or something and they’re like, “Hey … so I, uh, saw the scripts for one of the future episodes.” You’re like, “Uh-huh? Right?” You know, you play this sort of game with each other, trying to figure out who knows what.
So you probably learned how to handle it after a certain amount of time? Did you have a routine way to respond?
Once they know, they come up and put their arm around you and go, “Holy fuck, I can’t believe that’s happening. I’m gonna miss you and I’m gonna miss the character.” It was really sweet and I really appreciate it.
Was that your body at any point in the scene where they cut you down, or was it a dummy the entire time?
Yeah, that was me! That was me, yeah.
How was that rigged up?
It was not comfortable. The hardest part about that is we’re looking at the photographs of the dead bodies, people that have hung themselves, and the protuberance of the tongue. And you’re trying to get that but then sticking your tongue out, your tongue has got a life of its own so it twitches and everything. But that moment where they break into the room, they deliberately did it so that they didn’t see me until they had that moment. I don’t know which take they used, but that is their reaction.
So they hadn’t seen you before that?
Yeah, because they didn’t see me in makeup beforehand. And the hardest part about that was resisting the urge to fuck that moment up by breaking into a Monty Python skit and start dancing while hanging there.
People thought you might jump out the window or use Pete’s gun. Did Matt know from the beginning that you’d go out by hanging?
I think [me jumping out a window] would be too much because of the opening, the title image. I think that would have been too much if Lane had gone out the window. I think that would send a wrong image of what — he didn’t have that importance. I mean, the show was on three seasons before that character arrived, so I think that would’ve been wrong. You’d have to speak to Matt about that.
The scene where Don confronts Lane is wrought with an incredible range of emotions. You go from defensive to apologetic to indignant to desperate. How do you get ready for a scene like that?
I think those are the scenes you look forward to doing as an actor. They are why you wanna become an actor, because they’re fantastic; there’s so much in them.
Was that a lot of takes?
Um, [facetiously] I got it in one, darling, what are you talking about? No, we had a few takes. You try different things. Because the last time they rewrite the script is in the edit room.
I took Lane’s suicide letter to be an F-you to Don. Do you think Lane’s final moments were spent resenting Don?
Without question. It was a vindictive thing to do, to kill himself in the office, so without question he went back in there and wanted to be passive aggressive — the act of killing himself in the office is the aggressive part and the passive side of it is to leave a suicide note that explains nothing. So yes.
Some people hate Don right now. A lot of people are debating whether he should have had more heart.
I don’t think for a second that if Lane had come to Don and said, “Please lend me the money” — I’m sure that Don would’ve done it. And so it’s Lane’s fault, isn’t it? And then why didn’t he do that? That’s the whole idea of that scene really, is why didn’t Lane do it? He doesn’t do it because of his pride.
It makes you realize how repressed he is, too.
He’s incredibly repressed. Deeply repressed.
Did you get any special parting gifts or a send-off from the cast?
You know, no, and now I’m incensed! Bastards! We went out for a drink, yeah, we went out for a drink, but no — I mean, people come and go. I guess no one really knows when their number’s gonna be called next.
Did they at least give you a pair of commemorative thick-rimmed glasses to take with you?
I took those with me.
The broken ones?
No, not the broken ones. There was a good pair that I took with me, the glasses that are so famous. And then there was a note in the writers’ room — they have the whole season written on these little cards — and the note for where Lane kills himself was “Door jam,” and that was the secret code for what was gonna happen. So I asked them to give me that note. And you steal little things from the set all the time. Little mementos.
Well, I have to say, Lane was one of my favorite characters, if not most favorite character, so I was sad to see him go.
Oh, thank you. So was I. I shed a little tear when [Matt] told me. In the car on the way back. I was depressed for a couple of days. Obviously you can’t tell anybody, you can’t share the news with anyone. I mean, I love working there, that was part of the reason why [I was upset]. And I felt sad for the character. That poor man, he was just so beaten by life.