Ian Harding is an actor, teen choice award winner, author, and passionate bird lover. Besides playing Ezra Fitz, an attractive, yet controversial character in the series, Pretty Little Liars, he is also known for his parts in Ford v Ferrari (2019) and Adventureland (2009). The 34-year-old is a passionate advocate for people with lupus, an empathic 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, ABILITY’s Karina Sturm speaks with Ian about his childhood in Germany, his acting career and his work for the Lupus Foundation of America.
“How are your pain levels today?” is the first question Ian asked me during our conversation a week ago. “I am having a really tough day pain-wise,” I respond. “Oh, I am sorry to hear that. May I ask why that is?” he says. Before I realize it, I hear myself talking about my period and how it influences my condition, and we have a good laugh about his vast knowledge of menstruation cycles and the related challenges. Ian isn’t quite like his colleagues – I learn this early on.
A few days later, Ian takes 90 minutes out of his Saturday while moving houses to chat with me. He is relaxing on his couch in dark grey PJs with unkempt hair, which I appreciate as I am dressed in my pandemic attire: dressy blouse on top, sweatpants on the bottom. As a journalist, I should be leading this interview, but before I can ask my first question, I find myself being interviewed by Ian.
“Ein großes Bier bitte:” Remembering Ian Harding’s childhood in Germany.
Ian Harding: I love interviewing people because I don’t actually want to drone on and on about myself. I would rather hear what you have to say, but that may not be the purpose of this article.
Karina Sturm: I mean, it’s fun – (chuckles) – but let’s dive into that first question for you now? You were born in Germany, which, as a German native, is of course something I am interested in. Can you tell me a little bit about how long you lived there and when you came to the US?
Ian: I feel like whenever I meet somebody from Germany, and that fact comes out, I can see a bit of joy in their eyes. And then I’d tell them that I left when I was about three years old, and I could barely string a sentence together in German, and they would get very sad. You can even see this when I go through customs in Germany. I’ll go up to the German customs officer, and he or she will look at me and see that my place of birth is Heidelberg, Germany. They would just spout off this slew of questions in German. I would tell them, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I was born in Heidelberg because my parents were in the military, and we were stationed there for three years.” I only remember glimpses of it. I’ve been back to Heidelberg since, and it’s very strange seeing the buildings and recognizing them, or being able to go down the street, saying something like, “We’re going to turn here, and there’s a grocery store.” It’s funny that this place feels somewhat familiar and yet so foreign at the same time.
Karina: Can you still speak some German? Do you remember a specific phrase?
Ian: One mistake I always make when Germans ask me, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” (Do you speak German?) I go, “Ein bisschen.” (A bit). Then they respond, “Oh, awesome.” And boom. They say a long sentence. I’m like, “Oh, sorry. That’s all I know.” I think I can get around in German cities, though. I also appreciate that in the German culture, if somebody who is not German can speak German, there’s an excitement from the Germans because they know it’s a very hard language. And the fact that you would learn it is really amazing to them. So I wish I spoke it a little bit better, but here in Los Angeles aren’t too many opportunities to do so.
Karina: You should at least know how to order a beer, or how to say, “I love you” in German, so that you can impress your wife.
Ian: Ich möchte ein großes Bier bitte. (Can I have a large beer, please?)
Karina: You mean a Maß beer? (A ‘Maß’ is 1 Liter of beer traditionally served at German celebrations like the Oktoberfest.)
Ian: Ein Schwarzbier, Hefeweizen, Weißbier, Weiß mit Schuss, Schnapps. Also, I try to eat as little meat as possible – I am not entirely vegetarian; I can’t even say that anymore – except when I go to Germany.
Karina: Oh yes, that’s very hard in Germany.
Ian: Especially because I love the fried Schweinehaxe (roasted ham hock; a traditional German dish). It’s delicious. Or the blood sausage. So I know how to ask for food items or where the train station and the airport are. But if you want to start talking about German literature, I’m pretty useless.
From jellyfish to Ezra Fitz: Becoming famous overnight.
Karina: So you came to the US when you were a kid. When did you realize you wanted to become an actor?
Ian: I think I was always kind of performing, but growing up, every other month, I wanted to be something else. I wanted to have many different careers, and I would imagine stories about living that specific life. I feel like that’s probably when my acting career started, because you are imagining yourself in a different role and empathize with someone else’s life. At one point, I was obsessed with the idea of becoming a Navy SEAL. And given how much of a softy I am, I don’t think that would have panned out. But I liked the idea of playing a Navy SEAL. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I started doing plays. And I only began playing because I wasn’t as athletic as the other guys that played soccer, which was my sport, and because I went to an all-boys school and the young women from surrounding schools would come to our plays. I felt like that’s a great way to meet ladies. At some point, this became my afterthought, and I just wanted to do plays. Then I got a university degree and kind of found myself in Los Angeles. And here we are, talking about my career.
Karina: I just started watching Pretty Little Liars yesterday. How did you get that role?
