Bad boy does good: Jason Isaacs' new project is all heart
Jason Isaacs plays tough guys in the Harry Potter movies and US TV series Brotherhood. But, he tells Geoffrey Macnab, his new project is all heart
Thursday 09 April 2009
What does an actor do when a film he has been desperate to make for years suddenly runs out of money, days before production is due to begin? This is what happened to Jason Isaacs when he was first about to begin work on Good, the film adaptation of CP Taylor's celebrated play about a decent man in 1930s Germany who, in spite of his principles, becomes entangled with the Nazi party. The project was all set to shoot. Hugh Jackman was to star as John Halder, the intellectual swept up in Hitler's rise to power. Isaacs was cast as Halder's Jewish psychoanalyst friend, Maurice. Then, with everyone already on location, the cash ran out.
The Liverpool-born Isaacs, who plays "Death Eater" Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies and has a blossoming career in the US thanks to films like The Patriot, and such TV dramas as The West Wing and Brotherhood, was determined to make Good. The producer, Miriam Segal, was an old friend of his from student drama days. So, when the financing collapsed, he decided to help.
"I wrote a cheque," Isaacs recalls. He won't say just how much, but admits, "it was lots, it was lots." The idea was that his money would pay the crew and keep the production together until it could be re-financed. Sadly, the film collapsed anyway.
Eventually, Segal was able to repay Isaacs and to re-finance the film. Partially thanks to Isaacs' intervention. Viggo Mortensen was secured as the lead. "I committed this total breach of showbiz ethics. I asked this friend who I knew was friendly with Mortensen to get him the script. Now, if somebody asked me to get a script to Viggo, there is no way I would do it. If somebody asked me to get a script to anyone of the people I know who are more influential and powerful than me, I just wouldn't do it. Otherwise, they wouldn't be my friends. That's in a way what defines the friendship – that you don't try to take advantage of them."
In this case, Isaacs' gambit worked. Mortensen had seen and admired the play when he was just starting out as an actor.
Ironically, when the production was finally ready to shoot, eight years after Segal had begun her battle to bring it to screen, Isaacs wasn't available. He was away in Rhode Island, playing Irish-American gangster Michael Caffee in Brotherhood. Mortensen and Segal refused to recast his role. In the end, the TV network agreed to release him during the middle of shooting a new series so he could go to Hungary to make the film he cared about so much.
The CP Taylor play clearly had a strong personal resonance for him. His family moved from Liverpool to London when he was 11 years old. When he reminisces about his childhood in Finchley, you begin to understand why. As a Jewish teenager in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he experienced anti-Semitism at first hand. "The National Front were on the rise. They would come and try to beat us up. They would break the windows of synagogues. They would chase us out of places. There would be fights. There was terror," he recalls.
He tells apocalyptic stories about having to hide in a Chinese restaurant in the West End while skinheads were goose-stepping and "sieg-heil"-ing outside.
Once, in Edgware, he and friends were chased by National Front supporters armed with pickaxe handles and chains. "I jumped into this kid's car. It was his mother's.We were being chased up, bashed in the back. It was like a bad Hollywood version of a car chase. This kid was terrified about his mother's car. We were all going: "Fuck your mother's car! These guys all have chains and pickaxes."
As a student at the prestigious Haberdashers' Aske's boys' school (which numbers David Baddiel, Sacha Baron Cohen, Damon Hill, Simon Schama and Matt Lucas among its old boys), Isaacs might have been expected to have been cocooned from the prejudice and violence evident in late 1970s Britain. However, it was something of which he was aware. "It was a time when it [anti-Semitism] was on the rise. You didn't know how far it was going... Thatcherism came along and – much like Halder says in the film – absorbed the worst excesses of the National Front."
Isaacs acknowledges that it is far-fetched to draw direct parallels between 1930s Germany and the Britain he grew up in. Nonetheless, he insists that we all face ethical and political dilemmas akin to those confronting Halder in Good. "I am huge New Labour supporter. They've done amazing things in terms of real money put into education, health service and childcare. But they've also, on this watch, done away
with the right to silence, and been party to an invasion of a country based on false pretexts. They, and most of the West, have done away with the Geneva Convention... all these things have happened on my watch, but I've done absolutely nothing about it other than try to sound righteous."
In Good, Halder deludes himself that he can help dilute the forces of extremism by being a member of the Nazi Party, and doesn't lose his optimism that reason and humanity will eventually prevail. "There is something about detailing the specifics of this cumulative inhumanity that made me think about the things I happily blinker myself from – the asylum-seekers who've been refused the right of appeal, behind barbed wire fences in Kent..." Isaacs reflects. Wary about beginning to sound as if he is on a soapbox, Isaacs adds that he doesn't see himself as an overtly political person. Nor does he take his own profession entirely seriously.
"Acting is an inherently narcissistic thing to do a lot of the time," he declares. He is not above "whoring himself" if he needs work and money, he says.
His acting career began almost by chance when he was studying law at Bristol University. "I started doing it because I wanted a community that I fitted into."
Isaacs, 45, is self-deprecating and charming in a very British way, always keen to acknowledge the part his collaborators have played in his best-received performances. His partner is the documentary film-maker Emma Hewitt. They have two young daughters and live in north-west London. In spite of the Harry Potter movies, Bafta nomination and work in Hollywood, he claims that he can stil maintain a relatively normal life.
"I haven't moved more than a mile in 20 years," Isaacs declares. He is going on holiday in Dorset with his family over Easter and doubts that any of the other kids or parents who'll be there too will even know he is an actor. He drives his children to school and does his own food shopping.
"It is rather bizarre for me that when I arrive at these events in a black tie, people are screaming as if I'm some amazingly in-demand person – and then when the thing is over, I wander out into Leicester Square, have a bowl of soup in Chinatown and get a cab home."
Isaacs' film debut was back in 1989, in Mel Smith's The Tall Guy. Since then, he has worked on stage, big screen and on TV. He confesses that he still feels a slight embarrassment at the make-believe aspect of performing. "Along the way, the idea that I get dressed up and pretend to be other people for a living has seemed sillier and sillier to me." Nonetheless, once he embarks on a role, he says he finds it "fully engaging" and immersive. In recent years, he has developed a reputation as a highly proficient "bad guy".
This dates back to his chilling and supercilious performance as the villainous Brit Colonel Tavington terrorising Mel Gibson's family in The Patriot. "After The Patriot, I was offered a lot of bad guys. Wisely or unwisely, I chose not to do them."
Instead, he has mixed and matched between big American projects and smaller, more personal films and dramas. He cites playing Harry H Corbett in BBC Four's The Curse of Steptoe, or appearing in More 4's Scars, as memorable and satisfying experiences, however poorly they paid.
Isaacs is doing all he can to drum up interest in Good, after all the travails in getting it made. Before he goes, he takes one final question. What is the secret of portraying psychopaths on screen? Isaacs doesn't practice scowling in the mirror or dredge up memories of tussles with the National Front or watch Britain's Hardest Men. The answer is as for any other role – it's in the writing.
'Good' is released on 17 April
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