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Role Recall: Jason Isaacs

British actor Jason Isaacs talks to Yahoo UK about some of his most memorable movie roles. Isaacs looks back on his lengthy career starting with 1997's sci-fi horror Event Horizon, and touching upon roles such as The Tuxedo with Jackie Chan, working with Ridley Scott, Michael Bay, John Woo, and Armando Iannucci, while also revisiting his iconic work in the Harry Potter films, Peter Pan, Star Trek: Discovery, and Archie, his new ITV series in which he plays Cary Grant.

Video transcript

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- What was that?

- Clark's gone. Smitty and Cooper are dead.

- What-- what--

- It was Weir. You spot him, you take him out.

- Understood.

JASON ISAACS: There's another one I did that was a flop when it came out. And it's been a massive triumph ever since, a huge cult film. So many other films have copied it since, copying not just this plot, but its style. And none of them have quite made it. So they made this model of me, this extraordinary latex model of me, which is every broken vein, every hair, mole, eye color, and stuff, my whole naked body, hung up by hooks, gutted from neck to navel, with all my organs pulled out.

The shot when I was dead started inside my stomach, I think, and pulled out and pulled back. And you saw the body and all the stuff. And I think it was so disgusting, audiences were either throwing up or swallowing their sick down. But instead, the shot starts wide. So I know that there was that shot gone. We also reshot the ending twice, rewrote the ending after the read through-- it didn't quite work-- and then shot it. And then the ending didn't quite work and we shot it again. And then we went back and corrected my Latin, which we got wrong and I think reshot the bit with the Latin. And it turns out, we got the Latin wrong the second time. It had been right the first time, I think.

- General, if you consider your target, composition, dimensions, sheer velocity, you could fire every nuke you've got at her and she'd just smile at you and keep on coming.

JASON ISAACS: What felt on another scale was the food. I'd never seen so much food in all my life, the biggest breakfast, every kind of breakfast you could imagine and you couldn't imagine there. And then there was, I remember, Thai food and Chinese food about noon at the side of the set. And I took a plate. And I said, can I have a second? You can have as much as you like. And just when I put my-- shoveled my fifth plate in, they went, well, that's lunch. And I went and there was joints of meat and pasta bars. So that was what indicated to me the scale of the film. And then there was the fact that we had the entire Pentagon as our backdrop.

Michael Bay is the loudest, most shouty director I've ever come across. It was a big, macho film with a big set. He did have a microphone. But he makes those films that are big, loud, shouty films.

- This town has given aid to Benjamin Martin and his rebels. I wish to know his whereabouts. So anyone who comes forward may be forgiven their treason.

JASON ISAACS: It's on, I think, every July the 4th in America. And many people come up to me and they say, oh, my fifth grade history teacher showed me that movie. We loved it. And I go, and then he tells you what really happened, right? What do you mean? So a lot of people think it's a documentary, which it really isn't.

The best bit about "The Patriot" is about a month before we were shooting, Mel, Heath, and I flew out to South Carolina, and we rode horses every day, and we learned to load and fire muskets, and we did sword fighting and throw tomahawks. And then we'd sit in the hotel at night and go, we're getting paid for this. So that was before we started shooting, and I would fall off the horse all the time and get hit by people's swords.

- Lucius Malfoy. We meet at last. Forgive me.

JASON ISAACS: Really, "Harry Potter," those films, are the ones I get least recognized for because they don't look like me. I came up with that wig. That was my idea. They wanted me to just have my normal hair. And at the time, I was doing it because I wanted every single defense against being compared with Alan Rickman. He was playing the villain that you'd seen so far. And I wanted a cane and capes. And I would have had a parrot on my shoulder if I could, but I had the wig. And it's been such a blessing. All of the jobs I do, I do for the experience. My working life is a journey, not a destination.

But with "Harry Potter," the pleasures come mostly afterwards. I meet people for decades-- I still meet them all the time-- who say that those films and those books saved their life, I'll just changed their life, but when they were suicidal, or when they were in very dark places, or they felt alone, or abused, or neglected, or whatever, those stories gave them hope. And I get to be part of that with people, which is extraordinary because let's face it, what do I do? I dress up and put funny voices on. But I still-- I get to ride that tide, which is a real privilege.

When I was in the room, Chris Columbus said, would you mind reading for another part as well, Lucius Malfoy? And I thought to myself for a split second, he wants me to play two parts. God, he must think I'm good. And then I realized I wasn't going to get Gilderoy Lockhart. And so I read for Lucius Malfoy rather resentfully and bitterly. And I'm pretty sure that was why I got it.

- Delta no delta, that's a hard weapon. You know better than that. Safety should be on at all times on base.

- Well, that's my safety, sir.

