Interview: Jason Isaacs

Simon Button

We chat to Jason Isaacs about his recent roles in The OA and Star Trek: Discovery and what he thinks makes a good watch

Liverpool-born Jason Isaacs has been in the business since he made his screen debut in The Tall Guy in 1989, with Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise being one of the things he's since become best-known for and his darkly comic turn in last year's The Death Of Stalin among his most acclaimed roles. Married to documentary filmmaker Emma Hewitt and a father to two daughters, he's also now part of the Netflix family, starring in both The OA and Star Trek: Discovery. We caught up with him at the Monte Carlo Television Festival, where he was serving as a jury member and meeting the fans.

Jason Isaacs with his wife

 

RD: You're here in Monte Carlo with your wife and family. How does she feel about accompanying you on the red carpet?

Jason: [Laughs] She hates it. She doesn't even like coming to the set when I'm filming. The kids like coming to the set but one day she said to me, “You don't see it but it's like a whole hierarchy where everyone laughs at your jokes, fetches you tea and treats you like a god.” I replied, “Oh no, I do see it and I like it and it's awesome because I don't get any of that at home.”

"Powerful men who feel like they're doing the right thing because it's their job to be in authority are often driven by far more narcissistic, infantile instincts"

 

RD: What have you most enjoyed about playing Captain Gabriel Lorca on Star Trek: Discovery?

Jason: The coolest thing has been making friends and the first time I said “Energise!” it was amazing. The interesting thing about doing Star Trek is realising the power and resonance of this thing. Having done the Harry Potter films, I've met an enormous amount of people for whom Harry Potter has been incredibly significant in their lives and has provided light in the darkness for many of them.

Star Trek, that's been going on for 50 years now, has not only given many people a sense of community but also a moral framework through which to engage with the world.

 

RD: Without giving spoilers, did you know the outcome of your story arc when you signed on?

Jason: I did, yes, otherwise I couldn't have acted it. What the camera loves and what audiences love are secrets. They love a character saying one thing and meaning another and the holy trifecta is when a character says one thing, means another and is driven by a third force that they don't understand about themselves when we do.

"I had a friend who was beaten up on the tube once because he stole someone's handbag in EastEnders"

 

RD: Can you elaborate on that?

Jason: You're lying to get something done yet you're driven by childishness and petulance, like Donald Trump. He thinks he's manipulating us but actually we see through it and we see his narcissism. Powerful men who feel like they're doing the right thing because it's their job to be in authority are often driven by far more narcissistic, infantile instincts.

 

RD: Was the fact Discovery is such a socially progressive show an important deciding factor for you?

Jason: It was incredibly important. In a world that’s increasingly more divisive, where the most powerful man in the world pumps out race hatred and sexism, to have a show led by a young black woman with a gay couple in it posits a world where we've gotten over all that—where we're solving problems and there are no stumbling blocks to unity. Albeit that it's a fun sci-fi story, those paradigms sink in. The socially progressive message is subliminal but nonetheless it's profound.

 

RD: Given all the formidable characters you've played are people a bit wary of you?

Jason: [Laughs] No, never, although it's funny because when you do movies they always separate you from the character but television is different because you're in their front rooms and on some weird psychological level they believe you more as the character. In soaps for instance, I had a friend who was beaten up on the tube once because he stole someone's handbag in EastEnders.

 

RD: Has anything similar ever happened to you?

Jason: No, thank goodness, but when someone comes up and says, “I really hated you in such and such” it means I've done my job properly. If you spent a day and everybody opened the door and was nice to you, then one person tripped you up and poked you in the eye with a cocktail stick—that's the person you'd remember when you went to bed. So those characters are always the most memorable for audiences.

"I just like great stories wherever they may come from"

 

RD: Have you been to any Star Trek conventions?

Jason: Yes, and I love how enthusiastic the fans are. I'm even doing one of the Star Trek cruise ships in January.

 

RD: Really? Do you get to do a turn?

Jason: Apparently yes. When they mentioned that I went, “You're kidding me!” but then someone said I could maybe host a game show, which sounded like something I could do. I can do magic but it's only close-up stuff.

 

RD: As well as Star Trek you're also in The OA. What is it about sci-fi that attracts you?

Jason: I just like great stories wherever they may come from. Nobody wants to watch a story where I go to the supermarket, buy some toilet paper, take my kids to school and put the garbage out. We have that mundane stuff in our own lives.

The best stories take fantastic elements but they resonate with our lives and that's what sci-fi is. With Star Trek, we're engaging with immigration and questions of identity and asking, “Is social progressiveness an experiment doomed to failure?”

 

RD: You've just wrapped the second season of The OA. What are you doing in it?

Jason: [Laughs] I'm acting. You know, the thing about these streaming shows is that an enormous amount of the pleasure for the audience is not knowing what's about to happen. I'm the same. I far prefer watching something when I know nothing about it and as an actor I don't want to spoil people's pleasure.

 

Star Trek: Discovery and The OA are now streaming on Netflix