Jason Isaacs (Times Magazine, January 2022)

Jason Isaacs in Jan 2022. Photo by Gareth Cattermole.
Jason Isaacs in Jan 2022. Photo by Gareth Cattermole.

Jason Isaacs is a tortured actor, but he doesn’t let that define him.  He is 58, exceptionally smart, exceptionally funny. Most famously, he rose to fame in Harry Potter, was in The Patriot and Black Hawk Down, more recently in Sex Education, The Great and the lockdown disaster movie Skyfire.

He is married to documentary maker Emma Hewitt and they have two daughters – Lily (19) and Ruby (16).  He is soon to be seen in the critically acclaimed Mass – two couples dealing with loss and forgiveness after a school gun shooting.

He is currently in Canada filming Good Sam. “Saving the world one artery at a time I like dressing up in the jobs that I never got to do – grown-up jobs like doctors, policeman, lawyers. I did a law degree – I knew that I was going to go off and cover myself in greasepaint and run around swearing a lot. They were kind and let me pass even though they got a lot of doodles instead of answers in the exam. They took away the honours part. Victoria Wood also had her degree made ordinary. She was excited.

I often didn’t attend lectures. I didn’t want to have a safety net. I was going to drama school.

We moved from Liverpool to London when I was 11 and I dropped my accent overnight as soon as the first person took the piss.  I went full south London overnight.  I reinvented myself at every turn.

I see the fact that I can do accents well as a sign of weakness.  From an early age I always wanted to fit in.  I would consciously adapt the way I spoke.  I would speak in a way that I thought would pass in whatever group I was in.  If I do it in the back of a taxi and I hear myself I try and stop doing it, but whoever I’m with my accent changes.

For British people it’s not just the accent telling us geographically where they’re from, but it tells you about class and education. The kind of person you want to be perceived as is all put across in just a few words. I feel I don’t belong anywhere, or I belong everywhere.
When I’m on a job and I’m American all day it seems odd to me when I go back to my own voice and speak to my family.  Even in London my accent can shift enormously.  Sometimes I sound like the people I was at university with and sometimes the people I used to skateboard with and everything in between.  When I hear other people doing that, I think how pathetic.  I was amongst the first people ever to skateboard, so the accent was early Ali G. Then I went to Bristol University the year that the Sloane Ranger handbook was published.  And that was what most of the people I was mixing with at university sounded like and I wanted desperately to sound look and dress like them.

I like to play music on shoots that keeps people s toes tapping.  Even when you’re doing tragic things on camera you may as well feel good.  The music doesn’t change Aretha, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, The Bee Gees, Kool & The Gang – I have a thousand playlists but I always go back to the same one. There’s nothing like seeing a bunch of crewmembers tapping their toes like that scene in Almost Famous where they’re all singing along to Tiny Dancer, music blasting out at four in the morning in some remote location.  It makes the day go by.
I was on a film called Spinning Gold (a biopic of the 70s music industry producer Bogatz).  So there were people in it playing Bill Withers and Gladys Knight and the Isley Brothers.  They would sing on set and the sound would be amazing.  I would be miming along.  No notes ever came out of my mouth.  I only sing in my car by myself.  It was five years before I song in front of my wife and that was in the car with the volume turned on full and all the car windows down.  No one has heard me sing in public, trust me.
I was once cast in a musical.  My agent said, “they must’ve heard you sing.” Trust me, they hadn’t.   They probably thought they can teach anyone to sing and that is just not true.

I was once persuaded I do some charity golf.  Everyone else doing it was an American sports star and I’m the Norman Wisdom of the bunch.  When I got on, they have to move the crowds back in case I killed anybody.  It was embarrassing.  I had to play with all these basketball gods.

“Mass was shot just before lockdown. It was really inconvenient to do. It was in the middle of nowhere in between going and coming back from Australia.  No financial incentive but as I read it, I thought that’s the reason I’m an actor, to do things like this.
Also I had been away from home quite a long time and then flew myself halfway across the world. I had no sleep.  There were so many reasons not to do it.  I thought it would never even be a film. I thought it might not be watchable.  It’s four people sitting in a room dealing with very emotional material …..yet… I believe in the power of stories, and I wanted the emotional experience.  That’s a selfish part of acting.  It’s very powerful sometimes if you let go of all your expectations.  Also, I thought I can’t look at myself in the mirror and pretend that I even believe in acting if I don’t do this.

