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Interview: ‘Carnival Row’s Jamie Harris Talks ‘Lovecraft Country’ and ‘West Side Story’

July 23, 2020Ben MK

Coming from a family of actors, Jamie Harris certainly knows what it means to embody a character. His father, Sir Richard Harris, will forever be known to a generation of moviegoers as Albus Dumbledore, while his brother, Jared Harris, has appeared in such television series as Fringe, The Crown and Chernobyl. As for Jamie himself, he's a veteran of stage theatre who's perhaps best known for his roles in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Amazon Studios' Carnival Row, and he can be seen next in Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams' upcoming HBO show, Lovecraft Country, based on the novel by Matt Ruff.

I caught up with Jamie Harris to chat about what viewers can expect from Lovecraft Country, his upcoming role in Steven Spielberg's highly anticipated West Side Story, and more.

First off, how have you been keeping busy during the pandemic and how have you been adjusting to the evolving new normal?

Harris: My wife and I just got married before I had to go back to Prague to shoot season two of Carnival Row. We didn't get to spend a lot of time together [before the pandemic], so that part of it has been fantastic. But I've always had a passion for writing, so I've been writing this script — this passion project. It's a personal story about a band touring America in the '70s. So I've been making the most of it, but is has been — as it has for everybody — quite a tough one.

We were literally three weeks from finishing season two of Carnival Row when we just got shut down. I was speaking to the producers and they were like, "Don't worry, we'll be back in a month." That was like four months ago. As an actor, you never know when you can start working again. That uncertainty is always nerve-racking.

You play a Sheriff during the Jim Crow era in the upcoming HBO series Lovecraft Country, which is from Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams and based on the novel by Matt Ruff. What can you tell me about the show and your character?

Harris: It's a great story and it's quite traditional insofar that it's about a son who travels across America to find his father. But it deals with all the different forms of racism and characters that he comes across on his journey. And then on top of that, you have Lovecraft elements of monsters and demons and the supernatural.

My character is very much a sundown county police officer who is a racist, and he takes a disliking to them. The first episode really revolves around what I and my deputies decide to do with the main characters, and it's all very unpleasant. It's literally the first time they come across the element of racism in Middle America, and it sets a tone that then travels throughout the season. But it was a wonderful group of actors that I got to be with, and the director and the writers were wonderful people. It was quite a challenge filming it, because filming it about two hours outside Chicago at night really was a battle within itself — when you're in the forest at night in the heat.

It's interesting playing characters like that, actually, because I have nothing in common with the character. I strongly disagree with the character, but it's fascinating to find all the different shades within. You read about nationalism and racism, about how it starts and where it's bred from. And then also when you play someone that's innately evil, you are given a certain freedom to add in your own color to it — to add in humor, to add in different elements that aren't necessarily in the story as such. So it gives you quite a lot of leeway to have fun.

Both you and your brother, Jared, have done your fair share of sci-fi and fantasy films and TV shows. You were in The Magicians and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., he was in Fringe and is in the upcoming film Morbius, and you were both in Carnival Row. Are you a big fan of those genres? If so, what are some of your favorite works and how have they helped shape your career?

Harris: I am fan of that genre. In the course of my career I've kind of done a lot of genres — comedy and action, drama and all that. But I love that genre because it's a whole new world. As you read the scripts, literally it can change within in a second; it can go to a totally different place and it's fascinating. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a wonderful experience. You really didn't know what was going to happen next; quite often it wasn't what you expected. I love doing shows like that.

As a kid, I used to read a lot of comic books. But I think television now has changed completely. We have the ability to pretty much say and do whatever we want on television now, and the writing is fantastic. It takes its time telling a story, so you don't have to tell a story within the hour-and-a-half to two hours. You can really take your time and spend a whole season, and therefore get much more in-depth with what it is you’re trying to say. I love doing that. I love all the Marvel stuff; it's wonderful.

And you're right, both Jared and I have done a lot of that together. We were in Carnival Row, though unfortunately we never did a scene together. Actually, the writers kept promising us that we would have a scene [together], but it never turned out that way. They couldn't justify it, so we never got to do it.

Speaking of Carnival Row, both it and Lovecraft Country are quite timely, considering everything that's going on in the world today.

Harris: Very much so. Carnival Row and Lovecraft Country, unfortunately, are incredibly relevant to today. You have Carnival Row, where it's really a nation against another nation — closing our borders, putting kids in cages. Then Lovecraft Country brings it down to one family. And it really is sad. I'm sure you’ve seen the news about what's happening in America at the moment. It's not pleasant to see what we've devolved into. And I think that's a big reason why season one of Carnival Row was such a success, because it dealt with those issues. And the issues have only gotten worse, sadly enough.

Switching to another genre entirely, you're also in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, which (hopefully) is still coming out at the end of the year. What was it like doing a full-on movie musical and were you already a fan of the original going in?

Harris: It was the greatest honor of my life, working with [Steven] Spielberg and Tony Kushner. It was phenomenal. My character is Irish and he runs a bar, and there's a darker side to him, put it that way. He isn't in the original, and I didn't do any dancing or singing — which I think they were relieved by. But I cannot wait to see it. And, obviously, due to the pandemic, I don't know [whether] it [will still be] released [as scheduled]. But it's a movie you'll want to see on a big, big screen. It looks spectacular, all the characters in it are wonderful, the kids were fantastic. It was just a great, great moment in my life that I really will treasure.

I also understand you've also recently completed writing your first screenplay. Can you tell me a bit about that and what made you decide to write a film?

Harris: I have. I've finished it and I'm rewriting it, touching it up and adding elements to it. I love writing, I love becoming obsessed about subjects and material. I think that goes for acting as well. When you get a character, the majority of work you do on it is before you enter the set. It's a lot of homework you want to do, and then you just let it be and do what you can. But I love sitting on my own and just becoming obsessed by different material, so writing has been great fun.

When you look at a script or a book or a play, it seems so daunting — how you break it down, how you write it, how you create it. But my brother, Damian Harris, is a director/writer of screenplays. So I spoke to him and he really helped me, and therefore I understood how to write a script. So it was literally being able to rely on other people's help, which enabled me to write a screenplay.

Last but not least, what are you looking forward to the most when the world eventually comes out on the other side of this pandemic?

Harris: I am looking forward to taking my wife out to dinner, something as simple as that. I am looking forward to being able to meet with friends and family again. I see my brothers quite a lot, actually, but I haven’t gone back to England to see my mother in a long time now, and I really wanna see her. There's a lot of things to look forward to when this eventually comes to an end. And it will — it's a matter of time.

Lovecraft Country premieres August 16th on HBO and West Side Story opens December 18th.

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