From playing one of Voldemort’s underlings to a soldier on the wrong side of the Revolutionary War, Jason Isaacs is no stranger to no-win situations. But perhaps no character he’s played has been trapped in such a tragic circumstance as Awake‘s Michael Britten, a homicide detective living in two worlds, one where his wife is still alive and the other where his son is still alive. Chances are, one of these worlds isn’t real, but accepting that fact means losing someone he loves forever.
We recently talked to Isaacs about Awake, the Harry Potter franchise and his habit of stealing skateboards from teenagers on the boardwalk.
How did you get into acting? When did you decide its what you wanted to do for a living?
Do you know, I still don’t know. I’m still not sure. It’s just something I’m doing meanwhile while I work out what I’m going to fall back on.
I stumbled into an audition when I was 19, my first week at college, and I was drunk. I was wandering around this building where freshmen were just parting with their money joining clubs that just appeared and then never appeared again. I was literally wandering from door to door. This is clubs in debating and kite surfing and chess club and cheese club. And one thing said on the door, “Can you do a northern accent?”
And I thought, “What the fuck is that?”
I can do a northern accent. It was one of the only things I felt qualified to do. I was surrounded by all of these well to do, posh rich young British things. I didn’t come from their world at all. I went to this room, I did a northern accent and they cast me in a play and I just got completely addicted to the process of rehearsing really. It wasn’t the performing. It was just sitting in a room with people exploring what makes human being behave; getting to walk in other people’s shoes and working out what makes people kill and fuck and hate and love and fear and be jealous and all the rest of just deconstructing what we are and who we are. I’m still addicted to it.
Have you always just been naturally good at picking up accents?
Yeah, it was pretty easy. The thing about British people is that we judge people within two syllables. When someone opens their mouth in England certainly, everybody can tell not just where they’re from geographically, but where they’re from socioeconomically and what kind of education they had and how they aspire to be perceived. You can hear all that and everybody is very precisely attuned to it.
So if you are going to be an actor in Britain, you better get the accents right. You better develop that tool. I have some sense of musicality in my ear. I can hear accents and voices.
Also, I moved when I was a kid, a couple of times. And I just wanted to blend in. We moved from Liverpool to London and I was very self-conscious about my accent. So overnight I went from sounding like one of the Beatles to sounding like Ray Winstone. Then I went to university and they all sounded like Hugh Grant, so I sounded like him. I’ve always had that slight psychological disease, which is a professional asset, of wanting to sound like the people I’m talking to and move and walk like them so that somehow I feel like I blend in more.
Is playing Lucius Malfoy as much fun as it seems?
No. The answer is no because there was very little of playing Lucius Malfoy. There was an awful lot of waiting around on the set. Far more than for any film I’ve ever been on. But luckily, on the Harry Potter films, the waiting around was with the greatest practicioners of my craft on the planet and so I never minded when we had to wait three weeks in the rain to get back to doing two minutes of filming while we watched the back of Ralph Fiennes head. I’d get to listen to Michael Gambon tell stories to Maggie Smith, who’d tell stories to Alan Rickman, who’d tell stories to Julie Walters. The actual playing of Lucius Malfoy was a minute part of my Potter experience.
So who has the best stories?
They’re all fantastic. You know who had the best stories? Richard Harris. He had perfect recall. He was an absolute rogue, incredibly mischievous. He has tremendously Machiavellian adventures and he remembered every second of them.
American audiences probably know you best from the Harry Potter films and The Patriot …
Actually, it depends. If they’re television viewers, they’ll know me from Brotherhood, which had a very devoted following for a few years. And it seems to me a lot of those people are watching Awake.
Even in Brotherhood, you had a criminal past. So is it nice with Awake to finally get to play a truly good guy for American audiences?
Really, there’s no distinction for me. There’s either well written parts or badly written parts. There’s either people you believe or people you don’t believe who people in the audience can understand or empathize with or not. And people always empathized with the person in Brotherhood. And even with Lucius Malfoy, when he’s humiliated and wanting Voldemort’s attention and to get his status back, I just try to find what’s human. It’s not so much that I like being a good guy. I love being in a story that captures my imagination that seems to be capturing other people’s imagination.
I’m getting strangers coming up to me on the street all the time now and not saying, “Oh, you’re an actor, can I have your autograph?” or “I love your work” or any of that nonsense. They’re just going straight for, “It’s your wife, right? Your wife is alive.” Or people will wind the window down in the car and go, “Your son’s dead, right?” And other people in the street just think they’re being cruel. I don’t know what they must make of it.
