Ian Harding is an actor, teen choice award winner, author, and passionate bird lover. Besides being known for playing Ezra Fitz, a controversial character on the show Pretty Little Liars, the 34-year-old is a passionate advocate for people with lupus, an empathetic son to a mother with the chronic condition, and an ally to people with disabilities around the globe. In the first part of this interview, journalist Karina Sturm speaks with Ian about his childhood in Germany, his acting career and his work for the Lupus Foundation of America. For the second part, Ian shares details about a future film project, his most kept secrets, the items he would bring to a deserted island, and disability language and ableism.
(Read Part 1 of the interview with Ian Harding here.)
“You aren’t supposed to ask me complicated questions,” I say half-way through my conversation with Ian, who keeps turning the spotlight on me. He is much more interested in the stories I have to tell, he says. I am not used to being on the receiving end of an interview, but I immediately feel like Ian is genuinely curious about my experience with chronic illness and disability.
The fact that Ian treats every person he meets as his equal is not the only thing that sets him apart from other popular Hollywood actors. Ian has been a strong voice for the Lupus Foundation of America since his acting career took off and continues to work with other organizations like Chronisch Cool, a German non-profit focusing on people living with lupus and inflammatory bowel diseases, to support people with chronic conditions and disabilities around the globe. As a son to a mom living with lupus, Ian dedicates more than his time and money to support these charitable causes; he also serves as an ally to the disability community by educating the people around him about ableism and appropriate disability language.
Fighting ableism and stigma: Talking about disability language
Karina Sturm: I just noticed that you know some things about disability language as well.
Ian Harding: I like to pretend that. (Laughs). Then I get into a room with people suffering from chronic illnesses, and I realize I don’t know anything.
Karina: Yes, and here is an example: You are not supposed to say “suffering”.
Ian: Oh, really?
(Ian changed his language after this point in the interview).
Karina: It’s not really accepted by people with chronic illnesses. It’s more that we live with a chronic illness but don’t generally identify as ‘suffering’ all the time. We are not defined by our chronic illness. But, of course, not everyone agrees. We are all different.
Ian: Right. It’s a tough line to walk on, especially for somebody who is not living with a chronic illness. Knowing the proper verbiage is hard. For example, is it ‘living with’ or ‘fighting against?’
Karina: I get it. And people have different opinions about the correct language, too. Apparently, some words are clearly offensive without a doubt, like ‘cripple,’ for example. But then other words, like ‘suffering,’ aren’t as offensive to people with chronic illnesses.
Ian: Yeah. The other day, I heard somebody say, “This person’s not crippled.” Isn’t it strange when you hear a phrase where you’re like, “Wait a minute. Is this 1950?”
Karina: I’ve heard that a couple of times about myself.
Ian: Wow. What do you say to those people?
Karina: It’s complicated and depends on the circumstances and how offended I feel. If it is an older person, and I get the impression he or she genuinely thought they are using the right word, I might let it slip and ignore it. But if I feel like the other person’s intention is clearly to offend or hurt me, I correct them and try to educate them about ableism and proper language.
Ian: I had situations happen a couple of times in different contexts where I felt I had to say something, especially because I have been very lucky and privileged in many ways. So if I am in a conversation with a bunch of people that don’t have a chronic illness, and they will lean in at one point and say something like, “Yeah, I don’t think it’s that bad,” I feel like it is my duty, whether I’m talking about people living with chronic illnesses or about misogyny or something similar, to be the person that stands with that community, and not to be the person that exacerbates the problem. And often, I find that if I am the one to correct someone’s language, it gets through.
Karina: I really appreciate you using your status to educate people about ableism.
Ian behind the camera: Producing a documentary about people living with chronic illnesses.
Ian: Did we just get completely off-track again?
Karina: Yes. (Laughs). Now, let’s talk about your future plans. I heard you will be involved in a documentary featuring people with chronic illnesses. Can you tell me a bit more about this?
Ian: Yes. So the film is something that came from working with my friend Susanne, who I met while in Germany years ago. She has Crohn’s disease and was grappling with how German society handles this disease. It has to do with the bowels and excrements, and there’s a lot of shame involved. Over the past couple of years, she has worked hard to try and eradicate that shame from her life by talking about it and by showing people that it’s not weird or gross or abnormal.
So we have this idea of doing a documentary where we explore different people’s lives with these chronic illnesses, some of which are more common – Crohn’s is not a totally uncommon disease – but then also the extremely rare ones. Telling those stories and doing it on a global scale is something that is very interesting to us. Also, often the narrative around people with chronic illnesses is one where you hear the somber piano playing in the background, and it feels like a bad Hallmark movie. We want to flip that narrative. We’d love to show nuance, how they live with their condition, but also how their lives have been shaped by it. So some of it will not be happy and inspiring.
