You could probably find Ian Harding, who’s spent the last seven years playing Ezra Fitz, the heartthrob teacher on Pretty Little Liars, on any given red carpet, but did you know he can also occasionally be found in cemeteries? Or standing, fully clothed, in a river? That’s because when he’s not hanging around with the much-tormented heroines of PLL, Harding is a bird-watcher, a hobby that tends to take you to some pretty weird locations in search of your next great sighting. It’s a topic he covers in depth in his first book, Odd Birds, out now from St. Martin’s Press.
Conceived as a way for Harding to feel creative beyond PLL, which is currently airing its seventh and final season on Freeform, Odd Birds is a candid (and often hilarious) look at Harding’s family, his start in acting, and how he actually feels about his costars.
As a fellow birder, I was initially a little skeptical that Harding would deliver on his book’s nerdy promise. Would it be tangentially about birding but mostly about getting drunk at the Viper Room? Or filled with humblebrag name drops about awards shows he’s attended? Who actually gets to be superhot, on a hit TV show, and an avid birder?
But after reading Odd Birds, I realize he’s all of those things and a really lovely writer on top of it. We chatted about what made him decide to tackle writing a book, whether any of those Pretty Little Liars fan theories actually hold water, and what he plans to do when the show finally ends. Oh yeah, birds might have come up a few times too.
Glamour: First of all, I really loved your book. I was actually assigned this interview because I’m a bird-watcher myself.
Ian Harding: No way! Really? [Laughs.] But…you don’t sound like you’re 55?
Glamour: I know! I was actually kind of nervous you were going to make bird-watching sound like a cool activity in your book, but you definitely sell it as the lonesome nerd pastime that it is.
IH: Totally. I had been chatting about other projects that would maybe be involved in this, and the phrase “rebranding birding” has come up. And I’m like, “I think it is very difficult.” I don’t think it’s something that should be done—making birding sexy. But I’m happy that you saw the book for what it is, which is almost a coming-of-age story through the lens of, you know, binoculars.
Glamour: You write that you initially got the idea for Odd Birds after your PLL character, Ezra, wrote a book. Could talk to me a little bit more about how this came to be? And also how you decided to make it about birding? Did anyone tried to talk you out of making it about birding?
IH: Yeah, I mean a couple people were like, “Why—why—birds?” I knew I wanted to do something different. It was probably toward the front part of shooting season six, where I reached that point where I was so grateful for the show, but I needed some form of creative stimulation. I thought, Well, I’ve always wanted to write something. Why don’t I just go big? Some people said, “Maybe you could write articles first?” And I said, “No, let’s just go straight for the book!” [Laughs.] I partially regretted that decision shortly after acquiring a book deal and realizing, “Oh, I gotta come up with thousands and thousands of words.”
I wanted to do it because I know how pretentious and presumptuous it is to write a memoir at 30, and it’s not really that. It’s not, “Here’s all the things I learned in life!” Because, you know, I’m still learning. Birding was just an interesting, for me at least, [topic] through which to view Hollywood and being an actor and growing up and the outdoors.
I feel like I should say this: I didn’t want it to be a tell-all because those are fairly cheap. I’ve had a very good life, and not that I’ve had an easy life, but especially when it comes to family stuff, I now see what I’m really grateful for. My family was not perfect, so I wanted to focus on the stuff that I’m grateful for and that I now know and appreciate as an adult.
Glamour: Is there anything you wrote about that you found surprisingly hard, or started writing and thought, You know, I’m actually not sure I want to bring this up?
IH: I’m all about being self-deprecating because I think it’s hilarious. Any actor who takes themselves seriously just needs to stop being such a piece of shit. For me, it was actually being vulnerable. Not that I have an issue with that in real life, but I was hesitant to write about the ennui and the angst and, perhaps, the lack of gratitude I had and do continue to have in some ways. My life is one that I’ve aimed for—I’ve always wanted to be an actor who worked in film and television and was able to provide for himself and his family. That was always a goal of mine. Now that I’m doing that, I think we have this idea, “Once that’s achieved, all complaints will leave and I will be happy and be filled!” And I didn’t have that.
Especially these days I think it’s almost more compelling and courageous to say, “No, I’m taking all of those things in stride and looking toward the bright side.” Though there was one section about getting norovirus in Iceland that I started writing, and I was like, “You know what? I think I’m going to keep these details to myself for right now.” But I got to see this one bird, it’s basically like a type of goose, it’s a king eider—wait, I’m talking to a birder!
Glamour: Yeah! You’re in New York, right? Are you going to do any birding while you’re here?
