Jason Isaacs "I remember..."

Harry Potter star Jason Isaacs tells Olly Grant how playing Lucius Malfoy helped him appreciate the value of "dressing in silly clothes and telling stories".

...LIVERPOOL

I grew up on a street called Menlove Gardens West, just round the corner from where John Lennon grew up. I was born in 1963, but a lot of my memories are connected to the war. There was the bombed-out cathedral and the half-dilapidated buildings downtown.

 

...PLAYING FOOTBALL

No one’s ever quite sure, are they, whether their earliest memory is really a memory, or a photograph they’ve seen? Mine would be standing in a Liverpool kit in the field at the bottom of our street. Ours was a boy-heavy household. I have two older brothers, Geoff and Brent, and one younger brother, Damian. There was a lot of sport and climbing and kicking and bashing. We were messy. It was like the house was turned upside down every day. A lot of my early memories are of being covered in mud, snot and blood.

 

...BEING A TELLY ADDICT

We had one of those houses with a front room where no one ever went and the furniture was never sat on, possibly in case that mythical visit from the Queen ever happened. Next door, though, was a little room where we crammed in to watch telly. And that’s what we did as a family. The most divisive thing that ever happened to us was the invention of the remote control, because then we really had something to fight about. We watched TV all the time. It was basically like The Royle Family, but not quite as funny.

 

...SKIMMING THROUGH READER’S DIGEST FOR THE JOKES COLUMN

It was the only magazine we had on subscription. I remember thinking, If I can just remember these five jokes, I’ll be able to tell them at school and be popular. But they never quite stuck.

 

...GROWING UP JEWISH

Judaism had a massive impact on my childhood. I went to the youth club in the synagogue and took Hebrew classes twice a week. As a young kid, I couldn’t have been more aware that those people at school who weren’t Jewish were something other, that they lived in this mysterious world I couldn’t belong to.

 It was only when we moved to London [when he was 11] and I started to go to a non-Jewish school that I realised [those attitudes] were my parents’ mindset, not mine. Now I have a non-Jewish wife and non-Jewish children and it plays no part in my life at all, other than the fact it was a huge part of who I was. But I think it helps me perpetually to feel, and to remember to feel, what it’s like to be an outsider—to know what it’s like to be the victim of prejudice and to rail against it.

 

...THE RISE OF THE NATIONAL FRONT

When I was a teenager, the NF became big. We had windows broken in the youth club. People were sporting their slogans. We were beaten up and chased. It was pretty damn scary being a Jewish teenager at that time.

 

...TAKING EXTREME RISKS

Like all teenagers, I thought I was immortal and that the laws, both of land and nature, didn’t apply to me. At 16, I used to push my parents’ car out of the drive while they were asleep at night, pick up my friends and go for drives. And I’d drive amazingly irresponsibly, without any skill or knowledge of the road.

I’m afraid to say there were many crashes; some illegally when I was 16, and many when I started to drive [legally]. One time, I was driving to school with a bunch of other kids. I took the bend way too fast and the car rolled over two or three times. We ended up in a ditch, upside down. Being 17 and self-conscious, it was important to me not to be thought of as uncool. So we’re hanging there and I went, “No problem, guys. You go off to maths and I’ll see you in a minute...”

 

...MY FIRST TASTE OF ACTING

In 1982, I went to Bristol University to study law. It was the year The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook came out, and everyone sounded like Hugh Grant. It couldn’t have been further from the world I grew up in. One night, staggering around the union building under the influence of ten-pence pints, I saw a poster that said, “Can you do a northern accent?” I wasn’t sure I could do anything well enough to fit in at Bristol, but I knew I could do that. It turned out to be an audition for a play. I did a Liverpool accent, obviously, and was cast as the lead. I think that saved me. From then on, I was lost to the world of theatre.

 

...MEETING MY WIFE EMMA

We were at drama school together. To be honest, I was terrified of her. She seemed far more sophisticated and radical than me. I thought she’d eat me up and spit me out. But, one Halloween night, we got together. One of the stage managers had a party and we ended up making out, as the Americans say, behind a Venetian blind.

Emma and I are unlike each other in every way. She does Pilates; I like contact sports. I laugh at dark, perverted humour; she thinks it’s cruel. In conversation, I ask the more uncomfortable (possibly rude) questions because I’m always curious; she never wants to offend anyone. Yet we’ve been together 25 years and counting. It’s the mystery of each other that has kept us going, I think. The one thing Emma
and I discovered that defines us, though, is that we absolutely love being parents. We waited too long to do it, but we love it. We now have two daughters—Lily, who’s 11, and Ruby, seven.

 

...MY FIRST BADDIE ROLE

The bad guys really began with a 1992 BBC1 series called Civvies [Jason played an ex-para called Frank Dillon]. Before the audition the casting director said, “Listen, don’t be your normal, chatty self. The director is expecting the character to walk through the door.” So I went in unshaven, in a leather jacket. I was monosyllabic and gruff, and I intimated that there were many military people in my family. I got the part, and it changed everything for me. I was then considered to be a tough, scary leading man—which, for people who know me closely, is a hysterical irony.

 

...BEING THERE TO CATCH BOTH BABIES AS THEY WERE BORN

Before Lily arrived, Emma and I went to lots of natural birthing classes. We were told to “go with the experience”. When it came to pre-labour, Emma wanted to dance. For some reason, we only had one single in the house. It was Will Young’s “Evergreen”. We must have danced to that song for hours. Ruby was the opposite; she came through our lives like a thundering steam train. I did a late-night drive to the hospital and got lost, with Emma kicking the back of my head saying, “We’d better not be lost—my waters have just broken!” Ruby was born 17 minutes after I pulled into the car park.

 

...FEELING GUILTY ABOUT ACTING

For a long time I felt it was essentially narcissistic. My mum was always volunteering on charities; my eldest brother is an NHS psychiatrist. I compared myself to them. I used to feel that the only time I wasn’t indulging myself was if there was a helpline at the end of the show. That changed with Harry Potter, really, where I played Lucius Malfoy. The pleasure and light it shone into people’s lives surprised me. I began to think that dressing in silly clothes and telling stories is of great value, that it lightens people’s load.

 

...working with some tricky people

I’ve worked with some monstrous people over the years and seen the most terrible things: hedonism, cruelty, drug and sex addiction, abuse. It can be very difficult to stay friendly with incredibly successful people because they’re surrounded by those who never challenge their behaviour. They gradually become accustomed to the idea that everything that comes out of their mouth is either hilarious or insightful, or should be acted upon by other people. You see how absolute power corrupts absolutely.

 

...MOVING TO HOLLYWOOD

[Two years ago,] we decided to move out to the US. After Harry Potter finished, I started getting besieged with offers to do US TV. I was also sick of travelling. I didn’t want to be in Romania or Vancouver, or wherever it might be, speaking to my kids on Skype. So we’re renting in LA—a place near Santa Monica, in a canyon down by the beach. I’m profoundly shallow. I like the outdoors lifestyle: tennis, bike-riding, running. But it’s an experiment. We’ll move back home at some point, unquestionably.

I miss everything about Britain: our telly, our newspapers, our cynicism, our weather, our food (not many people miss the food). And I miss all my friends. In the end, the only thing that counts in life, that you really carry with you to your deathbed, are your relationships. There are plenty of very nice people in the US who I’m friendly with, but there’s nothing like looking into the eyes of someone who’s known you for decades.

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