But it seems to be engaging people’s imaginations and they like both the simple entertainment of it and the existential puzzle of it, as well. The one that was on last week, for instance, about the same woman who made different choices and had gone in different directions. It’s not your average television.
Is that what drew you to the part? How did you end up getting cast in Awake and what was the audition process like?
There was no audition process, I’m embarrassed to say. I was asked if I’d like to do it. And I wasn’t looking for work. That’s always the best way to get work. I wasn’t looking for acting work because I had sold an idea of my own that I was producing to appear in and to write and create. I was asked to look at this and I said, “Thanks very much, but no I’m not looking for acting work.”
And Howard Gordon, who I’d met previously, who ran 24 and The X-Files and many other things and created Homeland, said to me, “Look, I’m doing it. I didn’t write it. I just read the thing and it blew me away. I think you should have a look at it. I’m going to run it.” So it had that pretty high recommendation.
So did Bob Greenblatt, who runs NBC, who I had known from when he ran Showtime.
I thought, “Well, if those two people are telling me to take a look at it, I’d be an idiot if I didn’t read it and it’s be rude anyway.” So I read it and like them, I just thought, “Wow. I’ve not read anything like this. What the hell?” In some ways, I think I might have taken the job just so I could find out what happened in episode two. It utterly gripped me and I thought, “Now what do you do? What would that guy do?” And that’s at the heart of all great storytelling. What would you do if this was you? How would you feel?
The days before I said yes to it, I was driving around and every now and again it would hit me that someone else might do it if I didn’t say yes. And they would get to explore this fabulously perplexing and emotional dilemma. And I just thought, “It’s true that I’m enjoying creating something of my own, but this is great.” You can wait a lifetime for something great to come along. This thing has hooked me and I want to see where it goes. With television, the only thing that’s written is the pilot. So I just jumped off a cliff with the rest of them.
How much thought do you put into what’s real on the show and what’s not? Like the people shouting to you on the street, have you put a lot of thought into which reality is real?
I love the fact that people are doing that. If that’s what’s engaging them, great. But for my character, the very last thing he wants to do is be forced into a realization that either of these worlds is a dream. He’s not stupid. He knows that one of them is a dream. But that terror that would accompany, and in fact does at various stages in the series, accompany the knowledge or suspicion that one of these worlds is going to go away, is overwhelming.
He’s an A type human being. He’s an alpha male. He’s a homicide cop. He fixes problems, he doesn’t have problems. He’s got a wife who’s grieving, he’s got a son who’s grieving, but he is not grieving because he won’t be that person. He won’t have his life destroyed. And when that creeps in and begins to take hold of him, it shakes him to his core.
As the character, I’m trying to avoid that. I’m living in a very complicated, imaginative version of denial.
The show so far has given some thought into whether or not Michael Britten’s delusion is healthy. There’s a disparity between what his wife and son are feeling and what he’s feeling.
Absolutely. That’s part of the drama. That’s at the heart of the drama. All good shows need a central dramatic irony. He’s supposedly not experiencing the grief and they are, but they are going to be able to move on with their lives and he’s not.
Will we be dealing more with the mythology of the show and the conspiracy theory storyline hinted at in episode two?
We sure will. We absolutely will. In fact, I was just watching the last few episodes and it really comes to a head. They really let their imaginations roam, the writers. They wanted to embed the story and the premise in in the audience’s mind and show you how it might work if you were able to keep things on a platter. But there’s no great dramatic value in stability. The old showbiz maxim that nobody buys a ticket to watch the village of the happy people.
So we upend Michael’s world and everything that he thinks he knows, he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know who to trust and he’s on the run. The accident was not an accident. Which world is real and who can he trust and where to turn to? The ground becomes very shaky under his feet. There’s no question that the guy who wrote 24 had a big hand in pulling us down the other side of this roller coaster. Because once it picks up steam, you’re kind of breathless the last four episodes.
Will we see the emotional or physical toll living in these two worlds takes on him as the show goes on?
Oh yeah. I’m a wreck by the end. I remember doing some scenes where I was just absolutely falling apart and thinking, “I wonder if I’m doing the kind of acting people normally do on network television?” On cable, you get a lot more complicated and painful emotions, it seems to me. Adult experiences and areas of gray morality. Network seems to be, often, the other stuff I’ve seen when I watch it, which is not very often, is a lot more fast food, a lot more palatable and more comfortable to watch. We’re a rule unto ourselves really, our show.
When it starts to get emotional and painful, we didn’t hold back. And I remember being in the scenes, when they said cut, thinking, “I wonder if it was okay to go that far?”