IH: A little bit. I’m staying right by Central Park, and I actually have a little tiny—I mean, it’s not the greatest, but this little scope that fits in my hand while I go running. I’ll run through Central Park, and every time I’ve been here I’ll see something I wasn’t expecting to see. Last time I was here I saw a common loon in the Jackie Onassis whatever it is—
Glamour: The reservoir.
IH: Yeah, just chillin’ there. I was really shocked. Just yesterday I was running and cut through the middle of the park, and there was this mildly forested area. I saw this thing jumping around from branch to branch and realized it was an ovenbird. But do I have any big adventures planned in the New York area? Not at the moment. The big adventure is, uh, selling this book. [Laughs.]
Glamour: Speaking of, you’re really funny in the book about Ezra—I love your quote, “America’s most beloved pedophile.” I was trying to determine if that was true, but, uh, yeah I think it is.
IH: Yeah, it’s absolutely true. Maybe the world’s! I’ve been in different countries, and a girl will come up and say, “I love you, we are going to get married someday!” And I’m like, “You’re 11!”
Glamour: Is that a character trait that you had to come to terms with?
IH: You can’t really “play” pedophile because that’s creepy. You can’t play some kind of sexual taboo—all of that is just there and is inherent in the situation and the writing. So, for me, there wasn’t a lot to get over. You just said, “OK, well, this is a love story.” It’s made easier by the fact that Lucy Hale is a very beautiful, twenty-something-year-old woman. You just play the love of these two people, and it’s the same sort of trials and tribulations that some relationships have. Like, “Should we do this? Should we not?” I think people really identify with that. The fact that it’s the teacher relationship is an added taboo that is either titillating or gross, depending. But I try to play the love story to the best of my abilities.
Glamour: Obviously the twists are why people love this show, but has there ever been a storyline where even you were like, “All right, that might be a bridge too far”?
IH: Oh, I mean, always? First off, why does anyone live in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, still? “Guess we’ll have another funeral at the church!” Like, no! We have to leave this town! People are dropping like flies! I mean, the property values must be through the floor.
Glamour: Or they’re incentivized to move there because property values are so low?
IH: Yeah, that’s why. And then all of our lead actresses manage to look like total stunners, but in real life their hair would be falling out from the stress and PTSD they must have. They must be, like, snorting Xanax. And yet they all manage to work with this CIA-capable stalker and, I guess, continue to do their homework? That’s when we’ve jumped the shark, and that was episode two.
But the storyline that I always found sort of paradoxical was the Christmas episode years ago, where we all showed up in Santa boxers. I was like, “Wait a minute. Why is Ezra Fitz—this grown man—getting half-naked with a bunch of high schoolers?!” [Laughs.] “How is this acceptable? This is completely wrong!” And yet, simultaneously, that was one of my favorite episodes because we were all together, and we were being ridiculous because that current storyline was ridiculous.
Glamour: The show is also notorious for its fan theories and the wild speculation that goes on about it. The big one right now is that A.D. is actually going to be Spencer’s twin. I realize you obviously can’t say a lot and this is a phone interview, so could you just blink twice if that’s correct?
IH: [Pause.] My eyes definitely moved in some capacity. [Laughs.] No, but to me, it’s not necessarily some random-ass person who will come out of the blue. Not like, “And this is Philip, who the Liars pissed off in second grade and he was A.D. the whole time.” It is somebody we know. To that theory—that sounds like a theory that would work in this world, so I say good on people who come up with stuff like that.
Glamour: You open up a lot in this book about how bittersweet it was that the show is ending. Now that shooting has wrapped, has your life changed in any ways already?
IH: It’s been a wonderful transition. I mean, this show was a part of my life for a near-decade, and it feels almost like my second stint in college. My real college experience was really lovely, and I have those friends until this day, but to the same comparison, I had days where I was in college and could not wait to leave. The same is true for Pretty Little Liars. That’s also one of the reasons I wanted to write this book. I felt like I had already checked this box, and I wasn’t feeling creatively fulfilled, no matter how hard I tried. But at the same time, it was the end of an era, and I would not see these people as much as I wanted to or as much as I had before, and my life was gonna change. Not to mention, on a sort of deeper and perhaps even scarier level, you do have that fear of “Is this the last job I’ll have? Is this the biggest thing and suddenly I’ll be on some shitty game show where it’s obvious that I’m just doing this to pay off the bills from my third divorce?” [Laughs.] You know? You don’t want to be that actor! That’s where your mind goes, or at least mine.
At the end of the day, I would not change it. I love these people, I am so grateful for them, I’m so grateful for the opportunity. I’m happy that it’s ending the way it has, and now we’re off to new and hopefully exciting things.
You can pick up a copy of Odd Birds here.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.