If you concentrate on doing something that is enormously powerful, worthwhile and interesting, people respond. The response has surprised and thrilled us. It is in some ways the biggest film I’ve ever been in because it’s about the power of forgiveness and everyone knows what it’s like to carry around blame or hatred or anger for people that you’re probably not going to meet.  It’s a film that deals with that. People carry around that burden.  It is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Whether your anger is at Brexit, vaccines, Republicans, whatever…

This is people meeting who have been through a terrible tragedy trying to find meaning.  They release the anger that they have been carrying.  They try to forgive people because they know that not doing so is ruining their lives.

Am I good at forgiving? God knows. I understand the notion of taking poison and expecting the other person to die… The seed of hope is when you understand at least.  Being in a place where it is causing you enough damage or pain and knowing there is a tool you have to reach for.  The world doesn’t change.  It’s the stuff between our ears.

I did drugs for years, although not for a long time. I don’t often go to 12 step meetings anymore. I miss it.  I just don’t make the effort which is my loss.  There’s a lot of fear around at the moment and it’s challenging just to try to be the best version of yourself.  Take whatever steps you can change the things you can change and let go of the rest.
The drugs weren’t a way of dealing with a sense of distance.  They were the cause. When I got clean, I remember my wife saying, “OK, we can finally buy a home and have kids.”  And I actually said darling I just met you and she said,”What are you talking about? We’ve been together 10 years!”

The most important thing is I’ve learned to live in the moment and to find ways to be grateful for the good things you have and try and get some of those tools.

To live our lives feeling sorry for ourselves or being angry other people is no good. It’s better to be grateful for what we’ve got rather than resentful for what we haven’t got.  These are tools. Told come through art, fiction, music, therapy, whatever.  Different things work for different people.  Living with grace and gratitude is the most important journey.

I’m really grateful that I was a drug addict because I’ve had access to so many people who are trying to lead their best lives.  Doesn’t mean to say that I do it but at least if somebody says something that knocks me off kilter, I can recognise it and have ways of dealing with it. I know this is true of so many people who got sober.  They are grateful to have access to people and information. The world can be as complicated or terrifying with the walls caving in and the sky falling down if we let it.

I choose a job if I think it will be interesting. I’m embarrassed sometimes that I get to do a job for a living that brings me satisfaction. I don’t mean that in a thigh slapping way on a deeper level. It’s rare that something satisfies me and I think will be entertaining and be of value in people’s lives. Independent films are just dying.  All having to go to streaming immediately because people rarely go to the cinemas.  Independent films are the art form of the 20th century.

Awards for Mass would be great because it means that people would watch it and it would mean that people can watch films with people that don’t wear capes in them.  Don’t get me wrong. I like playing in the sandbox, I like a cape. I just don’t want independent films to go away.

Giant spectacles are great, but if it was only them, what a sparse and barren landscape it would be.

I’m now in Toronto until April. Good Sam has 12 parts. Emma will be here lots of times and the kids have Canadian passports because Emma grew up here.  She is part Canadian.  She didn’t pick up the apologising part. She picked up the gentleness part.  The girls are now 16 and 19.  It was different when they were younger and Emma bore the brunt of that.  She was an incredible documentary maker and she had to give a lot of that up to look after them.

They don’t really need us now, they are young women.  It does mean that I can sign up for a series and instead of me being absent it feels to them like a free travel opportunity.  Ruby is 16 and was in a school play last week.

Lily is 19.  She is halfway through her second year at university studying English.  Last year she spent most of her time in a bedroom on a laptop. I hope that soon she is out burning the candle at both ends and the middle.  It was a pretty shitty year for students. Ruby wants to be a horror film director. Not sure if she’ll still want to be that this time next week.

Lily says she’d like to be a journalist – how can I with any conscience say don’t pursue the thing that you’re interested in because it might not work out? She loves literature and she’s always loved literature.  I think it started with Harry Potter.  She was only seven when she asked me on Skype if she could come to the premiere of Harry Potter and I said I want you to read the books before you see the films.  When I came home a few weeks later she’d read all seven books. She had never read a book before.

