Jason Isaacs: the Biography
Cynthia Fuchs of popmatters.com wrote: “Jason Isaacs has a kind of energy that you don't see every day. He's certainly enthusiastic—he likes working as a stage and movie actor and he likes the traveling that goes with it, which he's doing presently to promote The Patriot, in which he costars with Mel Gibson. And he's certainly earnest when he talks about it all, seeming actually to consider your question before he answers it. But Isaacs has an unusual playfulness, generosity, and attentiveness, too, a keen sense of humor and perceptiveness that don't surface often in your everyday movie star.”
Jason Isaacs was born 6 June 1963, in Liverpool, England, the great-grandson of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants. He is the third of four brothers. "We moved to London in the mid-70s when I was 11, and I didn't want people teasing me for my voice," he says. "I had that Liverpool accent, and kids hate to stand out, so almost immediately I developed a thick Cockney accent. It was probably the first sign of acting ability I ever displayed." According to schoolmate Mark James Pateman Fairey (aka Dr. Kermode), Isaacs was a popular trendsetter at Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School (located in northwest London), which both left in 1981.
Isaacs discovered his love of acting at Bristol University, where he directed and acted in more than 20 plays at school and each summer at the Edinburgh Festival. "I did a three-year law degree but all the time I was constantly off somewhere in a room screaming and shouting and taking my clothes off," he reveals. "It was where I found my friends and found my feet, and my girlfriends as well. I just got totally addicted to it. People say, 'Well, why did you stop doing law?' Well, do you know any lawyers? [This is] a lot more fun.
“I come from a nice Jewish family, there was a doctor, a lawyer, and an accountant, so I’m the black sheep. I just loved all the student acting I was doing, so it was easy for me to make the choice not to be a lawyer. It took me a long time to accustom myself to the idea that I was going to be poor, though I’ve actually made a far better living as an actor than I’m sure I would ever have made as a lawyer.” Since he was number three, “My parents were fine with it, because they wanted to have everything covered—they already have their lawyer, so they wanted one in the arts.”
Jason Isaacs got his Actors' Equity card while working as a children’s entertainer, and his first experience in the United States was as a summer camp counselor when he was eighteen*. After leaving Bristol University, Isaacs studied acting at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, the alma mater of Laurence Olivier and the Redgraves. At the end of the three-year course, "I was desperate to earn some money. I'd been a student for six years. My parents were desperate for me to earn some money as well." He quickly landed a part on the ITV drama series Capital City, and originated the role of Louis Ironson in the London production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. His film debut, a tiny part with one line, was in The Tall Guy, starring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson; he soon went on to bigger if not better roles in a trio of movies directed by Paul W. S. Anderson.
Jason Isaacs has appeared on-screen as an English army colonel once, and a colonel in the U.S. forces twice, as well as a pair of Special Forces soldiers, one of them the commanding officer of Ioan Gruffudd (whose father he’s also played, despite the scant ten-year age difference between them!) He has twice been seen as a Catholic priest, and once as a drag queen. He has done no fewer than three movies with Coen Brothers’ fave Peter Stormare (as well as appearances with Coen alumni Steve Buscemi, David Thewlis, Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, and Julianne Moore) but, sadly, none for the Coen Brothers.
As part of his acting training, Mr. Isaacs learned riding (he can be seen on horseback in Dragonheart and The Patriot) and fencing (ditto, and St. Ives) as well as other forms of combat (he injured his shoulder brawling in Brotherhood). He has done many of his own stunts—he appears in his flying harness in the extras of the DVD of Peter Pan—but there is no truth to the rumour that he agreed to be eviscerated for Paul W.S. Anderson in Event Horizon. He credits his public school education (and a Spanish-speaking one-time sister-in-law) for the fact that he speaks what I'm told is pretty credible Spanish; you can hear a sample from the BBC here.
Mr. Isaacs is an avid athlete. He spends a lot of time on the court (in some fetching shorts) with Donal Logue in Tennis, Anyone. . .? He played in the 2005 Monday After the Masters charity golf tournament, using his own set of Titleist clubs and demonstrating long familiarity with driving golf carts. (He confessed that years ago he had actually succeeded in rolling a cart while golfing with Dangerous Lady costar Owen Teale, who apparently found the incident less amusing than Mr. Isaacs.) He has amazing posture, and is innately graceful—you can watch him tango in The Tuxedo, and though the spark-producing tap finale of his dance routine in The Last Minute was provided by a stand-in, the rest of that muscular performance was his own.
