Interview With Jason Isaacs

Jason Isaacs, star of Green Zone and the actor behind creepy white-haired bad boy Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films has an axe to grind. He simply can't stand movies that are too long.
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Jason Isaacs, star of Green Zone and the actor behind creepy white-haired bad boy Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films has an axe to grind. He simply can't stand movies that are too long.

A: It’s sensational for someone of the goldfish attention span which I’ve got. Most movies, even the really good ones are about an hour and 55 minutes too long nowadays. The original idea was just a bit of fun, basically to get people to make minute-long films that were a parody of their favourite film, and what became shocking is how much of the story you can tell in a minute and how many really talented people there are out there who took this as a cue not just to make people laugh but also to make fantastic little films. So there’s everything, such a wide variety, and not just from Britain but internationally, of people with no resources or with a lot of resources. Some of these films are phenomenally professional but nowadays everybody’s got access to an HD camera and a laptop. It’s kind of stunning the imagination and the invention that’s out there and it’s also remarkable not just how much of a story you can tell but how many laughs you can get. Also I hadn’t realised how well I knew all of these films that are parodied because they only have to hit certain beats and it brings the whole film back. So, it’s fun and we’ve heard for a long time that the internet and the access to all the resources should make film-making more democratic, but it hasn’t really happened because you actually need a hell of a lot of resources and you need a lot of people to give their services for free or you need money even though the recording equipment is cheap. But this is something that anyone can do and that means everybody is doing it.

Q: The range of entries is wide and the best ones are very good, don’t you think?

A: Yes, some of them are really classy. Some of these people are ready to make a film. The really top ones reminded me of those adverts in Grindhouse – there’s some real class on show there. I’ve been wondering if any of the previous contenders had gone on to make films, and it wouldn’t surprise at all. You can see literally in 60 seconds that they have the eye for composition, the rhythm, the story beats to be able to tell a story in a full-length feature.

A visit to the Empire website on which the 20 short-listed films can be seen reveals the full range of talent that has been attracted to the contest this year, and these are, aside from one Dutch example, just the British ones – the net has been cast internationally this time round with entries received for the first time this year from Sweden, Russia, Ireland, Turkey, Holland and South Africa.

Q: So you think it would be possible for some of them to make such a dramatic transition?

A: I’ve got a friend who’s now a big Hollywood director, and I remember once, when Hollywood first came calling, going for a walk with him and he said: “Do you think I can do this, I’ve never spent this much money. Can I pull it off?” I said: “It’s just taste. You’ve got taste. You’ve got a sense of story.” It doesn’t matter if you’re spending 100 million, a million, or, what, ten grand or next to nothing.

Q: Would you have predicted that Paul Greengrass who started out in gritty, fact-based British TV drama would have been able to make the leap to Hollywood action blockbusters, like the Bourne films and the upcoming Green Zone [in which Isaacs co-stars]?

A: You can never quite predict precisely what will happen when somebody is thrust slightly outside their comfort zone. But, you know, we’ve been around a long time, when people have really good taste, they have really good taste. There’s Paul Greengrass, or David Yates who’s now directed some of the biggest, most successful films that have ever been made and he had done television before. But he’d directed the actors beautifully, he’d used the camera with his available schedule and budget beautifully and he had an absolute sense of what the story was and how best to tell it. So it didn’t really matter, that transition - he was easily able to do it working with hundreds of millions of pounds having got used to working with a fraction of that budget. So it shouldn’t be that surprising to us and it shows us and anyone who’s entered this contest that the transition can be made.

Q: Do you have favourites among the entries?

A: Well, we haven’t officially judged them yet, but I’ve watched all the 20 UK ones - because there are others from around the world - and the ones that are most successful for me are those that use my knowledge and my understanding of the film and subvert it and make it funny. The ones that are perhaps slightly less successful are the ones where they actually, genuinely try and make a straight version of the film in a minute which is a little bit pointless. I have my favourites but I don’t think it’s fair to say since it’s not narrowed down to the final five yet.

Q: Are there any films that you’d like to see done in 60 seconds.

A: Well, I think Avatar could have done with a trim.

Q: Are films too long?

A: The truth is when I’m really enjoying something I don’t care if it’s five hours long. A film is never too long to me if I’m enjoying it, particularly on a plane. I made a cheap joke about Avatar there -  I don’t think the screenplay will be selling like, say, On the Waterfront, but he [James Cameron] did something remarkable and he clearly taps into the zeitgeist. The fact that he’s had the two biggest films in history is not the consequence of marketing or positioning or release weeks. It’s because something of his understanding of story-telling resonates with people across generations of our time. You can’t knock that, you can try and deconstruct that but you can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Q: Would you be tempted to make a Done in 60 Seconds yourself?

