Lucius Malfoy may have never achieved the kind of domination he was striving for, but Jason Isaacs is making a fair run at it.
Isaacs, who rose to prominence as the aristocratic, platinum-locked Death Eater in the Harry Potter films, has been on a professional tear of late, with appearances in major theatrical releases, including Fury and John Wick, and high-profile television projects, like the miniseries Rosemary’s Baby and the animated Star Wars Rebels. Next is a rich character turn as a philosophical cop in After the Fall, from acclaimed film editor-turned-director Saar Klein, followed by a stint headlining USA Networks’ action-oriented event series Dig, executive produced by Heroes creator Tim Kring and Homeland co-creator Gideon Raff.
Isaacs took a break from filming Dig on location in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to talk with Spinoff Online about the busy state of his career and how, from Harry Potter to Star Wars, he can definitely relate to his fans’ obsessions.
Spinoff Online: What got under your skin about this particular character in After the Fall and made you say, “Yeah, I think I’m going to walk around in his shoes a little bit.”
Jason Isaacs: Well, the thing is Saar Klein is this man of extraordinary cinematic parentage. He’s cut multiple films I love: He cut Almost Famous, he cut The Thin Red Line, then he cut The Bourne Identity. And these are very different films, and I knew that Doug Liman kind of mentored him and set it up, in terms of producer. And then I met him and he seemed to be an artist. He’d be interested in kind of exploring the story as opposed to telling a story, and that’s pretty rare. I’ve known him for about three years, and I’m going to say he’s the only person I ever met who that was true of. There are many brilliant storytellers out there. He was kind of interested in something that was as much an exploration as it was – well, he wasn’t thinking about what the box office would be. And you never quite know until you get to the set, but it felt like it was going to be an adventure.
Most actors out there try to balance doing television work, film work, commercial things, non-commercial things, but to find anyone who is genuinely working at the frontline, genuinely creating a space where new and surprising things can happen is very rare. And he felt like that guy, and so he proved to be. So the character came second – it was more about style of directing. Sometimes it’s the script, sometimes it’s the location, sometimes it’s the money, and most often when it’s right, it’s the storyteller. And Saar Klein was the guy who I wanted to roll the dice and see if he was going to bring the best of the things he’s learned working with Terrence Malick and Doug Liman and Cameron Crowe. So he proved to be. And he had his own style, but there was no question that it was inspired by all those people.
I’ve been seeing you in so many different kinds of movies, different kinds of roles, lately. Are you in a place, career-wise, where you have the luxury to look for the things that genuinely interest you and pose an acting challenge, or fulfill a bucket list kind of territory?
I’m surprised to find anyone who says that they are. I’m way down the totem pole. No, I’m incredibly grateful if one of those opportunities comes my way, and when they do I grab at it – even when it doesn’t fit my plans and my family’s plans. They come along really once in a blue moon. So I’ve got a few of these. I have a film with Sundance this year, which I thought was extraordinary: Nicole Beckwith’s film, Stockholm, Pennsylvania. And I’m here shooting Dig in Albuquerque – which was set in Jerusalem, not Albuquerque. I try and follow the best opportunities that come my way. If I have the choice of everything, I would work a hundred jobs. But it doesn’t quite work out that way. Find me the actor who has the choice of the most interesting and provocative things in the world, and I will sneak into their house and stab them in their sleep.
Tell me what got to you about that USA series, Dig? That seems like a really fun one. As you mentioned, you’re like all over the place shooting. Tell me what the “Yes, I’m in” factor was.
It’s pretty much like with After the Fall: Tim Kring and Gideon Raff, I met them in a truly nauseating fashion at somebody’s house at a cocktail party. They said, “We’re writing something we think you’re right for.” And I went “Great,” and that’s an irritating thing to say. And they show up six months later I got a phone call. I was an absolute Heroes addict. He also wrote many fabulous things, Crossing Jordan, Touch, but I was a Heroes addict, and not only is Homeland brilliant, but the original, Prisoners of War, the Israeli version, is brilliant.
