Feb 16, 2017
The Birth of a Superhero: Legion‘s Jeremie Harris
When Jeremie Harris walks into the lobby of the hotel, people’s heads turn. They probably don’t quite know from where they recognize the young man with a spiffy wardrobe, a perfectly trimmed beard, and a room-brightening smile—but chances are, if they’re someone who’s binged on a show like Westworld, Lost, Game of Thrones, or Fargo, that this face is about to become even more familiar.
After about a half-hour shooting photos in various locations scattered throughout the Ace Hotel in NoMad Manhattan, Harris—who’s preparing for the debut of FX’s Legion, a new psychological thriller of a superhero series from Fargo’s Noah Hawley, in which he’s scored his first series regular role—sounds excited. Despite bit parts in a handful of films, the role in Legion is the closest thing yet to a breakthrough for the Harlem resident.
Classically trained in performing arts—he graduated from Juilliard in 2012—Harris certainly looks the part. As we sit down to chat at the only two open seats in the back of the hotel’s typically crowded lobby, Harris takes his hat off his head, opting to hold it in his hands. His wool shirt and grey jacket match the brown suede boots on his feet. After an intense and strictly-regimented experience at Julliard, some days in class, some in rehearsal, and some that may be locked in from 9 AM to 10 PM, Harris has a relaxed aura about him: he’s come to the realization that while the grind does matter—it really does—it’s the chance that makes an impact. “It’s about having that opportunity, versus always being given an opportunity, even if you feel mixed about it,” he says between sips of the fancy sparkling water that I found in the hotel’s front café. “If you’re like, oh, I don’t know if I love this part…it’s hard to even get anything when you’re out here.”
With both of his parents hailing from the Bronx, Harris has roots right in the city, but his formative years were spent in New Rochelle, a Westchester suburb. “What can I do that I won’t have to conform who I am, dress a certain way?” he would ask himself early on, rallying against a life that would have him sitting in an office for hours at a time. A huge music fan—we chat about everything from Fela Kuti and Nina Simone to Kendrick Lamar and Solange—Harris found himself pulling down an internship with Def Jam Records, working on the street team. But it wasn’t as great for him as it might sound.
One afternoon, a group, Harris included, was tasked with putting posters on a wall to promote an upcoming album release. Sure enough, the police showed up. Everyone scattered, and Harris was left to absorb the damage. “I was like, yo…they just kind of left me,” he says, detailing that luckily the cops let him off with a warning. “I guess it’s part of the way it is, but for me it was like, man, I don’t really know if I want to be in this type of environment, doing this.”
It wasn’t long after that Harris began pursuing another lofty dream—to be in the NBA. Playing point guard, Harris was in awe of guys like Penny Hardaway, Allen Iverson, and onetime New York Knick Stephon Marbury, whose hallmark move Harris liked to emulate. When he got to his sophomore year of high school and realized that he wasn’t going to be 6’6’’, it came time, once again, to reassess his goal.
The dreams of someday hitting the hardwood floor of an NBA arena and finding a place in the music industry come, in many ways, from a similar place: it’s what a young Harris was exposed to. “Growing up young and black, you kind of have these ideas of what you can do, and are the cool things to do and pursue, and It was kind of like sports and music were those things,” he says. “The black men that you see in positions of power are musicians or executives, or these athletes.”
Luckily, there was another role model—and one that hit close to home—that helped to accent a different path to success. Denzel Washington—perhaps you’ve heard of him—is from Mount Vernon, a neighboring town to New Rochelle, and like everyone else on planet Earth, Harris was always drawn to his films, and began to see them as an inspiration. After supplanting a semester of high school credit with acting classes in White Plains, Harris got an audition for a major motion picture and ended up getting three callbacks. While he didn’t book the job, he did begin to think that this was something that maybe he could do professionally.
“You feel like there’s a depth to him, that Jeremie brings to the character, that is unfathomable
on some level, which makes him intriguing.
I think intensity is the key.”
