Jason Isaacs

By
Photography Brian Higbee

Published June 23, 2017

JASON ISAACS AT THE RED HERRING IN LOS ANGELES, MAY 2017. PHOTOS: BRIAN HIGBEE/COPIOUS MANAGEMENT. STYLING: LAURA MAZZA. GROOMING: NICOLE CHEW FOR ART DEPARTMENT USING ORIBE HAIRCARE.

In The OA, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij‘s twisting spiritual thriller for Netflix, Jason Isaacs plays the show’s antagonist, Dr. Hunter Aloysius Percy, better known as Hap. It’s a space the British actor has inhabited many times over the course of his career—from his role in Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot (2000), to playing the Lucius Malfoy, the apogee of the prejudiced aristocrat, in the Harry Potter films—but not one the actor takes for granted. Isaac’s never plays Hap as a villain, but as a consequentialist: his treatment of Prairie, Homer, and the rest of his captives is the necessary moral cost in accomplishing his goal.

Here, Isaacs talks to one of his oldest and dearest friends, the screenwriter and director Ol Parker. The conversation is via phone, as both are currently working: Isaacs is in Canada filming Stark Trek: Discovery, and Parker is location scouting for his next project, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!, the sequel to 2008’s immensely successful Mamma Mia! Parker, who wrote both The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is married to actor Thandie Newton.

JASON ISAACS: This might be the worst idea I’ve ever had in our entire friendship.

OL PARKER: We don’t talk enough anyway, so this is lovely. We get to talk with people listening. Normally we talk with our dogs listening. I actually don’t know the answers to some of these questions.

ISAACS: That can’t possibly be true.

PARKER: I’ve heard all of your stories many, many times, but the glorious thing about us getting older is that we’ve now forgotten the stories, so we get to tell them to each other again. Are you well and happy? How is work [on Star Trek: Discovery]?

ISAACS: I can’t talk about work. I can only say that I go into the building and I leave at the end of the day. I posted an Instagram picture of the script with all the words blanked out, so you just see my name on it, which I thought was very witty and amusing, and apparently some tech genius having a day off from Putin managed to enhance left and pan right like Blade Runner, and make out two words of dialogue. I’ve now had to give one of my children up.

PARKER: Thandie gave an interview the other day, where they asked her, “What’s the new Star Wars like?” And she said, “I can’t say, but I’m really enjoying it. It’s a really different thing for me.” And it was everywhere: “Thandie Newton says the new Star Wars is really different!”

ISAACS: [laughs]

PARKER: And that’s not what she said!

ISAACS: In the absence of anything at all, there’s already a narrative out there about what the show is about. When the trailer came out, everyone was talking utter bollocks and got it completely wrong.

PARKER: I haven’t seen the trailer. I shall seek it out.

ISAACS: I’m not in it.

PARKER: Why not?

ISAACS: Because… I can’t tell you.

PARKER: I did watch The OA, and I was stunned by it. I think it’s impossible not to be stunned by it. It’s stunning!

ISAACS: Thank you. I have not one shred of reservation about it. They sent me a link at nine o’clock at night because I had a press junket the next day, and I said I’d dip in and watch a tiny bit, and I watched it straight through till the morning. Something happened to me that night because when I finished, I was hysterical in the Freudian sense. I was shaking and laughing and crying. I sent off this gushing email to Zal and Brit going, “It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen” in capital letters with lots of exclamation marks. Later, I was slightly embarrassed at how huge my reaction had been, but I realized I meant it. I meant all of it. I don’t understand people who don’t think it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever seen. I know that’s slightly embarrassing and nauseating, ‘cause I’m in it.

PARKER: How amazing is that! What a brilliant privilege to be in the thing that you think that about.

ISAACS: Maybe it has to do with the fact that, when you’re in something, you have to imagine that it’s real. You take yourself there as far as you possibly can. But I hadn’t seen most of The OA, because I’m not in most of it. I hadn’t seen all the kids, and I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t really worked out where their story went. Because I took the job overnight and jumped on a plane, I had only glanced at the rest of it once a long time ago and I had forgotten what happened. I was just side-swiped by it.

