Jerzy Kosinski, the acclaimed author of “Being There,” had one big problem: he wasn’t there. It turned out that the autobiographical components of his harrowing Holocaust work, “The Painted Bird,” were pure fiction; he had cribbed from period accounts and other sources. His editorial assistants, it was discovered, did more than just correct the Polish-born novelist’s faulty English; they supplied, shaped, and crafted the material of his works, for which he plundered full credit. That he lived in complete denial of his aesthetic wrongdoing, and lived it up by attending seamy sex clubs, made him a suitable case for treatment—and a marvelous subject for the stage.
In More Lies About Jerzy, Jared Harris plays Kos—make that Lesnewski—as playwright Davey Holmes uses the outline of the author’s life as a starting point to examine the relationship between truth and art, the schizoid existence of a chronic bamboozler, and the joys of (almost) getting away with it all. With an artist’s guild and a “Village Voice” reporter busy rattling the skeletons in his closet, Lesnewski digs in; he constructs a fortress of untruths to wall him off from his pursuers, those closest to him, and the unquiet ghosts of his childhood. It all comes crashing down—on the writer, but also on the other characters, whose own evasions and self-delusions are closely scrutinized.
The set at Manhattan’s Vineyard Theatre is wallpapered with English- and Polish-language texts, and Harris seems to summon his performance from them—to express the power of language, which seduces, and imprisons. Lesnewski is a plum role for the actor, one that arrived in the nick of time to fulfill a New Year’s resolution.
“My goal for this year is to do things that excite me—I don’t want to do any more of these almost-interesting indie movies, or well-paid but crap Hollywood films,” Harris says. “I’ve been bored, and I needed something to get my juices going.”
Away from the stage since 1995, when he won an Obie for the play Ecstasy, Harris rediscovered the allure of the theatre two years ago, in an invitation-only Actors Studio workshop of Oedipus, featuring Al Pacino and Dianne Wiest. He played the Chorus, “a good role in a Greek tragedy, and one that paid, literally, nothing,” he recalls. “But all the while I thought, God, yes, this is why I got excited about acting in the first place.” A similar excitement seized him when he read “the great f—king part” of Lesnewski this past fall. “It’s a very surprising piece—it’s a heavy subject, but the play is permeated by a great sense of fun.”
Which is not to say that Harris hasn’t considered the darker sides of the production. Asked if all artists are, to some extent, liars, he pauses, then says, “I think to be a human being, you have to be a liar. Everyone lies, all the time. And everyone is acting all the time—they don’t say what they want to say to their loved one or their boss. Putting on a good face is acting.”
After another, longer interval, he adds, “In rehearsals, we started out by talking about lying all the time. But I found that too simplistic, too black and white, and I banned the word ‘lying’ from our discussions about the piece, which goes much deeper than ‘truth=good’ and ‘lying=bad.’ That’s a schoolyard, childish way of looking at things.”
All art, he feels, “starts with a kernel of truth, the springboard for the imagination, which is then fictionalized. That process, the ‘making up’ of the story in this case, in a sense becomes lies. Somewhere in there is the truth, which attracted you to the subject in the first place, but your imagination is a liar.” Pondering that for a moment, he laughs, “Your imagination, after all, tells you that every Friday night when you go out you’re going to meet the woman of your dreams, or at least get laid.”
Onstage, at least, it’s up to him to be truthful, and to “propel” himself into the character’s life. “If you don’t, the audience smells it, and you’re in trouble.” The joy of this role—says the actor identified with his portrayals of Andy Warhol in the films “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “54,” and John Lennon in the VH-1 film “Two of Us”—is that he can be true to Lesnewski and not Kosinski. “I told the director, Darko Tresnjak, that I didn’t want to play a bio-part—I didn’t want to look or sound like Kosinski, or have the responsibility of delivering a ‘Kosinski-like’ performance. I had done that and did not want to do it again. Better to use him as a leaping-off point, I thought."
