A Walk in the Park with Ian Harding | Balancing the Natural World and Hollywood
Top photo by Sophie Hart. Others by Justin Zsebe.
Over the last seven years, you may have seen Ian Harding playing Mr. Fitz on the show Pretty Little Liars. When he wasn’t busy shooting at the Warner Brothers lot, playing in the world of Ezra Fitz, Ian was often looking to head out into the quiet refuge of nature. One of my personal favorite memories on the set of Pretty Little Liars was sitting outside of my trailer, chatting with him about his love of Subarus and camping. Somehow over these past few busy years, in between filming and all of his sojourns into nature, Ian found a free minute to write a book, “Odd Birds.” I had the pleasure of hiking with him at Griffith Park and chatting about his love of Ornithology, his tips on surviving in Los Angeles, and his life as an oddbird.
At what age did you realize that you were actually a 75-year-old man trapped in the body of a 30-something year old?
Oh yes. That’s actually a really good question. I came back into this bird watching hobby of mine when I was in LA. This is actually in that book that I wrote…
Plug it, Plug it!
Shameless plug. HA! I just felt like I was lacking that sense of wonder that I used to have. Joy and play were oddly starting to die, and I don’t know if it was the industry or if it was this pseudo, new-found sense of fame. I was with my buddy Walter, who was a friend of a friend – who I didn’t really know at the time – probably four or five years ago. We were with a group at Big Bear Mountain in December, and there was no snow on the ground. We decided to drive into town, and one morning I see this little bird over the water, and I knew what it was. I sort of blurted out the name. You know when something comes back to you out of the blue and you’re like, ‘How the fuck did I know that?’And he noticed it, too. When I said the name of the bird he looked at me and said ‘Yes. Yes it is.’ We looked at each other like, did we just fall in love?
He and I started talking about it, and I remembered it was a childhood thing I loved to do. It was sort of just an interest that I had, and it’s still just an interest…I’m not going to become an ornithologist at all, but it was something that connected me back to being outside and something I found meaning in, outside of Hollywood and acting work. But I remembered it from when I was a kid, growing up in Virginia, where we moved after I was born in Germany (military family). There were woods all over the place, deep woods. I actually went back to Virginia as I was writing the book, and I realized there was a State Park right behind our house. Growing up I just thought they were the woods. My woods. When I was back recently, I spotted this rare bird just hanging out behind my house in these woods in the trees. I was like, ‘NO WAY!’ So what age did I realize I was 75? Ummm I would say I was probably 24 or 25.
Tell me about your practice of writing and bird watching. When did those hobbies begin and how did they converge?
Writing sort of began…well I had done it in the way that if something was really eating at me, I’d go write it down..
In your diary.
Yes, ‘Dear Diary….Acting is Hard. Why do I feel so empty and dead inside? Why?’
My dad was a writer. So I think I felt like, ‘Oh, well, he’s got the writing box checked for the family.’But then I realized it was another creative outlet. I figured that having as many creative outlets as possible is healthy for general well-being. Take bird-watching, for example. No one wants to admit they do it. At parties people will lean in and say, ‘Yo. I used to do it with my grandfather, and sometimes I still do it.’ Like it’s some sort of pornographic secret that people don’t want to share. Which is… a word you really shouldn’t use after saying grandfather. Grandpa porn. It’s (bird watching) a bunch of things at once. It’s pretty meditative. I’ll go out with Walter – and we’re both pretty chatty Cathys generally – but out there we won’t talk at all. We just go out to these places, watching and waiting for something to happen. It ties you into nature in a totally different way. Let’s say you’re along the LA River and you see – and I always get this wrong – but I believe they’re called Black-necked Stilts. If they’re in abundance it’s usually a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
Are they an indicator species?
Yes. That’s a great word. Like, for example, if you’re out and you see a high number of a migratory bird that was supposed to have been on its way down to Peru by now, it makes you worry. So, as a practice, it’s both meditative and it interests me in the same way that I’m sure Pokemon-Go interests other people, which is basically the digital form of bird watching.
That’s what I love about bird watching. It’s non-predatory in a way that other forms of hunting are.
I’m just going to have a moment with this creature, as opposed to I need to make it mine.
The title of your upcoming book is “Odd Birds.” So how in the world of Hollywood do you find yourself to be an oddbird?
Oh. That’s a great question. It’s odd what is seen as being important in this town. It feels like a stereotype that we all learned from a PSA or Saved by the Bell in the 90s. Like the poster child of ‘Be Yourself’ or ‘Don’t give into peer pressure!’ I feel like we all learned this lesson, and yet so many of the people I know and meet are playing that exact game. This need to be famous. This need to be known. This idea that by not being authentic will get you work. And I’m just like ‘didn’t we all learn this lesson?’ So what is odd is that I don’t particularly have a —
Oh, that’s a little Bushtit.