Ian: I was very sort of lucky; not sort of, I was extremely lucky. It was the first audition for a lead in a TV show that I went to in Los Angeles. And my manager, who I still work with to this day, said, “Look, this is all just about getting practice. You know this already, but it’s kind of a stretch for you, and it’s your first pilot audition. Just go in, have fun, and learn how to audition.” And because I didn’t have the pressure of needing to get the job, I went in and just messed around. And they were like, “Yeah, this is great.” So I kept auditioning because they kept calling me back, and then I met Lucy who’s the lead of the show, and we hit it off, and the next thing you know, they are telling me I got this part. My manager is still very pragmatic, even to this day. He said, “Have fun with the pilot. Just because you do this doesn’t mean it’ll get picked up.” That’s something I only learned recently, years later, after so many pilots have not been picked up. Then it went to series, and all of a sudden, it became a thing.
I remember being in this area in Los Angeles right by the Grove, which is a famous shopping mall. I was going to get dinner to bring back to my apartment. All of a sudden, I hear screaming. Then I realized that the screaming was actually because I was there. And I thought, “Oh shit, it’s real now.” That’s how it started, and, boom, seven years go by.
Listen to the interview with Ian Harding on ABILITY Magazine’s podcast.
Karina: How did you feel about being recognized in public all of a sudden, and people screaming because of you?
Ian: It was a lot, but I was really grateful. I was what I would call ‘fame-adjacent.’ Many other people on my show were more in the spotlight. There are some perks of fame that I enjoy, but I’m a bad celebrity because I cannot keep stoking the fire of my own image, but maybe that’s what is required to be a big film or TV star. So when it first started happening, it was kind of cool. But I was never at that level where I was being hounded by the paparazzi.
This one time – I was outside of an event – when a paparazzi started taking photos of me, I actually asked him, “Is it a slow night or something like that? Why are you wasting your time on me?” He responded, “No, man. But is another famous person coming out with you right now?” And I said, “No.” So we started talking. He had stopped taking photos by this point. Then he said, “Good night.” This was the friendliest paparazzi I’ve ever met. But that’s only happened three times in my career, which has been a joy.
Karina: Is there any role you would never play, for example, going fully nude, playing a super bad guy or a jellyfish (again), because that sounded a bit traumatic. (Ian talks about playing a jellyfish in his memoir Odd Birds.)
Ian: Ha, nice. Playing a jellyfish in college was so lovely. It was for this one specific project that was supposed to get you out of your comfort zone. And it did, because as an actor, I constantly needed to be doing something, and I couldn’t just be still. So I had a teacher that told me I was going to be a jellyfish, and I had to float in an imaginary sea for hours on end. But is there any role I would never play? I would like to not do the same roles again and again and again. I think I don’t want to repeat certain patterns. But no, otherwise, I’m really open to anything.
Ian: What role would you like to play?
Karina: Me? I’m not sure what kind of role I could play. I’m not a good actor. You know I am very ‘German:’ direct and straight into your face. I am bad at lying, and I’m not sure if I could pretend I’m someone else.
Ian: I would say that those things would probably make you a fantastic actor because ideally, you’re not lying. You are actually experiencing whatever is happening. That’s quite tough when you’re doing a scene where your whole family is dead, and you have this fake plastic ball sitting in your arms, and you have to make this real. But I think you’d be great. I’m also that jerk that tells everybody they should be an actor because I love it so much.
Karina: I think I enjoy being behind the camera a lot more. I want to be the person that puts other people in the spotlight. I don’t like being the center of attention, and I would not deal well with paparazzi or press.
Ian: I love the work itself, but I don’t think I’m the brightest person out there because I enjoy performing, but I don’t actually like everything else that comes with it, like the need to constantly put yourself out there on social media. I still get weird looks if I’m at a party and someone says, “Oh, we’re going to take a photo.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t really want to take any photos.” Then they are telling me that I am on camera for a living. I know, but I never really watched what I do. It’s fun to be in front of a camera, but I never want to see the end product. But what was your question?
Karina (laughs): Have you actually never watched one single episode of Pretty Little Liars then?
Ian: I think I got to season two or three, but after a while, I realized that I couldn’t do this because I became so aware of my performance, and it got very shallow and looks-oriented. So I stopped watching it because it felt unhealthy.
Karina: You basically became a very popular person overnight, right? I saw a photo on Instagram which you took with a disposable camera because you couldn’t afford a phone, and this was right at the beginning of filming Pretty Little Liars. How did it feel going from not being able to afford a phone to becoming a teen star overnight?
Ian: Yeah, it was very quick. I still haven’t been able to wrap my mind around it because what I’m experiencing as an actor now is what most actors experience right upfront, which is that you are auditioning, auditioning, and auditioning, but nothing is happening. And then boom, something happens. And you’re like, “Oh yes, here we go.” But then that thing dies, or the movie never sees the light of day, or it doesn’t get distribution, or you are cut from it, which has happened a bunch. And after a while, you start thinking, “Do I just suck?”
I didn’t know how to process becoming popular other than by being a little bit more withdrawn in public because it’s a very weird thing if people recognize you, but at the same time, you feel bad for feeling bad about it because you’re so lucky.