Playing a real person, Harris says, is like “being a predatory lion that’s sniffing around the tents at night, trying to find a way in,” he laughs. “You look at how they walk, how they talk, those external things that you have to deliver because everyone knows how they walked and talked. Doing an accent is like going to the gym—you work on it 45 minutes to an hour a day. But there has to be something about them that resonates in your own experience, which you then make connections to. That is hard, hard work to find, and limiting—you’re always checking your own impulses, which might not be correct for the part, and which I did not want to do with Lesnewski. But I did use some people in my life as inspirations for this character—mad, wacky, incredibly energetic, and incredibly exhausting, fun-to-be-around-for-small-periods-of-time kind of people.”
Lest you think this is some veiled reference to his father, actor Richard Harris, it is clear in conversation that Harris pere need not fear a “Daddy Dearest” tome from a wrathful son. The two would like to work together, and once tried to set up a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night (“the O’Neill estate wasn’t interested”). Jared Harris has gone to the vocal gym so often it is surprising to learn how much of his father’s distinctive Irish snap resides in his ordinary speaking voice, little diluted by ten years of living in New York City (his home since landing the role of Hotspur in the New York Shakespeare Company’s 1990 production of Henry IV-Parts I and II.)
He and his siblings, he says, “grew up all over the place. Eight months of the year at boarding school, then wherever our parents were—my mother later married Rex Harrison, who lived in Italy, so we’d go there, or Hawaii, the Bahamas, Ireland, or Los Angeles. It was, really, a fairy tale existence.”
Harris, a drama and literature major at Duke University, came of age careerwise in London, where he was born. He became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and trained at the Central School. “Acting there for me was a sport, to try to push the boundaries of what my range was,” he says. From there, parts in England, then the shift to New York. Richard Harris has not passed along the DNA of his most famous roles—the angry young men and tough heroes have not come Jared’s way. “Early on, you don’t pick the parts, they pick you,” he says. “Over here, I’ve gotten thrown the character actor bones that no one else wanted, or couldn’t do. Parts like Vlad [the gruff, thieving seducer of Jane Adams in the film “Happiness”] are very much on the outer fringes of my range. It’s very different than my father’s career, and that’s fine.”
Harris casts a jaundiced eye at the Left Coast, where his father has had his share of hits and misses. His bio notes a “smattering” of “disappointing Hollywood movies,” including the big screen version of “Lost in Space,” as the grown-up and unhappy Will Robinson, locked away in some kind of time warp by the nefarious Dr. Smith of Gary Oldman. “All that bluescreen bollocks,” he sighs, ruefully. “At one point, I was acting to nothing, as Gary was transforming himself into a giant spider monster. The camera is rolling, and the director, Stephen Hopkins, is saying, ‘Now, he throws off his cloak, and he’s really, really all horrible and ugly-looking. And he rises up, and he’s tall, and he’s very frightening.’ My head starts to go up, and Stephen says, ‘Taller, taller!’ So I’m looking up as high as I can, and he yells, ‘More frightening, more frightening!’”
“It was just…pathetic,” he laughs.
Though Harris may not be turning up at your local Loews or AMC movie theatre anytime soon, he drops by quite frequently at New York’s Angelika, a mecca for indies. This year, more than ever—a few of his films from last year’s Sundance Film Festival (like the China-set “Shadow Magic”) are soon to open, a few more (like “Perfume,” with Jeff Goldblum and Rita Wilson) are debuting at this year’s festival, and yet a few more (including “How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog,” co-starring Kenneth Branagh) are in the can.
Though partial to his own work, he is caustic about the independent film market in general. “They take so long to get out,” he laments. “There are fewer and fewer screens for them as chains go bankrupt and the exhibitors fill the remaining ones with the usual blockbuster fare. It’s hard to get a meaningful release for an independent film anymore; they get thrown into the Angelika for a week, then are removed because Miramax muscled the rest of the movies out. The big problem is that a lot of these films are like the Hollywood films—they seem to be written off the same computer screenwriting template, and require star names to get produced, which squeezes a small budget even more. That’s not what made indies interesting.”
Till Feb. 11, when More Lies About Jerzy is scheduled to end its run, Harris will find refuge from the cinema toiling at the Vineyard. Afterwards, he trusts a few films he’s attached to will get off the ground, but a Screen Actors Guild strike this year will facilitate a decade-long dream, to play another conniver, Hamlet, onstage in New York. Then, he says, a switch to normality, another resolution. “That’s the next challenge—to see if I’m acceptable in roles that are not so obviously a character circus.”
— Robert Cashill