People love those narratives in a film: Stories about how people overcame something. But it’s okay to say that a person has really, really struggled but is still living a decent life. They didn’t run a marathon when they were told they’re never going to run again, but they have a good and full life, regardless of whatever diagnosis they got.
Karina: Do you know what ‘inspiration porn’ means?
Karina: Because that’s what you described a minute ago as something you don’t want to do with your film. So that’s cool.
Ian: Yeah. We don’t want to produce a film that makes people feel bad about their achievements either. We’re simply trying to inspire empathy and a balanced point of view and empathize that it’s acceptable to lead a good, decent life with a chronic illness, as opposed to being ‘the sick person that has climbed every peak over 12,000 feet in the world.’ If something makes me feel bad about myself, as somebody who is ‘able-bodied,’ then I can’t imagine how somebody who, for example, has Crohn’s disease but isn’t a world-champion powerlifter must feel about these kinds of portrayals.
Karina: What’s your involvement in this documentary? Are you going to be behind or in front of the camera?
Ian: I think a little bit of everything? Both Susanne and I love to travel. So there’s something selfish about this. We want to create a film, but we also want to go and see the world. And we love the idea of meeting people in different parts of the world. I am hoping I will be in front of the camera for some of it. I remember growing up, always loving those nature and Anthony Bourdain documentaries, where he goes and meets people. That’s always been exciting to me. It is believed that actors can only be actors, not hosts. They can’t do both. But now, that’s becoming increasingly untrue. So yes, I hope to be in front of the camera, and Susanne, who does not want to be in front of the camera, is slowly realizing that she might be. (Laughs). We also have an amazing team behind the camera, which is good because when it comes to producing, I do not have the mental fortitude for it. We’re hoping to get that film project off the ground in the coming year. It is a bit hard to travel during a global pandemic, especially to meet with immunocompromised people. (Irony). It feels like the worst time to try and plan something like this. But we know once there’s a vaccine and we have different safety protocols in place, and the numbers start to go down, we’re going to make it happen.
Listen to the interview with Ian Harding on ABILITY Magazine’s podcast.
Deserted islands, Heavy Metal and most kept secrets.
Karina: This all sounds really cool. Thanks for taking on such a project. To finish this interview, I want people to get to know you a little better. So I prepared some very random questions I hope you haven’t heard too many times before.
Ian: What do you think of plaid as a passion? (Laughs). Sorry, go ahead.
Karina: I have just started reading your book, and you know I am in Chicago right now. The cardinal is the official bird of Illinois and also a big part in some of your book’s chapters. Can you tell me a story about your favorite bird?
Ian: I have so many favorite birds because I attach experiences with that bird. I saw my most recent favorite bird right before the quarantine happened in the States. My friend and I had seen that a LeConte’s thrasher was spotted in this one area an hour and a half north of Los Angeles.
So we took my Subaru four-wheel-drive car and went out to the desert area. We flew down these back roads, looking for it where it had last been spotted. And we’re going up and over ditches and climbed over cacti. You spend so much time preparing and looking for it that you’re expecting it to be this amazing moment when you actually see the bird. But then we didn’t see it all day. And as we’re walking back to the car, it was perched on the car. It was so fun to see the personality of this bird and the way it moved. Just to give a complex answer to a really easy question.
Karina: No, this was interesting. Now, tell me about the three items you would bring to a deserted island.
Ian: Items, not creatures, right? Because two of them are right here.
(Ian turns the camera around and shows me his two dogs.)
This one is Mochi, the female, and this is Bailey.
Karina: So those were two of your items?
Ian: Great. What would I bring in terms of objects? Whenever I get this question, I love the idea of just accepting that you’re probably going to die.
If we just say, “You’re stuck on a deserted island. Choose three items. Go!” I usually ask, “Can we go further: Is there any hope of rescue?”
Karina: All right, there is no hope of rescue.
Ian: Good. This will be great for ABILITY Magazine. (Laughs). I would definitely bring a good, long book, probably an ax to try and make a fire, and I think I would also bring a photo album. There’s this one photo album I’m thinking of in particular. It has all of the pictures of family and friends and people from my past. So I can look at that as I slowly waste away. (Chuckles). Or at least I’d have something to burn to keep me warm.
Karina: (Laughs). You would not do that.
Ian: Well, that’s why I bring that huge book.
Karina: Yeah, that’s better.
Ian: So, what would you bring?
Karina: Oh, gosh. Why do you keep interviewing me? Okay, let me think. I would probably bring good music, likely Heavy Metal; something like In Flames.
