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Jared Harris as Francis Crozier in The Terror.Aidan Monaghan/AMC

Jared Harris has played his share of doomed men – Andy Warhol in I Shot Andy Warhol; Captain Mike in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, who drives his tugboat into a German submarine; King George VI, whose gentle death sets in motion The Crown. He excels at it. There’s a look that passes over his face, a clammy wash of self-doubt, quickly masked by false cheer. He used it to great effect playing Lane Pryce, Don Draper’s financial officer on Mad Men: As Pryce coped with unrequited crushes, unfulfilled ambition and financial malfeasance, Harris’s grin became more and more sickly.

In his new AMC limited series The Terror, that look has returned. It’s a fictionalized account of the 1845 Franklin expedition, the ill-fated attempt to find the Northwest Passage with two ships, the Terror and the Erebus. Harris plays naval captain Francis Crozier, separated from his shipmates by what Harris calls “the moats around him”: Anglo-Irish, he’s of a lower class than his fellow officers; he’s an alcoholic; and when he sees clearly that the passage is a fantasy and urges Franklin to choose life over glory and turn back, he’s dismissed as weak. “We’re in the discovery service,” Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) chides him. “Close is worse than nothing; it’s worse than anything in the world.”

Harris, 56, welcomes those clammy moments. “It gives you a tremendous amount to play against,” he says in a phone interview. His voice is mostly lilting, with regular cracks. “The person you’re playing must have feelings, but if he’s not able to show them, then just the subtlest rumblings and nuances can say an incredible amount. With Crozier, I had to keep finding ways of believing that he was going to make it out of there.”

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The Terror is a fictionalized account of the 1845 Franklin expedition.

Crozier’s melancholy was genuine: Harris found a cache of Crozier’s letters, sent off before he and all his men disappeared in the Arctic Circle. His marriage proposal had been rejected, and “there’s a sad resignation that the hustle and bustle of the sea will have to be his life,” Harris says. “Crozier was shipped off into the navy when he was 13 years old. So this would have been his one chance at a personal, romantic connection. It’s sad to read a letter where a person realizes that is never going to happen. You get the feeling of an unfulfilled life.”

Heroic storytelling doesn’t interest Harris. He prefers fully rounded characters. “We all have our moments where we fail to live up to a challenge,” he says. “When we tell a story, we may leave out the bad bits. But they’re there.”

Growing up in London, Jared learned about storytelling from his actor parents, Richard Harris (who was Irish) and Elizabeth Rees-Williams (who is Welsh). “There was a real passion for storytelling as an artistic pursuit,” he says. “Sitting around the dinner table, I would listen to incredible stories being told, and my parents loved it if you told them a great story. That was a currency. If you learned it, my parents were interested in what you had to say. That was something I accidentally picked up.”

The word “legendary” is always appended to Richard Harris, but if that was a hard shadow to live under, Jared isn’t saying. (His older brother Damien is a director, and his younger brother Jamie is an actor.) His parents divorced when he was 8. His father married American actress Ann Turkel in 1974; they divorced in 1982. His mother married the actor Rex Harrison in 1971; they divorced in 1975. She married Peter Aitken in 1980 and divorced him in 1985. She then married Aitken’s cousin, U.K. politician Jonathan Aitken, in 2003. Jared himself has been married three times, and also had a lengthy relationship with Tahnee Welch, the daughter of the actress Raquel Welch. His second wife, Emilia Fox, is the daughter of the actor Edward Fox. He’s been married to his third wife, the television host Allegra Riggio, since 2013. About his churned upbringing, Harris offers only this: “Apparently I was argumentative,” he says dryly, “but I don’t remember being that way.”

What he remembers are those stories. “I watched my father tell the same stories over and over again, and I loved that, because I would hear how he would change them,” Harris recalls. “He’d change it depending upon the reactions he was getting. If people were responding to a certain part of the story, he’d embellish that part. If it wasn’t landing the same way the next time, he’d skip over to the next beat. I understood it was a fluid process. It was a dialogue with the listeners.”

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Harris in The Terror. The ships on the Franklin Expedition became ice-locked and stayed that way for three years.Nadav Kander/AMC

Harris applied that lesson to his acting. “When you’re doing takes, you’re trying to connect with different parts of the scene,” he says. “You understand what you’re supposed to do, what the narrative responsibility is. But you don’t know what the other actors are going to do with their parts. They’re always a surprise to you, and that’s exciting, because when you respond, the next take is different for both of you.”

It’s the quality of a script’s storytelling that makes him say yes. “I want to be in a story where the telling is nuanced and character-based,” he says. “You can tell immediately, within five to 10 pages, whether you’re in the hands of a writer who really understands what they’re doing, how they’re deploying the characters in pursuit of the narrative. Once you feel that, you can invest in the whole journey, rather than worrying about if the part is any good.”

He’s been offered roles in superhero movies, but turned them down. “The ones that came along, I wouldn’t want to go see them, so why would I be in them?” he says frankly. Saying yes to a fat paycheque “is always tempting, I admit that. They waft it under your nose. But then I think, would I be happy for the next five years, chasing this villain around the world? And if I say yes to this, what things that haven’t yet landed on my desk will I have to say no to? So far I’ve been able to hold out for things that excite me.”

The Terror, based on Dan Simmons’s best-selling novel, adds a supernatural enemy to complicate the expedition, but the reality alone is plenty exciting: The ships became ice-locked and stayed that way for three years; the men suffered from extreme frostbite, starvation, scurvy and lead poisoning from improperly canned food, not to mention boredom and hopelessness. The officers maintained discipline – from insisting the men keep shaving, right up to flogging – but the threat of mutiny increased as the months dragged on.

Filming conditions in Budapest and on Pag Island, Croatia, added to the verisimilitude. Temperatures were so low, they didn’t have to refrigerate the soundstage. The frost that covers the ship and the ground was actually salt; inhaling it thickened the actors’ blood and made it harder to breathe, so their laboured panting looked extra authentic. The sets were claustrophobic, which meant the actors were constantly on top of one another.

That’s what Harris loved about it most. “We really enjoyed each other’s company,” he says. “English actors are a mischievous lot. They love taking the piss out of each other. They’ve got great histories. And they’ve got fantastic stories.”

The Terror premieres March 26 at 9 p.m. EST on AMC.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Jared Harris was married to Tahnee Welch. In fact, they were in a long-term relationship.

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