Jason Isaacs On ‘Mass’ – Deadline

Mass might be Jason Isaacs’ most powerful role to date, as he expertly authors a father’s grief alongside Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton and Reed Birney. But Fran Krantz’s film is just the latest in perhaps one of the world’s most varied acting careers, which has covered the gamut of human — and otherworldly — experience. As he’ll explain, everyone has their own favorite Jason Isaacs movie…

My First Film Lesson

My first day on a film set was on Dangerous Love, and— no, I can’t tell you that. It’s too rude. We second day on a film set was on The Tall Guy, with Jeff Goldblum. He wasn’t in the shot — wasn’t even in the frame — and yet he stood in a pair of undies on a chair and recited love poetry to try to get himself into the mood for the shot that he wasn’t in because it was my close-up. So, I guess the first thing I learned was to try not to get too distracted by American movie stars in their undies.

Bleecker Street Media / Courtesy Everett Collection

The Best Advice I Ever Received

Oh, don’t get into the entertainment business. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist, says that happiness is everything we know it is: it’s not extra money beyond subsistence, it’s a sense of community and of purpose in your work, but also of setting goals in life that are achievable. If you want to work with animals when you’re 14, and you’re working with animals when you’re 40, that will make you happy whether you’re wealthy or not. But he says there’s one goal that, whether achieved or not, consistently makes people unhappy, and that’s a career in the performing arts.

One director, who I won’t credit because he was a deeply difficult and unpleasant man, told me there were no bits of the script that are “your” bit. Every bit of the script is you trying to change the other people. If you’re ever lost in a scene, bring yourself back to what you’re trying to make the other person do, think, feel or say. In Mass, everything that Jay wants in that room is achievable if only everybody else follows his plan. Jay thinks all of the solutions to his problems are outside of himself, and so that’s what energy he has in the room: what he wants these people to feel, what he wants to tell them. None of it works because he doesn’t know himself, and he doesn’t know the things that he’s been sitting on. And that’s where the drama comes from.

Jason Isaacs in Black Hawk Down
Colombia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

The Part I Always Wanted

There is never one. There are parts I turned down that went on to be played magnificently by other people. But I never for a second think I would have done it as well as them, so I don’t worry about those things. It’s hard enough to feel grateful and satisfied in my life, which is the daily struggle, without adding into it the giant cauldron of bitterness about the things I’m not doing. I just want the next part I’m doing to do well enough to be able to do the one after that.

My Toughest Role

I did a movie called Scars once, which was verbatim testimony from a man who spent his life steeped in violence, and it was based on many hours of interviews with him that we just brought to life. We couldn’t shape or sculpt the dialogue because it was exactly what he said, and he was a very damaged, very damaging person who’d done terrible things and had terrible things done to him. It wasn’t so much that the acting was tough — though there were 10, 12, 15 pages of monologue a day. It was more living with only that in my head for weeks at a time, thinking that the world was full of people like this and that my children might one day encounter that kind of danger and ugliness in the world. It scared me. It kept me awake at night.

The Most Fun I’ve Had on Set

It’s almost every day. Weirdly on Mass, despite being one of the most serious things I’ve ever done, we laughed like drains. I think there’s a misconception from people when they visit sets and they see actors behaving like twats that they aren’t taking it seriously, or they remain permanently childish. But we’re not childish, we’re childlike. We were crying all day and often on Mass. So, we were also laughing, because laughter and tears are incredibly close together. These elevated emotions course through us day and night.

I always play stupid music and dance and sing and make ridiculous jokes. For anyone that comes to visit and thinks that a man should know better at this age, this is actually the best I know. You behave, but you have to keep yourself completely loose and such an empty conduit that anything might appear in the scene. This isn’t really a job for grownups, and I never forget how lucky I am to get to do it. Actors are often given a license to behave appallingly. They’ll complain that they were called for 9 am but weren’t used until 11 am I always want to go, “You do realize that everyone else was here at 6 am, and they get paid a hundredth of what you’re earning to pick up your filthy underwear off the floor? So, why don’t you just shut up and sit in your trailer on the internet and drink the tea that they bring you? ”