JASON ISAACS: It was a big, noisy, hot, sweaty, very macho set. There were no women around, a couple on the crew, but mostly, it was men. There were a lot of men and boys being soldiers, some of them thinking that they were soldiers. The bit I remember most is when I went to train, the Rangers went to train, in Fort Benning with the Rangers. And all the people who survived came to see us. And the families of the dead came to see us. And we felt that keen responsibility to tell their story honestly.

And then when we were shooting in Morocco, we were all in this reclaimed medical dump behind barbed wire, no food and drink for a long time for us. And it was deeply uncomfortable. I don't know if it was intentional to make us feel uncomfortable, but when we were shooting, there was some-- I'm sure it was safe. No one got injured. But it felt dangerous, my first shot.

You make your way down that street with your unit, and things are going to blow up, and cars are going to spin, and people will drop down dead and then get behind a broken building and say your lines. And I went, could we-- normally, you would say, can I walk through and see it happen? But it was too expensive. So I make my way down the street, and things were flying over my head, and things were blowing up next to me. People were-- snipers were shooting dust next to me. But I don't know it was dust. Things exploded. And I was going down the street, terrified.

And then when I got to the end and did my dialogue, because I'd rehearsed a couple of times, afterwards, one of the real Rangers who was watching went, you didn't have a magazine. When you fell over, the magazine dropped out of your thing. So there's nothing. I think you were saying bang when you pulled the trigger. And went, was I? I think you were going bang, bang. Anyway, I went to Ridley, and I went, Ridley, I think-- I don't know. I was a bit panicked, but right at the end, I think I was going bang, bang when I pulled the trigger because I didn't have a magazine.

- What I'm about to tell you, Corporal, cannot leave this room. Under no circumstances can you allow your code talker to fall into enemy hands.

JASON ISAACS: I needed my O-1 visa to work in America renewed. And so I have one scene in windtalkers. And I was gone by 11:30 in the morning, I think, didn't even get my free lunch. But when they made the trailer, my one scene is all the story. It's all the exposition with Nick Cage. I brief him and tell him what's going to happen. And so the trailer is all me. And my friends phoned me up, going, you said you weren't-- you always do this. I'm going, no, I'm really not in the thing at all, barely. But it was great being with John Woo for an hour. I'm not sure he knew my name.

- Why are we running away from a skateboard?

- I think it's probably a bomb.

- Ha ha. I thought you said bomb.

JASON ISAACS: Jackie is the only superstar I've ever worked with who was more of a hero to me after I worked with him before. He was just remarkable and hilarious and humble. And there seemed to be five of him because he was always doing many, many things.

- I thanked Pan for cutting off my hand and to giving me this fine hook for disemboweling and ripping throats.

JASON ISAACS: It's an odd thing, Peter Pan movie because it's been a huge success since it was made. But when it came out, it was a catastrophic flop because people thought, well, I've seen that before. Actually, no one's ever made a film with Peter Pan before. J M Barrie's "Peter Pan" is about a little girl, who's told, you're not a little girl. You're a woman now. It's time to grow up. And in those days, that meant have a family, have sex, and leave your brother's bedroom, stop playing pirates.

So that night, she dreams and creates a world where there's a little boy with baby teeth. And he'll always play with her. But there's also a man who's strangely attractive, but repulsive as well. She's not ready to be attracted to men. And he looks like the only man she knows, which is her father. And that's a really potent, Freudian story about mortality and maturity.

And no one ever made that. They get obsessed with the boy for some reason. He's a figment of her imagination. And there's a reason why that film still, decades later, has resonated with so many girls and so many young women and so many adult women, who say to me, that's actually my favorite film you've ever been in because J M Barrie captured that horrifying moment when as a girl, you realize the world is looking at you as a woman.

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It's had the most profound effect on people around the world. Tens of millions of people watched it and loved it. And people did the movements outside the headquarters. And they did it at Louvre. They did outside Trump Tower and stuff. And I still-- inside the industry and with journalists, it's the thing they want to talk about most, always. It's the most human script I've ever had and one of the most interesting and moving jobs I've ever had.

And I wasn't cast. I was a replacement. And so they phoned me late at night. They knew me from a short segment I'd done in a film called "Nine Lives" years before. And they said, do you like this thing? And if you like it, will you get on a plane immediately? You're shooting tomorrow in Grand Central Station. And I'd never read anything like it. And I arrived. And I first met Brit in character at Grand Central Station.

And it was-- you knew doing it, there was something special about it. But when you meet people around the world, it's the thing-- other things they talk about as if they enjoyed this pretense. They enjoy the play element, the let's dress up. And "The OA" is real or feels real to an awful lot of people. And they're desperate to see it finished. So am I.

- Apparently the 133 jumps we made filled in the gaps, an extraordinarily fortunate coincidence.

