The Dallas Decoder Interview: Mitch Pileggi

Mitch Pileggi as Harris Ryland

Mitch Pileggi

Mitch Pileggi has become the man to watch on TNT’s “Dallas,” where his venomous character, Harris Ryland, loves to torment the Ewings. I spoke to Pileggi recently about working on the show.

Harris is so mean. Is it hard for you to play him?

No, I like playing him because he is such a jerk. He’s bitter. He’s angry. Ann broke his heart, and whether or not he still loves her is my secret. I think it’s pretty obvious, though. [Laughs] She crushed him — not only his heart, but his huge ego too. But I think there’s going to be some new things you’re going to find out about Harris next season.

Ooh. That sounds exciting. Anything you can tease us with?

No. [Laughs] There were a few hints dropped last season. If they go in the direction that they’re thinking about, it’s going to be pretty interesting. I’m anxious to see what they come up with.

Do you have anything in common with Harris? How are you alike? How are you different?

We’re pretty different. That’s why it’s so easy for me to play him. I can be cranky at times, but not mean-spirited. I would never hurt people the way he does. He definitely has a tender spot in his heart for his daughter, as I do with my daughter. But then again, he also uses his daughter, and that’s something that I would never do. So as far as similarities and differences, I think that’s really it. I look like him. [Laughs]

I’m glad you brought that up. I love the beard. Did you grow that especially for this role?

No, I went to the audition with the mustache and goatee, and then I grew out the whole thing. I just like it. I like the shaved head and I like the beard. I’ve had people who want me to shave it. I tell them: I think this is the way I’m going to work.

The dragon at rest

The dragon at rest

Do you get to collaborate with the writers over Harris’s direction? Or do you get the script and do what you’re told?

Pretty much [the latter] — and that’s the way I’ve always worked. I’m not a writer. I don’t have the discipline it takes to write, so I have a lot of respect for the writers because it’s brutally hard. There are times when they’ll write certain dialogue and I’ll say, “Can I say this instead because it flows out of my mouth better?” And they’re always so receptive to that. Or I’ll throw in a “Rylandism.” Harris always feels like he’s got to have the last word, whether it’s a grunt or an “Alright then.” So they started writing a lot of that.

There’s a great line in Season 2 where Harris is ending a call with Cliff and you call him a paranoid old coot. Is that something you ad-libbed?

That was definitely written. It’s his attitude toward Cliff. He kind of needs him but he hates having to deal with him. He does think he’s a paranoid old coot.

I don’t think he’s wrong about that!

I don’t either. Ken [Kercheval] did a stunning job with that character the last two seasons. When he tells his henchman to go ahead and blow the [rig] even after he knows his daughter’s on it? I thought it was such a powerful moment. You could see how he was agonizing over it, but ultimately he had to make that decision and so he just went to this dark, sick place. Ken was wonderful in that scene.

The way you’re talking, you sound like you’re a fan of the show too.

I am. I love the show and my character. But I think more than anything, I’m a fan of the people I get to work with. I adore Linda [Gray] and Patrick [Duffy] and everybody else. I really wanted to lock horns with Larry [Hagman], but it didn’t happen. The producers had big plans for that. And having had a history on the show from the first go-round, it’s like it’s come full circle.

Let’s talk about that. You did four episodes in the early ’90s as Morrissey, the bad guy J.R. tangled with in the mental institution. What do you remember about that experience?

I actually pulled up one of the scenes the other day. It was really fun to watch myself working with [Larry]. That was really early in my career and I learned so much from just being around him and working with him and watching him. He was such a wonderful actor and person. Especially now, watching myself [acting] with him back then is pretty special.

Did you get to spend much time with him on the new show?

Not really, unfortunately. One of the few conversations I had with him, I went up and introduced myself and we were talking for a bit and he looked at me and says, “Aren’t villains the best?” And I said, “Yes, sir, they are.”

You know, Harris reminds me a lot of J.R. There’s a little bit of gleefulness to your villainy, and I think that’s why so many fans love Harris.

Well, thank you. He doesn’t have quite the twinkle in his eye that Larry gave to J.R., but he’s probably a little — well, I’m not going to say meaner because J.R. did some pretty dastardly things! [Laughs]

Would you like to see Harris become … I don’t want to say softer, but maybe a little more vulnerable?