Anyways yeah…that’s also why we don’t have a lot of conversations on our walks. We’ll be like ‘So what is the meaning of life?Oh wait a bird. Do you see it? Male? Female?’ It’s the nerdiest.
Now that I look back on it, I like the title. I think it’s catchy and weird. If I had to look back and give it a title that’s way too long and would never be used I’d call it ‘It’s not actually about being Odd, it’s about being yourself and finding meaning elsewhere in life. An odd lens on a not so typical story.’ About a kid fresh out of college and straight into a TV show. Boom.
Just so you know, that’s a rare story.
Oh yes! And one of the reasons I’m so grateful it happened like that is because everything took off immediately but only kind of. So instead of going 0-60 in no time flat, I went from like 0-35. Where I could still walk around and there wouldn’t be paparazzi. But I would still be recognized in public, and what does that even mean? And I’m happy that I had it happened that way, because I could see ‘Oh this is…empty.’ Other than allowing you to get other jobs or affording you a lifestyle, but then that lifestyle traps you, too. Suddenly you find yourself doing all of these conventions to keep the house that you bought. Not that I live extravagantly at all. It’s just expensive to live in LA. It’s expensive to have this life. It’s also expensive to live in the public eye. So yeah, I don’t know if that answered your question at all, but the book is clearly going to be long and rambling.
If you were any kind of bird what kind of bird would you be?
It changes often. Man that’s a tricky one…
I know you don’t want to play bird favorites…
I know. You know what I think is actually really fascinating. We have them here in California. It’s called an American Kestrel. It’s one of the tiniest birds of prey and it’s red, white and blue. Not that I’m like overly like ‘AMURICA’, but they’re pretty balsy. They take on things twice their size. They eat everything from insects to squirrels double their size. So they’re fascinating and aesthetically pleasing. I also think I might be a Loon.
Oh, a Loon.
They’re the ones who sound like…oh wait, here I have an app on my phone.
Do you use bird calling apps?
Yes. This app was $20 because, you know, bougie-ness. They’re prehistoric; they were developed really for one sort of way of life. I go to New Hampshire and Maine a lot, and when I’m up there they’re pretty prevalent. They’re black and white with red eyes. Water birds. It takes them something crazy, like 100 yards, to get off the water because they’re not meant for flying. They’re meant for swimming, and their legs are on the back of their bodies. And when they finally do take off they look absurd. I think I like the symbolism of something that looks very put together, and when you see them do anything outside of standing they just fall all over the place.
So that would be you?
I think so!
What do you wish you had a bird’s eye view of?
I wish I had a bird’s eye view of what was going to happen over the next five years in the United States, because it’s just so crazy. I just want to zoom out. It’s counter-intuitive that there are no major world wars, and technically it’s the most peaceful time in our global history. And yet it doesn’t feel like it. Everything that’s happening in Aleppo. Feelings of helplessness that lead to apathy. It’s intense and I just don’t know how to handle it. I wish there was some way that I could widen my view, so I could know how best to help in this moment. I’m reading this book right now, over and over again, as much as I can because it’s a little over me. It’s called Doing Good Better by William MacAskle, and it’s all about how one actually does the best kind of good. Donating to certain charities is nice, but what does that charity do and would someone have already done it if you didn’t? So to answer your question, I would love to figure out the most effective and specific way that I could be more compassionate and lend a hand to those who will be continuously disenfranchised by the incoming government.
Is that a hawk?
(listening) It’s definitely a bird of prey. I’m guessing it’s a hawk. Actually, fun fact, just a little comedic relief. You know in movies when you see an eagle flying and it makes that loud piercing sound – that’s not an eagle, it’s a red tail hawk. Because a real eagle sounds like a bunch of people scuffing their shoes on a basketball court.
Over the years how many friends have you converted to bird watchers?
Not a ton. As you become more of an adult, hopefully you realize what you love, regardless of whether or not it’s popular or because it’ll get you laid, or earn you income.
Wait. Bird watching hasn’t gotten you laid?
It’s a good thing you’ve got your girlfriend Sophia.
She’s actually come into mild excitement about it. I’m not going to drag her on a full two-week bird watching vacation. I think she’d rather eat glass. But when we do go places, we’ll generally fold in one nature element. We went to this place called Vashon Island, outside Seattle, and we hired a guide. He’s an expert in the area, and she’s being a great sport and sort of making fun of it as we are doing it. But we saw this albino crow! It wasn’t technically an albino because it didn’t have the red eyes, but it was all white and it came out of nowhere and was sitting with the other crows. She was really struck by it, and it’s eerie when you see it. There’s something to be said for seeing an animal in the wild; you get its personality. We were hiking in the Sierras and we saw a Lynx. I didn’t feel in danger, but you see this thing’s natural energy and it just touches another part of you. So yeah, is she excited when I walk around the neighborhood and I’m like ‘Oh my god it’s Hooded Merganser?’ NO. She could not be less attracted to me. So I’ve had a few conversions, but mainly it’s just me.
