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Sean Harris Leans Into The Pain Of Being A Creep

1:15 PM EST on December 19, 2022

Sean Harris in The Stranger
Screenshot: Netflix

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the pleasures of inhabiting the uncomfortable. By this, I don’t mean dwelling sadistically on a subject, an image, an idea that is cruel, or that virtue is lashed to an experience of pain. More, I’ve come to appreciate those who are able to lucidly depict pain, or perform it, in a way that feels truthful without being maudlin, embodied without the self-serious intention of a so-called committed act. This applies to many character actors, so often called on to play bent, disturbed, even evil people, though the latitude with which they might carry out their roles—with nuance, or genuine interest, or simply proper preparation—is never guaranteed. I feel this sense of appreciation most acutely when I watch Sean Harris, a British actor that many will recognize from his two big mainstream appearances as the terrorist Solomon Lane in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Mission: Impossible - Fallout

A classically trained actor who came up through the theater, Harris belongs to that strange class of British drama graduates who eschew the good for the bad and the ugly. As Lane, Harris is captivating for the simple fact that the spy accoutrement doesn’t suit him. He’s neither an athlete nor a blend-in-the-crowd spook. Instead, in the first film, he’s stilted, almost seething, his tailored suits and sleek overcoat wrapping, or trapping, a man who himself seems to be playing the role of a buttoned-up executive stifled by his own designer clothes. But between Rogue Nation and Fallout, Lane’s character undergoes a profound transformation, from a clean-shaven snake to a bearded, haggard, caged animal. The change isn’t merely physical. The anger and resentment we see in certain cracked moments during Rogue Nation gives way to an almost sanguine focus in Fallout, a ragged edge sharpened to a point. All this is made more surprising and beguiling given that much of Harris’s role in the second film is both silent and far more physical. Brief, but startling fight scenes give audiences a peak at an unusually lithe, kinetic Harris. 

The difference in characterization between the two Mission: Impossible installments is key for another reason. Because an actor like Harris is clearly more comfortable in period pieces and heightened dramas than in large-scale action franchises. The former mode is worth talking about, but in the context of Mission: Impossible, what’s so fascinating about Harris is that his own uncomfortability—with the role, with the scale of the production (these are my own conjectures)—lends Solomon Lane a genuine nastiness that’s rare to see in these movies. 

Just as well, Harris is the type of actor, all too rare, who has a genuinely interesting and malleable face. Such a statement will be a feature of this column, which is me apologizing for repeating myself. That people with interesting faces are often British or part of the Commonwealth is a coincidence though, frankly, a hilarious one. Anyhow, Harris is someone I can stare at and see many different expressions, attitudes, even distinct people, without a perceptive change. This would be enough for some, certainly the kind of thing actors get rewarded for in lesser roles, but Harris is also very intense, a performer who seems to revel in a whole-body portrayal. Take the aforementioned period piece. In The Green Knight, Harris plays King Arthur. His is a frail, soft-spoken interpretation of the mythic folk hero that, through narrative context, is made all the richer, and unsettling, by the fact that Arthur has gained peace in his kingdom through a largely unseen, but devastating war. I think about one moment from that film, at the very end, when Arthur makes his nephew Gawain a knight. It’s hard to know if Harris lost weight for his role, but he appears gaunt, weak, old. As he lifts Excalibur, Harris’s hands shake, his arms bending and shifting to handle the weight of the sword. There is never any doubt that this physical struggle, which reflects an inner decay, is actually happening. But it’s not showy, nor does it feel like a self-conscious choice. Instead, like the best acting, it simply seems to be. 

I first saw Harris in Prometheus, the now-acclaimed prequel to Alien that was, upon its release, dismissed by most of my friends who saw it as dense, pseudo-philosophical trash. Harris plays Fifield, a geologist who sports a red mohawk and tattoos. His character, along with Rafe Spall’s Milburn, serves as a kind of comic relief, snarky, a bit macho, and, in his final moments, a spore-ravaged monster. I bring up Prometheus because I think Fifield is a glimpse at a different, rare Harris, one who could have done quite well as a less interesting actor. He’s not bad in the film, but he’s not especially noticeable. It’s the only role of his that I forget he’s in. 

I think of it now because, by contrast, Harris is unforgettable in two turns, which I will end with as recommendations, though both are hardly fun or lighthearted. 

The first is Possum, a short, nasty film that ranks high on my list of Most Unpleasant Movies To Watch. In short, Possum is the story of a puppeteer named Phillip who returns to his childhood home and finds it haunted by the past. Harris presents Phillip as the living embodiment of a man who’s just been told to shut up. His expression is often withdrawn, his walk a wooden trot, his shoulders sloping down, everything about him both muted and exaggerated. The house he returns to, seemingly abandoned but inhabited by his scary uncle, is water-stained, burnt, and rotten. And then there’s Possum itself, a frightening, unbelievably creepy, possibly sentient spider puppet that ceaselessly torments Phillip. Possum will get under your skin and stay there for any number of reasons, but Harris holds it all together. And frankly, it’s not necessarily because Phillip is rendered sympathetic. Quite the opposite: there’s something deeply pathetic and even loathsome about the degree to which he is unable to process or actualize his inner state. Then again, this is as close to a “point” as there can be for the film, which is not about real people and more about the psychic hellscape they live within. 

The second is this year’s The Stranger. A cinematic dramatization of the disappearance and murder of a young boy in Queensland, Australia, The Stranger (on Netflix) is a quiet, disturbing film that lurks in empty hotels, vast, open desert vistas, and misty nightmares. Harris, off-beat, melancholic, and sporting an excellent Australian accent, plays an adrift man named Henry Teague, who quickly takes on uncertain, but definitely illegal work with an organized crime ring that includes Joel Edgerton’s Mark Frame. Frame is an undercover cop. Teague is a potential suspect. Things progress from there. The relationship between Teague and Frame is where most of the tension lies and the film’s poster, which blends Harris and Edgerton’s faces together, literalizes their increasing entanglement. Given the dark subject matter and the steady severity with which it’s handled, one wouldn’t expect warmth, but that’s exactly what Harris puts forth. Or, maybe warmth is too simple. More a palpable vulnerability and nervousness that is immediately disarming, if bizarre. Teague is clearly a broken man, and one with a secret, but the triumph of Harris’s performance is how plainly he bares his confusion, how earnestly he seeks friendship in Frame, and how deeply he affects the audience with his fear, even as doubt sets in about who he really is or what he’s capable of. More so than any other performance this year, Harris’s is the one I’ve thought of most. 

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