JARED Harris and I are playing a game. Let’s call it “How George Rattery are you?”

Harris, you see, plays a character called, yes, George Rattery in the new crime drama The Beat Must Die which has just started streaming on BritBox. And George, to be honest, is not very nice. George drives fast cars, has a loud voice and a portrait of himself in the dining room at his very big home on the Isle of Wight. He’s frankly a bit of a horror.

Harris, possibly the greatest actor of his generation (let’s have no false modesty here), is very good at playing horrors. Then again, he’s good at playing everything.

But how close does he come to George himself? Hence the game. I throw a George trait at him and see if Harris has it in himself too.

For example? OK, we see George necking pills at one point, I say. So, are you a self-medicator, Jared?

“Well,” Harris begins, “I always start my day with a nice strong cup of coffee, so I think at that point any other answer would be a lie.”

George is a golfer. Are you?

“No. I’ll tell you why. I just think I’m an obsessive personality and I think if I took up golfing I would suddenly go, ‘Oh, what happened to the last 10 years of my life?”

What about fast cars? George likes fast cars.

“I don’t own one and I don’t give a s*** about cars,” Harris says. “But I love driving fast cars and I have a bit of a lead foot.”

HeraldScotland: Cush Jumbo and Jared Harris in The Beast Must DieCush Jumbo and Jared Harris in The Beast Must Die

So, what does that make Harris then? Maybe 25 per cent George, 30% at most?

And thank goodness for that. There are enough monsters in this world.

One final “How George Rattery are you?” question, though, I say to him. Are you as vain as George? Fess up. Did you take that portrait of yourself home with you, Jared?

“Do you know, I didn’t. And there is a reason why. At this point in my career, I’d have about five of them,” Harris says.

“Did you see Mr Deeds, the Adam Sandler movie I did?” he asks.

I can’t say that I did, I admit. His character in that, he says, had an enormous 30ft portrait of himself.

“That was the first time. They said, ‘You take it.’” All these years later his eyes widen at the prospect. “‘I have nowhere to put it. I live in a shoebox in New York City where will I put this?’. So, I’ve had lots of opportunities to collect those, but I haven’t done it.

“It would be pretty awful, wouldn’t it?” he continues. “You couldn’t have it in your house. It would be awful to keep looking at yourself. I avoid mirrors, for God’s sake.”

Most of us haven’t been able to avoid Harris, seeing he’s been in nearly every major television series of the last few years. Nor would we want to.

Since he made a name for himself in Mad Men, he’s been a reliable pleasure in films and TV. Notably, he turned up in The Crown, as George VI (a beautifully modulated performance of how duty vies with shyness) and provided the voice of sanity and truth in Chernobyl as Soviet nuclear physicist Valery Legasov.

Harris is great at playing repression, insularity, dutifulness (perhaps not so surprising given that he was once a boarding schoolboy himself). All the things that George Rattery is not.

HeraldScotland: Claire Foy and Jared Harris in The CrownClaire Foy and Jared Harris in The Crown

So, it’s fun to see him play nasty. You have to be patient to see him in The Beast Must Die, right enough. He doesn’t appear in the first episode until right at the end when he roars up in a sports car and immediately gives the drama a dose of energy (bad energy, but nonetheless …)

It’s another standout performance in a career full of standout performances. In short, he has long since moved beyond the “son of Richard Harris” tag.

We last saw him on our screens in the Arctic-set, high-end horror series The Terror, which recently aired on BBC Two. In it, he played Captain Francis Crozier, Commanding Officer of the HMS Terror, a part, I read he had to play with broken ribs. Is that right?

“I did, yeah. Extra-curricularly, so I couldn’t complain,” he admits (Harris tells me he fell off a bike).

“I had to get on with it. There was no sympathy and there shouldn’t have been.

“There’s a scene I always have a laugh at whenever I see it. I think it’s the last episode and all I have to do is get up off my feet and stand up and I caught the break in my ribs and there’s this …”

He makes a noise that sounds like “UGGH!” (All caps, and you could probably throw in a couple more extra exclamation marks if you like.)

“Weirdly, getting up off the floor was just impossible,” he continues.

“And sneezing! Sneezing was a f****** nightmare.”

Which just goes to prove that he might be very good at playing shy, repressed types, but in real life (or on Zoom at any rate) Jared Harris probably isn’t one himself. In conversation, he’s engaged and engaging. Entertainingly sweary at times (see above). And funny. Which is something that should be tapped into more on screen.

Harris is in Los Angeles today. He’s spent most of the pandemic on the west coast. “I’ve got a place here and a place in New York, but I haven’t been to New York in a while. It’s been difficult to get there with all the various lockdowns and travel bans.”

He’s spent the pandemic with his third wife Allegra Riggio (he’s previously been married to Jacqueline Goldenberg and Silent Witness star Emilia Fox).

HeraldScotland: Mad MenMad Men

No fallouts over the last year then? “We’ve got along really well. The joy of this lockdown is that my wife and I know we married the right person, so that’s been wonderful.”

It must make a change for him to be at home, of course. Because he has been so busy in recent years. Is there ever a danger that acting becomes a substitute for real life sometimes, I wonder?

“Yeah, I mean you’re not always successful at that. Real life is real life with real consequences. At the same time, I’ve woken up confused many times. Sometimes you get a little confused about things that happened in reel life, as in r-e-e-l, and real life, r-e-a-l.

“I suppose I was aware growing up that you mustn’t bring it home,” he adds. “I’m not always successful at that. It’s hard not to bring the problems home, but don’t bring the character home. I think you leave the character there.”

Well, yes. Growing up he must have had plenty of lessons about the differences between r-e-e-l and r-e-a-l life. He is, after all, not only the son of one of acting’s truly legendary hellraisers, but also the stepson of Rex Harrison after his parents divorced at the end of the 1960s.

