'Mad Men' Star Jared Harris on Religion and His Production of 'Racing Demon'

Jared Harris Headshot - P 2013
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Jared Harris Headshot - P 2013

The actor stars in L.A. Theatre Works' production alongside 'Downton Abbey' actress Lesley Nicol

By the early 1990s, the results of Margaret Thatcher's gutting of social programs in the U.K. were in full effect. Job figures were at their lowest since the Great Depression and more and more Britons were homeless, partially due to an Orwellian-named program called Care in the Community, by which hospital inpatients were put out on the street with the promise of at-home care. Unfortunately, a substantial number didn't have homes to go to.

At the time, playwright David Hare had Tony Award-winning successes like Plenty behind him, and was directing movies like Strapless and writing Damage for director Louis Malle when he turned his pen to a trilogy of plays examining the social impact of Thatcherism on public institutions. The first of them, Racing Demon, gets an airing this week in an L.A. Theatre Works radio-theater performance starring Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Lesley Nicol (Downton Abbey) in five shows running thru Nov. 16 at the James Bridges Theater at UCLA. Don't worry if you have other plans; the best moments from each performance will be edited for broadcast in over 80 markets in the U.S., including KPFK in Los Angeles.

A 1990 Olivier Award winner, Racing Demon examines conflicts within the Church of England at a time when it was overwhelmed with the poor and needy, whom the state had turned its back on. Harris plays Reverend Lionel Espy, who runs afoul of the Bishop of Southwark. "He's someone who believes the best way of pursuing faith is through good work rather than dogma" is how Harris describes his character to The Hollywood Reporter. "He feels the best way of following Christ's example is through action and through helping." Finding holy rhetoric useless in the face of real-world problems, Espy sets himself on a collision course with the Bishop who believes the church's role in the downtrodden South London community is to focus on spiritual guidance.

"Whether he's right or wrong or doing a good job or a bad job, he's a very kind man who spreads himself very thin, and he's always out there on a committee on housing looking after poor people, mentally ill people, everybody," says Lesley Nicol, whose uncle was a country Vicar, which gives her added perspective on the characters. She plays Espy's long-neglected wife, Heather, in a play that looks at an assortment of issues including women's role in the church, as well as gay rights and the eroding social safety net.

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"This Care in the Community idea was supposed to sound like a warm and nurturing concept, I don't think it ever was," offers Nicol. "It was a way of just bundling people out of the way, and it hasn't gotten any better. The Vicar is the person they end up going to, and he can give them religious advice, but what they need is proper support, maybe financial support, emotional support. The system is failing them."

As a child, Nicol attended a Church of England school but isn't as strong an adherent these days, while Harris, who was raised a Catholic, has had an about face. "I personally am not religious. I think, put into the wrong hands, it's incredibly dangerous," he says. "It's the reason for most of the wars that have been fought around the world, and it's pretty ridiculous when you think about what they're actually arguing over. I remember when my mother put me and my brothers (sic) in a Catholic boarding school, and she said I'm concerned that you're not going to give them an understating about how to live in the world. They said that's not our focus. We prepare them for death."

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The second part of Hare's trilogy, Murmuring Judges, produced in 1991, takes a jaundice-eyed view of the legal system from three different perspectives — the police, the courtroom and the prison system — while the final play, The Absence of War, is a look at the Labour Party's failed campaign of 1992, featuring a strong candidate so stifled by the process he comes off looking like a milquetoast.

"I know it's not about religious organizations here, but there will be huge parallels," Nicol reassures, and lest it all sounds too damn serious, she hastens to add, "There's some fantastic funny stuff in it too. While it's intellectually interesting, it's great entertainment and it will give people pause for thought for sure."