A: A couple of times I’ve thought about doing short films and to do a short I’d be calling all my friends in the business, asking them for favours, to turn up for four or five days and it’s been pointed out to me that you might as well ask them to come for a few weeks and do a feature film. And it’s a lot of work – it’s an awful lot of work since there’s a lot of cuts in 60 seconds. I do little films with my kids anyway. We made a version of Thriller recently in a graveyard, and it’s very funny – for us, but I’m not sure that things I make are for public consumption. Having said that I’d be in one – it’s my ideal length of work.

Q: Are you interested in working behind the camera?

A: I’ve always been interested in every aspect of the business and I’ve spent as much of my life discussing every aspect of the film-making, how to put it together, the script, how to market it, choosing the various  heads of department, the edit as I have talking about acting, but just recently I’ve had a credit for that on a couple of things. When you’ve been around as long as I have, then your friends are not just other actors, but writers, directors, producers, distributors and you get to be part of the discussion. I don’t know that I’d ever want to hang up the acting hat and just work in an office and be on the phone for 90% of my working life because I think that would be tough.

Q: But you are interested in writing and directing?

A: Yeah…I see myself doing all of it but I’m relatively lazy, I have small children and my friends who are directors when a project is on are completely absent from their family and right now my favourite bit of the day is reading stories to my kids at night. There’s nothing better.

Q: Do you have any hot tips for the other categories in the Jameson Empire Awards?

A: Every year you hear the death knell for British films, and I know it to be true because I wear the producer’s hat occasionally that it’s much, much harder to raise money now and when you do try there’s a very short list of people who can finance your film unless you’re working with some of the biggest stars in the world even if you’re making a really good film. And yet ever year there’s an amazing bumper crop of films and this year the British films that have come to the fore and are holding their head up on the international stage are so eclectic and so varied, that no I don’t have favourites no. Andrea Arnold has been winning a lot with Fish Tank and that’s fabulous, but so is Moon and Duncan Jones, and so is Nowhere Boy – I’m from Liverpool I like that. In the Loop made me choke with laughter. I’ve loved lots of films this year. I thought Precious was brilliant. I thought Viggo was incredible in The Road – he did something fantastic and showed me something about parenthood. There’s been a batch of very, very interesting films this year. Very individual voices have been able to tell their stories – An Education was beautiful, Carey Mulligan was a revelation and Lone Scherfig managed to walk a line in terms of tone in that film between what it could have been, how revolted and repelled we could have been by his [the character of David played by Peter Sarsgaard] predatory behaviour and in fact how liberated Lynn Barber [Barber wrote the short autobiographical article on which Nick Hornby’s screenplay was based] was by this relationship. To control our response to him so beautifully, to modulate him so beautifully that it never became too black and white was a very difficult thing to do. I thought Andy Serkis was fabulous in Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll – I felt like I was in Camden in the ‘70s. There was a lot to savour and that’s not always true. Sam Rockwell was wonderful [in Moon]. Just as an actor – I played identical twins once in a Taggart, and I remember it being fun and challenging. I thought what Sam Rockwell pulled off, knowing the technical process required for him to play all those scenes with himself (not wanting to give away the gag) was just magnificent, really magnificent. What they pulled off, a combination of Sam and Duncan Jones, with limited resources and on one set was brilliant.

Q: Over the years you’ve played quite a lot of villains of one sort or another?

A: The first play I ever did in public was after I’d been acting for a while at University and we went to the Edinburgh Festival and at the first performance there were five people and two of them were reviewers, and the first review came out at midnight in the Scotsman and it said: “This is the worst kind of indulgent student shit I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s what gives the Edinburgh festival a bad name. Avoid it like he plague.” We all went up to Arthur’s Seat and drank bottles of Tequila and nearly killed ourselves with alcohol poisoning and we came down at five o’clock in the morning. The only other publication that used to review in these days, the Evening News, came out at five o’clock in the morning, and their review said: “Electrifying theatre…pulls no punches…queue around the block with the rest of us to see these stars of tomorrow.” Same show. I’ve always known that what other people think doesn’t really matter. I can chart playing these tough guys and scary guys back to the day that I was cast in Lynda La Plante’s Civvies as this very tough, very scary, very brutalised, damaged and damaging man. Well, I had auditioned on the same day for Civvies and Soldier, Soldier, the British soldier soap, and the casting director for Soldier, Soldier phoned up my agent and said: “Well, we like him, he’s very charming but he’s much too soft to be a soldier.” But the very same day I’m cast in Civvies as this guy with post-traumatic stress disorder. From then, if you do something reasonably well once, people ask you to do it again. In between these scary bad guys I do a gazillion other things but the scary bad guys seem to capture the public’s imagination and then obviously when the Harry Potter thing comes along that’s so enormous that people are never going to forget it. Last week I went to America for pilot season, and I was offered eight cops, and they’re all heroic figures. I get offered a lot of tough guys because I’m a bit of an insomniac and my face in repose has a bit of weight to it.

