Exclusive: Jason Isaacs - Living the Dream

Exclusive Interview with Jason Isaacs
Interview by Jamie Ruby
Written by Jamie Ruby

Jason IsaacsJason Isaacs is everywhere these days. Whether you know him as Lucius Malfoy from Harry Potter, or you've seen his face on a billboard recently advertising his new series, Awake, it's likely you've seen him. Isaacs is not new to the industry by any means. He's appeared in such films as Event Horizon, Armageddon, The Patriot, and more recently Abduction, as well as on television in The State Within, Brotherhood, and Case Histories.

Right now Isaacs can be seen back on television on the new NBC series, Awake. He stars as Detective Michael Britten, who has recently been in a car accident and as such lives in two realities. In the "green" reality, his son Rex survived the crash, and his wife Hannah died. He goes to sleep and when he wakes up in the "red" reality, his wife is with him, but they lost their son. Unwilling to accept either reality, Britten lives in both, not knowing which is real.

Living in both realities, Britten often gets clues in one that can help him solve cases in the other. Sometimes what he learns may be of a more personal nature and help him to understand something about his son or wife that he previously did not.

Earlier in the week Jason Isaacs talked to Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview about his new series, Awake, which airs Thursdays on NBC.

Jason IsaacsIsaacs loves to film both the emotional and physical scenes. "I'm a bit physical, I like going to the gym and working out, and I'm the same way having a big old emotional workout when you play scenes where you imagine your wife being dead or your kids being dead. And is it upsetting? Yes, it's very upsetting but I go home at the end of the day and my wife and kids are there.

"So it's not hard doing it, but it's part of the reason why I do do it. I think good storytelling, from the audience's point of view, should take you down paths so you don't have to go there yourself and help you work out what you think and feel about things."

The actor likes that the show is comprised of different elements. "I like the variety of it. That's one of the things I like about the show, it's got procedural elements but it's got some very strange meta physical elements and then it's got the puzz le of it all, the mythology of it all, trying to work out what's going on. And over and above all that, it's in the end about a man with a broken heart and how that easily he can empathize with other people.

"One of the reasons he's a great cop is because of what's happened to him. All of his senses are close to the surface and he can empathize, he can somehow see into other people's souls, almost.

"...So I like playing someone so human. His humanity is really on his sleeve, especially from the audience's point of view. That's what I like about it. If I just was playing scenes where I was running around chasing people with a gun, I would get bored very quickly, and If I was just sitting down crying all the time I would get equally bored. Somehow I feel like this show, when we get it right, fires on all cylinders. You're feeling and you're thinking and you're gripping the edge of your seat and you're remembering and hoping and all the things that I think storytelling can do."

Isaacs tries to inject humor into Britten, like the cops he met before filming. "I try to give him a dry sense of humor. All the cops I hung out with were funny, or if they weren't funny they were trying to be funny and failing, but they never stopped trying.  And the same is true of police officers and soldiers and doctors and people who work in situations where there's life and death and high stakes, they're constantly defusing it with humor. And so that's something, most of the quips I'm making up on the day."

The actor feels that his character is often curious, as he himself is, but he is not as fearless as Britten would be as a detective. "I like to think that part of the reason I like being an actor is that I'm interested in what makes other people tick, what makes them think and feel and hope and kill and run and shout and marry and all the rest of it. And I think he's curious, Michael is curious like that. He doesn't judge the world, he doesn't judge the people who come through the doors of the police station. He's all about just trying to work out who they are and why they do the things they do.

"And we have that in common but on the other hand, I've spent time with detectives both here and in Chicago and they are fearless in a way that I am utterly fearful. And I fake macho just as easily as they live it."

Another way in which Isaacs is different from Britten, is that he has a British accent. "I love putting accents on, because I come from a country where within three syllables when you open your mouth people can judge not just where you grew up, but how you grew up, what education you've had, what economic level you live at, what you aspire to and all that stuff. So if you don't get the voice right in England, you don't get the character right. So for me it all starts with the voice. And I love doing accents.

Jason Isaacs"I stay in it all day as well, I stay in it from the second I arrive putting the accent on until I get home at night and sometimes I forget and I'm still in it at night or in restaurants at which point my wife will throw things at me."

One thing that challenges Isaacs about his role is being able to get into character without being able to draw parallels to his own life. "Trying to work out how it feels for Michael [is challenging]. Because normally my job, an actor's job, is to just transport himself into being that person in that situation and you can always find some parallel in your life, no matter how trivial it is - it's the time your cat got run over, it could be the time you're trapped on the beach in the Second World War – whatever it is, it's just something that triggers your imagination. But this is such an unusual show, such an unusual premise, I have to work out how much [or] how little I would care or show that I'm caring.

"And also, I need to lead the audience through what I'm planning and what I'm thinking, and what I make of what I've just seen. So a lot of the times, I'm in the scene, and as well as being in the scene and being a detective, or being a husband or being a dad, I have to think to myself, "Maybe I'm making this stuff up. Maybe this is a dream." And how often to remind the audience of that, and let some of that out is tricky."

Isaacs reveals that Britten will start to lose his grip on reality, which he is excited for the viewers to see. "I've just watched the last three episodes myself. I just got the most recent cuts of them and Michael's grip on sanity really begins to fall apart. And the writers, once they got really confident that the audience was with them in the world that we're exploring, they really started spreading their wings. And when I start hallucinating characters and situations and people drift from one world into the other and I'm not sure, and the audience won't be sure whether they're really there or not, it starts to get enormously fun.

