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May 19, 2017

The Work Is the Thing

Jason Isaacs's only criterion for choosing roles is, "Is it good?"

David M. Gutiérrez
  • Amazon
  • Amazon
  • Amazon

Evil wizard. Starship captain. Morally questionable scientist.

Jason Isaacs is all these things. He may be best known for his role as Lucius in the Harry Potter series of films based on the acclaimed book series. However, Isaacs is quickly gaining ground as Dr. Hunter “Hap” Percy, from’s sci-fi drama, The OA. As Percy, Isaacs plays scientist obsessed with near-death experiences. 

The OA’s first season ends leaving viewers pondering questions without providing answers, something Isaacs happily evades.

The OA, shared brainchild of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, is a stunning and puzzling series. Marling plays Prairie, a missing blind woman who returns home to Crestwood with the ability to see again. The stories behind her missing years draw the attention and devotion of group of teenagers and a local teacher.

Prairie claims she was abducted and held captive in a basement habitat by Dr. Percy (Isaacs), who subjected his captives, all whom had near-death experiences, to a number of experiments he hoped held the key to what happens beyond death. Prairie’s reappearance leads to questions about truth, angels, death, and reality.

Hap provides Isaacs the chance to play someone whose quest for an ultimate truth supersedes any moral quandaries. It was a stroke of luck for the production and Isaacs as he found himself on a Skype call with Marling and Batmanglij, marathon reading the season’s script, cast as Hap, and filming in short order.

“I’ve never read anything as unusual, as creative,” said Isaacs. “I’ve been around a long time and read millions of scripts, many of them very, very good. I genuinely had never read anything before where the subject matter, the theme, and the structure were so imaginative and unpredictable, and went to places that were as subtle and spiritual - and yet, never lost sight that it was a mystery and entertaining.”

Isaacs was particularly interested in how The OA would allow his character to develop. “Hap was - you know, it would be way too crude to say he was the antagonist - because this is a guy working toward making the biggest breakthrough there’s ever been in the history of science.

"Yet, for him, the end justified these appalling means and he knew it.  He completely understands the cost of what he’s doing; he’s not indifferent to human suffering. He recognizes the bigger prize. And I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen anything like that.’ Then I got to the end [of the final episode] and thought, ‘Maybe I’m not even f---ing real.’”

Isaacs added, “Some part of me took the job because I wanted to know what happens afterwards. You know, only by taking the job was I going to find out what happens in season two.”

But those looking for answers beyond the first season’s finale need not ask Isaacs. He keeps consistently mum regarding The OA’s final moments. Thankfully, he’s an open book about acting, what it means to be an incognito icon, and why he acts.

Part of the mystery surrounding the character in The OA revolves around whether or not they ever existed. Do you think Hap and the rest of the captives were real?

I think many things about it that I wouldn’t share with the audience. That’s part of the immense joy that audiences have had with it all over the world, trying to work out what is and isn’t real, which part of the narration is reliable or not, whether this is blind faith, whether it’s about human trauma, how much of this stuff is sci-fi fantastical and how much is psychological damage.

There are so many things [The OA] addresses in such an original way.

Hap’s completely real to himself. He’s in the right to himself. He’s weighed up the moral choices, and not a sadist by any means.

There are people who experiment on animals. In order to change everything everyone’s ever understood about life and death and science, as Hap, I’m going to have to do this thing to a relatively small number of people. I’m going to try to do it in as humane a way that I can, but I’m not going to get overly involved. And that’s what he’s been doing for a number of years until we find him.

OA comes and everything changes because she cracks that in him, and despite his best efforts, he becomes connected, involved, interested, and wants to be liked. These human frailties are a banquet for an actor, and for an audience, too. It’s just the right side of morally confusing.

Hap allows Prairie to roam around his house and act as his maid. How do you think he sees her: as his favorite “chimp” or as somebody he might love?

If anybody ever reads this that worked with me when I was younger will recognize immediately that I thought there was only one truth to anything and one way to play it. As I get older, and lucky enough to work on a script as subtle as this, it arises there’s many ways to play everything, and the most interesting way [to play something] is that the person doesn’t really know what they’re doing.

They’re driven by an instinct that the audience might understand or suspect, but the character can’t really define it. When I’ve played real life people, I’ve found over the years that it’s much more useful to talk to people that know them, worked with them, love them or hated them, than to talk to people themselves. People don’t really understand themselves or what motivates them.