Q: You had a great deal of success with the American TV series, The Brotherhood. Are you on the lookout for another TV role?

A: I don’t know what I’m looking to do. I went to dip my nose in the trough and see what was on offer. The most important thing in my life is my kids, being around them, and television allows you to be around them more than film. This last year I’ve turned down seven pilots alone as well as jobs in South Africa and other far-flung places that I would love to have gone, but nothing’s as important.

Q: Another significant TV role was as Harry H. Corbett in the TV drama The Curse of Steptoe. What drew you to that project?

A: It was a fantastic story. Obviously on first seeing the script there was a sneaking suspicion that it was hyperbole that Harry H Corbett had been this extraordinary talent that everybody had talked of as being the next Brando. But then I took it as gospel and we did the thing as best we could and then over time I’ve met a lot of people who knew him and it turns out all to be absolutely true that he was the most blindingly brilliant young actor in Britain and was heralded as the head of his generation, blowing all the old guard out of the water. I thought what was great about that story, and what you look for in every story, it was very specific in that it was about one of our top sitcom stars, and most people have not had his experiences and it’s hard to be that sympathetic about a man who was very rich and successful and famous. And yet there was something about his own personal tragedy – maybe that’s too big a word – but his own sense of loss and unfulfilled ambition and compromise that was completely universal and that’s why it worked for audiences, I think, because we all know what’s it like to make a decision that we know is probably best even though it’s not what we really want and we end up being trapped by it.

Q: How much does a role like that stay with you?

A: That wasn’t too bad – I can shake things like that off. There have been a couple of things in my whole life that have stayed with me. I did a film about the Holocaust with Viggo Mortensen called Good and I was shooting Brotherhood in Rhode Island, and the TV Network Showtime very kindly gave me two ten-day breaks to fly to Hungary and make this movie because I was a producer on and I’d been on it for years and years – it had started even before I’d taken the part on the TV series. So I had to land and go straight from the airport to the set and I wanted not to be sucked up into the normal social banter, the warm embrace of this community of film-makers and because they were living it and I was shooting this gangster series, I’d steeped myself in documentaries and archive footage and then I would go to the plane and I would try and keep my imagination as far as possible in ‘30s Berlin for the whole time I was there, day and night, and on the set I had recordings on my iPod. It was pretty haunting to be in Hungary, a place where all the Jews had been wiped out in really short order because the Germans thought they wouldn’t be there for long and to be recreating this period. That really haunted me because we all have a sense of the Holocaust but the detail I uncovered in a lot of the diaries was more horrific than I’d ever imagined – having kids myself and learning about people killing their own kids to save them from what was coming and kids in the carriages being transported, realising they were never going to open the doors, people starving to death around them, eating the bodies in there. It felt physical. So that stayed with me for a long time. It was a big black cloud that took a long time to lift.

The other one was a film I did for More4 and Channel 4 called Scars and that’s a verbatim transcript of this guy, this violent guy talking about his violent past, and it’s not atypical, there are a lot of people who’ve grown up in very violent environments and become very violent themselves. This particular man who the documentary-maker interviewed had what seemed like a nervous breakdown as a consequence of reliving these incidents, and we had all these interviews. It was just me on camera every day for weeks, and at night we were working out which of the nine or ten pages we should do the next day, so we were just looking through all the material all the time, and he was chain-smoking, and I was chain-smoking all day, and that felt pretty dark, it was a very dark place to go to. It was an amazing experience as an actor – I like to fiddle with scripts generally and there was a discipline here, every single punctuation mark, every pause, every repetition had to be exactly as he had said it the first time. It was an amazing experience for all of us to make and very, very intense. It was one of those great privileges as an actor. I think the public think that acting is about what we give to them, but in fact it’s a very personal thing. That was really an experience I had with Leo [Regan writer/director] and in the end it’s weird that other people watch it and I think that about almost everything I do. I had my own experience with Viggo [Mortensen on Good] and it’s kind of weird that other people end up watching it.

Q: An outsider might wonder this often about the job of acting, how do you leave it behind, and what it is to inhabit a role or perhaps to be inhabited by a character?

A: Sometimes it’s really easy. Sometimes when the context is perfect, when the script is perfect, the environment is conducive, and if you’re open to it then it’s easy. I guess, although I can’t do it, I guess it’s like surfing, if you catch the wave right and you stand on the board right and you’re balanced, you don’t do the work, you’re not pedaling forward. I was in Angels in America for a year at the National [Theatre]. It was the most beautiful and brilliant writing it’s ever been my honour to be near. Really, honestly, it sounds corny but there was something almost divine about how the ley lines met and he [playwright Tony Kushner] wrote that thing. It wasn’t that it wasn’t work and it wasn’t an effort but in some ways it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done because it was utterly brilliant and so you’re just in it and your imagination is easily let fly. When things are crap that’s when you earn your money.