I think that’s one of the reasons that I – especially at the beginning of my career – threw myself into trying to do something for the Lupus Foundation because the world I was living in felt so ridiculous to me. I would get paid for showing up for a day of work while I would think of my mom, somebody who has a chronic illness but was also a captain in the US Navy. And she didn’t make nearly as much as I did. And I felt like I have to do some good. That’s how I dealt with it. It was just absurd. I cared about different things than the people around me, whose dress wasn’t ready for the premiere, or their BMW was scratched. I thought this was just gross. I needed to do something worthwhile.
“I wasn’t living like a monk, but I needed to do something:” Becoming a spokesperson for the Lupus Foundation.
Karina: You just made the transition to your advocacy for me, which would have been my next question. Do you think that growing up with your mom, someone with a chronic illness, changed your perspective on life since you just mentioned the people around you were worried about their dresses, and your main concern was doing something useful with your money and your fame.
Ian: Don’t get me wrong. If you look back at my Instagram through those years, I was also traveling a bunch. That was my splurge. I didn’t want to get things; I wanted experiences. So by no means was I living like a monk. I wasn’t living in a hut, driving a used bicycle while giving all my money to charity. But yes, I had a different perspective growing up because my mom – even though I didn’t know the full extent of her battle with lupus – would say, “I’m very sorry. I have to lay down now,” when she was extremely fatigued. But she still managed to raise two kids.
There was always the thought in the back of my mind that today might not be a good day for her because of this thing that I couldn’t see. It wasn’t like she was coughing up blood or something like that.
And we had some tough days where I would be really mad that my mom wouldn’t come to my soccer game. It was not like I was going to play anyways because I sucked, but it wasn’t until I got older that I recognized all the things that she had accomplished in spite of this disease and realized how dangerous it actually was. When I was older, she told me that when she was diagnosed, the doctor said she should make sure to have a will and that everything is handled because the average life expectancy at that point, from the time of diagnosis, was about eight years. She was around 40. So essentially, they told her that she was lucky if she saw 50. I can’t even begin to imagine. And then you’ve got two young children. She’s now – I don’t want to say – way past 50; a decade or so. I just complimented her on one side and backhanded her on the other. (Laughs). So I’d always thought, “How do you redirect your luck in some way?” I thought I could just use my stupid fame to generate money for organizations that I believe in. Did I answer your question from an hour and a half ago?
Karina: (Laughs). Yes, you did! Do you still remember a memory related to when you realized your mom was kind of different from other moms?
Ian: I noticed little things when growing up. For instance, she was always covered head to toe because she was photo-sensitive to the sun, and she would always wear these huge hats because she would have a flare or a reaction if she was exposed to too much sunlight. And then there was one moment where the gravity of her diagnosis finally hit me. I was in college, and I had been given this rubber bracelet that had a lupus emblem on it. My friend from college said, “Do you know somebody with lupus?” And I said, “Yeah, my mom has it. Do you know somebody with lupus?” He responded, “I did.” Past tense. His mother had had lupus, and she died. Back then, I didn’t know people could die from it. So that was one of those moments where suddenly everything fell into place.
Karina: Could you talk a little about the unique role you have as someone who advocates for lupus, but also someone who doesn’t have lupus himself.
Ian: It’s a strange role to have because sometimes there are people that actually have the chronic illness themselves but don’t want to be an advocate or the face for it, especially if they’re in the public eye. I know several actors who have lupus, some of whom are open about it, but some of whom are not, for reasons like if they want to be in a movie, it might be hard to get them insured for the role because they’re ‘sick.’ And sometimes, they just don’t want to be seen as a sick person, because, you know, “you need to be strong; you aren’t allowed to show any weakness.” And that puts people who actually have the disease in a very tricky situation.
So it’s different coming from me, somebody who does not have the disease, but who knows firsthand that lupus is terrible because I’ve experienced the effects of having a mother who, despite her best efforts, could only be present in my life so much. She was constantly around and a fantastic mother, but she missed out on certain things because she was having a lupus flare, or we couldn’t play outside because she wasn’t able to move her hands.
The general public feels a bit icky and unsure about chronic illness because people don’t want to see themselves in that role. What I’ve experienced, especially when it comes to any sort of charity work, is that people love supporting things that are ‘simpler,’ but when we are talking about chronic illness, there’s a weird disconnect. People don’t understand lupus the way they understand cancer, for example. Everybody knows breast cancer because it could kill you. Yes, lupus can kill you too, but mainly, especially these days, it’s a quality of life issue. Especially in America, there is this idea of, “Well, if it’s not going to kill you, and you are ‘just’ in pain a lot, suck it up.” Obviously, I don’t believe that, but I think that’s the mentality.
So I think having me, somebody who is – for lack of a better phrase – neuro-typical and able-bodied in the sort of shitty way that we think about this phrase, say, “Lupus is bad and does need attention,” helps to get the message through.
Read more about Ian in Part 2:
In conversation with Ian Harding about ableism, disability language, future film projects and most kept secrets.
Cover image by Sophie Hart
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