The Ghost of Richard Harris

Interview: Jared Harris on the many sides of his famous father and new doc The Ghost of Richard Harris

Irish actor Richard Harris may be best known to modern audiences as the first man to inhabit the role of Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise but for older audiences and classic film fans, he is an iconic actor on par with Albert Finney and other ‘angry young men’ who rose to prominence during the 1960s. A Golden Globe and Grammy Award winner, and two-time Oscar nominee, he’s often held up as one of the greatest actors Ireland has ever produced.

An award-winning actor, singer, and poet, Harris gained a reputation throughout his storied career as a truly prodigious and riotous bon vivant. He leaned hard into that “hell-raiser” label, preferring to play the part of ‘Richard Harris’ in public while often keeping the rest of himself locked away from the world, including his friends and family. The actor married twice – once to Elizabeth Rees-Williams, and then to Ann Turkel. All three of his sons with Rees-Williams followed their father into the entertainment business: Damian, the oldest, has become a producer and director (Brave The Dark, Wilde Wedding); Jared, the middle child, has become a well-known, award-winning actor known for his roles in Mad Men and Chernobyl; and, Jamie, the youngest, grew up to be a singer and actor (Carnival Row, West Side Story).

The Ghost of Richard Harris
From left: Damian, Jamie, Richard and Jared Harris, as seen in The Ghost of Richard Harris. (Photo Credit: Harris Archive)

In director Adrian Sibley’s excellent new documentary, The Ghost of Richard Harris, it’s clear that the multi-hyphenate entertainer was a complex, flawed man who refused to be categorized. Sibley expertly pieces together different impressions of Harris to form a fully-realized portrait of a complicated man. As a part of this cinematic biography, the director follows Damian, Jared and Jamie, as they struggle to understand just who their father was, even 20 years after his sudden death. The film gives audiences incredible insight into all elements of his life, exploring his youth, his time as a father, his two marriages, and his famous performances, the greatest of which may have been Richard Harris himself.

We spoke with the actor’s BAFTA-winning son Jared Harris about the different facets of his famous father, the legend’s wide variety of work, and how the film has helped to evolve their relationship even further. Read on for the full interview:

Emma Badame (That Shelf): The first question I wanted to start with is actually a bit of a silly one, but it’s something that came up when I was kind of doing some research. Right at the end of the film, your brother Jamie does his own karaoke number to “MacArthur Park”, your dad’s famous recording. But I noticed that until very recently, you had “karaoke enthusiast” as a part of your bio online, and I wondered why we didn’t get to see you belting out the song.

Jared Harris: No, Jamie used to be in a band! I was very conscious of all three of us – two of my brothers and myself – of all three of us having equal time, if you like, equal representation [in the film]. Do you know what I mean?

EB: Absolutely. Yeah.

JH: I didn’t want it to be just about me, obviously, because of my career. Suddenly it would just be about me and that would be understandingly upsetting to them, honestly.

EB: That makes total sense, then. And if he’s been in the band before, then he’s got the qualifications!

There’s a moment early on in the documentary where all three of you are going through some of your father’s belongings that had been in storage since he died. Were you aware that you hadn’t maybe known him as much as you would have liked, which is something that a lot of children probably feel about their parents? Was that where the idea for the film came from? Had it been discussed before that or did it kind of crystallize as you guys were embarking on a journey through his things?

JH: Well, Adrian [Sibley, the director] had always wanted it to be about us looking for him. But initially, we were all three against it because we wanted it to be about Dad, not about us. But then at a certain point, there were about four documentaries being made about him, and we realized that what ours had that those didn’t have was the three of us. So we agreed, and that’s how that came about, basically.

It was something that Adrian knew would be a good narrative hook, if you like. He had just lost his mother too – one of the very first people to pass in the COVID wave in the UK. So [he understood] the idea of your parents being gone, and that sense of sort of unfinished business. That sense that you were just sort of getting to the good part of your relationship [with each other], where you were adult and they saw you as a person. And you saw them as an individual as well, not just as an archetype – a parent. I think that infused a lot of his approach and what he was interested in – that universal sense he wanted the film to hit.

So it’s a film that’s very much about people’s relationships with their fathers. That conversation comes up a lot too, in the film, particularly in the Jim Sheridan section. So we wanted it to be about parent-child relationships in a universal way.

EB: There’s something else you say that I think is kind of universal in that way, too. You talk about how you thought your relationship with your father would end once he passed away, but that it really hasn’t. That he’s still there in conversations and in all kinds of ways. How do you think the process of making the documentary actually helped you kind of evolve that relationship even further?

JH: It’s part of an ongoing journey, in the sense that you constantly reference it as you hit milestones in your life. Those parts of your parents’ lives are actually fresher and more familiar to you because they’re more recent. So in a way, they become more familiar to you as you grow older.