When they said they’re doing something together — in television you’ve only got the first episode. Well, they’ve written the first episode: [Saying] it was intriguing is a massive understatement. It promised a gigantic conspiracy thriller and I guess, in a way, there was something about Gideon’s uncanny ability to tap into the zeitgeist that I thought was curious, too. There’s the guy who knew that Homeland would capture the entire imagination of all America and most of the world. But it’s a kind of intense paranoia about our domestic security. And sure enough, he writes something about Jerusalem, about the Temple Mount and how it’s a tinderbox and the different groups that are trying to viper it and get control of it and could set off global war and everything. And open your newspapers today: Temple Mount’s coming up every day. And it could easily be the spot for something cataclysmic. And so this is the guy who was onto that a lot time ago. He seems to have a sixth sense for where the story is in the world.
I’ve been enjoying your role [as the Imperial Inquisitor] in Star Wars Rebels.
That was fun!
To be a part of that whole Star Wars zeitgeist, especially when it’s really reaching a fever pitch right about now — tell me where were you in terms of fandom when you jumped on to that moving train.
Well, you have to remember you can only have loyalty to one franchise at a time! And I’ve spent a lot more time with a wand than I have with a lightsaber. However, I got a phone call, I went in, and I wasn’t really aware. I can’t remember – four or five days in a recording studio in Burbank with a bunch of actors who all seemed to be – I arrived and we seemed to be doing it for weeks. And everyone on top of it, and I absolutely no idea of the reverberations around the world: how many people were desperate to see it and how top secret the scripts were. I can’t remember. I’m pretty sure that I had to sign nondisclosure agreements that were about five times the size of War & Peace. And I was ill-prepared for the legions of fans. And, you know, because I’ve had such a lot of experience with fans and the kind of levels of devotion and obsessions that they get, and I have a lot of respect for it because I’ve had nothing but great experiences with people. Even when they cover themselves with tattoos or sleep on the streets for weeks and defecate in plastic bags, just so they can get your autograph – whatever the hell. There’s something about the sheer love of story and love of characters and love of mythology that you have to respect.
And what’s lovely in that, for me, now, having been in the Harry Potters, I now meet the people for whom that was true for many years, and no longer true, and they can talk about it. And I recognize what an important part of their life it was, phase of their life it was. And I’m sure that’s true for the people for whom Star Wars is incredibly important. There will be a time when they come to do and say didn’t respect it, and they’re able to understand why it was so important to them at that time. And for me, the first three Star Wars films – I was obsessed with Carrie Fisher; and Harrison Ford was too much of a man for me. I was young, so I was more Luke than Han. And once George Lucas started making the other films, I knew the actors: I knew Ewan [McGregor] and various other actors in it, it suddenly became a film. But for me, oddly, although there are many of these films, and they’re making more of them now, the first three for me, still seem real. They feel like documentaries about people from space. And the others feel like jobs, but that’s mostly because I met those actors, and I’ve seen them smoking cigarettes in back alleys.
Finally, tell me about your experience in Fury – those brief but memorable scenes.
Well, David Ayer: I sold a show on FX a few years ago that we developed into a pilot that didn’t get made. And one of the writers I met was David Ayer. I was a huge fan of his. And so he tells me, he wanted to do it because it’s a world he knows about, and instead, he went off and made a movie and another movie. And he’s turned into the one of the world’s biggest film directors, which is the film world’s gain and mostly my loss, personally – though we stayed in touch. And I think he writes groups of men like nobody else. It’s incredibly hard to do what he does. He does it rather brilliantly.
When he said he was doing this, I read the script. And I said, “It’s an amazing script, but you’re never going to get to make it. There’s just no way you can make something that has this much depth and this many moral gray areas,” and all that. He said, “Well, actually, I am making it. You want to be in it?” And I said yes. Because now – it’s not that I never think about the size of the parts, but the most interesting thing is, for me, is it a great story, and do I get to be a piece of it? And I felt like this guy was a piece of it. He wasn’t furniture. And I just wanted to be on the journey.
It’s not the biggest part in After the Fall either, but, you know, I’m the lead in this TV show. It’s not about how big your trailer is or how many lines you get. It’s about the days that you go to work, do you get to do fun and interesting things? And to honor and explore the nature of war in the ways that David chose to tell it was a real privilege. And to watch that generation of young actors, bucking heads with each other was quite good fun.
After the Fall is playing in select theaters and VOD.
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