JASON ISAACS: I grew up in a household where all we did was watch telly. That was all we ever did. We would eat, often in front of the television, and we would cram into a little room, and we would watch television. And we would argue about what we would watch. Everyone would argue a long time for the remote control. So whoever would get to the television-- my brother and I would fight over the button that changed the channel.

But we never argued over "Star Trek." The whole family would watch "Star Trek" and the thought that I would ever have been, and the feeling when I was standing commanding my own Starship and hitting the warp drive or transporting places or any of that, sitting in the chair, torpedoes coming in, doing that thing of rocking the left and right, which, by the way, we still do like they did in the '60s. There's no clever way to do it. It was incredible.

I had a fight coming up with Michelle Yeoh, a big fight. She's Michelle Yeoh. She moves like liquid. She's such a beautiful person and a beautiful mover. And I'm a tennis nut. And I played three five-set games of tennis two days beforehand. And I woke up, my knees were the size of pumpkins. And the stunt guy said, you can't do the fight. I'm putting a double in. And I went, you can amputate my legs. I'm doing this fight. And I won't even tell you the things I had to do to make myself mobile.

- I will take that as a compliment.

- Yeah, don't. All right, what's a war hero got to do to get some lubrication around here?

JASON ISAACS: I remember reading it, thinking they'd made a terrible mistake. I mean, I've never done comedy publicly. I make stupid jokes privately. And I don't know Armando. He obviously meant to offer it to Jason Statham or someone. He's got the name wrong. And it came with a note, and it said, if you've got any questions, just phone me up and ask. And I phoned up, and would you like to do it? I said, yes, definitely. I'm in. Do you mind if I do it in a Yorkshire accent? And he went, do you think it's funny? I said, I don't know. I read it. I heard Yorkshire in my head. He went, sure. And I don't know what I'd have done if he said no.

I think that the entrance-- first of all, the other characters have been on screen for an hour. So it's time for a bit of new blood. But they're all scared. Everybody is scared of each other. He's the only bloke who's not scared in it. So he arrives bullishly. And it was a stroke of genius on Armando's part to make it slo-mo, so all those medals jangled.

- Remember what it was like before we were rent asunder?

JASON ISAACS: So I love voiceworks. I've done lots of animated movies and loads of video games as well. And I like it because you don't get cast what you look like. You get cast for anything, like playing the emperor in "The Dark Crystal." the only thing about that is they'd shot on these fantastic sets with the world's greatest puppeteers for a year. And they had done the voices and they'd moved the puppets according to it. So none of us were free to give our own performances. We gave the performance-- we were mimicking the puppeteers. And unfortunately, the puppeteer had a lot of screaming as the emperor. So there wasn't one session I did where I didn't lose my voice.

- Bipolar disorder, depression, mania, ADHD, possible schizoaffective disorder.

- None of that is psychopathy. You don't know what you're talking about.

JASON ISAACS: This is a film-- it's such a beautiful film about the power of forgiveness, how necessary it is, and how carrying hate only poisons you. It doesn't in any way affect the things you think you'd like to affect. And it's not disguised. But it's delivered through this extraordinary concoction of people in it. I don't know. It was the most intense filming experience I've ever had. And I felt it when I've seen the audience. It, for many people, is the most intense experience they've ever had. But it's uplifting.

So I think a lot of people were worried cautious about approaching it because they thought it was going to be depressing. But actually, there's something incredibly spiritual about how these people are. It's not a simplistic ending. But the power of forgiveness is writ large in them. And I've never seen it without an audience being in floods of tears at the end.

- Cut.

- The name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy weekend box office.

JASON ISAACS: Everybody in the world wanted to be him or be with him. But who he was off screen was so damaged and so unlike that-- that's he didn't give interviews-- and so angry so often, or angry at himself, and destroyed relationships all around him. And that stuff I kind of recognized, particularly the code switching. He was someone different with everyone.

Suddenly, when he was young, he was so desperate, so hungry, literally physically hungry. He could have done anything to survive. And he created this character to survive. And it worked. He wanted love, so he created this character that the world loved. And he created him so well that the whole world loved him for decades. I got a recording, an illicit recording, the one interview he gave that wasn't meant to be recorded and someone has held on to for 40 years and never played to anyone because out of respect to him. He played it to me. And I heard the man, not the icon.

And he did all the outside stuff. There's the voice, and there's the walk and the tan and the face and all the clothes. Actually, having done all that stuff, you've got to throw it away. I mean, there's scenes with this brilliant actress, Laura Aikman. She's playing Dyan Cannon. And we're not trying to recreate something from 1960. We're doing something in 2022 in a factory in Liverpool next to an open sewage farm. So for all the work and background stuff you do, when audiences are watching, they just want something real to be happening in front of them, something spontaneous.

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