I don’t have a lot of memories of him as that very young man, so all that footage is surprising to me. Footage of me hanging off his legs. The thing that I learned that I hadn’t known before was what his relationship was like with my two brothers – their unique experiences. And I love that part of it. I mean, I’m more interested in those parts than I am in anything that I’m involved with.

The Ghost of Richard Harris
From the poster for The Ghost of Richard Harris. (Photo Credit: BritBox)

EB: Since the film was completed and started screening, have you sat together to watch it or talked afterwards about those things that you found about each other’s father-son relationship?

JH: We have, yeah. One of the things that came out was that he signed his correspondence with my younger brother with a little caricature, and I’d never seen that before. Then we’d talk about memories. Damian has memories from the earlier days and I’m fascinated by those because I don’t remember them. And of course, my younger brother doesn’t remember the things I do. We each spent different times with him, so we would share different experiences and have a laugh about that as we’d remember.

One of the things we remembered when talking was something we used to do when we were down in the Bahamas: We would do a weather report. We would confuse him because he’d come downstairs in the morning and one of us would ask, “How’s the weather today?” And another of us would say, “Oh, it’s clear skies at the moment but there’s storm clouds on the horizon.” Dad would look out the window: “What are you talking about? There’s not a cloud in the sky!” But we were talking about him and his mood that day.

EB: It’s very much like putting different puzzle pieces together from your different relationships with him to get the full picture, which the audience does too as the film progresses. You mentioned that you don’t really remember much about your father when you were young. Do you remember when you became aware of your dad as an actor, as “Richard Harris” – an entity that was more than just your father?

JH: When I went to school, I was aware that he was a performer that appeared on television or in films. But there was a very famous Australian children’s performer that was popular in England at the time called Rolf Harris. So other kids would go, “Oh, is he Rolf Harris? What? Richard Harris?” And then they would lose interest immediately. So I would say to my dad, “Dad, why can’t you be more like Rolf Harris?” Rolf would sing songs while he painted cartoons and stuff like that and that would be more helpful to me with my friends, basically.

EB: The documentary talks a lot too, about your father really being two different people: Richard Harris and Dickie Harris. Richard went off to London and became an actor, while Dickie stayed behind in Ireland and became a very different person. Obviously, the Richard Harris side is the one that more people are familiar with. But Dickie always seemed to be a big part of him too. Do you think he kind of reconciled those two sides of himself in his later years or maybe became more one than the other by the end?

JH: No, I think he was absolutely aware of the invented persona [of ‘Richard Harris’]. And certainly, if you start to look at some of his later work, he’s actually exploring that persona through his art. That was the entire point of the Pirandello play he did, Henry IV [in 1990]. It’s about masks that people wear and roles that we play, and how you can become so easily become trapped in a role. Certainly, that was his interpretation of the role. He does a little bit of that in Unforgiven too, as English Bob. He sounds like he’s from the upper class, but actually after he’s beaten up and run out of town, he drops the accent and he’s a Cockney.

The Ghost of Richard Harris
Richard Harris on stage singing MacArthur Park. (Photo Credit: BritBox)

EB: He explored so many different things in his work. Most people are aware of his acting and even of his music, but I’ll admit I wasn’t as aware of his writing and of his poetry. That was something the film introduced me to. Was that something that you saw or were aware of growing up? That clear love of words he had?

JH: Oh, we were aware. [laughs] He produced a poetry album and got us to come in and perform the poems that he’d written as a child. Oh, wow. Yeah. We were painfully aware of that because every year at school, they would go, “Oh, we have a young budding poet” and would play “Our Green House” and me reciting, “Our house was where Beau Geste ran to, deep in the desert…” So we were very aware of that but we were happy to be a part of it. It was very important to him. That part of his life was very important to him. And he was incredibly proud that he had a volume of published poetry published, given what an awful job he’d done at school.

EB: Having that as something to show would be amazing.

JH: Exactly.

EB: And just the way your father talks. His quotes don’t seem out of place alongside the many Samuel Beckett quotes the film showcases either. He’s quite poetic and almost rhythmic in the way he says things. Given that you ended up sharing a profession with him, were you ever able to have conversations with him about acting? Was he the kind of person who kind of dispensed advice at all, like that quote mentioned in the film: “Don’t exercise your demons – use them and make a truth out of them”?

JH: Acting is quite a difficult subject to talk about because it’s so specific to the individual, and how they’ve managed to find a route into it. But we discussed classic roles a lot. We discussed performances that he’d seen, about [those actors’] interpretations. He would describe in detail Olivier’s death scene in Coriolanus or Peter O’Toole in Hamlet. And plays that we’d seen together. We’d talk about those. But it was difficult for him to give advice about acting without having read the script that you were about to do.