Ian: Wait, wait, wait. Backtrack. What do you mean, Heavy Metal? What bands?
Karina: I like In Flames, Children of Bottom, maybe some Nightwish, Apocalyptica. I think I would need that to survive.
Ian: What’s the most recent metal album you discovered and that you loved but didn’t expect to love? – I am completely going away from the deserted island question because I made it a bit grim, and I don’t think we need to go there.
Karina: Halestorm! They have a very strong female lead, which I appreciate.
Ian: What do you think of Bring Me the Horizon? Were they a little too electronic for you?
Karina: I never listened to them, honestly.
Ian: I enjoyed some of their earlier stuff. I’m the guy that actually went to a Slipknot concert in high school.
Karina: Oh, nice. I’ve seen them live too.
Ian: What did you listen to in high school?
Karina: Mainly Linkin Park. That was basically the first band that got me into Heavy Metal. I’m not sharing what I listened to before because that’s embarrassing.
(I was a Backstreet Boys fan before…)
Ian: I do have a funny story related to Heavy Metal. I was listening to Rage Against the Machine probably two or three years ago in this gym in East LA. It’s a very corporate gym. And Rage Against the Machine is like the epitome of anti-corporate. I look up while doing a chest press, pretending to work out, and I see the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine.
So I was like, “Wait a minute.” But actually, I think he, along with me and a bunch of other people left when we found out that the owner of the gym was donating to Trump’s campaign. But that’s another story for another time.
Karina: That was a good story! But I don’t want to keep you too long, so I’ll just ask you two more questions if that’s okay?
Ian: Yes, please.
Karina: If you could only speak one word today, what would you say?
Ian: The first thing that comes to mind is love…
Karina: Awe, that’s so romantic.
Ian: …or, depending on whether I’m watching the news, maybe Scheißkopf (roughly translates to shithead), but I think that’s two words.
Karina: I’m not sure if anyone in Germany would actually use that word.
Ian: I feel like it’s an American thing where I just put these two words together. Why don’t we stick with my first answer?
Karina: Agreed. It was a bit better. (Laughs). Okay. Here comes my last question. What’s something you do in secret that nobody should ever know about?
Ian: Of course you would ask that. What can I say that is legal and won’t actually get me arrested? (Laughs).
Especially in LA, we have this culture where you constantly need to be on the hustle and where everyone asks you, “What are you doing? What are you working on?” And if you’re not hustling, you shouldn’t be here. That’s the mentality. It’s encapsulated by these people on Instagram that post things like #nodaysoff, which sounds like a miserable existence. The thing that I do sometimes is I’ll literally just take a whole day to read a book. And it’s the most luxurious thing to do because people have to work so hard, especially to live in these huge cities. You know that. I live in LA; you live in San Francisco. The fact that I can do this – being able to just sit here, read a book, walk the dogs, talk to my wife – makes me feel a little guilty. That’s what I wouldn’t want to post about on Instagram. You want to share when you are traveling or, ‘This is what I’m working on,’ or your new haircut – all these useless things. So this is a long way of saying that I am the master of doing nothing. This probably doesn’t make me look as ambitious as I am.
Karina: No, this was great. And very honest.
Ian: I hope that I didn’t disappoint you with my last answer. You were probably looking for some great soundbites. For example, you ask, “What’s something that you do which nobody should know about?” And without thinking, I answer, “Cannibalism!” (Laughs).
Karina: But I don’t feel like that’s what you are doing in secret. Do you?
Ian: I don’t know. It depends on the day of the week. (Laughs). No, I’m kidding, for the record.
Karina: Yeah, I did get that, even though jokes are hard to translate between languages.
Ian: Oh, boy, people might think, “This guy is sadistic. He is talking about burning photos of his family for warmth.”
Karina: (Laughs). I can add a little smiley for clarity if you want to…
Ian: Like hashtag LOL.
Karina: …but I feel like people will understand that you were joking.
Ian: I don’t know.
Karina: I won’t make you sound shitty. Promise.
Ian: Thank you. I don’t know if this was what you needed at all.
Karina: It totally was, and I had a lot of fun. We should do this again once your film has progressed a bit further.
Ian: Yeah, that’d be cool.
(Ian turns around and looks behind him).
I just realized this random plant behind me. (Laughs). Listen, thank you very much for your time. We’ll definitely be chatting soon once this film becomes a thing, and hopefully it does.
Karina: I really am looking forward to this. It sounds like such a great project.
Ian: Yeah. Thank you so much. Have a good weekend!
Karina: Thank you! Have a good one. Bye.
Ian in Part 1:
Cover Image: Sophie Hart
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