I think I tried to do that a little bit with [Harris’s daughter] Emma, to bring some humanity to him so he wasn’t just a beast. And of course his relationship with his mother is just so bizarre — and so much fun to play, especially when I’m standing across from Judith Light. She’s such a giving, wonderful actress. I don’t want to be a cardboard cutout of a mustache-twirling villain. Both [executive producers] Michael [Robin] and Cynthia [Cidre] have made an effort to not take him in that direction, and I’m trying not to do that either.

Mama’s here

Mama’s here

I’m glad you brought up Judith Light. What did you think when you found out she was going to be playing your mom?

Well, I thought, “We’re the same age!” [Laughs] And then when she came onto the set for our first scene, we immediately hugged each other. I said, “Mama?” And she gave me sort of a sideways look and said, “Mama’s here.” We just took off from there. Hopefully, the performances made the audience forget that we’re only a few years apart in age.

Well, by golly, I think it did. I was as skeptical as anyone when I read she was going to be playing your mom. But after her first scene, I thought, “OK. This works.”

I think the first scene we had, she comes in and finds me after I’ve been shot. And we were rehearsing the scene and I’m on the ground and she steps over me and says — with a little smile on her face — “Don’t you look up my dress.” [Laughs] I thought, “This is going to be fun.”

So what do you think is going on with Harris and his mom?

Judith Light has her own ideas about this, so I don’t want to speak for her. But I think they’re both just emotionally jacked up. I think he’s been controlled and dominated throughout his life and it definitely affects the person that he is now. And now you can see him doing the same thing with his daughter.

I hope they bring Judith back next year.

I do too, man. I love the fact that she’s on Broadway and doing so well. I’m jealous of that. But to be standing across from her again would be gold. I just want to watch her as a fan. At the beginning of the season, when my character was in bed in the coma and she had that long speech, it was a monumental effort for me to keep my eyes closed and to not watch her.

Let’s talk about the other women in Harris’s life: Ann and Emma, played by Brenda Strong and Emma Bell. You seem to have great chemistry with every actress you’re matched with.

I guess that’s because of who they are. I adore all of them, so we have fun. It’s like the scene where Harris goes to Southfork to take Emma home and Ann tells him to go away. We were shooting that scene and the camera was over her shoulder, filming me. Well, you know when two guys are confronting each other and one of them makes a false move toward the other one? Brenda kind of did that me, right in the middle of the scene. And after they yelled, “Cut,” I said to her, “Did you just do that?” And she says, “Yes, I did!” [Laughs] She does wonderful little things like that.

Do you think there’s any chance that Harris and Ann could ever reconcile?

I don’t know. In this world, anything could happen. But I think she would have to have a pretty good crash and burn to get the point where she’d ever go back to him.

Family court

Family court

Well, after she shot you, I thought, “How are they ever going to redeem this woman?” But I’ll be damned if they didn’t do it.

She did an amazing job with her testimony on the stand. I had to do mine right after she did hers. And when she finished, all of the background actors immediately started applauding — as did I. And they were like, “OK, Mitch, you’re up.” And I thought, “This is great. I’ve got to follow that?” [Laughs]

So what was your favorite Harris scene this season?

The Komodo dragon speech would probably be my favorite. That was written to cut away to other scenes, but after we shot it, they realized that they didn’t have enough dialogue so I had to go back and do more in [post production]. Most of that speech — or at least half of it — is stuff that I recorded later, just standing there and speaking these new lines that they added in. It became even richer than the way it was initially envisioned. The great thing is, you can still hear him crunching on the almonds.

Almonds! That was going to be my next question: What were you eating in that scene?

They were almonds. Initially, they had a bowl of them next to where he was sitting, and I said, I’d like to put some in my hand and hold them up like a Tyrannosaurus Rex shoving food into his face. When we were shooting it, the sound guys were saying, “The crunching is killing us!” I was like, you know what? I think the crunching is part of it. This is a Komodo dragon eating. [Laughs] We ended up leaving a lot of it in.

OK, last question: You’re now part of two huge franchises: “Dallas” and “The X-Files.” Do you still get recognized as Skinner?