PARKER: Nico, my daughter, just got cast in Tim Burton’s Dumbo. What was great is I got to watch the apotheosis of what actors do, ‘cause when she was finally given the script she flicked through it really fast, just finding her own name. She absolutely didn’t care about anyone else. It’s what all actors do, but they pretend not to. She had no idea of the plot or context of any of her lines. She’s like, “There’s more! And more! There’s a whole page!”

ISAACS: [laughs]

PARKER: It was great. It’s was the logical extreme of what all grownup actors do, so I totally get how you were with The OA.

ISAACS: You remember I was cast because someone else wasn’t working out, and I had to jump on a plane to start shooting.

PARKER: I had seen you that night and we were looking forward to an uninterrupted month of hanging out. Then you rang the next day on the way to the airport.

ISAACS: The hardest thing to do in any storytelling—and people should know that you’re a phenomenally successful and brilliant screenwriter—is to come up with an ending. And I thought [Brit and Zal] came up with an ending that I had never seen before and that I didn’t see coming. And it worked on something that wasn’t just a plot level—it worked on a spiritual level.

PARKER: They basically had a hotline to my subconscious, is how I felt. All of these things that I found unnerving, or moving, or fascinating in ways that I didn’t understand, they found them.  

ISAACS: You and I know everything that we’ve ever done, and we know that most of the things we’ve done have failed. That’s just the way creative endeavors are. But some of the things that I’ve been in that failed were because they were “cross-genre”— trying to combine one type of film with another, and it so often hasn’t worked. With The OA, looked like it would be destined to fail because it’s every genre—it’s a suburban mystery, then it’s a spiritual odyssey, then it’s a thriller, then sci-fi. For me, at least, that worked magnificently. It’s rare to find writers like that. They felt entirely unburdened by anybody’s expectations, and just empowered to come up with insane and surreal things. You just don’t find that in the writing game.  

PARKER: That’s part of what you feel watching it—that this is exactly what they wanted it to be, and that’s astonishingly rare in any artistic endeavor. You read the whole script on the plane, and you talked to them before you got on the plane. Did you ask [Zal and Brit] about Hap beyond what was in the script?

ISAACS: No. I just wanted to know the same thing that I always struggle with when playing an antagonist. I wanted to make sure that Hap was a guy who was trying to make a scientific breakthrough, and was bearing the moral cost of what he was doing. That there was no part of him that was written to be the bad guy, and if we came across any parts while we were doing it, we would change them. And they liked that. People come up to me and go, “Oh, you played the evil scientist,” and within five minutes, when I explain to them that this a guy who is going to cure death, they begin to see it in a slightly different light. So I just wanted to know that they were going to help me to make him someone who was truthful. The bottom line when you’re acting is that I just don’t want to look like a twat, and you do that as soon as you don’t believe anything. I wanted to believe that he would do these things.

PARKER: All you’re saying to a director at the beginning is, “Help me not look like a twat.”

ISAACS: Yeah. It’s a really easy job; you just have to be that person in that situation.  And anything that gets in the way of that—like occasionally the lines, or the things you’re asked to do, or the costume, or whatever it is—if you’re lucky and working with nice people can be broomed out. Then you’re just left being someone who is believable.

PARKER: What’s the response to him? What do people come up to you and say?

ISAACS: People say things that are insanely hyperbolic, and you have to be careful not to let it go to your head, because the people who think you or the project are shit are not coming up to you. People have said it’s changed their life—I don’t know how or in what ways. They say that Harry Potter all the time [too]. They think it’s fun to apologize for hating me: “Sorry, but I thought you were such a dick.” But what they really want to do is just talk about it—they want to engage in how engaged they were. I don’t know if it’s because I’m obsessed with it at the moment—I can’t see how any sentient being couldn’t be—but it seems to me that it all comes back to Trump. Not that when they were writing it did, but for Hap at least, it’s about, do the end justify the means? And where and when can you give vent to your ugly, selfish desires. I could talk about it forever. One of the things that I thought was great about him was, when you meet him, he’s a guy who’s on a particular path. He’s absolutely sure of himself and what he’s doing. He knows that it’s whittling away at his sense of self, but he’s getting close to a breakthrough. And then this woman shows up and despite himself, he begins to fall for her. He starts behaving in anomalous ways around her, because he hopes that she will in some way endorse him—see that, although she’s being tortured and continually killed and locked up, that it’s worthwhile in the end and somehow admire it for him. But if you ask him, he doesn’t know that about himself and that’s what I love—when you get to play something where people don’t know the truth about themselves and the audience does.

