Alum spotlight: Jason Butler Harner (BFA ’92)

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Jason Butler Harner, BFA in Performance, 1992

When Jason was a teen usher at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, he never imagined he would one day be acting on that stage opposite Sally Field in a production of The Glass Menagerie. As president of his high school’s International Thespian Society, his attendance at the Virginia Theatre Association is how he discovered VCU.

(from left) Corey Brill, Sally Field and Jason in Gregory Mosher’s spare, unmannered production of The Glass Menagerie at Washington’s Kennedy Center, 2004.

Jason muses, “I really blossomed as a young man and actor at VCU. As a matter of fact, I just hung a shelf yesterday and could do that because of what I learned from Lou Szari’s set construction class.” He did more than tech, performing in several productions on campus and in the community. “My first professional show and bad review was in The Reluctant Debutante at The Theatre at Bolling Haxall House.”

Jason and Lynne Jones (BFA ’91) in What I did Last Summer at VCU

His intention to move to New York got sidelined when he got accepted as an apprentice at Actors Theatre of Louisville. “Even though it was unpaid, unhoused and unfed, I got exposure to how a significant theatre ran.”

Jason and James Cromwell in Invention of Love, ACT, 2000

After that detour, Jason moved to NYC where he roomed with classmates Joy Bleecker and Elizabeth Hylton. After working in some “off-off-off-off shows” he applied to NYU’s acting program on a whim. “I didn’t think grad school was an option, but I recognized that I needed some new skills, so I went into a lot of debt and got an MFA degree.”

From left, Jason, Ethan Hawke, Billy Crudup, Jennifer Ehle, Aaron Krohn and Brian F. O’Byrne in “Shipwreck,” the second installment of “The Coast of Utopia,” Tom Stoppard’s trilogy.

When he returned to the stage, his credits continued to grow. He was in the US premiere of Tom Stoppard’s The Invention Of Love at ACT, as well as in all three plays in the New York production of Stoppard’s The Coast Of Utopia. He played in London revival of Lanford Wilson’s Serenading Louie in 2010. Most recently his name was above the title in the Broadway premiere of Bernhardt/Hamlet with Janet McTeer.

Jason and Janet McTeer in Bernard/Hamlet, 2018. Photo by Joan Marcus

Jason’s most memorable early film role was in Changeling. “It was my first baddie and that continues to cast a spell on my career.” On working with director Clint Eastwood he recalls, “He does very few takes, so coming from theatre I knew I had to be ready to go.” His role as an FBI agent in Ozark might be an echo of that “spell.” Playing the FBI agent in Ozark was “a big moment, but indie and small films are impactful.” In 2019, Jason shot an indie titled The Big Bend in Texas and finished a day of reshoots in July, so look for that release soon.

Jason as Gordon Stewart Northcott in Changeling
Jason as Agent Petty in Ozark

Throughout his career, Jason has popped into friends’ classes all over the country, including VCU, “It’s important to give back. I like hearing what young creators are thinking and where their focus is.” He tries to encourage students to stay “humbry,” a word he coined that combines humble and hungry.

Jason and Claire Danes in Homeland

In December 2020, Jason married Mickey Rapkin, a journalist who also wrote the Pitch Perfect book among others. They also got their first dog, Toupee, who has his own Instagram page: @toupeeyoustay.

Jason with husband Mickey Rapkin and pup Toupee

Header image (clockwise from left) Jason and Michael Kelly attend the premiere of Changeling; Jason in Ozark; Jason smiling; Jason as Gordon Scott Northcott in Changeling.

Compiled by Liz Hopper, professor emeritus, and Jerry Williams (BFA ’71) for the July 2021 Theatre Alumni Newsletter.