For seven years, Ian Harding played English teacher Ezra Fitz on Pretty Little Liars. It was a role that polarized fans of the show, who often went from loving the character one minute to condemning him for his occasional sketchiness the next. Now, five months after the Freeform series aired its final episode, Harding has hung up Ezra’s sweater vest for good. For his latest project, Harding is taking on the role of yet another teacher in the new social media-focused film People You May Know, on digital and on demand Nov. 28. And while his character, Phillip, resides in a world far removed from Rosewood, Pretty Little Liars fans will likely be pleased with Harding’s latest portrayal.
“I actually think they may see it as almost a continuation of Ezra,” Harding recently told InStyle. “Like, if Ezra had his way, he would just move out to the country and leave Rosewood behind—which he should’ve done anyway, because it sounds like a horrible place. I don’t know why he didn’t leave after season two. No human would keep me there. Sorry, fans, but if a bunch of people were dying in a town where everybody was cool with it, I would be out. I wouldn’t have stayed for Aria if my life depended on it.”
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While his latest character is out of the ever-doomed Rosewood, Phillip does have a few of the same personality traits as Ezra. “I feel like he’s a continuation of someone who’s like, ‘This is my life. This is what I want. I hate social media. Let me live in my bubble,’” said Harding. “I think people will say, ‘Yeah that’s where Ezra’s headed.’ But I think the next couple of parts that I take on will have to be decidedly different, because nobody wants to be pegged as the wet blanket professor—and that’s where I’m headed towards.” Scroll down for our full chat with Harding, in which he dishes on navigating Instagram, moving on from PLL, and bonding with Usher over a particularly sweaty red carpet experience (yes, really).
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What initially drew you to this project?
Honestly, I read the script and I really liked it because I thought it was a very pertinent movie. I actually went in for [the part of] the best friend of our lead male character, and just once I got in there, [my co-star] Kaily [Smith Westbrook] said, “You know what, what if we maybe were to have you read for Phil, my husband.” As the part was fleshed out a little bit more, I realized that was the part I wanted to go for, because it’s the complete opposite of me as a person. Also Phillip, her husband, is the guy who checked that city box—he lived the wild life in New York, was tired of paying out his nose for small apartments, thought that everyone was really vapid, and basically gave his wife a chance to go be an actress. And when it didn’t pan out, they both agreed that they would head to the country, where he’d get tenure at a local university and that’s how it would play out. He’s totally into that life, and I don’t think she is. Then, social media stirs up in her this desire to go give it another shot, and the story unfolds that way. That’s a really crappy synopsis, but it’s a fun movie, to say the least.
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Usher is in the movie. Did you get to work with him at all?
You know, other than Kaily, I worked with nobody. I met most of the cast at the premiere the other night. And the only interaction that I had with Usher—which was lovely, for the three minutes—was when he and I were on the red carpet taking photos and I was sweating like an animal. For some reason I wore a jacket, and he wore a similar jacket, sort of like a bomber-type thing. And I kind of looked at him, and he looked at me and said, “I think the jacket was a bad choice.” I was like, “I think the jacket was a bad choice.” And we joked about how we were sweating profusely. But, hey! That’s a sentence I never thought I’d say to him. So I think life box checked.
You mentioned that the character is very different from you. Would you say he’s also a departure from past characters you’ve played?
Somewhat. I mean—big surprise!—he’s a teacher. Apparently I have that quality to me, naturally. But I have a slight aversion to social media and Phil hates it, period. I don’t know what Ezra Fitz’s social media standing was. I imagine he didn’t have one. That was never addressed. But we’re all kind of similar. I think every role you do is some kind of aspect of you.
How do you think social media changes the way you think about your relationships,?
My social media world is detached from my friendship world. I’ll have friends in real life that I don’t follow on social media, because I don’t really look at social media as the way of connecting to friends. For me, social media is like a business tool. Yes, it’s advertising, but it’s also putting out things that I think are important, like if our president issues a travel ban or something like that, well, here’s the research saying that it’ll do absolutely nothing. You know, putting that out into the world. Along with, “Hey thanks, such and such company for sponsoring this post and helping me pay my mortgage.” So it’s a tool to me. If I want to actually connect with friends, I call them.
What line do you draw for yourself in terms of what you share and what you keep private?
I don’t really post anything too personal. I’ll post photos that were taken inside my house, or I’ll post my dog. But in terms of loved ones, significant others, family … I don’t really do it, just because I don’t think there’s any need to. I think also from an actor perspective, you want to keep yourself as somewhat visible but invisible at the same time. You don’t really want to be known, you don’t want people like, “Oh, I know exactly who he is as a person.” I think that can affect, maybe, the parts that you’re given. Also, at the same time, I know my place. My mom is a pretty private person, and if I was making Snapchat videos of her all the time, I think A, she would hit me and B, she just wouldn’t appreciate it. So I don’t do it a ton. Some people are okay with it, like my good friend Shay Mitchell. She rocks that business. She will put her whole life out there, and I think she is cool with that.
You get a crazy number of comments every time you post. Do you read any of them?
I don’t really read too many of the comments. If I want to communicate with fans, usually I go on Twitter. If I get a mention that isn’t like, “I hate you, I hope you die,” then I’ll respond. Sometimes it can be as simple as a younger fan will be like, “My favorite color is blue, what’s yours?” So, I’m like, “Mine’s blue too” [laughs]. Or, somebody will ask what book I’m reading right now and I’ll say that. But if somebody came to me one day and said you’re going to have a very long, sustained career and you will never need social media again, I don’t think I would have social media. I would have maybe Twitter, just for that purpose alone, to check in once and a while and chat with people briefly. That’s pretty much the extent of my communication.
What do you think is the craziest misconception about you that’s out there?
The upside of social media is you can craft how you want people to see you in some way. On Pretty Little Liars, if I’m wearing a ton of sweater vests and constantly journaling about my feelings and I want people to suddenly think I’m a badass, well then, you know, I can start posting pictures of myself riding motorcycles naked [laughs]. I don’t know, I’m trying to think what would be a good sort of image changer. But I think my only sort of image or branding theme is “Don’t be an a—hole.” And that’s pretty much it. I have no strategy other than that. But, you’d be shocked at how hard that is. I mean all of Instagram is just [a] humble brag. You’re trying to be like, “Oh listen, I’m just a normal guy making some breakfast,” but you see the rest of somebody’s house and it’s this mansion. Or, “Sunday stroll with the boys,” and you’re in a Maserati. In my attempts to not be a d-ck, I think I still come off as a d-ck.
Do you miss playing Ezra at all?
I miss the set. Seeing those people frequently is something that I miss. I think with Ezra, I feel like I checked that box. There wasn’t much else to explore, and in some way that show felt almost like grad school in some ways. It was like a nice bubble, and I had a great time. I have bad memories, I have amazing memories, and it was just such a well-rounded experience. But it was time for it to end when it did. So, no, I’m happy that he’s been put to rest—I say it like he’s dead, I mean, who knows if Marlene King comes to us in 10 years, like, “You want to do a Netflix reunion type thing where the stakes are higher and somebody dies and there’s full-frontal nudity?” Like, sure why not! [laughs] That sounds wild. But no, for right now, I feel good about how it ended.