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CMU alum looks for human side of 'Liar's' teacher

| Sunday, July 10, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Ian Harding in Freeform's hit original series 'Pretty Little Liars'
Freeform
Ian Harding in Freeform's hit original series 'Pretty Little Liars'
Troian Bellisario (from left), Lucy Hale, Ian Harding and Shay Mitchell in Freeform's hit original series 'Pretty Little Liars'
Freeform
Troian Bellisario (from left), Lucy Hale, Ian Harding and Shay Mitchell in Freeform's hit original series 'Pretty Little Liars'
Ian Harding in  'Pretty Little Liars'
Freeform
Ian Harding in 'Pretty Little Liars'
Troian Bellisario (left), Lucy Hale, Ian Harding and Shay Mitchell in Freeform's hit original series 'Pretty Little Liars'
Freeform
Troian Bellisario (left), Lucy Hale, Ian Harding and Shay Mitchell in Freeform's hit original series 'Pretty Little Liars'
Ian Harding in  'Pretty Little Liars'
Freeform
Ian Harding in 'Pretty Little Liars'

Meet Ezra Fitz, Rosewood High English teacher whose interest is more focused on a particular student body rather than the body of modern lit he is supposed to be teaching.

His student, Aria Montgomery (played by Lucy Hale), is part of a quartet of schoolgirls whose off-campus adventures read like a chiller/thriller as they're stalked by the mysterious “A,” in “Pretty Little Liars.”

The series, based on young-adult novels penned by Sara Shepard, airs at 8 p.m. Tuesdays on Freeform (formerly ABC Family).

Former Pittsburgher Ian Harding, who plays Ezra Fitz, graduated from Carnegie Mellon University seven years ago. No sooner had he walked down the aisle to receive his BFA diploma than he found himself in a circumstance that evades most young actors: immediate employment.

“I had never taken an acting class before CMU,” says the 29-year-old who was born in Germany to a military family, which then settled in Virginia. Harding attended a high school in Bethesda, Md., that offered a distinctly different experience than Rosewood.

“First, it was an all-boys school,” he says. “My aunt was a teacher there, so she kept a very close eye on me.”

He narrowed his college choices to the Juilliard School of Music in New York and Carnegie Mellon, having fallen in love with acting after he succeeded in a major role in his high-school production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

In reality, it was a trying experience that cemented his love of theater. When an actress missed her entrance, Harding, alone onstage, improvised a scene — to the delight of the cheering audience — until the missing co-star showed up. That incident, he says, had his heart pumping and falling for a newfound love: Yes, he realized, there was indeed no business like show business.

And, ultimately, no real choice but Carnegie Mellon. Not that he didn't miss a cue here and there in class.

“It was a lovely school that could be very unforgiving,” he says of a rigorous audition process and a tough first two years. “I failed two classes.”

In hindsight, he grades Michael Chemers, founding director of the school's dramaturgy BFA sequence, and one of the teachers who failed him, an “A” for admiration.

“I came back to take the same class in my junior year, and it was remarkable what I got from it,” he says. “I found the context for it.”

His four years there proved a good fit, although he had a fitful relationship with the city at first: “Pittsburgh itself has an eclectic feel to it; I didn't enjoy it at first — I felt I couldn't find my place — but during my junior and senior years, I began to jive with the city.”

It was all part and parcel of a great education within and without the walls of Carnegie Mellon.

“The school,” he acknowledges, “prepared me for the real world.”

Especially if he wanted to get a job in a chicken suit. Harding can hardly forget that image and chuckles at it even now.

“Barbara Mackenzie Wood,” he says the name of the drama professor slowly. “I thought she was such a sadist.”

She made him dress up in a chicken suit and cluck his way around the stage, he says. But there was an acting method to the madness. “He was always very dear, very charming, but we really needed him to be bolder,” Wood related to CMU Today. It worked, claims Harding.

Other such projects “also made (students) look ridiculous — becoming a cat or being a color — but they not only helped (us) grow emotionally, but made you able to focus on what was important at that given moment.”

Harding doesn't have a moment's regret having studied with her. “I look back with love and gratitude,” he says.

But could anyone prepare him for a love story that straddled borderline ethics? “Such is the challenge of being an actor: If you get a character who may be involved in something illegal,” he says, “you have to see what the human side is, too.”

Nevertheless, he seems relieved that plot point has passed and maybe the fictional English teacher has learned his lesson. Harding's own lessons plans are hardly set in stone these days. This is reportedly the last season for “Pretty Little Liars,”and, for the first time since his college graduation he might be looking for work.

Not that it should be hard to find.

He is no mere pretty boy. Harding brings an intelligence to his role.

Harding has used his fame and appearances to help promote funding the Lupus Foundation, ennobling his need “to do things that will help the world.”

Spreading the word about the symptoms and dangers of lupus, an inflammatory disease that weakens the autoimmune system, hits home for the actor: His mother, Mary, suffers from the disease and, for years, tried to shield her children (Harding and his sister, Sarah) from what could be its fearsome implications.

It was only a chance encounter with another student during his freshman year at CMU that opened his eyes to the disease's danger. Wearing a Lupus Foundation of America wristband, Harding was greeted by a student who offered his sympathies when hearing that Harding's mother was one of those afflicted with lupus. The student said his mother had died from lupus, a possibility no one had ever explained to Harding.

“It was shocking,” recalls Harding, fearing “that could be my future.”

The world has been good to him, he understands, but, as his parents had taught him early on, giving back is the best gift of all.

“I mean I love acting. Pretending to make love to Lucy Hale is not a bad job,” he jokes. But there is also his need to alter the world through altruism. “I want to use my fame to generate money to eradicate lupus from the world.”

Harding is also attracted to writing. His father, Stephen, is a prominent journalist and author, two of whose books , “The Last Battle” and “Last to Die,” were New York Times best-sellers.

“I have a kind of fascination with being a writer myself someday,” Harding says.

Meantime, the actor's everyday existence is gifted by what he calls his “middle-ground fame”: Being star enough to be a six-time Teen Choice Award winner, but not plagued by put-on-the-sunglasses stardom to shield him from throngs of fans.

One thing is obvious: This “Pretty Little Liars” star is honest with himself. “I like always being able to do what I want without being worried about paparazzi,” he says.

“What I'm looking forward to,” Harding says, “is going for the next cool acting job.”

Michael Elkin, a Tribune-Review contributing writer, is an award-winning arts writer, playwright and author of the novel, “I, 95.”

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