I am mentoring various people and I can see when their eyes glaze over and all they’re thinking is ‘I want a job, I want a job. I’d like to be in a film, I’d like to be in an aeroplane, I’d like to be in a hotel room.’

Mostly I tried to tell people to take the reins.  It’s not about how to get a job, it’s about choices. It’s all about what you say yes to and what you say no to.  I can talk about how to get jobs, but mostly it’s about how to take the reins early on.  If you have a smart phone, you can run a film studio.
Why do journalists ask, “What attracted you to this role?”  No one is ever going to tell the truth. I was getting on badly with my wife, my agent threatened to fire me. And also, why do they ask what was x really like?
Compliments? I’d like to be able to take them, but the truth is I’m only as good as the material.
I am not good at compliments.  They are so alien to me. It is an anathema for me to tape a scene and think oh I was good in that.  Everybody I respect has impostor syndrome.

I think my criteria for choosing something is can I get away with this? Will I look like an absolute turd?  If I can’t stand in front of the camera and make a scene halfway believable, I don’t wanna take the job.
I like people to think that I’m a much better actor than I am because I choose parts, if not projects, where I can hold my end up.
When I was in LA just before shooting Awake, producers came to my house and said, ”We’d like to take the grey out of your hair because nobody goes grey on television,” and I said I’ve been told my hair takes colour quickly.  This fabulous woman came – we became close friends. She left the colour on for 20 minutes and my hair was blue black like a superman comic.  It looked ludicrous
In Skyfire, they died my hair black and my face was orange, yet so many people loved that old fashioned disaster movie and weirdly people found it emotional.   I cry very easily. I cry at Yellow Pages and HSBC ads, but there is a difference between crying and feeling.
I watched Mass with a group of people in Washington who wanted to change gun laws and they were crying – many of those people in that room had gone through the process of forgiving in that way.
I saw a film the other day, Petite Mamon. I was utterly transported and moved. It was so simple and beautiful.
During the pandemic I had access to every single streaming service and I thought it would be like going to the film school I never went to.  I thought I’d be able to stop boasting about the great films that I’d never seen, but my kids only wanted to watch Grey’s Anatomy (17 seasons) twice and The Office.

Rupert Grint – Mail Weekend (Jan 2020)

Rupert Grint and Chrissy Iley
Rupert Grint and Chrissy Iley

I first met Rupert Grint over 5 years ago – the Harry Potter films were already over but a whole generation still felt they owned him. He was their friend, their brother, their personal wizard. As we sat having coffee in a tucked away street a dozen people in the course of an hour called out “Ron! Ron! Ron!” and asked for selfies. He didn’t seem irritated by this level of invasive fame, he just obliged. Today, it’s been nearly a decade since Harry Potter ended and he’s managed some personal wizardry – people still stop him every day, he is still one of the most famous people in the world and still responsible for revitalising Ginger. Curiously, he has managed to keep such a lot of his life private, for instance, he has been together with actress Georgia Groome (from Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging) since 2011, but nobody knew they were a couple until about a year ago.

He is next on screen on Apple TV in which is possibly his first fully fledged grown-up role. The show is addictive, creepy, twisty, turny; I was going to watch 1 episode but binged 5, I couldn’t believe it was so good. Shyamalan says that Rupert was pivotal. He’s not the lead role, he’s the main character’s brother, but he steals the screen in such a way that he makes it his own. In the show, as Julian, he wears his snazzy suit, one of them a blue tartan tweedy affair which is both ridiculous and charming – a bit like him. His sister is Lauren Ambrose, flame-haired actress from Six Feet Under. They actually look as if they could be related: “ever since I saw her in Six Feet Under, I always wanted to play her relation” – see, he manifested it.

Today  when we meet in his room in a smart London hotel he is wearing a thick black jacket and black roll-neck and a necklace with a few charms, one of which is a heart that says ‘happy birthday, Anne, 1967’: “I have no idea who she is but I like to think about who she might be. I got it at a vintage market in Philadelphia. I’m a bit of a collector”. Indeed, he’s got a rare elephant bird egg, a skeleton of an ostrich which stands in his dining room, and several ancient bones. Is Antiques Roadshow his guilty pleasure? “Not so guilty – not guilty at all, I love it. I love hearing the stories of the relationships people have with these objects. And I’m into… stuff. Fiona Bruce presents it and she’s really good, I don’t know if I could do it better but I’ve not got a bad knowledge and I can identify bits of ceramic so I wouldn’t mind being a presenter.”

