this interview originally appeared on myfilms2010 in October 2010 and was the final part of my “This is England” trilogy. You can see the original version here.
Write it down.
Mean anything to you?
For some of you the name of Johnny Harris will sit alongside words and phrases like “quality”, “actor”, “genuinely gifted” and “talent”. For those of you unfamiliar with the name let me give you a list of films/television shows to go and order right now from some online store; “Gangster No.1”, “London To Brighton”, “Black Death”, “This is England ’86” and if you want a night out then the soon to be released “Huge”. Make no mistakes Johnny Harris is a man who does quality and gives it too.
Most recently he has graced (and that is the right word) our screens in the brilliant “This Is England ’86” alongside Thomas Turgoose, Jo Hartley, Vicky McClure, Stephen Graham and director Shane Meadows. He was responsible for giving us a true screen monster in the shape of the violent, sadistic, twisted and perverted “Mick” a man who had absolutely no redeeming qualities.
A part of your performance in “This Is England ’86” involved a genuinely shocking, brutal sexual attack on the character “Lol” who was “Micks” daughter. That scene reduced me to tears and also made me feel physically ill, which sounds a bit over the top but it’s the truth. Vicky McClure shared with us the fact that her preparation with you for that scene was intensely private and was something that she would never share. Can you tell me how you prepare a character like “Mick”?
“Shane Meadows preperation is flawless and he gave me plenty of time and created exercises to help me keep on digging for the answers to Mick. We found the character together really. Because of the nature of the beast that we were dealing with, elements of that preperation will always remain private and that’s streered me away from mentioning Vicky McClure in interviews on the subject up until now. I will say now though that that scene was shot over three days and she went to places physically, mentally and spiritually that I’ve not witnessed another actor go to! She allowed me to go there with her and I’ll be forever greatful to her for that experience. She is a phenomenal talent and it’s been lovely to watch the publics reaction to the character she’s created. I hope the industry recognises it too as it really is an astonishingly beautiful performance. Danielle Watson also deserves a mention if we’re talking about preperation as I couldn’t have wished for a more talented and dedicated young actress to work on that scene with either.”
Were you already a fan of Shane Meadows before taking on the role and, if so, how important was the fact that he was going to be so heavily involved in the writing and directing of the show to you?
“It was a massive deal for me! The film ‘This is England’ had a huge impact on me and came out around the same time as ‘London to Brighton’ and I remember thinking something really exciting was happening in British cinema. Shane along with Mark Herbert (his producer) wrote an article in The Independent I think?…about actors to keep an eye on in the future and they named me as one of them! I cut that article out and and still have it to this day. That was back in 2006 and so when I finally got the call to go and meet him in Nottingham to audition for the part of ‘Mick’ there was a lot riding on it for me. I’ll be forever greatful to him for entrusting me with Mick as there was a lot riding on it for him too. I feel genuinely blessed to have worked with him and it was a pleasure from start to finish! “
If we go back to the time when I first noticed you it was in the fun for all the family, rags to riches tale of “Gangster No.1” which, at the time, caused a huge amount of interest because it was so violent. It was brutal and yet beautiful at the same time, almost surreal in places. It was a far cry from the “Lock Stock” vision of gangsterdom. It also features a terrific performance from Malcolm McDowell. What was it like to work alongside an actor like that and on a project like that?
“Up until then I’d been working in the fringe theatre scene in London for a few years and had only done a few student films and so the oppurtunity really felt like it came out of nowhere. Before I knew it I was on a big film set in Berlin surrounded by amazing actors. I ran away to live in France in my late teens and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ wasn’t banned there. I saw it for the first time in a little arthouse cinema in Paris and it had a powerful effect on me. It was one of the factors in me wanting to become an actor and so to then be cast in a movie with Malcom McDowell was a big deal. I didn’t actually have a scene with him in Gangster No1 but got to spend time with him and watch him work which was a fantastic experience for a young actor.”
That’s a wonderful image, the rebellious teenager heading off to Europe in search of…well, he doesn’t know what but then finding it in an arthouse cinema in Paris with the raw stench of the old Ultraviolence filling his nostrils!
