Jason Isaacs: “Nobody becomes an actor unless there’s something cracked”

Many years free from the grip of addiction, 'The OA' star has never been more content. Ralph Jones finds him in a reflective mood

“I think most things are shit,” says veteran actor Jason Isaacs. “I think most things under-deliver and are just keeping the ball rolling. I want to be part of great things.” Best-known for playing Malfoy’s dad in the Harry Potter movies, Isaacs is talking about being in a show so good that when it was cancelled he wanted to give up acting.

Netflix announced last summer that The OA, a mystery drama about a woman who can travel into another dimension, would not be getting a third series. Isaacs, who played Dr Hap Percy, an ex-anaesthesiologist who studies near-death experiences, found it hard to move on. “I don’t know if I’ll be in anything as original again,” he says. “Something happened on that show. I felt like I’d never told a story like this before. It’s a magnificent piece of art and storytelling.” Is he angry at Netflix for not listening to the outpouring of grief from the show’s hardcore fan base? “There’s no point me second-guessing how and why they did it,” he says. “They’ve cancelled lots of things that were very popular. We don’t deserve special treatment.”

Jason Isaacs
Alongside Brit Marling in cancelled Netflix sci-fi ‘The OA’. Credit: Netflix

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Even now, fans of The OA will approach Isaacs and talk in detail to him about what it meant to them. Although this was obviously significant, it is not why he is in the business. “When people thank me, it feels absurd to me. I don’t do it for anyone else. I do it entirely for myself. It’s an entirely self-serving thing.” He has seen enough of it to know that when people talk to him about something – Harry Potter, for example – it is because “they want to touch, somehow, that 10 years of their life that mattered to them.”

Isaacs is a cool, reassuring presence when he talks. He makes a lot of sense. He’s at home, where the pandemic has allowed him to spend more time with his teenage daughters than they might perhaps have voted for. He is taking COVID more seriously than most, having seen his dad and two of his brothers hospitalised with the virus. Though he is inclined towards gloom, from home he has been actively making himself useful to a wide range of charities whose plight has been exacerbated by the coronavirus.

Skyfire
Isaacs new film is a disaster movie about volcanoes, ‘Skyfire’. Credit: Press

The pandemic has also effected a shift in people’s viewing habits, he has noticed. His kids now don’t want to watch documentaries; they want to watch comedies and escapist fare. Skyfire, Isaacs’ latest, is the latter: “a great big, rollicking, old-fashioned, adventure-disaster movie made with new technology and sensibilities.” He qualifies his recommendation: “I don’t want to sound like a snake oil salesman – I haven’t seen the film.”

The film is a Chinese project, directed by Simon West of The Expendables 2, about a theme park built in the middle of a volcano. Isaacs plays the greedy owner of the park, unwilling to heed warnings from a smart, young geologist about the volcano’s rumblings. Given that premise, you can guess how events pan out. But, I tell him, I didn’t expect a silly film like this to make me well up (there is a tear-jerking plotline about the scientist and her father hidden between the explosions). Does he cry easily? “My children are mortified by how easily I cry. Nobody becomes an actor unless there’s something cracked; something went slightly wrong in their childhood – not necessarily that there’s any blame to be apportioned but there’s some journey you’re on, there’s something you’re trying to fulfil.”

Jason Isaacs
Credit: Larry Busacca

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He cries terribly at films, he says, not when things go wrong, but when people are reconciled and redeemed. “Having children definitely ripped my heart wide open,” he adds. “You see the world through their eyes. Cruelty is a horrendous thing when you live with the fear that your children might experience it. It puts your nerves on the outside, and that doesn’t go away.”

He remembers renting a house with his family and both sets of grandparents. His children were drawing with his mum. Embarrassed, she said that she couldn’t draw. He told her he didn’t need to tell them that because to them it would make no sense – in the same way that you shouldn’t tell someone that they can’t dance or sing. “Everyone can dance and sing. Everybody can do it because it’s a pleasure just doing it. You don’t have to be measured by anyone else’s standards.” One of the results of having kids, he says, is watching them start with an incredibly wide, open vista, and seeing chunks of it chipped away at because they believe they have to stop something if someone says they’re not good at it.

Isaacs is not as melancholy as he might sound, but he is a lot happier now that Donald Trump is no longer President of the United States. On social media, the Death Of Stalin actor has been consistently vocal about Trump’s idiocy over the past four years and regularly responds to people tweeting that he should shut up. When we talk, the election is undecided and Isaacs isn’t counting any chickens, but there is a sliver of hope. He doesn’t think Biden will turn the world’s fortunes around “but it’s a start. It’s a pivot. At least it isn’t sliding further into the abyss.”

The other thing that happened on Twitter this year was that Isaacs said he was 22 years free of drink or drugs. His addiction was news to a lot of people, although it wasn’t at all a secret, he says. He doesn’t often go to his 12-step meetings any more (“I miss it, I just don’t make the effort, which is my loss”), apart from when he’s shooting on location. He wanted to say something because he knows that a lot of people are suffering with addiction now, given the effect the pandemic is having. “There’s a lot of fear around at the moment,” he says. “It’s challenging just to try to be the best version of yourself on that day and to take whatever steps you can, change the things you can change and let go of the rest. It’s much more challenging in the last six months than I’ve known it be for a long time.”

He is doing some filming at the moment – Sex Education season three; a film in Hungary – and he observes that it is interesting that the normal hierarchy of a film set is inverted almost completely: now it is the stars, who have to remove their masks and be intimate in order to perform, who are the least protected, the most in danger. He hopes that the post-coronavirus world will have a similarly subversive effect. “Maybe I’ll be the first lined up against the wall and shot but I want it for my kids,” he says. “I won’t be part of it because I’m that old guard of people who need to be tipped out of their castles… but I hope something revolutionary comes along. I hope young people grab the world, turn it upside-down and shake it and re-build something better.”

‘Skyfire’ is available now on digital, DVD and Blu-ray

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