Q: How significant is it that the Jameson Empire Awards are decided by a public vote?

A: It’s enormously significant because, say last night I was at the Critics’ Circle awards [at which he was the host] and that’s very interesting to see what people who are steeped in film think. They watch films all day every day, they have an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema, and it’s great for those people to single films out. But essentially they’re insiders and academics. The Baftas and the Oscars are voted for by your peer group. Everybody has their own prejudices, they’re trying to help their friends maybe, or they’re trying to hold back their friends who are doing a little bit too nicely. And mostly they don’t watch all the films either – it comes to awards season, you get hundreds and hundreds of films through the door and you end up watching the ones that you’ve seen being written about or look like they’re going to win something or be nominated because they’ve been nominated for some other award so they’re self-fulfilling these awards, the first awards set the agenda. Well, the public’s different because they vote for stuff they’ve seen and no matter what we do to try and tell stories that we think are interesting and fabulous in the end you’re judged in the court of public opinion and they go to the multiplexes, look at the 16 screens and think, “What do I fancy?” and that is an element that’s not present in any other awards. What do people actually want to see? Not to say that many of the films that don’t win or don’t get nominated aren’t brilliant, but there’s some other factor. What do people want to see? And when they’ve paid their money what gives them their sense of satisfaction? I think there’s something very, very special about that. It’s not all teenage girls voting for Robert Pattinson. And you’re not taking a straw pole in the street – these are Empire readers, so they’re people who love film, they like being entertained, it’s not utterly mainstream, it’s not tabloid, but it’s people who are passionate about film as amateurs and I think that’s incredibly important.

Q: How important is this at promoting amateur talent?

A: Look at the newcomers this year, people making their first feature – Sam Taylor Wood, Duncan Jones, Daniel Barber, Tom Ford – these are all people who are making their first films utterly brilliantly and they stand alongside the best films made this year. The skills are so much easier to acquire now, the visual story-telling, it’s like the invention of the printing press and the pen. The technology really has reached the stage now where we’ll find people with natural story-telling gifts out there. So to have competitions like this, with easy entry, you don’t have to make a fifteen-minute short which already requires a level of organisation and resources – I think it’s superb, and important and really is a genuine conduit to people having a career.

Q: But you don’t have a career plan yourself?

A: I really don’t. My missus is always invoking the death-bed to me. Whenever I think I want to do something for my career, she goes: “Think about your death-bed. Are you going to look up at a pile of DVDs on a shelf or a pile of dusty old silver cups or the people gathered around your bed and the memories you have with them?”

Q: But are there directors you’d like to work with or ones you’d like to work with again?

A: There’s a long, long list. It’s always the material and the story. I’d like to work with all the friends that I’ve already worked with. It was great to work with Paul Greengrass again [Isaacs first worked with Greengrass on the TV drama The Fix in 1998]. It’s nice to work with people repeatedly because you have a short-hand with them, and actually it’s not that important what I do. I quite like to enjoy my work and I enjoy hanging out with my friends.

Q: Are you pleased about your latest collaboration with Greengrass, on Green Zone, released in March?

A: I think it’s fantastic. He’s made something that people said couldn’t be done. He’s made an absolutely brilliant, edge-of-your-seat popcorn thriller that’s about something. But if you want to take it on the level of a rollercoaster ride, if you like the Bourne movies you’ll love it, because he gives you a completely visceral and physical experience and it doesn’t stop and it will also stand the test of time. He’s ticked every single box.

Q: And another one of your tough guy roles…

A: He is a tough guy. Sometimes you have a nervous breakdown and sometimes you’re breaking down doors.

Q: What about the moustache?

A: It was my idea. He called me in London about this time of year two years ago and he said: “What are you doing?” I said: “Nothing…haven’t you started your film?” He said: “Yeah, I’m in Morocco.” I said: “How’s it going?” He said: “Not bad. What are you doing tomorrow?” The next day I was on set. I went to the trailer to come up with a look, and the first one was actually made up of three different moustaches. I went to the set and said: “What do you think of this?” He said: “What the hell is that?” I said: “It’s a moustache. Special Forces guys can grow facial hair.” He said: “You’re kidding.” I said: “No.” Luckily there was a Special Forces guy who was doing security for the set and he gave him the nod. Actually he had the same moustache.

Jason Isaacs is sitting on the judging panel for the Done in 60 Seconds category of the Jameson Empire Awards 2010.  More information on www.empireonline.com/awards2010