The weird thing that you will know, because you’ve given this gift to actors many times, is when people are crediting you for creating something that was really made in the writers’ room. Something three-dimensional, something surprising, something they recognize from the human condition. The fact is you know as soon as you read it, if you don’t fuck it up, people are going to think it’s all down to you.

PARKER: But not fucking it up is hard!

ISAACS: Actors get a lot of credit, and they’ve all been in shit things as well, so you know when you read something that if you manage to hold onto it, you’ll get all the praise. And that’s fine. The pendulum swings both ways many times. But with The OA, I thought, “This is a gem. I can’t believe I get the second bite at it because someone else had the first bight and missed.”

Because I’m old and I’ve had more failures than [Brit and Zal], I would just be terrified of making a second season of The OA, but they feel nothing but joy and hunger to get at it.

PARKER: Well, I have nothing but respect for them in all ways.

ISAACS: Now all I want to do is ask about Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! so people can read about it.

PARKER: The irony is you should be directing it, not me, because you love a musical.

ISAACS: I love a musical. When I was in Los Angeles, I used to listen to the AM show tunes channel and sing along.

PARKER: I know. I’ve been in your car. You always turn it off really fast because when you start the car, show tunes burst out loudly. [laughs]

ISAACS: At traffic lights, people would look over and see this minorly famous tough guy belting out Liza Minnelli at the top of his voice.

PARKER: But seriously, when I was looking at locations today, we’re plotting some big dance sequence, and I found myself thinking, “What would Jace do? Because I haven’t got blasted clue.”

ISAACS: [laughs] That’s why you’re the right person to reinvent it! It’s like Ang Lee doing Sense and Sensibility.

PARKER: It’s fun trying to find the tone that works for me, and that hopefully works for other people as well.

ISAACS: This takes us to a slightly more serious point, which is: you’ve become well-known, at least in the public’s eyes, for writing these light, funny, emotional pieces—like both of the Marigold films, and Mamma Mia—but I know you both as that and as extremely dark and twisted. Where I’m well-known, I’m well-known for being tough, uncompromising, psychopathic, dangerous, and I’m as close to a big ball of candy-floss fluff as you could hope to find. It’s odd.

PARKER: But what you bring to those guys, always, is a humanity. You’re always looking for the candy-floss inside the guy. You can do the lip-curling Lucius Malfoy or Colonel Tavington in The Patriot, and you can do that brilliantly, but generally, you’re looking to beyond that. You’re looking to play the bit that makes them real, as you were talking about with Hap. I guess Lucius and Tavington are comfortable knowing they’re the villains—

ISAACS: Well, they’re comfortable being disliked, but they absolutely think they’re right. People always think they’re right. That’s the stumbling block I come across in scripts: there’s no way that, in that moment, that person actually believes in and could justify themselves.

PARKER: But for all your talk about it’s ironic that you play these characters when you’re much softer and nicer in real life, when we first meet you as Hap in The OA, and you’re at the restaurant with Prairie, you are so fucking charming, as I know you to be in real life. That’s why you play villains well.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY ,em> BEGINS AIRING IN SEPTEMBER. SEASON ONE OF THE OA IS AVAILABLE VIA NETFLIX, WITH A SECOND SEASON CURRENTLY IN DEVELOPMENT. OL PARKER IS THE SCREENWRITER AND DIRECTOR OF MAMMA MIA: HERE WE GO AGAIN!, DUE OUT NEXT YEAR.