I don’t think Hap really knows. I think he thinks, “Well, she’s blind and can’t do any harm,” and he doesn’t want to allow the thought that he’s slightly falling for her, that he wants companionship or praise, or that he wants someone to recognize what a genius he is - all those things. I think they’re all at play inside him.

A viewer could make comparisons to something like The Usual Suspects when considering how your character develops in The OA.

Right, but [the Kevin Spacy character] is lying. He knows he's lying. No one [in the film] knows that they’re the figment of somebody else’s imagination. So that’s not a practical thing to act.

But it could be read as maybe there are clues that are embedded through the season that reveal themselves in the end.

You could. There are many smart people who see different clues in different places. There are very many different fan theories it is so exhilarating to meet people.

A woman came up to me the other day and said, “I know about The OA. I know all the kids from Crestwood are the kids from the basement.” I said, “Are they? In what sense.” She said, “It’s a different time zone. It happened a long time before, and the kids in Crestwood are the people in the basement later in life.” Maybe she knows something I don’t know.

I don’t want to dispel anything, but I asked, “How does that work? Who’s the teacher and how is OA the same age?” And she says “Well, that’s where it gets interesting…” God knows. Maybe she’s right? 

How open were Batmanglij and Marling with you on the series?

They told us everything and let me read every script. But, there are secrets that are not even to be shared with Zal and Brit, unless they clash with a backstory they’ve invented that I’ll have to take to my grave.

Only because when something really works on screen, there is the thing that a character is saying or doing, there’s the thing that they’re really saying or doing, there’s the instinct that you the audience think is really driving the, and then there’s the thing that the actor’s really created inside - which I can’t really say out loud, because it suddenly loses its power.

How did you feel about your performance once you watched the series?

Like most actors, the first time I watch anything, I’m crippled with self-consciousness, wishing I could go back and reshoot many parts of it because I think I got the tone or choices wrong. But with this one, I was so swept along with the story. I watched all eight hours in one go.

I became completely subsumed by it and had a huge experience. I was kind of hysterical by the end of it, in the Freudian sense of hysteria. I was kind of shaking and laughing and crying. I found the story so overwhelming and so compelling it was like I never read it before and I haven’t seen it since.  Unlike most things I didn’t really think about how I’d done or how I’d done it at all.

Do you have a favorite scene?

I liked going to Cuba because I loved being in Havana. I remember hyperventilating and passing out doing the allergic reaction scene [in the kitchen], and then speaking to my brother who’s a doctor afterwards.

I said, “Oh, God. I couldn’t get you on the phone, but I had to go into anaphylactic shock [for a scene],” and he said, “Well, what did you do?” I told him and he said, “You got that completely wrong. It’s the exhaling that you can’t do!” I thought, “Oh, Jesus.” But my favorite scene is the end scene. I found that scene in the cafeteria to be overwhelming.

Are you referring to the scene at the end of the season?

Yes. I found it kind of unspeakably moving and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why. Think it works for people in different ways, that [the kids] don’t believe her for that point. They’ve no interest [in what Prairie’s said] and they think she’s a charlatan. And they look at each other, these people who may or may not be about to die, and Prairie’s all they’ve got.

They reach out through blind faith. It’s not about believing that the movements will do anything. It’s just something that makes them human and connected in the moment. They have something and it starts off and it could be silly.

The bravery of Zal and Brit to create and direct that scene, it could be ridiculous, and it teeters on the edge of ridiculous, but instead I found it unbearably moving. Affirmation of the human spirit, not because it does magic, but because they’ve reached out to each other. I’m getting moved now, I’m telling you.

I think is one of the most unusual climaxes to a story that I’ve ever seen. As someone who’s been on the story side of things, having produced and written, the ending is the hardest thing to do in storytelling. To come up with a new ending, not like anything you’ve seen before and that you don’t see coming a mile away, is a stunning achievement.

Can you talk about what it’s like to be such a big part of the cultural fabric? For example, being Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series?

Look, I stumble forward taking the next job, trying to keep the abyss at bay always and trying to have a good time at work. And there are times that my stock is high and there are times that my stock is low. I’ve had numbers of things cancelled.

For every film that’s been a big success, I’ve had many, many films end up at obscure festivals where that’s the only time they’re ever seen. So people ask about things like franchises, but I walk down the street, get the tube or the bus. Occasionally, people do or don't recognize me. I’m not so wealthy that I’m cured from my need to work.

But your face is in bookstores everywhere.