You mentioned part of the reason you wanted the part was to see what happened next. Has the show unfolded the way you thought it would? Have you been surprised?
Well, I’m a producer on it, so I’m partially, as much as I can find the time, involved in the storytelling as well. There are realities. An hour of television is 42 minutes, which I wasn’t too keenly aware of. And there are, I can’t remember if it’s five or six commercial breaks in it. And you structure a story to incorporate those things. So the practical reality of producing a show every two weeks, casting a show every two weeks, prepping and posting a show, I’ve not been quite so involved in seeing what that’s involved before.
The people at Fox who make it and the people at NBC who it’s made for have really let the creatives do their thing. They wanted to make sure – but we wanted to make sure too – that you could watch any episode and be satisfied with the beginning, middle and end. So in order to serve that need and also provide something more satisfying for people who watch the whole season, the conspiracy arc, there were a lot of very smart people tearing their hair out and banging their heads against the wall. But no one should shed any tears or play their violins too loudly for them. They’re well paid, they’ve got nice cars. But I don’t think any of the writers have ever had it so hard before.
I suppose I hadn’t really thought too far ahead about how difficult it was going to be to produce a series like this where every week was like an individual movie. There’s no rulebook for this and there’s no formula to an episode. We were finding as we went along what worked best and what didn’t, what dynamics were ripe for exploring and not. It’s why the people who come up to me in the streets who have seen all the episodes, they remember each episode very distinctly because they are very distinct from each other. They almost have different authorial voices.
Do you think this is a show that’s open ended and can continue on for a number of seasons or do you think it can only have a finite number of episodes before reaching some kind of resolution?
I have literally no idea. I think the truth for me is that I’ve learned a lot from Howard Gordon, who wrote so much of 24 and so much of X-Files and so many other things. There were episodes where I went, “Do we want to do that here or do we want to save that for something?”
And he went, “Let’s make every week be as good as we can make it, the very best thing we can make. And if we get to the end of the season and we go, ‘Whew,’ and we look back and we’ve kept the standard high and they want to do another season, we’ll sit down in a room and we’ll come up with what makes that interesting” That’s what they did on Homeland as well.
Could this run for hundreds of episodes? Could I sit here in nine years time? You know, every week I couldn’t see the next week coming. There’s just a bunch of very bright people, people you would hope to be trapped on a desert island with who are good storytellers. You sit them in a room and you give them the premise which allows them to explore many things, both emotionally and procedurally, and you see what they come up with.
There’s a strange culture that has grown up around moviegoing now where a movie will come out and the audience, people at home, will be told whether or not the movie might be profitable. They go, “This thing costs $350 million, it’s never going to make a profit.” And somehow, the people who are going to the multiplex and paying exactly the same price for the ticket are meant to find that a reason not to go see it. Suddenly they’re involved in the profit and loss sheet to be disdainful of it or to think it was a poor move. Frankly, if I’m paying 10 bucks, I’d rather see $350 on the screen. I’m glad that they’ve overpaid to give me a treat for my money.
So could we run for five seasons or two seasons or three seasons or one season? I have no idea. We’re just going to keep doing the best job we can. And if it has to be shorter rather than longer, we’re going to try to make sure it’s as good as it can be.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
I’d be working at the Apple Store. I’m a total geek. I’m an absolute geek. Oddly, for someone who works in emotions and in a world that is so irrational and intangible as human behavior, I’m incredibly attracted to logic. I would be coding. I love solving mechanical problems because, unlike human beings, they are rational. So many people around me have been unfathomable in my life. If you work long and hard enough, you can always sort out a computer problem.
Actually, that’s not true. That’s my hobby, but what I’d be doing is journalism. I don’t think I’d ever have gotten the better of my curiosity, so I think I’d be some form of journalist. Anything that would allow me to stick my nose into other people’s business and tell other people what to do and think, that’s what I’d be doing.
Tell me something most people don’t know about you.
Well, I’m English, I think most of the crew didn’t know that because I kept my American accent on all day, every day, I never dropped it. So there’s that, for a start.
And that I used to run a skateboard team when I was 14 and 15. For some reason, Americans are always shocked about two things. One, that I can skateboard and two that I can spin a basketball on my finger. I think they think that no one in Britain has ever seen a basketball or a skateboard.
When is the last time you’ve done either one of those things?
Often. Actually, I spun a basketball yesterday and I live at the beach and I’m constantly grabbing 14-year-olds boards, going, “Can I just grab that for a second?” doing an old school kick flip and then walking away with the people going, “Dude, did you see that old guy? He’s awesome.”
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Awake airs Thursdays at 10 pm on NBC.