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Jason Isaacs

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 22 April 2008

It is a cold winter's day, the wind is whistling through the trees and the light is fading. It is not the time to be meeting either a hit man or one of the most evil wizards around. Luckily Matthew Amer was meeting an actor who plays such parts, not the real thing. Jason Isaacs is currently appearing in Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter at Trafalgar Studio 1, but took time out of his hectic rehearsal period to talk to officiallondontheatre.

"Why didn't I know Harold Pinter wrote very funny plays?" asked Jason Isaacs of his friend and The Dumb Waiter director Harry Burton when he first read the play's script. It is a good question and one answered by the fact that Isaacs had seen some very bad student productions. It takes something special to tempt the actor, who made his name on film and television, onto the stage, but Burton's retort "I know it's funny, and I've got Lee Evans to be in it with you if you want to do it" sealed the deal. Only then did he break the news that they had about six weeks to put the production together.

It is indeed a rare occurrence to see Isaacs on stage, while you can't miss him on screen. Complete with flowing peroxide locks and chilling stare he is best known as the malicious Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, though he most recently appeared on screens as the lead in BBC mini-series The State Within.

Now he has brought his frosty glare to the stage, starring as Ben in Pinter's tale of hit men The Dumb Waiter, and he is thoroughly enjoying the experience of working with Evans: "If you've [only] ever seen him on screen do stand-up you have missed something magical," he says, slightly in awe, "because he has a gift with regards to working and using and relating to an audience that is only apparent live."

"It was like he was channelling some divine force"

Those of you who have ever seen Evans's stand-up routines, live or otherwise, probably imagine him to be something like an excitable, sweaty whippet trying to chase eight rabbits simultaneously. And though Isaacs confirms he has "enough energy for a 150-piece orchestra," this is the merest fraction of Evans as a person: "It became very clear to me on the first morning," says Isaacs, "that he might share an accent with, but that's all he shares in common with Lee Evans the public persona. He takes some tiny part of who he really is and he ratchets it up 20,000% to make some of his comedy, but that's nothing to do with who he is. He's far more familiar with Pinter and Beckett than I am. He's a very accomplished musician. He's very sensitive, he's very serious about being an actor, he's very open to the world, he's incredibly kind. He's got huge resources; we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg so far, as an actor, as a performer, as a writer, all round in every way." To be honest, it could get to almost sickening levels of admiration were it not for the fact that Isaacs comes across so sincerely when talking about his co-star, and that he admits that: "It took a little bit of time for me to shake all the things I thought I knew about him aside and deal with the person that was in front of me in rehearsals."

Former law student Isaacs – he studied at Bristol before pursuing his love of acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama – is less enthralled with theatre as an art form than many of his peers. Since turning professional he has made over 30 films and appeared in a number of high profile television series. By contrast he has only taken to the stage on a handful of occasions. He gives two reasons for this: he finds it frustrating and he was spoiled by a previous experience.

"When it comes to great plays, like Angels In America," he says, "there's no part of you that wants to change a single syllable of it. When it comes to moments in other things that clearly, no matter how much you've rehearsed it or played it, are not quite right, it's purgatory to be up there on stage knowing you're not quite giving an audience what they deserve or need, or what they hoped for when they booked their baby sitter, bought their expensive ticket and paid their 20 quid in the NCP."

It is Angels In America, in which he played Louis Ironside when it premiered at the National in 1993, that Isaacs feels has left him with the nagging feeling that nothing else will ever be as good. "There was a fax machine in the rehearsal room," he explains. "It was one of those, in the old days, when there was a roll of paper, not separate sheets, and this thing would spew out 10 foot of text. We'd gather round it and it would say 'Scene 23, 24, 25 cut, scene 36, 38…' and you'd go 'Oh no, fantastic work', and it would go 'replace with this…' and something would emerge. It was like [writer Tony Kushner] was channelling some divine force, because it was genius. I thought it was all genius. Nothing, for me, that I've done on stage has ever worked on so many levels."

"It's obscene that I get paid, people should complain"

It is a shame he does not do more, as he clearly gets a kick from it. As he talks about waiting in the wings he explains how "the adrenalin flows and it feels stupidly and unjustifiably terrifying; you're not about to jump out of a helicopter in Iraq or anything, but it feels terrifying because there's this contract that no-one's going to speak or interrupt you and you're not going to break out of your character or forget your lines."