Following “Gangster No.1” you appeared in “London to Brighton” which, to my mind, is one of the great “lost” films of modern times. It’s a perfect film. Strong performances, honest performances and moving performances…sometimes all within a single scene and a terrific script from writer/director Paul Andrew Williams. It garnered a lot of praise but deserves to be seen by many more people. It dealt with some very difficult and unpleasant issues, the sorts of issues that people don’t normally talk about or see handled honestly in cinema, when you read that script what was it that attracted you to it?
“Initially If I’m honest, as a young actor I was just very excited to be told I was being offered a prominent role in a feature length movie! Then when I read the script my gut instinct told me it was something special and I also had a strong respect for, and trusted in Paul Andrew Williams as we’d worked together on his short film ‘Royalty’. Although the themes in the film are unpleasant and challenging they’re no different to what you’d find in a Shakespeare piece and so it was less about being scared of those issues and more about being authentic to them and paying them the respect they deserved and earning the right to play those characters. I’ve been sent many scripts dealing with the same themes that in my opinion weren’t as respectful to their subjects despite having ten times the budget of ‘London to Brighton’ and have been offended by them to be honest, so I think the initial attraction is in the quality of the script and the relationship you feel with the director involved.”
“Black Death” (which is now out on DVD and is something you, dear reader, should make a point of buying) was a very different type of film in many ways; it was a “blockbuster” film, lots of action scenes, swords and fighting as well as elements of horror and the supernatural. It is also a “bigger” film than the others we have talked about here and I wonder if, as an actor, you are aware of the scale of a project (budget and star names) or do you simply lose yourself in the work?
“Again from the very first phone call with the director Chris Smith I was left in no doubt that he trusted me with that character and it really grew from there. There’s a fantastic ‘making of’ featurette on the DVD extras that really captures the spirit of what it was like on that set. Working with that group of actors was one of the most enjoyable and educational experiences I’ve ever had. Sean Bean is not only a powerhouse of an actor but also a very generous and humble one. I learnt a huge amount from working with him and that ensemble and we’ve all remained in touch since filming ended. I think it’s a terrific film.”
Johnny isn’t wrong here, “Black Death” is a terrific film and is a film that, again, deserves a much wider audience.
When you look at the films you have appeared in from “Gangster No. 1”, “London to Brighton”, “Dorian Gray”, “Black Death” and even “Atonement” they are all very serious films; films that deal with important themes. Even something, apparently, light such as “Huge” also has a dark edge to it. Is it important to you that the projects you are involved with deal in those issues and what is it that draws you to such work?
“I guess the films and actors that inspired me, and made me start questioning things as a young man and want to learn how to act were the ones dealing with those same themes, and taking them seriously? I’m very interested in fear and how much it rules an individuals life and the effect that then has on the people around them…whether it manifests itself as anger, envy or whatever and so maybe that’s another reason I’m drawn to these kinds of stories and characters? It might be as simple as I can’t sing or dance!? “
On that light note in the midst of all this darkness I wonder if I can throw a pitch at you? I’m working on the film of your life which, tentatively, I am going to call “Johnny Be Bad”. I don’t have the experience, looks or talent to do the part justice so who would you cast in the lead role?
“Well, Eddie Marsan is a very close friend and a great actor and I’m always being mistaken for him so he’d be a front runner, although I’m told on good authority that Stephen Graham does a wickedly mean impression of me? Hmm.. so as not to hurt either of their feelings I’ll have Daniel Day-Lewis thank you!”
Imagine that at your local multiplex…Daniel Day Lewis IS Johnny Harris in “Johnny Be Bad” the true story of one young actors struggles! I reckon I could be onto something here. If anyone has DLDs contact details could they forward them to me (but DO NOT forward him my review of “There Will Be Blood”…he wouldn’t like it!).
What about the soundtrack?
What would you choose to have for the opening and closing credits?
“Well it all felt very operatic and dramatic at the time so we’ll have ‘Nessun Dorma’ to open and give them a taste of what’s to come…and then Chas and Daves ‘There aint no pleasing you!’ to cheer them up on the way out and have a giggle with the critics.”
Now, there are not many actors with whom you could make that journey; from evil incarnate as “Mick” in “This Is England ’86” to a bit of Chas and Dave and a right good knees up in the space of just a few questions. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise though from an actor who has featured in films and television of impeccable class. Harris is the sort of actor who, if I were in charge, would never be out of work. He is never anything less than watchable and convincing on screen, not something you can say about every actor you see.
Like I said at the start, write it down…it’s a name you are going to hear a lot more often.