Jason Isaacs (Times Magazine, January 2022)
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.