"And it also starts to be so completely our show and you just couldn't be anywhere else.  Sometimes there are scenes in our show that could have taken place in other shows. But when all the threads start coming together, it's unquestionably us and nothing else."

Things will not all turn out well for his character since he refuses to accept what is real. "We sort of saw that really clearly at the beginning, which is that he doesn't want to know.  And so then as storytellers we have to try to upend his world, and so we make it so that he's forced to know, or he's forced to confront it, or the pendulum will swing one way or the other, or there there's evidence that he wants to ignore, or he can be trapped in one place. We do everything possible to shake [it] up.

"His statement at the end of the pilot was not a manifesto for the writers, far from it. Whatever he wants to have happen will not happen for him, and that's the key to good drama."

As a producer, Isaacs was involved in some of the storytelling. "I was part of coming up with the stories and casting, I read in with every single actor and actress who came in for the parts, and part of the discussions. Where do we want to go, how do we want to do it, what the mood is on the set, who the directors are. And generally I think it's a way for them to get free overtime out of me."

Isaacs would be interested in writing or directing for the series in the future if he could. "I would want to, a lot. I don't quite know how easily that could be managed unless I had a brain transplant - it's hard acting it. But yeah, I would want to. I feel so in tune with the crew, by the time we got to the end it was all one family...I'm there, the writers create it all and there is of course a director and a crew and other people thinking about it, but I'm right at the sharp end all the time. And so I feel so much responsibility for the storytelling lies on my shoulders anyway, it wouldn't be that big a leap to step behind the camera occasionally."

Jason IsaacsIf he were to choose, one of the things Isaacs would like to see with Britten is some controversial romance. "We shied away from a romance for a while. There was a certainly a question that we might give him a romance in the world in which his wife is dead, and we worried that might make people judge him because his wife is alive. And it was always my contention that that wasn't true, that in that world his wife is either dead or he's only dreaming, and you can't be judged for things you do in your dreams.

"And more importantly, what I love watching on television or in the movies, anywhere, is something that makes me talk and argue when the thing's over. And I think I'd like to put him in some really difficult situations ethically so that apart from just entertaining people when it's over, people violently disagree about whether I did the right thing."

Isaacs has fun working with the cast. "Sometimes there are scenes where Wilmer [Valderrama] and I don't look at each other and you might watch it and think it's of all the tension between Vega and Britten, but it's actually because I was just crying with laughter. Acting is a very, very childlike job, profession, and I embody that worse than almost anyone I know. And the difference between who I am and how I behave on set and what happens on camera could not be more stark. And when Wilmer's around he's equally badly behaved. And Steve [Harris] as well! Steve who comes across very righteously on screen, he's just kind of a very righteous mountain of a man, and he just breaks into the goofiest ridiculous grins. So none of us are what we seem, but that's our job, to pretend to be other things."

The actor is always quick to create a good working environment between takes and trying to lighten the mood with his music. "Some very bad 70s disco gets played pretty much all day every day. I find that if people start getting pretentious or start getting testy with each other, and start behaving as if we're doing kidney transplants here, I find a bit of Bee Gees can quite easily defuse the situation."

Awake is becoming more and more popular, and the actor's image is popping up everywhere. "This is going to sound strange but I got my eyes closed on the billboards and so it doesn't look like me. So nobody recognizes me from it at all, because I think eyes are the windows to the soul.

"What's weird is it's Los Angeles and so I'm living in Los Angeles which means that everybody from the guys at Starbuck in the morning, to whoever's filling up my gas to the dentist, he's not only aware that I'm an actor who is paid to make this show, but what the ratings and the particular demographic are, and what the lead in show is, and when we've dropped off and when we've picked up. And that's weird, when people are wishing you good luck, and then they're saying, "I'm sorry about last week," and going, "Oh it's great, you've rallied this week, but I think your lead-in could be better, and you were up against the basketball," and I think, "Wow, there's no other place in the world where people will be so aware of the intricacies of my job." "

Jason IsaacsFans often come up to Isaacs to tell him their theories about the show. "People who are watching the show are absolutely loving it. It's one of those things that instantly had a slightly obsessive cult following which is really lovely. But everybody comes up as if they're the first person in the world to say it, and then they look over their shoulder, and they whisper conspiratorially, so that nobody else can hear this mind boggling theory, that I'm in a coma, or I'm really the one that's dead...Good luck to everybody who's come up with that theory, I don't think it will turn out to be true, but you know, they might be right...

"Most of the people come up and say they love it, and then occasionally they'll wind their window down and as they drive by, they go, "Your wife is dead, right?" with a big grin on their face. And I often wonder what the other people in the street think of that. You know, why is somebody shouting gleefully that my wife is dead out the window?"

Isaacs thinks about his fans when he chooses his roles. "If there're people who watch me in things, I've never not for one day or one minute been anything other than appreciative and grateful that they watch me, and I take that responsibility seriously enough that I try and only pick things, and this is a stupid way to pick jobs, I pick jobs that I think will be interesting stories to tell. I've got this bunch of incredibly devoted obsessive fans who I've met many times who travel to wherever I am and I always picture them sitting down to watch it and I try and make sure they have a good time. So when these jobs come along, these stupid jobs just for money, I just picture them sitting there being enormously disappointed having got babysitters or traveled somewhere, so they're my conscience always sitting on my shoulder."
For more on Jason Isaacs be sure to read our conference call interview.

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