Yeah. Just me and Walter and what I call, the Leaners. The people who whisper to me at parties when other people aren’t around that they also are the bird watchers.
Are birds like humans in any way?
That’s a good question, probably for someone that is above my pay grade. I think you can learn a lot of lessons as a human from them. For me, at least, the biggest lesson I learned was I had this idea that if I was just in another place I would be happy. If I just lived somewhere other than in LA I would be happy. I had this pretty intense belief I wouldn’t live in Los Angeles much longer. I think it’s interesting that as a natural part of living, these animals migrate and they have to move. And I think maintaining that natural movement in your own life is important, too. And knowing that you have a home. I’m not saying that I have multiple homes. But in the sense of…you can return to a place and it’s home in its own way. And for me I think that was a really interesting lesson.
If I may get really dull for a second, there’s this specific kind of animal called a Black Bornean Warbler. W-a-r-b-l-e-r-hyphen I’m a nerd. It’s this beautiful little thing. The size of one of your basic house sparrows, except its neck and face are this gold that you think must be illuminated from the back. And I remember looking at it going, ‘wow, what a beautiful thing’. And I remember I was down again, with fucking Walter, and I saw it there. A couple of weeks later I had a conversation with a guy named Kenn Kaufman, one of the foremost birdie gentlemen of all times. He’s written a few bestsellers on this type of thing. And he told me about this bird. He said the same bird will be seen up in New Hampshire, and only a couple of months later its nesting in the Andes. There’s something so remarkable about that. Something smaller than our cell phone does that naturally. This little thing, looking for bugs in a tree. It’s a marvel.
Without giving away any of your precious perches, do you have any favorite or memorable bird watching locations?
There’s this lake in New Hampshire…you know what – no, I’m not going to give that one away. It’s practically holy to me. There’s a place called High Island off the coast of Texas, and they call it that because it’s the largest land mass in the area. With its positioning and how high it is, it’s just become this stop for massive migration. The trees are crawling with every creature imaginable.
It’s a little bird rest stop.
Yes, essentially. It’s a remarkable little place, but I loved that trip specifically because I saw tons of birds I don’t see in California. I also loved that trip because I got to go spend time in Houston, Texas. And I had such a concept of what Texas was, and I have to say it wasn’t a great one. And then I went and spent time there, and it was a really informative experience. I think that’s one of the great things that this hobby can do. You go to these places and see a beautiful bird, and you’re like ‘oh how beautiful,’ and you take a picture. But so much of it is, and not to quote Miley Cyrus…
But it’s the climb. I don’t know if that translated. I love bringing bird watching in Texas and Miley Cyrus together. Make that connection.
I think you just did. So, as an avid bird watcher, do you also consider yourself a conservationist and an activist for the natural world?
I would like to believe so. That question has been on my mind a lot, especially as I’ve been eating red meat. And I’m like, ‘Do I really need this?’ I’ve always felt such a love of being outside, and I think there’s so much magic out here. But it’s concrete and measurable, and I think that it needs to be saved. I think people all too often see the world around them not as an eco-system that they’re a part of but rather something that they’re above and from which they can just extract things. I think that there’s another lesson you can learn from our feathered friends (a phrase that I use far too often). You have animals that are hawks, that come down and kill a cute baby squirrel and they’ll eat it. But that’s what they do. That’s their part of the process. I think there are ways for humans to be more in alignment with managing the world around them. For instance, I don’t think meat is murder per se, but I do think that meat in this country really needs to be looked at again and changed drastically.
It’s about balance.
Yes, and you know – doesn’t it just make more sense to get away from fossil fuels, both for economical and political independence.
YES! And we have such great natural elements available to us—sunshine, wind. We should be using the things on this earth that have a much smaller footprint.
Now that one big chapter of your life is closing, what are you most looking forward to in the next chapter of Ian’s life?
I am excited to jump around and see the world. I have a loose plan, and we’ll see what life says to this plan. It has a way of saying fuck you to what you believe to be true. I would love to, over the next 5 or 6 years, go out for jobs that excite me. Cultivate a life, not necessarily a career. Hopefully put away some dough. I’m in that stage of being in-between something that was really solid and sort of a prolonged adolescence and something that is real settled down domesticity, because I do want children, but really, right now, I want to be selfish with Sophia. But also, I want to see the world, I have this secret, not a secret because I’m going to say it here…
You heard it here first.
I would love to be on every continent by the day I die.
You should get to Antarctica fast because that won’t be here much longer man.
There’s land under all that ice, right?
We’ll see. We’ll find out real soon. It’ll be like going to Africa, but where glaciers used to be.
It’ll be just grasslands. That’ll make for a great national park. Antarctica National Park with all of these introduced lions.
Follow Ian Harding | @ianmharding | Pre-order his book “Odd Birds” now!