Well, there’s this whole new generation of “X-Files” fans now. My daughter’s friends are watching the show. She had a couple of them over to the house, and they were really kind of quiet the whole time they were here. So when they left and I asked her, “Did your friends think I was weird or something?” And she said, “No, Dad! As soon as they walked out the door, they turned to me and said, ‘We didn’t know your dad was Skinner!’” [Laughs] These are 14- and 15-year-old girls. And I’m thinking, “OK, that’s really cool: a whole new generation of fans are discovering the show.” It’s really gratifying.

Share your comments below and read more interviews from Dallas Decoder.


  1. Great interview! He sounds really cool. I’m glad he mentioned the komodo dragon scene as his favorite scene, since I know you like that one too. Also love how much he talks about working with the other actors (Judith, Brenda, etc.).

    • He is very cool. He was extremely gracious and generous with praise for his co-stars. It was clear he really enjoys working with them.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. sunnycd says:

    I always look forward to the interviews on this site. Can’t wait for the next one!

  3. Jennifer Irons says:

    Great interview with mitch! One question I would have liked to have been asked is why mitch left twitter! A lot of us are sad that he stopped tweeting!

  4. This was a great interview. I didn’t like Harris, but now that is probably going to change. You are very lucky to speak with him, and he seem so nice. Love the first picture you posted.

  5. Wow what a treat! He’s perfect for his role and I can’t wait to see where Harris goes next season. Great interview. He seems like a humble man. Maybe that’s why he left Twitter – too much attention and praise lavished upon him!

  6. I’m glad he has such great connections with his co-stars. I think what had me rolling in laughter most is when he said Judith said, “Don’t you look up my dress.”

  7. Barbara fan says:

    thanks for the interview – he is the best “new” character on TNTs Dallas, glad they beefed up the part for S2

  8. I read this interview just before Father’s Day. Great!!!! Harris Ryland is the keystone that completed the bridge between “J.R. Ewing Dallas” and post-J.R. “Dallas.” The komodo dragon speech was really the bridge. I would have to spend a long time describing this. I am sure everyone who watched all of season 2 knows what I mean. If not I will explain. In reality, There were numerous comments about that speech on Dallas Decoder commenting on how J.R. is getting Ryland from beyond the grave. From the moment Bobby reached out to JR asking for his help to go after Harris Ryland, to the letter with J.R.’s warning that Barnes and Ryland will team up against the Ewings.

    I saw a small interview of Mitch Pileggi on “comcast on demand” that was about 2 or 3 minutes in length. I was totally shocked by his cool and easy going friendly personality. I really do not like the character “Harris Ryland” but after reading this interview, I think Mitch Pileggi is a great guy. He has brought so much to Dallas entertainment wise. His family, his personality, and being able to see his flaws. When Ann Ewing shot him, I could honestly put myself in her position and emphasize with her. Even though I am not a mother, I am a parent.

    I see Harris Ryland being painted or revealed like a mosaic. The picture is coming in, one piece at a time. As these pieces come in, we get a better view of the over all big picture of this guy. I am so excited for season 3 after reading this interview.

    With Mitch Pileggi and the rest of the cast, Dallas is clearly the best show on television today.

    • Wow, thanks Jumpsteady! I’m glad you liked this interview. Mitch was super cool. He couldn’t have been any nicer. And I love how you describe Harris as being revealed like a mosaic. I think that’s spot-on and like you, I’m eager to see what we’ll learn about him next.

      Thanks again!


  9. Elisia Ellis says:

    Mitch plays Harris Ryland brilliantly. Hard to think that a friendly, vibrant guy with a good sense of humour could play a villain so well. It’s spine chilling, but as an aspiring actress you’ll be surprised what comes out when you’re acting. I once did a scene where we were all going to slaughter and I had to show what I felt. In the end I ended up crying and the director looked at me asking “Are those real tears?” That landed me on future audition lists, lol. Mitch and the entire Dallas cast are brilliant actors that act with real emotions. Keep it up ya’ll!

    • You described Mitch very well. He’s very friendly and has a great sense of humor. I was really thrilled to interview him.

      Thanks for sharing your comments.


  10. I really enjoy Ryland. He brings humanity to his villain. It is a bizarre idea but I would love to see him develop a flirtation with the scorned Pamela Rebecca.

  11. what’s the first line of Harris ? : to Ann, “give me a hug”. Even in this line, (well, more east after knowing his mom) you can see the family opressing background


  1. […] first of all, Mitch Pileggi is one of my favorite actors to work with. He’s so incredibly present. And I love what he does […]

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