Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Touching Base with Jason Butler Harner

Posted by Bruce Miller
There are some advantages to being in this business for a long time—34 years, in my case. One of those advantages is that you tend to bump into old friends on the street almost every time you visit New York. Another advantage is, given enough time, a reasonable number of your old friends become successful.

If you’re really lucky, you bump into some of your most successful friends when you’re with your teenagers.

I was lucky last weekend.

One of the shows Hannah and I really wanted to see during this trip to the Big Apple was Our Town, the critically acclaimed revival that’s been packing ‘em in for the last several months at Off Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre. When Hannah read the Thornton Wilder masterpiece in school, it made it onto her list of favorite plays. But until this trip, she’s never had the chance to see Our Town performed on stage.

Because this critically acclaimed revival is a huge Off Broadway hit, it doesn’t appear at the TKTS half-price booths. After discovering this, Hannah and I decided it was worth it to trek on over to the box office and buy tickets at full price. We hopped the #1 train downtown to Christopher Street, and emerged in the heart of Greenwich Village.

As we walked down Barrow Street toward the theatre, I saw the familiar face of Jason Harner, known professionally now as Jason Butler Harner. Jason is a VCU theatre grad who starred in one of Theatre IV's Theatre Gym productions more than 15 years ago. He had his nose buried in a script, and looked up just as we approached, immediately flashing that startled smile you wear when you unexpectedly bump into a person you haven’t seen in a decade or two.

I’m happy to report that Jason is still just as nice and friendly as ever. I introduced him to Hannah, saying something stupid like, “This is Jason Harner, who is a really famous actor now.” “I’m not a famous actor,” he protested, modestly. Granted, Jason may not be a household name, yet. As for fame, I’ll let you be the judge.

The reason Jason was standing there with his head buried in a script was because he’d just received the nod to take over the role of the Stage Manager in Our Town, and he had only three more days before his first appearance (which was last night, actually). The role had been played brilliantly by the revival’s director, David Cromer. Cromer was leaving the show to begin work on his upcoming Broadway production of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs.

The chronology that led up to Jason's latest success reads as follows. Jason graduated from VCU in 1992. He served an apprentice year at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and then received his MFA in Acting from the Tisch School of the Arts in 1997. Immediately after graduation, he appeared in his first Off Broadway play, Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, directed by Mary Zimmerman for the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte in Central Park.

Fourteen additional Broadway and Off Broadway credits follow, along with numerous regional productions, including:

2000 – the American premiere of Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco;

2003 – the American premiere of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Lincoln Center;

2003 – Hamlet in Hamlet, Dallas Theatre Center;

2004 – Obie Award for Hedda Gabler, Off Broadway;

2004 – Tom in The Glass Menagerie, opposite Sally Fields, Kennedy Center;

2005 – The Ruby Sunrise, Oskar Eustis’s debut as Artistic Director, The Public Theatre;

2006 – The Cherry Orchard opposite Annette Bening and Alfred Molina, Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles;

2006 – Ivan Turgenev in Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia opposite a small fraternity of our nation's most promising young actors, Lincoln Center; and

2007 – Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, Williamstown Theatre Festival.

And what has Jason been up to since The Front Page? He played serial killer Gordon Northcott in Clint Eastwood’s film Changeling, which also starred Angelina Jolie. Jason’s standout performance generated so much critical buzz that he was considered a frontrunner for an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. He also appeared in the HBO miniseries John Adams as Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott Jr.

Several of the actors who have moved on from Richmond to national and international success continue to keep in touch with colleagues back here in River City. Jason remains as kind-hearted, open and friendly as ever. It’s my hope that one day we’ll find the right project to lure him back to Barksdale for another performance.

Till then, we wish him all the greatest success with his ever expanding career.

--Bruce Miller
(Photo captions: first photo / right - headshot; second photo / left - with our friend Doug Beane, author of The Little Dog Laughed; third photo / right - with Richard Kind in The Front Page; fourth photo / left - with Pamela Gray in Craig Wright's Orange Flower Water; fifth photo / right - with Maggie Siff in The Ruby Sunrise; sixth photo / left - from the film, Changeling

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was really amazed at his performance in "Changeling". It's hard to feel attached to such a character, but in his last scene, I nearly cried with him. If he doesn't land a lead in a film soon, that would be just poor judgement on the part of those casting.