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Hung Out To Dry

Photo credit : Frank Ockenfels/AMC
Hung Out To Dry

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Jared Harris already knew his character's fate on Mad Men, the brisk spring morning he sat before a small group of visiting, out-of-town journalists, from as far away as France, the U.K. and Israel.

True to Mad Men tradition, though, Harris was sworn to secrecy. Mum's the word. He had signed a non-disclosure form to that effect, he added in his droll, West London accent. Mad Men's brain trust, in the person of writer-creator-producer Matthew Weiner, is, well, mad about secrecy.

It was never like this in the days Harris' late father, Irish acting legend Richard Harris, played King Arthur in the original, 1967 musical Camelot, or even when his late father played Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films.

We live in the world, though, and the world is now thus.

By now, followers of television's most sophisticated, deeply textured drama know that Lane Pryce, Harris' character and the chief financial officer at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, committed suicide at the end of the June 3 episode, titled - true to Mad Men's oblique tradition - "Commissions and Fees."

When Mad Men returns for its fifth-season finale May 10, Sterling Cooper staff will still be feeling the reverberations of Pryce's hanging himself in his office - this, after bungling an earlier, more private suicide attempt.

The reasons are known to Mad Men's audience, if not the characters in the show. Pryce felt overwhelmed by shame and financial pressure. He had forged the signature of senior partner Don Draper on a Christmas bonus cheque that was never delivered. Draper found out, and insisted that Pryce resign, agreeing to keep Pryce's transgression between them. When Mad Men returns, Draper alone will know the reason the firm's junior partner took such a drastic step: Pryce left no suicide note.

Pryce's untimely end marks the end of a strange and serendipitous journey for Harris. He was originally signed to appear in one episode, and even that was shrouded in mystery. The lines, or "sides," Harris read at his audition never made it into the series. He later learned they were never intended to be.

Weiner told him that his character might or might not return. It all depended on how things were going at the time, whether it was working, whether the wind was blowing in the right direction, whether it was sunny or cloudy that day, or in what direction the chicken entrails pointed.

"I really had no idea how involved I would be at the beginning. Matt said it would be one episode, maybe more, we'll see. They gave themselves the option of writing me into 10 episodes if they wanted, which is a standard deal they do with characters who may or may not develop, so I really had no idea. For me, it was just one episode at first - that's how I looked at it. There might be more. I was going to have to audition each time, each episode, to do a good job."

It can be hard to submit to interviews, Harris added dryly, when you're not allowed to say anything - unless of course you haven't been told anything to begin with.

This day was going to be especially tricky, though, because the entire season had already been filmed.

"You have to get used to it these days," Harris said. "It's a corporate world, and they make you sign all these things. I agree with it, though. Before we do a read-through, Matt will say there were a lot of new people in the room. He explains that the commercial value of the show is based on people not knowing what's going to happen. That's one of the reasons they tune in. He asks anyone who works on the show to help him preserve that value, and I happen to agree with him."

Left to his own devices, Harris viewed Lane Pryce as an outsider hiding a personal secret - much like Don Draper -trying to reinvent himself in a new world. Pryce was born to the British class system; he saw his new life in New York as a way of breaking free of the constraints of his strictly ordered, lower-middle-class English upbringing. Pryce found himself in debt, though, and was too ashamed to admit it, especially to his devoted wife, who had foregone dreams of an upper-crust English lifestyle so her husband could scratch and claw his way to the middle of the tumultuous, competitive Madison Ave. ad world.

"English ads tend to be funny and American ads tend to bang the name of the product over and over again," Harris said. "I rather like the English ads, as they make you laugh. They are 30-second stories, and stories are all about inciting curiosity. As an adman, you have to figure out a way to excite your audience's attention and pique their curiosity."

Harris views acting as a way of fulfilling the character's inner life. If you can do that, the audience will believe you, he said.

"In my mind, I understood (Pryce) to be trying to represent himself as coming from somewhere else. You can get away with that in America. Whereas, once you go back to England, they know damn well exactly where you come from, and you are going to get slapped down for it. Pryce is always sort of misrepresenting where he came from."

"We talked about class in England. I said class is alive and thriving now, but back then it was even stronger. If you went to the wrong school, you'd be f-----. There was always going to be a glass ceiling as to how far he could get. Lane was always trying to belong to the club, so he adopted the manner, the attitude, the dress and the appearance of these people. But they knew he was not from where they were, and so they were never going to let him in further than the front lobby."

Harris' own journey to the new world mirrored his character's, to some extent.

"I come from a great acting family, but I think they had in mind for me that I was going to be a teacher or lawyer or something like that," Harris said. "And that's why I came to America. I didn't like the future they were mapping out for me.

"I was very shy growing up, you know. It took me coming here to shed that skin, be somebody else. I grew up listening to all the stories, all the great stories, sitting around the dinner table, and it seemed like a lot of fun. So I was curious about this."

When Harris hears the name The Avengers, he will always think of John Steed and Mrs. Peel, he told Dose.ca.

"To some extent, The Avengers represented what London in the '60s was like," Harris said, in the same way Mad Men reflects what Madison Avenue was like at the time.

"I grew up hearing a lot about the '60s from my dad and uncles. They would all sort of wax lyrical about the '60s, and they loved it. I grew up slightly regretting the fact that I wasn't alive to be able to enjoy the '60s the way they did, so in a way I was able to on this show.

"There's an interesting moment in the Beatles movie Let it Be, where they do a concert on the roof at the end. You couldn't have gotten a greater representation of what swinging London was like than the Beatles, you know. A lot of pipe smoking men in stiff suits wandering around curiously, watching these people performing on the roof, but not really approving of what they are doing. I imagine it depended on who you hang out with as to how swinging it was."

Mad Men's season finale airs Sunday, June 10 on AMC at 10 ET/7 PT.