Only when I go to those places where those things are celebrated do I realize I’m putting on a different mask, which is the public persona. I guess they want to meet a wizard or they want to meet an evil Revolutionary War general or a pirate or something.

Or a starship captain.

Or a captain now through Star Trek: Discovery. I feel like it’s my job to make them have a fond memory of their encounter with me. What I think is wrong is when anyone gives me extra status because I put make-up on and [do] funny voices.

Meet a war hero, or a doctor, or a nurse, or meet a teacher. Meet a firefighter. Meet somebody that’s had the coal-covered face and being of service to anybody else. Those are people who deserve respect. I’m a storyteller, and it’s frankly, not that impressive and is pretty self-serving.

When I meet people, I can tell often that I’m on this huge pedestal for them because fame is a religion, and I feel that if it’s a 30-second encounter or a 10-minute encounter, my job is to make sure that when they leave they think, “He's just like me he just does a different job."

It’s weird because that’s not what they really want out of it, but I do it for them, and I do it for me so I don’t ever think I’m ever anything special. My job is to play people and to be a person.

What about your children and their friends, how do they see you?

They're not even slightly impressed or interested in what I do for a living. Their friends know and get over it instantly. And all that happens for them is if we’re in public somewhere, and someone recognizes and comes up to me, its like literally someone pauses the world for my children.

This doesn’t give them pleasure, when they get addressed and people say, “Hey it must be cool to have your dad be in Star Trek.” They don’t give a flying f---. They care about what’s for breakfast and all the normal things that kids care about, and it wouldn’t matter if I had a cake shop or if I was plumber. They’re monumentally unimpressed by my professional life, as it should be.

Let’s go back to why you started acting.

I found this thing because I was uncomfortable with other people. I always felt like other people had the key or I’d missed the class where life was explained. As a student, I did a play because I thought all students should do a bit of everything, and it was one of the pretentious checklist things I thought all students did.

I auditioned and in the rehearsal room I thought, “Okay, this is the place where I belong and it doesn’t matter who I am outside or what subculture I belong to,” or whatever I might have been embarrassed about. I’m talking about the most important things in life, like what makes us who we are.

And I loved, and still love, that rehearsal and discovery process where you discuss with other people things that are way more profound and intimate than you would have discussions about socially and professionally. I love the telling of stories through the kind of building blocks of human behavior.

All the other things are just ancillary, and so a lot of people think they want to become actors because of that stuff or because generally they’re so drop dead gorgeous or sexy, that people say, “Go to Hollywood, you should sell that.”

And, you can and that’s great, but most actors I know, the really good ones, just know the work is the thing. There’ll still be discussions about everything else, and you can have opinions on it that change day to day, but the work is the thing.

Was there a certain role you had where it all clicked for you?

From the first day I ever [acted] when I was student. I just fell in love with it. The first play I ever did was called Idle Hands. I had no idea what plays were. I ran around in my underpants with chicken blood on me, and I thought I was very clever.

The second play I ever did was called The Glory of Love. Somebody said, “We're going to take it up to the Edinburgh festival in the summer do you want to come?” I didn’t know what that was, but the Edinburgh festival the biggest arts festival in the world. 

How old were you?

Nineteen. The play was about British Conservative Tory government ministers and rent boys, you know male prostitutes. Everyone was naked all the time, there’s a lot of sex and swearing, so we think it’s really grown up and clever. We opened on our first day at lunchtime with about four people in the audience, and two of them were critics

At that time, there were only two organs that did reviews of plays at the Edinburgh festival. At midnight, one of the reviews came out and they said, “This is the most self-indulgent piece of sh*t I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s students swearing and running around naked thinking they’re being grown up and clever. Avoid it like the plague."

[The cast] got so depressed, we had the rest of the summer to play this play to obviously empty houses. Maybe they were right, maybe it was garbage and the other organ, The Evening News, paradoxically came out at five in the morning. We opened it and saw we were number one pick of the fringe.

I remember it said, “Electrifying theater. Line up around the block with the rest of us to see the stars of tomorrow in the most electrifying piece of theater”. And we put those two reviews on the same poster that said, “These critics saw the same show, buy a ticket and make your mind up yourself,” and we were sold out for the summer.

It was a very early lesson that other people’s opinions mean sh*t, you know? Is [the work] good? Do you believe it? Can you tell it truthfully? I just fell in love with storytelling and what it does to the people watching it, and I’ve never fallen out of love with it.

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