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Johnny Harris: An Actor With a Rare Depth of Character

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Sloane Square on a December morning is a bitterly cold place. The fire alarm has just gone off in Colbert next door to the Royal Court, so Johnny Harris and I leave and make for a bench, our breath pluming in the weak light.

Johnny Harris, slipping anonymously into the crowd, is one of the most gifted and naturalistic of modern film actors. "An actor has to burn inside, with an outer ease," said Russian-American theatre practitioner Michael Chekhov, and this appears to be true of Johnny, whose eyes are lit from within, a gaze seeking answers in the middle distance where hang his memories.

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But before he found his métier, his quest had been long and fraught, the odds stacked against him. A Londoner, to his Lambeth manor born, he left school at 13. "I was at Michael Ramsey School in Camberwell," he tells me, "but I became an amateur boxer. I fought at the Fitzroy Lodge. My family didn't know I was boxing to start with. It was my secret little world. I won the junior ABA national title, fighting at light flyweight. Boxing was a huge part of my life. I even sparred with Azumah Nelson when he came over to fight Jim McDonnell for the world title in 1989. I remember getting paid seventy quid a round. That was a lot for a kid," he laughs.

"Then I met my then girlfriend, a French girl, and followed her to France. This was a year or two later. I abandoned boxing and went to Paris, which gave me enough space to find myself. Over there, I was allowed to be me."

So London he fled. In hindsight, was leaving essential for him to find his way in the world? "I was searching for answers," he says. "I searched in the wrong places a lot of the time, places which just threw up more problems.

"I was a plongeur in a restaurant just off the Champs Elysées. I was there for nearly three years all in. The concierge rented a room to me when I split up with my girlfriend and he got me reading for the first time. I read The Picture Of Dorian Gray at the Louvre, by the pyramid, my feet in the water and the sun on my back. It was beautiful.

"In Paris I got into cinema for the first time. I saw A Clockwork Orange. I saw Backbeat with Ian Hart as John Lennon. That was a stunning, believable performance which made me ask "How does he do that?" That's when I first started thinking about acting."

On returning to London, Johnny enrolled at Morley College in Lambeth. Nil By Mouth had just come out and Gary Oldman was from the Old Kent Road, which for me meant that becoming an actor was a real possibility. He came from my world, and those acting classes became my next little world, my next mask if you like."

How did acting affect him? "I had anger which needed outlet, and I also felt like I had something to say. I think acting evolves. It isn't now what it was when I first started out." Johnny, 39, was 21 when he began his classes. "I was working at the same time on building sites and in car parks to earn my living. I was discontented with the world. There was an answer, it seemed to me, that was eluding me. I couldn't find the eloquence to express it, but I felt it and I knew it was real.

"With actors, I saw people who could go to another place to work this feeling out. It was no more than that for me, just a desire to get it out. Whatever it was. Because it was hurting."

Johnny subsequently spent a lot of time in fringe theatre. "I loved it. It was a version of rock and roll at places like the Union Theatre in Southwark and The White Bear in Kennington. Eventually I started getting little breaks, doing short films, and they were winning awards. I then got a small part in Paul McGuigan's Gangster No.1, my first-ever paid film job. I was working with Malcolm McDowell, and it was only six years before that I was in Paris watching McDowell in A Clockwork Orange!"

What drove him on at this point? "I was petrified but was running on self will, pushing myself. I felt a fake on one level, that I was going to be called on it and made to go back to the building site, but I suppose that the boxing and the acting helped prove to myself that I could do it."

Johnny's enthusiasm for theatre and literature is real and voluble. Is he careful with the scripts he chooses? "I am. My tutor at Morley College taught me that acting is all about characterisation. I still use this same method for every part I play, so I favour scripts with subtext and depth."

And a role he'd especially like to play? "Berenger in Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros," he says. In the play, Berenger is involved in a major existential struggle in which he must commit himself to a significant cause in order to give his life meaning. "I read that play and it said more to me about my life than any kitchen sink dramas ever could."

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Johnny has played a host of characters most actors are afraid to tackle such as Mick, the serial sex abuser from Shane Meadows' This Is England '86, a role which won him a best supporting actor Bafta nomination. He reels off the names of films he considers benchmarks of cinematic excellence: Dog Day Afternoon, Nil By Mouth, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The King Of Comedy, Mean Streets. "That's the sort of work I want to be doing, playing that kind of fantastic male lead." Does he use the Method? "I use a method of sorts, and I've studied the Method. But I think a lot people mistake what they think is the Method with just being angry. Being too intense can shut you off. What the Method is actually about is freedom within a scene."

His generosity of spirit overflows when he speaks of those he has worked with. "Vicky McClure [This Is England '86] is a phenomenal actress. And [the writer] Jack Thorne is one of my greatest friends. When I got married recently, for my wedding present he bought me an original volume of Miss Julie by [August] Strindberg. He's a lovely, thoughtful man. I don't think there's a more exciting writer in the country. And working with Shane Meadows [This Is England '86] was what I believe to be the epitome of good work. His preparation and the freedom he gives you, allows you to fly."

He's just finished filming Last Days On Mars with Elias Koteas, and next year Welcome to the Punch, in which he stars with James McAvoy and Mark Strong, will be released. Sustained by his family and friends and the love of his wife, Johnny is also made buoyant by his job. "When you're telling stories as an actor or writer, you're talking about life, so you should be intrigued by the world around you," he says.

And as if to corroborate George Eliot, who noted that acting humanises life, he adds: "This world works, and it will continue to work, long after I've gone. I have faith now. I believe in good. I believe in an inner happiness, and you can't get that with a pound note. You can't enjoy the good stuff of life, the success, if you haven't found humility. You have to work out what your own truth is," he says, smiling at me. "To thine own self, be true."

© Jason Holmes 2012 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

Welcome to the Punch will be released nationwide in cinemas on 15 March 2013.

Black and white portrait by George Stavrou / gsstavrou@hotmail.com
Still photograph from This Is England '86 courtesy of Dean Rogers