|JC interview: Jason Isaacs
By Paul Lester
Psycho? I’m suburban The TV and movie hard man has had a prolific year of all-action acting — but at home, he is a softie|
Jason Isaacs has had what he calls a “completely hysterical day”. The British actor, who has spent the past few months in Los Angeles filming the TV series Brotherhood, in which he plays an Irish-American gangster, is being driven to the airport to catch a flight to Liverpool, where he will take part in a Holocaust Memorial Day service for the 2008 European Capital of Culture.
It is just after lunch, and already he has been to a friend’s house to watch a film, missed a meeting with a top Hollywood director about a role in a new Walt Disney movie, rushed home to pack, and broken down in traffic because his car ran out of petrol.
“The sweat,” he says, “is pouring off me. I look like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. They’re probably warming up my plane on the runway as we speak.”
No wonder he’s shvitzing; Isaacs is one of the busiest actors in the business, on small or big screen. With roles in The Patriot, Peter Pan and Black Hawk Down under his belt, he has gone on in the past year to play Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry H Corbett in a forthcoming BBC4 biopic about the tormented Steptoe and Son actor. He also starred in Good, a film about pre-war Germany; filmed the Channel 4 docu-drama Scars, about a violent psychopath, and the BBC mini-series The State Within; and appeared on stage in London alongside comedian Lee Evans in Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter.
That is not even counting research on Stopping Power — a “car-chase movie” with John Cusack — and a Spanish period film in which Isaacs gets “to wear a big floppy velvet suit and chase after Julia Ormond”. Not bad for a graduate of the Edgware Reform shul.
Luckily, Isaacs gets to relax at home in North-West London with Emma Hewitt, his partner of 20 years (to whom he invariably refers as “my wife”), and his two young daughters, Lilly and Ruby. There, his life is “calm, sedate and suburban”.
He reserves all of the madness and furious energy for his roles: “I play a psychotic, brain-damaged gangster, who was probably abused as child, in Brotherhood; a dangerous, violent man in Scars; I’m a slightly less than affable wizard in Harry Potter… Then I go home and it’s all Pictionary, Narnia and Playdough.”
Domestically, the nearest Isaacs gets to the extreme roles he plays on screen is “trying to stop one of my children stuffing yoghurt into the other one’s eye and deciding which restaurant to go to…”
Yet so many actors do bring their characters home with them, don’t they? “That’s a myth,” he argues. “I filmed Good in Hungary, about the Holocaust or that period in the 1930s leading up to it. That was overwhelming. If my wife and kids had been there, I might have been a bit distracted.
“I had to imagine being there [Nazi Germany] with that level of fear. It took me over completely; it was one of the few times in my life where I had to get myself out of the way. The other time was Scars: I felt like I was living it. But the truth is, during the moment of performance, your job as an actor is to wipe out any of yourself. It should be completely overwhelming. The only thing then is not to carry it home, because it can colour your view of the world.”
The key, Isaacs says, is “to have to have a centre in your life. There are some actors who are genuinely unstable and very charismatic, but that’s no way to live.” The only one of his recent portrayals that has demanded less than his fullest immersion, Isaacs says, was Harry Potter — “I don’t know that many wizards I can hang around with,” he deadpans.
“In the new series of Brotherhood, my character has brain damage, so I spent time with neurologists, care-workers and people with brain damage. When I did Black Hawk Down, I spent time with soldiers and rangers. When I did The Patriot, I got to fire muskets and learn how to sword-fight. And when I did Angels in America, I researched life as a gay man with Aids.”
Isaacs was born in Liverpool in 1963 to a family that is a classic Jewish template: his parents now live in Israel, his father was a businessman, and Jason’s three brothers are a doctor, a lawyer and an accountant.
In fact, Jason himself set out to become a lawyer and read law at Bristol University before becoming wrapped up in drama and going on to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
After his early days in Liverpool, the family moved to North-West London. He does hint that life at home was not a bad preparation for acting tough for a living. “There is a streak of cruelty in me that comes from having a quite competitive background,” Isaacs says of being the third of four brothers.
