Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Robert Downey Jr and Jared Harris
Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and Dr James Moriarty (Jared Harris) © 2011 Warner Bros

Professor James Moriarty only appears in two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, but is almost as iconic a figure as the detective himself. In Guy Ritchie’s new movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the role of Moriarty, criminal mastermind and Holmes’ intellectual equal, goes to Jared Harris, the son of actor Richard Harris.

When chaos breaks out around the world, it is only Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) that connects Moriarty to the incidents and it’s a race against time to stop him before he alters the course of history.

We spoke with Jared Harris about the trials and tribulations of portraying such an iconic character.

What was it like playing Moriarty?

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Jared Harris, director Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr
Jared Harris, director Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr on the set © 2011 Warner Bros

He’s arguably the first uber-villain in modern literature, which was quite daunting. He has to operate on a level that justifies Sherlock Holmes’ high opinion of him in terms of the magnitude of the threat he represents.

You have to believe he is as smart as Holmes, perhaps smarter, like a grandmaster in chess who is able to think several moves ahead of his opponent. But the fact is he’s a sick sociopath, which made him fun to play.

They’re big shoes to fill, we were thrilled when you were offered this role?

The career part of your brain goes, ‘Wow, this is a fantastic opportunity.’ But the part of your brain that has to deliver goes, ‘Are you crazy? How are you going to do this?’ But you have to leap at the opportunity and just hope that you land somewhere.

Moriarty is only in a couple of the books, but people have a preconceived conception of the character? How do you make him your own?

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Paul Anderson and Jared Harris
Colonel Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson) and Dr James Moriarty (Jared Harris) © 2011 Warner Bros

The stuff that I looked at in the book, the representation of him in those two stories, I didn’t find a lot in there that was useful. There’s this thing where he describes him as having a strange head movement where he shakes his head from side to side.

I tried it, but it just seemed mannered and ridiculous. I just didn’t think that Robert’s Sherlock Holmes would let that pass, it would just get in the way.

I also wanted to see the professor, which we’d never seen. His job at the university is a legitimate job, it’s a cover story and it’s successful enough that’s got him into all different areas of society, including being friends with the British Prime Minister.

I hadn’t seen that, and I thought it would be interesting to see this evolution of this person, and you finally see that traditional Moriarty outline with the frock coat and hat.

What was it like as a newcomer coming into this franchise?

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Jared Harris and Rachel McAdams
Dr James Moriarty (Jared Harris) and Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) © 2011 Warner Bros

I was a fan of the first movie and you can see from the first film that they took such a fresh approach to how they were treating the characters, the period and the subject matter.

It was exciting because you knew it had to be a re-imagined version, it needed to be a different version of the character than you’d seen beforehand.

It was a big mountain in the sense that the character has to pose a formidable problem to Sherlock’s character, because if it’s just about defeating a paperboy on a paper route or something, it isn’t a big enough challenge. He had to be formidable in that sense.

How that was going to be achieved I know I didn’t know. I knew it had to happen.

Did you do your own stunts in this?

Oh yeah, all that stuff is [Robert and I]. I loved it. I was classically trained. We did stage fights and swordplay and all that stuff. I love all that stuff. That’s the little kid in you and it was great fun.

You had a great rapport with Robert. What was it like doing that first scene as Holmes and Moriarty. Was the rapport there from the beginning or did it grow as you worked together?

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Jared Harris and Robert Downey Jr
Dr James Moriarty (Jared Harris) and Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) © 2011 Warner Bros

We had about six weeks before we actually started shooting, and we shot the very end first. That was the first thing we did. That kind of helped in terms of focusing our attention on what needed to be in the other scenes before you got to that one.

He’s a lovely guy and he and Guy welcomed ideas, which makes you feel right away that you’ve got something worthwhile. Even if they don’t like your ideas they’ll sit there and nod politely, they just never circle back to them!

But bad ideas are good ideas because any idea, when you’re looking for an idea, is welcomed. And sometimes it might be some shitty idea that you came up with and three weeks later a little kernel of that is used somewhere.

You feel part of the group.

How did you enjoy working opposite Robert?

Robert is fantastic. You have to be on your toes. He wants you to be at your best and he’ll get the best out of you. I was saying to somebody yesterday, if you’re a professional athlete you’re not really going to find out what kind of ability you have if you play amateur teams.

You have to play with the best to discover what you’ve got and he’s right up there.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.