He’s 31, as ginger as ever, and with naughty twinkling eyes. He doesn’t feel 31 (or particularly look it), but because of Potter, he has a weird relationship with age. Potter overtook his childhood so he has a strange relationship with age. When it ended, did he have an identity crisis? “Yes, I suppose so. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do anything like it again, or act again. I was quite keen on having my freedom back, I had my tonsils removed straight away”. Does he mean so he couldn’t talk and it was a celebration to have his voice removed? He replied “kind of, but I had massive tonsils, and I had to get them out. I felt like a man – it was good. You can’t speak for a few days and you shouldn’t eat ice cream, you should eat scratchy things.” Why? I thought the whole point of having your tonsils removed was so you could eat ice cream for a few days? “That’s completely wrong, you’ve got to encourage chewing and swallowing textured food. But I did have ice cream as well.” Ice cream has always been important to Rupert – he once wanted to be an ice cream man: “because I always loved the van, it was my first car and I learned to drive in it. It has pictures of 99s on it. Whenever I rode it out it was chaos with people wanting ice cream, but it was a great choice of transport. I still think it would be a nice job, but the ice cream men are very territorial – there’s a whole mafia, you get into trouble if you go onto someone else’s patch.” What’s your favourite ice cream? “I like ‘em all, my favourite’s a 99 and a Raspberry Ripple”. He makes me laugh a lot, his is cute and endearing but he’s also old-soul smart. In Servant his sister suffers the loss of her baby and replaces it with a Baby Reborn doll as part of grief therapy. The doll is made of silicone, hand-crafted, weighted and very realistic. Although his character Julian is brash, he’s the man you’d want in a crisis: “he’s always two steps ahead, and he’s always popping in for tequila. It felt very natural playing Lauren’s brother – I used to imagine we would be relatives in something.” Reborn dolls are real therapy dolls and used when women really want to conceive and they can’t or when they’ve suffered a cot-death. Rupert tells me “I have a Reborn doll, but it’s like a vampire. I’m not sure it’s quite the same thing, but the dolls are really realistic and when you hold them you can’t stop bouncing them.” Perhaps being Julian will finally make people realise he’s Rupert, not Ron, or even Ed Sheeran – who he’s always being mistaken for, including once by Leo Sayer at a car rally who kept asking him about his latest album: “I just played along, it was easier. Being Ron, though, it’s strange. It’s never quite died down. And now a whole new generation is finding Harry Potter. They have this kind of ownership of me – they see me and they think they know me. And, of course, Harry Potter still lives on because there’s a theatre play, and a ride at Universal Studios which I went on at the opening and it got stuck. It’s amazing what they’ve built: a Hogwarts castle, a train and King’s Cross, it takes you straight back. I am very proud to have been part of it, but it could be a bit claustrophobic, especially when we had finished the last one, nearly 10 years ago now. There wasn’t any real period of adjustment. Suddenly everything was over and it was overwhelming. It was the right time to finish – there are no more books anyway.”

Is he aware of the rumour that was circulated that there was going to be an original cast reforming on another Harry Potter? “I don’t think that would happen but I’d never say never.”

“I’ve got a whole new perspective on those years now. We were in this protected bubble but we didn’t really see it. We didn’t really feel that famous. I didn’t hate it but it had its own challenges. I did struggle, I think, because I had naturally merged into the character of Ron. I felt a very strong affiliation with him.” Does he feel that he merged into his character more than Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) or Emma Watson (Hermione Granger)? He thinks long and hard: “I don’t know.” Maybe it’s because he’s the better actor. “I’ll take that… but I still feel him. I feel protective over him. When I went to see the play (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child) and someone else was playing me I didn’t feel right. But on another level it was really fun – great to see him reimagined.” Is he still in touch with Emma and Daniel, who were his closest companions for a decade? “It’s been a while since I’ve seen either of them… I see Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy). I see them as family but more like distant cousins – it’s great to reunite when we do, but we’re not with each other all the time. It was an intense period.”