The Role I’ll Be Remembered For

The thing that will be in the headline of obituaries about me when my plane goes down? The obvious one is Harry Potterbut actually a guy just wandered up to me today and said, “You were in Brotherhood weren’t you? ” Soldiers always recognize me from Black Hawk Down. Women of a certain age watched Peter Pan when they were teenagers. Obviously, the Trekkies love my turn in Star Trek: Discovery. Millennials love The OA. There is no one part I’m recognized for because I’m so fucking old that each new generation has seen me cavorting around doing something or other. If I died tomorrow, Harry Potter might be the shorthand for this generation of journalists. But when they’re all replaced by the next generation, it might be all devotees of The OA. I have no idea, but I won’t give a monkeys anyway, because I’ll be fucking dead.

The Character That’s Most Like Me

It’s a hard question to answer because I’m not sure even I am like me. One of the reasons that I manage to make a professional asset out of my weakness of character is that I’ve always tried to fit into any group I’m talking to. Not consciously, though I am more conscious of it since I’ve had kids to bear witness. I do that appalling thing of code-switching, and changing my accent all the time, whether it’s degrees of poshness in England, or literally regional accents. I’m shooting an American show at the moment, so I’m American all day, every day for weeks at a time.

The only person I know I am for sure is Emma’s husband, and Lily and Ruby’s father. Apart from that, I can’t tell you who I am, so I don’t know who I’m most like. Definitely not one of the tougher characters I play, that’s for sure. I’m much more of a coward when faced with the prospect of any kind of physical danger. I’ve played a lot of soldiers, and they run directly at it. I don’t even run away; I just melt, like the Wicked Witch of the West, into a puddle of my own terror. If there’s a writer out there who wants to create the exact opposite of the traditional hero, I’m here for you.

The Films That Make Me Cry

Everything. I’m such an easy litmus test for whether a film is successfully emotionally manipulative. I remember sitting next to a soldier once on a plane who had recognized me for one of those roles. He didn’t quite process that I was an actor. And then Mr. Holland’s Opus came on and I cried for about four hours solid. At first, I tried to pretend I had a cold, but eventually I couldn’t hide it anymore. He was so disgusted he moved seats.

Jason Isaacs in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

My Karaoke Playlist

Fuck. I mean, I could empty a room in a heartbeat. One of the great tragedies of my life is how much I love singing. In fact, I love musicals. I have a very musical ear… enough to know that I can’t sing for shit. Tragically, I can literally hear when I miss a note, which is often. So, my karaoke playlist is actually, “Oh, it looks like they don’t have my selection. Oh well, I’ll give it to you next time. ”

I was offered a musical once. They offered me Guys and Dolls in the West End. I said, “Absolutely not, unless you’re trying to lose money. And can I suggest you do some research on actors before you offer people parts? ” I went to see the show, and they thought I was still entertaining the notion — which I wasn’t, I just wanted free house seats — so they sent me the CD. I kept it in the car and sang it for weeks on end. My wife asked if I was seriously considering the part. I told her no, and she said, “Then stop singing those fucking songs; you’re driving us all mad. “

My Guilty Pleasures

I’m a tennis addict, so I watch it all day, every day. But I also watch all of the singing shows. I love the hard-luck stories on Britain’s Got Talent. I feel utterly manipulated in the most boldfaced way, and I know that they cast these people for the tragic backstories and that 99% of them will never have a hope of the career they think they could have. So, while some part of my brain is behaving logically, the other part is lying on its back like a puppy getting its tummy tickled, and it works on me.

Who’d Play Me In My Biopic

At what age? That’s the thing. I wouldn’t mind the kid from Belfast playing the young me, he was pretty charming. And then Ian McKellen could play me in the third age. Often people online say I look like certain actors. I’m always enormously flattered and aware of how insulted these younger and better-looking actors must be by the comparison. I’d take any of those in a heartbeat. I won’t tell you who they are or I’d be flattering myself. They’ll say, “They were separated at birth!” Yeah, if that’s the case I must have been dropped on the head as a baby. I love the myopia of fans sometimes. They post pictures of me 20 years ago and think that’s what I look like still. The nice thing about working nonstop is there’s no gap after which you come back and they go, “Fuck, what happened to him?” If I can just keep myself on screen, the incremental deterioration won’t be too noticeable to anyone. That’s my plan.

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