On screen Isaacs is electric. He has one of those personas that magnetically draw your eyes towards him; his eyes pierce. In person he is strangely normal. It would be easy to walk past him in the street without giving him a second look, and his features seem softer than celluloid would have you believe.

He has normal problems too. Far from being among the echelon of actors that can pick and choose their work, Isaacs is insistent that though it may look that way, he has his fair share of not knowing where the next pay cheque is coming from, or watching the bank balance slowly dwindle as prospects seem scarce. This is the reason he commutes to America to work. This year he will spend six months in Rhode Island filming American drama series The Brotherhood, in which he plays the gangster brother of a politician. Until now, his children have always travelled with him, but now they are a little older, it could mean leaving them behind; a prospect he is not looking forward to: "It's a horrible thing to have to deal with, but you know, I'm a gypsy, actors have to go where the work is. When it looks like it's taking too big a toll, I'll have to stop doing it. Being a good Dad is far more important than being a good actor."

A common misconception about Isaacs is that he generally plays the baddies. It is not true, though being a Brit in Hollywood he has had his fair share of manic-laughing, power-hungry megalomaniacs thrust his way. "They're pretty lovely, juicy parts," he says. "They pay very nicely, they're often very good fun, they leave you alone, you get the best scenes in the film." But as to playing lots of them, it is just not the case. He was offered lots of them following his portrayal of brutal British commander Colonel Tavington in The Patriot. He chose to play a drag queen in Sweet November instead. Isaacs is not worried about typecasting, in fact he points out that it doesn't actually exist. Rather type-offering exists and actors don't have to take the work if they don't want it. "People keep offering you the same job," he states, "there are worse things in life."

"It's nice to just be unalloyed Nazi evil"

When he did return to the scowling world of the evil-doer, it was in the most high profile of ways in the most high profile of films; playing prominent Deatheater Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. While talking about this role, Isaacs turns into what can only be described as a big kid: "It's obscene that I get paid," he beams, "people should complain. I've got a four-year-old, she's got a dress-up box in her room and nothing touches Lucius Malfoy. She's got fairies and wizards and witches and superheroes, and nothing touches it. I get there and I say 'Can I have a cane with a wand inside it? Can I have a cape? Do you think I could have a belt with a snake's head on it? Do you think I can blast that wall and it blows open and I walk through it?' It's absurd a man of my age doing that stuff. And then you get there and realise you're doing scenes with Gary Oldman and Helena Bonham Carter. I look at the call sheet and they're going to be there today, I'm going to get to talk to them. Before you know it you're having lunch and sharing HP sauce. It's fantastic."

"If you're someone like me," he continues "who finds work enjoyably tortured – I'm constantly niggling away trying to make it better and realer and more three-dimensional – it's nice to leave all that at home and turn up at Harry Potter and just be unalloyed Nazi evil."

Simple pleasures, it seems, light up Isaacs's world, just like the rest of us. Not the simple pleasures of caramel biscuits though – a plate of those remain untouched on the table before us. His ambitions are similarly low key and relate to the pursuits of showbiz greats such as Bruce Forsyth, Jimmy Tarbuck and Ronnie Corbett: the charity golf tournament. "Once you have kids, he explains excitedly, "you can't say 'sorry darling, I'm just off out for seven hours', you just can't do it. But if you say 'I'm just off out for seven hours, I'm helping to cure childhood diseases', no-one can really argue with you."

Unlike Brucey, Tarbey et al, Isaacs has his eyes on a much wider goal. While celebrity golf is at the forefront of his mind, there are other sports in which he would like an excuse to play against the great and the good. He would happily dabble at snooker, but would really enjoy some celebrity tennis action. "I've heard around that Lenny Henry and Dawn French have an annual tennis tournament," he confides, "and I once heard a rumour that Alan Rickman is very good – I don’t know if any of this is true – and every time I've been in the same place as one of them I've subtly tried to project into their mind so that they turn to me and go 'Jason, do you play tennis?', but it's never happened yet."



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