Coming out of a role that he played for so long, it must have been difficult to choose projects or characters that were different enough. “It’s never been a conscious thing to remove myself from that world, but I wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to be a wizard again. I enjoy stuff that’s grounded in reality.” Although, Servant is grounded in the creepiest reality. And his Reborn doll doesn’t seem very realistic because “it’s a vampire doll with little fangs. You still want to look after it and handle it carefully. Reborn dolls are a real form of therapy, although I can’t say that I would recommend it.” Why did he acquire his? Was it therapeutic? “No, because people know I collect weird things”. The presence of the babies on set made him actually quite broody: “as well as the dolls, on set we had triplets. They were always around. I love kids, I really do want children one day. Servant taps into this primal fear we have about protecting our young, and that’s how the show twists that part of the brain.” At the moment, though, he is happy to be a Cat Dad to a pinky-white sphynx cat called Milk, “it’s a myth they are hairless, they do have hair, but it feels like suede. And he loves skin-on-skin contact. He’s white but he’s got a pink hue and a bit of red fur on his nose.” He did a campaign for Milk a few years ago, so he obviously feels very close to him and that they have a likeness. He shows me his picture – he looks like a new-born foetus (if that’s possible). Milk doesn’t like to wear outfits but has a special heated bed that he likes, “he’s got beautiful blue eyes as well – owners do look like their pets, don’t they?”

As well as having a confused relationship with his age, he has an even more confused relationship with money. He made several million, some reports say £28 million  from the Harry Potter franchise but has no idea how much money he has: “it rings a bell, yes, I couldn’t actually tell you. Money is something that happens in the background. Milk has got very expensive tastes but I haven’t had an issue with money from such a young age, it makes it weird. I think I’m thrifty, I like a bargain – but maybe that’s just because I’m getting older. What age do I feel? I couldn’t put a number on it. Younger than 30 and also forever.” Is it true that Julian is your first grown-up character? “I think you always put a bit of yourself in the character, but Julian is removed from everything that I am. He is hugely confident and not hugely likeable.” I find the lack of confidence alarming. He’s shy and blushes easily but he has every reason to be confident – he is very funny and smart, and has something special as an actor. He has managed to be grounded and private, even as one of the most famous faces on earth. “I think I have a very normal existence, it’s a malleable level of fame and I enjoy it. The Harry Potter films had a profound effect and deep meaning to people, especially of my generation – they get tattoos of it. It’s a real marker of their nostalgia, I’ve learned to embrace it.” Some drinks and some chips arrive, but he’s far too polite to eat them, or maybe he’s just not hungry. His brother now rally drives and his father used to: “my dad used to sell Formula One memorabilia on QVC. I’ve always liked cars, but I haven’t got the ‘car gene’ as intensely. As well as the ice cream van, I’ve got an electric car. We all go through different phases, and this year, I started beekeeping.” He keeps the bees in his garden in North London: “I let the bees have the honey, they’re just amazing things to watch – inspiring and so busy. They’ve all got jobs, there’s an undertaker bee who carries out the dead bees, and the Queen is massive and has a green dot which they paint her with. You’re born a Queen, it’s a fascinating society – the hierarchy of the hive. I’ve got a lot of bee paraphernalia, a bee suit and smokers.

Does he mean he wears a black and yellow stripe suit to tend them?

“No!! a protective bee suit!

“When you open the hive you have to smoke them because it relaxes them, otherwise they can get quite aggressive. It’s a primal thing, they think it’s a forest fire so they stay in the hive. I’ve never been stung. Bees really don’t care about you, they’ve got so much to do: filling the hive with pollen. This year there were mites that hurt the hive, so we’re building them back up and next year we will be able to take some honey.”

Next up, he will go back to Philadelphia for another series of Servant, where he will collect more antiquities and books: “I’ve mainly got David Attenborough books, he’s got an elephant bird egg as well, and I’m sure he likes bees. I would love to meet him, I think we would have a lot to talk about.” I wonder where Attenborough would stand on the Reborn doll.

Servant is on Apple TV new episodes every Friday.