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Humility, hunger pave alumnus’ way to new Netflix series

Stage and screen veteran Jason Butler Harner stars alongside Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in ‘Ozark.’

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VCU graduate Jason Butler Harner in "Ozark." (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

More than three decades later, Jason Butler Harner still remembers a few things he learned in Mrs. Rubin’s fourth-grade class at Lemon Road Elementary School.

He learned how to play mahjong, which he still plays on airplane flights to this day.

He learned a lot about Christmas pageants, and appreciates the irony considering his teacher was Jewish.

And he learned that he loves performing. 

“We had to do book reports in her class where we dressed like the character and then reported on the book,” Harner recalled. “And I was, and I still am, a huge procrastinator — a lot of creative people are. And I had only half-read the book. So I dressed up as the guy from the book and got really nervous presenting in front of the class.

“And then discovered that I kind of liked it.”

Jason Butler Harner.
Jason Butler Harner.

While Harner doesn’t remember the book, he remembers the red jacket his character wore — and how kind Mrs. Rubin was when he got emotional because he was so nervous in front of the class.

“That sort of opened the door on the path to know what happens when you're in front of a group of people,” he said.

Today, Harner is a seasoned veteran of countless stage and screen productions. This week, Netflix debuts his latest series, “Ozark,” in which he stars with Jason Bateman and Laura Linney.

Not bad for someone who didn’t perform in his first play until his second year at the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Theatre. More notable still for someone who didn’t even know he was accepted at VCU until well after the deadline had passed.

“I was all over the map as a high-school student for a whole bunch of reasons,” Harner said. “I had grades all over the map. I was smart, I was in AP classes. I was in a bunch of clubs. But, you know, I was a depressed kid. So I had grades all over the place. And I was president of the drama club and the thespian society, even though I hadn't done plays.”

Harner had applied to some colleges haphazardly, he said, throwing any college information he received — including an unopened letter from VCU — into a box. Thinking he might teach kids with special needs, he applied for a program at Cornell. He liked the College of William & Mary, so why not apply there? A friend was going to Oberlin, so he applied there as well.

“I literally didn't do one of the [application] essays and thought that it would be OK,” he said.

In mid-to-late April of his last year of high school, Harner went through his college box and opened the letter from VCU, which turned out to be an acceptance letter that he needed to respond to by April 4. Even though it was well past the deadline, he called the school that day.

“And that's why my first semester I had to live in MCV in those dorms,” he said, “because the [Monroe Park Campus] dorms had filled up. I had to bus — with Larena Muhammed who was also in class — we had to bus every day to go to campus.”

Ozark: Their Last Resort.

Harner received incredible training at VCU, he said, mostly at the hands of professors Gary and Elizabeth Hopper and from the school’s curriculum, which included work in all aspects of theater. Students had to take a semester of costume construction and a semester of set construction before they were even allowed to act in their second year.

“At that time, freshmen were not allowed to audition for shows and spent most of their time in classes and working in the shops and backstage,” said Elizabeth Hopper, retired head of design at TheatreVCU. “I do remember one episode when he was in costume construction and working on the trim on a jacket, and he either sewed the trim on the wrong side or set the sleeve in wrong — I can't remember which. But I have a vivid impression of this very tall, skinny kid with this look of frustration and anger on his face, knowing he was going to have to redo everything he just did.”

Harner’s first performance was in “What I Did Last Summer,” which he calls a WASPY version of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” and led to one of his most memorable moments.

During rehearsal, Harner found the first run-through — with just the cast present — incredibly moving. But when the cast did a second run-through for invited guests, Harner couldn’t replicate his previous performance and started overacting. 

"Ozark," starring Jason Bateman, Laura Linney and Jason Butler Harner, premieres this week. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

He had no idea, he said, until, “Gary said, ‘I want to show you what you did.’ He started walking around with this crazy gait and flailing arms, and that was me, and I was mortified. But it was an incredible lesson, which I still carry with me to this day. … It was a very big lesson for me that I think about all the time.”

Others recall that role for a different reason.

“That's where it became apparent to most that he had the natural ability to appear natural on stage,” Elizabeth Hopper said. “Something that is actually very hard. To appear to be a 15-year-old boy who was trying to find himself during the Second World War. To grow up on stage and be a man while still a boy. All the cast was marvelous and it is still one of my favorite shows ever.”  

While many students do not stay in theater, Hopper said, Harner persevered.

“Jason is persistent,” she said. “If you are not, you will never get anywhere as an actor. It's a tough business and Jason is at heart, body and soul a character actor.”

In “Ozark,” Harner portrays determined FBI agent Roy Petty. The character, who is gay, has zero shame or secrecy but viewers don't learn why he is so darkly driven until episode eight. 

While the series is described as dark and gritty, Harner views it as a metaphor for the average American family.

“I see things in the larger metaphorical senses examining this family — mom, dad, two kids in suburban Chicago — who suddenly have to move to the Ozarks to save their lives literally and save their lives figuratively,” he said. “How would this American family survive outside of the comfort zone of their suburban life? And, yes, mixed into that is drug cartels, strippers and FBI agents shadowing them. But the main reason why I like this show is because how they are human. How they fail where their goodness lies.”

Harner in
Harner in "Ozark." (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Harner is right at home playing ominous roles, which never fails to amuse Toni-Leslie James, associate professor and director of costume design at TheatreVCU.

“He frequently plays very dark characters, which I find amazing, because he's so warm and generous,” said James, a two-time Tony Awards nominee whom Harner met as a graduate student at New York University in 1997. “He is a superb actor, but I was drawn to him immediately because of his excellent sense of humor.

“I swear he's one of the wittiest people I know. I fault him for introducing me to social media. I joined Facebook in 2008 in order to track down a television producer I had worked with at NBC. My plan was to join, find the producer, then dump the whole thing. Jason messaged me, and I cannot convey what the message was for the general academic population and keep my job, but I laughed so hard I rolled over and fell out of bed. He was my first Facebook friend.”

Harner also strives to be humble and generous, never taking his success for granted.

“I genuinely always begin from a place of humility,” he said, “because the fact is it's a huge success for anything to make it on a big screen or small screen. Not only for it to be written, [but] cast and produced — it's a huge, major accomplishment for it to even exist.”

Harner, who just paid off his NYU grad school debt this summer, mentors graduate students in theater. He remembers himself as a student as “really humble and really hungry.”

“I have created this term ‘humbry,’ where you have to be humble and hungry, and that happened when I was in Richmond,” he said. “My life had no direction and there were people in my class that had a lot more training, a lot more prowess, a lot more peacocking than I had. I just learned — and stayed kind of stealth — and learned. … It literally saved my life. The theater saved my life. It gave me something to do but it also gave me an outlet for a lot of feelings and to feel a part of something larger and more important. … I hope that for anybody wherever they go.”

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