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This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
My name is Ian Harding and I’m an actor.
My interest in acting began when I was a child, I think. I always wanted to play dress-up and I always wanted to play certain characters and whatever I saw on TV. Then I went to high school and because I could sing, I knew I could probably do musicals or be in the choir or something. The school that I went to was very athletic, and I was athletic, but maybe not as much as these guys. So I started doing musicals and plays and then I started to realize, Oh, I really love this. And I’m reasonably good at it. Once senior year rolled around, I thought, I should try and see if I can do this for real. I auditioned for schools and I got into one, and here we are.
When did you know you could do this for real?
There have been a couple of points when I realized I could maybe do this for real, because you’re not always sure. When I was in high school, I thought I was talented, but I didn’t know if I was maybe a big fish in a small pond or something like that. So I auditioned for various drama schools and I got into one of those. That sort of encouraged me to say, Okay, maybe I do have a shot at this. Then in drama school, I was just getting my ass kicked by the teachers and being told I needed to push myself. I didn’t know what that even felt like or looked like as an actor.
Things started to change when local movies came through Pittsburgh. I was able to get cast in those and felt like, I’m kind of going in the right direction. Then I graduated and I got another show.
I think I realized, It’s all external validation. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized I can act regardless of whether or not I’m getting cast, which I think is a big step for me.
Could you imagine a life without art or creativity?
I often try. It doesn’t go well, I think especially during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, I had basically finished a project and was going to have three months off before I was maybe going to do something else. Then, pandemic. I didn’t work for 15 months. I was kind of like, Well, I need to find something else because I feel depressed, useless, and restless—even though I knew there weren’t other jobs going on. What was I going to do, memorize a monologue and perform it in my room? That didn’t feel right because I love the community of interacting with another actor.
So I thought of all the other things I could do. I thought of what it would be like to accept that I’m done acting and that that’s okay. I said, I’m done of my own volition. And I realized I couldn’t.
So to answer your question from 40 minutes ago [laughs], no, I can’t imagine life without this line of work. I can imagine doing other things on the side. Things like hobbies or taking up another job within the industry, whether that be directing, producing, something like that. But to not be an actor? I think I’d rather be dead.
“Creativity really is the thing that you must do.”
What was your first real break and who gave it to you?
I mean, it had to be Pretty Little Liars. If we’re talking about breaks being something that altered the course of your career, it would have to be that. Before that, I had been in small parts. I was in a movie where I was basically glorified background, and that was great because I learned what it was like to be on set. I watched some really amazing actors at work and I think I learned more from them in several days than I did in months of acting school. But my first big break was Pretty Little Liars and the people who gave it to me. Definitely Marlene King, the creator, and the casting directors and all the other people who thought, “Hey, let’s give this freshly minted college grad a shot as a series regular having pretty much zero credits under his belt.” Thinking about it now, I realize it was such a gamble. But I think it paid off for them. Maybe. [Laughs]
What would you say to young Ian?
Have a little bit more compassion for yourself. You don’t know everything. I would’ve loved to have taken some sort of screenwriting class, or maybe capitalized more on my education at school as opposed to feeling like I could only devote my time to the acting side of things. I would urge myself to get into mindfulness meditation early so that I would hopefully learn to avoid catastrophic thinking from an early age. I really wish I could have learned another language.
It’d probably be a pretty boring conversation with myself—I have a feeling younger me would be like, “Hey, so that’s great, I love the mustache, I have to go. Thank you so much.”
What does creativity mean to you?
Creativity really is the thing that you must do. There’s also some sort of seasoning of the self, or a bettering of the self, through whatever you’re doing. Do I consider journaling creative? I think it is. I think maybe there are levels to it. You can gain insight from it and better yourself, but I think creativity is the thing that incorporates your whole being.
For me, it’s trying to build a character. It’s trying to be present in a scene. It is altering your body for the sake of a story. It’s pushing yourself to uncomfortable places and doing the thing that society often tells you not to do. For instance—especially as a man living in America—the idea of crying in public while people film it, or being vulnerable or weak, is very difficult. But sometimes a scene calls for that. So I think the apex of creativity, for me, is the thing that I need to do that’s really scary.
“I feel the most alive hitting that state of flow in a scene or a play. Your whole being is here, doing the thing. You can’t be thinking about anything else. ”
What makes you come alive?
Not to be too general, but whatever makes me the most present. We’re talking about creativity and I’m here because I’m an actor, so I think a lot of times, I feel the most alive hitting that state of flow in a scene or a play. Your whole being is here, doing the thing. You can’t be thinking about anything else.
But I also experience moments when I’m so present, I almost get a chill. Like when you’re just struck by life…which feels a bit broad and slightly cliche. I’ve felt that when I’m having dinner with my wife. Or when I read a book and a sentence kind of jars me and maybe alters how I think. I feel most alive when I’m in the presence of people I love. When I taste something I’ve never experienced before. I also feel extremely alive while traveling because sometimes if you’re on a plane, you feel like a robot that’s just going from one place to another.
I think what makes me come alive is anything that puts me entirely in the present. This is a slightly nerdy response, but I love birdwatching—I have a lot of geriatric hobbies. You have to be present if you’re actually going to see this thing. If you’re going to look at it, you listen for it. You try to see the various markings on this bird and whatnot. You can’t be thinking of something else.
So I think this is a long way of saying: I feel the most alive when I’m doing one thing with my whole being.
This interview was conducted on November 4th, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.