Interview: ‘Mad Men’ co-star Jared Harris on Lane Pryce and ‘Commissions and Fees’

Senior Television Writer
06.04.12 73 Comments

When I talked to Jared Harris about the huge developments for Lane Pryce on last night’s “Mad Men,”he reminded me of one of Lane’s most important earlier scenes.

In season 3’s “Guy Walks Into an Advertisement Agency,” Lane is on the verge to being banished to PP&L’s offices in India when Guy suffers his unfortunate accident with the lawnmower, and Lane tells Don, “I feel like I just went to my own funeral. I didn’t like the eulogy.”
Lane’s premonition of his own death two seasons ago helped inspire him to quit PP&L and help Don and the others start up their renegade firm, but it never changed some basic facts about Lane’s life: that he was a stranger in a strange land that he wanted to love more than it wanted to love him, that he was in a chilly at best marriage, and that he was never going to get the respect, or rewards, he felt he deserved. And when the world came crashing down on him in the form of Don telling him to resign because of the embezzlement, Lane made his death happen for real this time.
I spoke with Harris about how and when he found out, what it was like to film the scene where the others find Lane’s body, and more. (WARNING: There is a “Fringe” spoiler for his character midway through the interview.)
At what point did Matt tell you this was coming?
After the readthrough for episode 10.

What was your reaction when you found out? How did that conversation go?

He went, “Hang around, because I want to talk to you.” Normally, after the readthrough, he says to everybody, “Don’t rush out, because this is my chance to talk to you before shooting starts.” Because he’s writing as we’re shooting, and he gives notes to you. So everyone hangs around. I had quite a bit to do in that episode, so the people who have quite a bit to do hang around longer. He goes, “Wait, because I want to speak to you, so hang on.” And he spoke to everybody else, and as he spoke to everyone else and got rid of everyone, I go, “Uh-huh.” And then he goes, “Come on, let’s go to my office.” Anytime anyone takes you into their office, you know you’re in trouble. And then he says, “So, listen, something I want to talk to you about.” I went, “Uh-oh,” and he went, “Yeah, sorry.” And then he broke out some really really good brandy. Some ridiculous brandy that had been in casks for half a century or something. You know you’re in trouble at that point.

I certainly had a clue before then, because they called up and said, “What’s your handwriting like? There’s a story point in an episode where Lane forges someone’s signature.” And I knew that wasn’t good. You have little hints

I was upset. I’d grown very fond of the character. I had to shed a tear in the car on the way home that this is the way it turned out. But it’s 100%, you accept. The validity for it, you couldn’t argue with, and the impact you couldn’t argue with.

No one is going to forget the way Lane left this show.

Sure, yeah. I probably had two seasons’ worth of storyline in this episode. I went out with a bang, so I’m very very happy about that. I’m very grateful about that.

Once you found out, when did the other actors begin to find out, and what conversations did you have with them?

No one shares anything. And then heads of department get scripts, a couple of weeks before everybody. John Slattery is normally the person you go to if you want to find out what’s going on, A)Because he directs episodes and generally knows stuff, but B)He knows where the early scripts are, and he gets hold of them, and he’s totally indiscreet. The only person who’s more indiscreet is Matt. He’ll go, “I can’t tell you, but…” and then tell you. So Rich Sommer came up to me and goes, “Geez, do you know? Have you read the episode?” And I said, “I know what’s happening, do you?” You really try to keep it quiet.

How long were you up in that rig in the scene where the men come to cut Lane down?

We don’t have a lot of time to shoot stuff. I personally might have been hanging for about an hour or so.

Have you been dead either on-screen or on-stage often before?

Many times. This television season, this is my second one. I died on “Fringe!” (laughs) I got chopped in half again on screen.

Are there any specific challenges to being dead?