His mother Elizabeth Rees-Williams was Harrison’s fifth wife. She herself has been married four times, currently to the disgraced Tory MP Jonathan Aitken. That’s what you call a storied background.

He’s now in his late fifties, and you look at Harris and you can’t help but see his father, especially around the eyes. When was the first time you looked in the mirror and saw your dad looking back, I ask him?

“You know, recently. Recently. It was really freaky. People have said for a long time, ‘Oh, you look so like your dad.’ I never saw it. Honestly. I didn’t think I looked anything like him.

“I had big Mick Jagger lips when I was younger. My face was clear. I just didn’t see it. But recently I’ve started looking very similar.

“It’s a good thing. He had a very striking look to him, no matter how rude he was about his own looks.

“I have to say,” Harris adds, “I wish I had my mother’s looks. My two brothers have my mother’s looks. She has got incredible bone structure. They have these beautiful high cheek bones, long jaws. They’re both very handsome. She had the good looks in the family.”

Harris’s father was renowned for his hard drinking and hard living back in his salad years in the 1960s and 1970s before an overdose nearly killed him in 1978 and led him to swear off his excesses.

How aware of that legend, you wonder, was his son growing up?

“He didn’t do any of that s*** around us,” Harris says. “When we were with him, he reined that part of himself in and he was attentive, and he made a point of generally trying to schedule his filming schedule so it didn’t clash with our school holidays. So, he would be available in that way.

“This is something that comes up about him all the time. It’s not that the hellraising wasn’t real and true. It’s just that he knew that that’s what the papers wanted to sell, so he would feed that image. Largely to the detriment of his reputation as an actor.”

Actually, I tell him, reading about his mother she seems more than a match for his dad.

“She has married formidable men and she is no shrinking violet, so yes,” he agrees “She’s had some health issues, and a couple of years ago we were bringing her back from the hospital and she’s walking up the steps into her flat and Jonathan, who absolutely adores her, he said as he was helping her up the steps, ‘You know my darling, I didn’t think it was possible for me to love you more than I did on our wedding day. But seeing you so fragile and frail, I love you even more.’

“And she looked at him and she said, ‘That’s because you’re under the illusion you’re finally in control.’”

Basically, what you’re telling me is that both your parents were natural-born rebels, Jared?

“They were. No one’s ever said that about my mother before, but you’re totally right. She was a rebel. She was just as much of a rebel as he was. There was obviously something that they both found enormously attractive about each other and they were willing to flip the table over, in some cases literally. My mother did some table-flipping of her own.”

HeraldScotland: The Harris family at Christmas 1964The Harris family at Christmas 1964

The question, then, is how do you rebel when both your parents are themselves rebels? “I guess by not rebelling,” Harris says. “I suppose the first thing I did was going to America, leaving England. That was attempting to get away from the constrictions of the family and expectations of the family to find an ecosystem that I could just find my own way in, you know? And figure out who I was. And that certainly is what I happened when I went to Duke University.

“And I would say, counterintuitively, becoming an actor. I did not think that that was on the cards for me at all.”

When did he first feel he knew what he was doing as an actor?

“I still wonder.”

Oh, come on.

“Sure. You do something and it doesn’t work, and you wonder why it doesn’t work. Or you see something, and you think, ‘God, I thought I was playing something completely different there and it doesn’t come across that way at all.’ It’s a constant recalibration. All the time.

“The only way you know that it’s working is when other people believe it. You convince yourself it’s real, then, if you convince other people, you know that it’s working.”

Like everyone, he can moan about his job as much as the next man.

“I wish that – and I’m enjoying talking to you – this side of it wasn’t as important; the parading of oneself out in front of the public. And the thing that comes with that, the public recognition, because I don’t think that’s helpful. I don’t think it’s helpful for people to know too much about you because the more they know about you the harder it is for them to sink into the characters.”

But Harris clearly loves what he does. “You get to experience a lot of lives in your one life, and that’s exciting,” he says.

“The creative process is enormously exciting. The adrenalin rush at the beginning of every project. Every single time before my first day on set, that night before, I can’t sleep.

“And if I have a huge scene coming up with massive stakes involved it’s difficult to sleep that night.

“So, I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the adrenalin rush that it gives me. I’m scared of not being able to do it and I like that fear, you know?”

We talk about age. He is 59 now. I am, I tell him, only a couple of years behind him. How is he finding late middle age?

“Whoever designed this experience has a lot to answer for. That’s what I think. The way that your joints hurt when you get up off the floor, stuff like that, is very deeply frustrating.

“And then, obviously, you contemplate mortality in a completely different way than you did 20 years ago. Whilst you’re alive you get to appreciate the infinity of life and take advantage of that opportunity.

“My mother, she is in her eighties. And growing old is not for faint of heart.”

HeraldScotland: Harris in ChernobylHarris in Chernobyl

He pauses. I start to ask another question, but he roars back. “I am not f****** old yet, Teddy. This is why people should stop counting. You should stop being obsessed with numbers. It’s how do you feel?”

There are days I feel old, Jared. I won’t lie.

“I don’t. If I sat there and put that number up on the wall … When I think about it, it shocks me, and I reject it completely. I don’t want to get into that mindset where you start acting the number that you are.

“We are tremendously more vital now than people used to be. Life has been kinder to us and the daily wear and tear of life has not been so cruel on us as it was 100 years ago. That number means something completely different. Ignore it, Teddy.”

Great. I look forward to hear that you’ve gone skateboarding tomorrow, Jared.

“I’m going to post a clip. It will be one of those memes of someone falling on their arse, going, ‘Aaargh.’”

He’d probably be brilliant at it. Why break the habit of a lifetime, after all?

The Beast Must Die is now screaming on BritBox