I remember the only time he actually said anything very specific about it to me. I went to Duke University as an undergraduate and he’d come down to see me in a play. So we were driving there and he suddenly proclaimed: “Acting! Acting is very simple, actually…” And I was like ‘Oh, my God, here it comes!” But then he finished: “Acting is…to act”. It actually angered me at the time and on some level, I was disappointed. But I’ve never forgotten it. But looking back, on some level, it’s the most aligned, good and truthful piece of advice you can give. Because I’ve discovered that you can do all this work – sitting and planning and investigating the character and imagining the life of the character and doing all the research and studying the culture of the time of the character. But until you actually do it, you don’t know the character. And it’s only in the doing of it, that the character starts to inform you and you learn who that person is. It really is a doing thing.

That’s why it’s so difficult to get it right on screen because there is no rehearsal time any longer. So you’re actually discovering the character in real time whilst you’re being recorded doing it.

EB: The documentary also takes us back to your father’s childhood, which is probably a part of his life that even big fans may be less familiar with. That his journey all began in Overdale in Ireland. As you personally visited where he grew up, was there anything that surprised you that maybe you hadn’t already known about his time there? Or maybe something you hope audiences will discover in exploring his early days?

JH: Obviously, that was part of his story that we were very familiar with growing up. But I didn’t appreciate just how formative those moments of his life were. He had success as a rugby player within his very small community at school, but they are absolutely fanatics about it in that part of the world. It is like a second religion there. And the big rugby players who had been successful on the weekend were heroes when they came to school on Monday and Tuesday. There was a lot of adulation and attention. It was described to me by an old school friend of my dad’s that we interviewed. And that part of it was intoxicating to him.

So if that part of his life, of his future, was dying or fading away as he was lying in bed with tuberculosis, there was an obvious desire to recreate that experience in a different medium, if you like. And I think that’s where the idea of a career as an actor and in the arts starts to take shape in his mind.

And so he starts to educate himself at that point because, up until that point, his education had been squandered because they focused on his abilities as an athlete much the same way you see now at American universities. That real struggle to make sure [sports heroes] also receive an education. That didn’t happen where he was. He had put all that work in himself.

EB: The film talks a bit about the difficulties he encountered because he was older when he decided to study acting. Once he was in London and looking to audition for a spot at RADA, at Guildhall or Central, some of these major schools thought he was too old to start training. Another obstacle for him to overcome…

JH: That’s an interesting thing that still happens, I think. When I was at drama school, I was older than the other people. And on some level, you’re starting late, which is difficult because you’re always catching up. Even now, like a decade behind, you’re constantly catching up with people who’ve had that much more experience. But at the same time, you’ve had life experience. And that’s the most important thing, because if you haven’t had a life, what are you going to draw on when you’re trying to play a character? It’s impossible. So you must have had experiences.

They talk about that in the film a little bit, about him deliberately going out and seeking experiences in life, because he started late, if you like. It was both an advantage and a disadvantage for him, I think. He had a wealth of experience to draw on that other people wouldn’t have had yet. At the same time, they started earlier, so they’ve got more experience in the craft than you do.

EB: As we wrap up, I wondered – not so much whether you have a favourite performance of your father’s, because that’s probably hard to narrow down – but is there a performance or a film that you can point to as a great example of who you think he was as an actor?

JH: Well, as an actor, one of the things that was clear to me, having seen him perform Camelot for as long as he did, on stage and on screen, he often had to rein in the full breadth of his personality, if you like, because it doesn’t work on camera. Introspection works better on camera than an extrovert. But when I saw him in either in Camelot or in the Pirandello play, I saw the full force of that personality being able to completely consume the room of 800 people.

In terms of picking his best performances… I mean, there’s little known ones that aren’t as easy to find like Trojan Eddie – I thought he did a wonderful job in it, he was fantastic. And I loved To Walk with Lions as well. I found that very evocative. There was a BBC thing that he did called The Snow Goose, based on Paul Gallico’s short story, which is very beautiful. I mean, A Man Called Horse too. When Dad died, a member of the Sioux Nation reached out to us and asked if he could come to the memorial service. He wanted to give a tribute because that film was the first time they felt the Sioux culture was accurately portrayed on screen.

EB: That’s quite touching.

JH: It meant that much to them that they wanted to come and pay tribute. The movie, of course, does still have quite a lot of Hollywood things in there – like casting a Mexican beauty queen to playing one of the Sioux characters, et cetera, et cetera. But when you look at it, you realize that the plot of the film isn’t the point. The point of the film is the amount of time that they spend there. So you basically get to see a year in the life of this village and its people. That’s the point of the movie. So, yeah, I think he was very proud of that one too.

EB: That’s a wonderful story. And a wonderful way to end our time together today. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your father with me and for sharing your memories.

JH: Thank you.

The Ghost of Richard Harris is available to stream now on BritBox in Canada and the U.S.