Making your eyes go dead, that sort of glassy look. That one, we looked at lots of pictures of people who had hung themselves, the makeup department. There’s that weird thing where the tongue sticks out. That’s not a makeup thing, you’ve got to do that yourself. You have to make sure your tongue doesn’t twitch. The hardest part was not breaking into a Monty Python song, like, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” while I’m hanging there in the middle of their shot. And they didn’t see me. When they literally pushed through that door and saw me hanging, that was the first time they had seen it. They didn’t see a rehearsal or anything like that. That was their first look at it, and that was pretty genuine shock on all their faces. They knew, of course, because they had read the script, but those guys did a brilliant job, the makeup department. And they hadn’t seen that.

And this can be a jovial crew, Slattery making jokes between takes. I assume there was none of that during the breaks in filming of this.

They were pretty weirded out by it. You develop an attachment for the character, and you develop an attachment for the actors, and then they’re gone. There’s an empty space where they were last year, but that gets filled in very quickly. There was an appropriate level of that in terms of them getting into the shock of it and the unpleasantness of it. And of course they have to imagine other stuff, like your bowels have opened up, so the room stinks.

Lane had been having a tough go of it this season: feeling adrift, not connecting with his co-workers, with America, having some money problems. And there had also been foreshadowing within episodes of some sort of catastrophe or death coming. Before you even got that call about Lane’s signature, where did you expect Lane’s story to go?

Honestly, there was talk around base camp right at the start of the season, literally in the first couple of days, of something happening to somebody. I’m not sure what it was, maybe people intuited it, there was just a feeling going, that someone was man overboard. I’m not sure where that came from. For me, when I went to all the costume fittings, I saw that he hadn’t been taking as good care of himself. There were stains in his shirts and his waistcoats. I would point them out, “This is dirty,” and they’d go, “Yeah, that’s what we’re doing this season.” And I’d go, “Yeah, that’s not good.”

But I’m not sure where I thought he was going. Where Lane thought he was going or where Jared thought he was going, on this show, it’s never been very useful to project that way as the actor. Because you get attached to ideas that obviously have no relation to what Matt wants to do. In the same way, you can’t make up a biography for your character, which is something to do with how many brothers you have, you’ve been married before, or you’re trying to build an identity that attaches you to the character. And Matt has a completely different idea that he reveals to you in episode 7, and you’ve attached yourself to these other ideas.

But in terms of Lane, I think he very much wanted to make a go of it. I think he felt like the only thing that was missing was some really good solid contracts, and once the money started flowing, everything would be all right. His connections that he’d made at the office weren’t really tight. I don’t think any of these people would invite Lane to their houses unless they were obliged to, they didn’t want to hang out with him. In that sense, he’d become marginalized. His closest ally’s Joan, because at work, the people you spend your time working with are the ones you get to know the most, and they deal with the day-to-day of the business. That was his closest ally, and Joan herself is not in a really strong spot in the agency. She, to a large extent, felt herself being marginalized as well. So they’re two people who feel they’re on the outs. They’re not at the sexy end of the business, they’re dealing with the books and everything.
Do you have, over the course of these three seasons that you played Lane, a favorite moment or a favorite story you got to tod?

I think my favorite moment was the car not starting. When he told me that was going to happen, I laughed solidly for about five minutes. That was a lovely touch. There’s that little scene by the soda machine, with Don where they talk about Mark Twain and going to your own funeral. That was a good moment, and an intimation of where things were going to turn for him – where he would go his own way. He’s such a sad character. I suppose the defining moment for the character is when his father thumps him on the head, stands on his hand and makes him come back to England. You feel a guy who’s just been under the crush all his life, and there’s so much repression inside of him.

In terms of the car not starting, at what point in the episode, do you feel Lane decided to kill himself, or at what point did Matt tell you in the story that Lane decided to kill himself?

I think probably when he sees the car. I don’t think up to that point, he knows what to do. I think he sat in the office getting drunk, he had some magical thinking, was hoping he would change his mind, you’re going to be rescued in some way. When he sees the car, I think that’s when he makes the decision that he’s going to kill himself in that car. And once he’s decided that – there’s vindictiveness about how he goes about it. He hangs himself in the office. He makes it as difficult for them as possible.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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