Carrie Shaltz photo
You may not know Jason Butler Harner by name just yet. But soon you will. He turned in a brilliant performance in Changeling as Gordon Northcott, a man suspected of kidnapping and murdering the young son of a mother played by Angelina Jolie.
The 38-year-old Harner, who completed Virginia Commonwealth University's theater program in 1992, was slated to have a recurring role in an original cable series, Possible Side Effects , before Showtime pulled the plug on the deal in April. It could surface on another channel, but in the meantime, Harner will be plenty visible in this month's blockbuster remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 .
A man on the rise, he hasn't forgotten the beginning he got here in the River City.
Q: What part of acting did you develop most at VCU?
A: I had no idea what the hell I was doing. How could I? I was 17 years old with no training whatsoever and no family artistic experience to grow from, so I owe a tremendous amount to Gary and Liz Hopper and Theatre VCU circa 1990 — and to my classmate, friend and Richmond treasure Janine Russo. I was an underdog in the department in that I didn't know what I could do, and I had very little esteem, but I did have discipline and passion and compassion and drive — and a great fear that my life was about to flush itself down the toilet if I didn't get serious about something. There was this incredible department of teachers (Janet Rodgers was a newbie then) who showed me something I didn't know how to even enter into prior. I couldn't entertain the notion, so I certainly couldn't entertain the people. I started working, gaining courage, and then it was the shows in the community where I just managed to soar. Brighton Beach Memoirs at Dogwood Dell, with people up in trees watching was like a rock concert. To this day, I don't know that I have been funnier than I was in Psycho Beach Party . The fundamentals to the craft of creating and the compassion for entering into this very challenging life started at VCU and, luckily enough, I was able to hear it then, which many simply aren't. So I'm very grateful. Liz and Gary Hopper deserve a huge award from the City of Richmond, Virginia. Seriously.
Q: Your character Gordon Northcott in Changeling is a hideous person. How did you prepare for the role?
A: I thought about my grad loans and started from there. No, I did a lot of research. I talked to a psychiatrist or two, read a book or two. Watched a documentary or two. Images. Music. It was my first real bad-guy role, and when you play someone like that, you have to find their perspective on this world and what makes them who they are. I had evidence of environmental things that had happened to Gordon that I could readily invest in, but the mania of someone — a for-real inbred someone — was more of an absolute leap of faith. It was hard and surprising in certain moments to be sure, but this is where the benefit of playing Hamlet and Richard II and Alceste and Edmund Tyrone and Tom Wingfield and Macbeth pays off. It allows for something much smaller in scale obviously, but hopefully just as nuanced — and with fewer words.
Q: What was it like to work with Clint Eastwood? Did he offer you any direction that helped you grow as an actor?
A: You know, we try to say to our children, "Do as I say, not as I do." The great thing about Clint is that he just is and he just does . He says and he does in direct synchronicity with who he is. I hear this can happen as you get older too, that you become your most authentic self because you just get less and less interested in the annoying stuff. I think Clint has always been like that, though. So that was the lesson.
Q: Your next film project to be released, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 , is directed by Tony Scott and features actors Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini and John Turturro. What can we expect out of this stellar cast?
A: I hear it's a great action film for the summer. I spent three months down in the subway of New York as a hostage, so God knows I'm hoping. I don't have a lot to do in it, truth be told, but I hear it's an amazing ride. I love the original, too, so I can't wait to see the 2009 version. Tony Scott is an hilarious, kind, action-mad man. I also just finished a great cameo in The Extra Man , which stars Kevin Kline and Paul Dano. I cannot wait for that movie. It's based on the novel and is just a beautiful journey. And I have a hump and a German accent.
Q: You don't look like a soap-opera guy. What was your experience like on Guiding Light when you played a palace aide?
A: What are you saying? I'm too ugly or too fat? Relatively painless then, slightly embarrassing now. My grandmother saw me on TV and thought I'd finally made it then, regardless of the American premieres of Tom Stoppard plays I had done. Hey, Guiding Light is going off the air after 72 years, so I'm privileged to have been a part of that and to have cut my teeth for a day or two as Henri, Blantan, and Edward — all of which were my names, though I was playing ostensibly the same palace aide. The magic of San Cristobal Island is … priceless.
Q: You returned to VCU to teach in the 2007-08 guest-artist program. You probably received many questions about breaking into the industry. What was your advice?
A: You have to want it, badly. And you have to work hard, of course. But I started with what my stepfather always said to me, "This above all: to thine ownself be true." That's Polonius' famous line to Laertes. No, Hamlet did not say that. It was wacky Polonius. It is a very different industry now, and who knows what it will be six months from now? Big things can really happen when you're fresh out of undergrad. The whole construct of entertainment is changing rapidly with the technology and waning attention spans we seem to have. And it is even harder to get compensated adequately in this new evolving — potentially devolving — business. So now, more than ever, you have to define success for yourself. Believe in that. Then make that happen. I've done well. I know I have, but Janine Russo is perhaps the most successful VCU graduate from my year. She has two beautiful, smart little girls, inventively teaches her pants off at the astounding Orchard House School, and she does a play or musical every now and then, always leaving audiences hoping to see her more. She loves her life, most of the time, and she tries to bring good to the world. That is a bona-fide success in my book.