As anyone who has seen Daniel Sullivan's riveting production of Shakespeare's tragedy knows, it lingers well beyond its three-hour running time for a number of reasons, including Al Pacino's scintillating performance as moneylender Shylock and Lily Rabe's star-making turn as Portia. But much discussion has ensued, on the subway and elsewhere, about the relationship between Harbour's Bassanio and Byron Jennings' Antonio, who indebts himself -- monetarily and physically -- to Shylock to give Bassanio the funds to pursue Portia. It is filled with both verbal and physical endearments that teeter on the homoerotic.
"I think we play with that idea," observes Harbour, who says his take on the part evolved out of his friendship with Jennings from their days working together in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. "Bassanio's language about Antonio is very intimate, but in the beginning he's a bit brash with that intimacy. Then he goes through a couple of phases. He comes to realize that this man is his best friend and he genuinely loves him, and that maybe that intimacy with his friend is preventing him from having a normal intimacy with his wife. All those undercurrents are in the interpretation."
Harbour was not part of the summer Shakespeare in the Park production of the play -- in which Hamish Linklater played Bassanio -- but when recasting the role became necessary, he was contacted by Sullivan, who had hired the actor for the 2009 world premiere of Time Stands Still in Los Angeles (where Harbour briefly tried living before breaking his lease and fleeing back to New York).
Still, Merchant was the first time he joined the cast of a pre-existing production, and initially it was a rocky journey. "I really rushed into it with the fear that people were going to push me into corners to do things that I didn't want to do," he admits. "So I had a bit of a fight in me when I approached rehearsals. But everybody was really amenable, especially Al. He really continues to want to work on the play every night and to go deeper and deeper into character."
Harbour has worked with some remarkable actors in his career -- including Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin with whom he appeared in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- but playing opposite Pacino is unlike any other experience. "He is like a wild animal, sort of like a dog that you don't actually know how to train," he says. "But I love that, because that's where something inspired actually happens and an audience has a unique experience. Anything you give him, he reacts to and responds to. It's like playing tennis with a great tennis player. You feel like you want to play the game more because they're so good."
Much of the production's success, however, also relies on the onstage chemistry between Harbour and Rabe. Laughing at the suggestion that the Antonio/Bassanio/Portia relationship can play like a love triangle, Harbour nevertheless adds, "I don't disagree with that. I have a friend who saw the play, a Jewish woman, and she was like, 'Wow, Bassanio's got a type. He likes Byron Jennings and Lily Rabe -- they're both so white and WASPy.'"
The 36-year-old actor has been exercising his acting muscles in film and TV too. He has upcoming roles in the crime drama The Convincer, starring Billy Crudup; Isolation, a psychological thriller with Eva Amurri; and the Madonna-directed W.E., about the love affair between Prince Albert and Wallis Simpson.
Meanwhile, in January, he'll be on the big screen as Scanlon, a district attorney with a shady past, in the feature The Green Hornet, a superhero vehicle starring Seth Rogen -- and thanks to an incongruous stunt double, Harbour got a lot closer to explosives than he cared to be.
"My stunt double kind of looked like Ben Gazzara," he laments, which meant Harbour had to appear in action sequences that exposed his face. "They'd put bombs in front of you and they'd be like, 'Make sure you turn to the left.' I was like, 'What happens if I turn to the right?' 'Well, if you turn to the right, your face will get blown off with a flame thrower.'"
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