“We were pretty unkind to each other… It was only in my early 20s that I began to recognise there was value in being kind to people as opposed to putting up a very contemptuous defensive barrier…”
School was that Hertfordshire hothouse, Haberdashers’. It was quite a vintage crop in Isaacs’s time: fellow pupils included Sacha Baron Cohen, David Baddiel and Matt Lucas. “I’ve seen Baddiel a few times,” Isaacs says, and he sees the others occasionally at awards ceremonies.
Not all the Habs stars of the time were Jewish, though, and Isaacs has a lot of time for another alumnus, the BBC’s film critic, Mark Kermode: “He is always incredibly lovely and says hello on his Radio 5 podcasts, which I’ve listened to in Auschwitz and many other strange places. He’s said I was too cool [at school], but he was at the epicentre of the in-crowd.”
Isaacs admits his attachment to his roots has loosened over the years.“Because I’ve been lucky enough to play so many parts and live in so many countries, I feel rootless. The club I belong to is me, my wife and kids, and whatever part I’m playing. I’ve stripped almost all of my tribal identity out… I am what I am and proud of where I come from. But I don’t feel rooted.”
He has lived in America, Australia, Ireland, Hungary and Spain, but home is still, as it was 20 years ago, within walking distance both of the Central School and the local synagogue. Does he attend? “I might go on High Holydays if someone has a ticket,” he says. “In fact, I tried to go on Yomtov this year, but they said it would be 150 quid for each of us, and I didn’t know if I wanted to spend 600 quid just to sit there for 10 minutes.
“It’s not that I don’t have a connection,” he continues. “I feel my Jewish roots are my core. I went to cheder all my young adult life, and my parents live in Israel. I’d like to join a shul where they welcome children of a mixed marriage…
“I feel profoundly Jewish but not in a religious way. I love the tradition through the ritual and the songs, but when I read the Seder in English it’s nonsensical… But Judaism has wonderful things to offer.”
The real, deep-thinking, considerate Jason Isaacs is a long way from the psychos and villains, hard men and heroes, he portrays — as he is at pains to assure me. “I’m nothing like the characters I play,” he says as he dashes off to catch that plane. “I’ve heard from a number of people that I was this confident, even arrogant, kid growing up. But I was quite the opposite: terrified and terribly insecure. That’s something I learned from acting, to put on a front.”
Snapshot: Jason Isaacs
Born: June 6, 1963
Place of birth: Liverpool
School: Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, Elstree, Herts
Jewish education: Edgware Reform Synagogue
Partner: Emma Hewitt, a documentary filmmaker
Children: Lilly, five, and Ruby, two
Career: After drama school, Isaacs was initially known as a TV actor in the UK, with lead roles in ITV’s Capital City (1989) and the BBC drama Civvies (1992), as well as guest parts in series such as Taggart and Morse. He made his big-screen debut in 1989 with a minor role in Mel Smith’s The Tall Guy. Since then he has become a major Hollywood player, with roles alongside Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson, among others. He has won numerous awards and was recently voted one of the “13 Sexiest Men Who Are Real And Alive” by a San Francisco newspaper
On being Jewish: “I want my children to feel proud of both their parents’ heritage. And they do. When we visit my parents in Israel, we do Shabbas and say the beruchah. But it’s complicated. We were in shul in Finchley a couple of years ago on Rosh Hashanah and my five-year-old, who was three-and-a-half, was listening to the rabbi — a female, which I loved — telling the story of Adam and Eve and the snake. And my daughter asked me if it was true. And I said, ‘I don’t think it is, my darling. It’s just a story to explain good and bad.’ And the whole row turned round and frowned at me. I have to tell my children what I believe. I want them to have a real empathy for the religion, not to reproduce its views mindlessly”