More and more, Harris found himself getting involved with the stage. He took a college preparatory course at the Harlem School of the Arts, before finding his way into a production of MacBeth at the The Classical Theater of Harlem, where he would remain involved even as he began his college education at NYU. Working the theater’s box office, Harris was around when the theater put on a production of Waiting for Godot with actor Wendell Pierce, best known for starring roles in HBO’s The Wire and Tremé. The two met, and Pierce was instrumental in convincing the young actor to follow acting—if indeed that was the path that he was passionate abut. Pierce, also a Julliard graduate, brought Harris along with him to the set of Life Support, an HBO film he was making at the time, that also starred Queen Latifah. It wasn’t long after this that Harris had his sights fully set on what he wanted to do.
Ultimately, it was sticking with the stage that helped Harris get noticed, with people in the crowd for various productions leading to booking a recurring role on the second part of Netflix’s hip-hop drama The Get Down, and, eventually, Legion. About a year back, someone got in touch requesting that he put himself on tape for the latter role. It didn’t take much aside from the words “Marvel,” “FX,” and “Noah Hawley” to get Harris attracted. He obliged to the request, and it took off from there: correspondences back and forth with Marvel and FX executives eventually led to receiving an e-mail from Hawley himself: he wanted them to talk on the phone—and then he got it.
Harris made sure to binge through both seasons of Hawley’s brilliant Fargo anthology series before even talking to the creator himself. “He takes his time telling a story. There’s no small characters—everyone has these interesting things going on, and these storylines that are there,” he said of his new boss.
From the first minute of the pilot, it’s clear that Hawley isn’t playing by any genre rules—he’s writing his own book. The show is artistic, nihilistic, and at times, straight-up aesthetically jarring. This is what people love about Fargo, and it’s what will get eaten up about Legion.
Filming Legion in Vancouver was a test in trust for Harris, whose character, Ptonomy Wallace, only appears briefly—and sans dialogue—in the pilot. Hawley’s “collaborative environment” made Harris feel fully comfortable during the two-and-a-half week shoot of the pilot, and four-month shoot of the first season.
Harris read specifically for the Ptonomy role, with Hawley and co. seeing something in him that isn’t easily found elsewhere. “Jeremie has a rare charm and intelligence that comes through immediately,” Hawley said over e-mail. “I’m always looking for actors who bring depth and life to a role, which is not to say they change the part to fit them, more that they make it seem like the part was written just for them. Jeremie has that quality, which is rare for an actor of his young age.”
Throughout the shoot, the showrunner’s presence, alongside producers Lauren Shuler Donner, who was a major driving force in originally bringing the X-Men to the big screen (Legion is tangentially connected), and John Cameron, who worked with Hawley on Fargo and also on several Coen brothers films, was reassuring both of the level of prestige that came built into the series, and the quality of the work they were all doing.
Cameron has worked with talents like George Clooney, John Turturro, and Frances McDormand throughout the years, but didn’t want to pinpoint anyone in particular that Harris reminded him of, preferring to allow him to stand alone. “Whenever he’s on camera, whenever he’s in character as Ptonomy, he’s just intense.” Cameron said over the phone. “You feel like there’s a depth to him, that Jeremie brings to the character, that is unfathomable on some level, which makes him intriguing. I think intensity is the key.”
While he doesn’t appear too much in Legion’s debut episode, episode two paints a different story. He shares a number of scenes with Emmy winner Jean Smart (“When I wasn’t in the scene, I would try to just watch her and be like, OK, cool, how is she working? What is she doing?”) and Dan Stevens, a potential breakout (He plays the Beast in this spring’s Beauty and the Beast)—and Brooklyn resident—in his own regard, and is the series’s dynamic central figure. Harris’s Ptonomy uses his special power—as a ‘memory artist’—to use Inception-esque means to help Stevens’s David Haller along the way—but it’s not heavy-handed or on the nose. It’s character development by ways of set pieces, and surrounding reactions. It’s never too much, and it never feels forced.
With Legion ready to take its place as the breakout hit of the spring season, Harris seems to have finally found the right platform for himself. It’s not his childhood dream of playing in the NBA or becoming a record executive—but, chances are, he’ll be pretty happy to settle for being a superhero. ♦
Photos Nicole Fara Silver
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