Jason Isaacs and his partner of 15+ years, Emma Hewitt, have two daughters (Lily, born March 2003, and Ruby, born August 2005 and named by her sister), and while the family is often off shooting on location (spending nearly a year in Australia for Peter Pan, for example), he still describes London as home. He is as close to six feet tall as is completely necessary; his hair is nearly black, and his eyes really are that blue in person.
Random extracts: Liverpool or Everton? (i.e., which of Liverpool’s two professional football teams does Jason Isaacs support) “Oh, Liverpool. In fact, in The Fix with Steve Coogan, I played an Everton player, Tony Kay, who had been arrested on corruption charges. We were meant to shoot at Goodison Park [Everton’s football ground], and at the very last second they wouldn’t let us in. And I was thrilled, because I grew up in Liverpool, and went to Anfield [Liverpool’s football ground] every week. I had to wear the Everton shirt and that was bloody awful. But driving into Goodison would have killed me.”
“I'm left-handed for writing only, all sports/acts of violence I normally perform with my right hand. Not any more of course.”
“I was always bullied, I’ve never been the bully, I’m a terrible coward. I’m scared of people, I’m scared of horses, *laughing* I’m scared of spiders, so ya know, the chance to have this army (in The Patriot) and every time I twitch an eyebrow to have a whole village of people quiver, to have one of the biggest, butchest superstars in the world be terrified when I ride into his house, it’s very cheap therapy for me.”
(On being asked what one material object he would not be without:) “My Macintosh computer—I have a G3500 thanks very much.” (2003?)
Of Dangerous Lady: "You know they're never difficult when the script is good. I'm so glad someone has seen that! Because the woman who played my sister (Susan Lynch, also an alumna of Central School of Speech and Drama) was superb. And I got to do all the things actors love to do—cry, kill people, strangle my lover with a silver dollar, and kiss my sugar daddy to death!”
What's your favorite drink? “Cranberry and soda. Light on the ice, no lime. English people always ask for less ice than here in America. We get bitter about how the cup is always full of ice.”
What is your all-time favorite movie? “God that's a tough one. If I had to pick one—I used to love The Big Chill. And I guess as I got older it bears fewer viewings. I guess my all time favorite is probably Spinal Tap. Spinal Tap and The Godfather.
What does your family think of your movies...or acting for that matter? “The first couple of things they ever saw me do I was naked and covered in chicken blood. I got castrated with a cheese wire, and told my mother her private parts smelled of fish. So from then on everything has been a victory for them. There is a play called East by Steven Berkoff; it has a famous speech in it called the @#$t speech. And I was choreographed to leap off the stage and describe these ten smells moving along the audience one by one, with a spotlight following me. And the last one.......is fresh fish, and you stand there and humiliate a member of the audience. And it was my mother.
The only thing my father has ever truly enjoyed that I've been in. He was weeping tears of laughter.”
“In my dreams, I would be doing things where if you were watching it on TV and you had the sound turned off, you wouldn’t know it was acting. You’d think you were watching a documentary. That’s the standard to aim for, I think—you always know when you’re watching acting on television even with the sound turned off, you know when something’s real. I’d like to do things that are real and pertinent, and make people not dwell on the program itself but on the lives of people around them. To inspire change or hope.”
What's on your MP3 player? "I love lyrics so anything where I can hear the words is good with me. I’ve got Lily Allen and Paul Weller on my iPod at the moment, rubbing shoulders with Frank Sinatra, Bob Marley and the soundtrack from Little Shop of Horrors. Pretty eclectic. I like to warm my voice up in the dressing room and poor Lee [Evans, his costar in The Dumb Waiter], who’s really musical, has to hear me murder some cheesy '70s pop through the wall. I apologize everyday, and everyday he pretends it’s not killing him, which it obviously is. I also listen to a couple of singer/songwriters I came across in California quite a lot: Craig Jerris and Judith Owen, because not only are they fabulous, but I can picture the people they’re singing about."
Jason answered fan questions for Theatre.com in Feb. of 2007--read more responses at http://www.theatre.com/ask_a_star/id/3005799. Thanks to Gillian for spotting the opportunity!
During his 25 Nov. 2006 appearance on BBC1's Saturday Kitchen, Jason declared his "food heaven" was pork, while celery constituted "food hell".
(All quotations above taken verbatim from assorted online articles, webchats, personal reports, and e-mails. Links/credits being added.)
*With kind permission--Michelle Erica Green, whose pre-Patriot interview with Jason Isaacs may be read at http://www.littlereview.com/getcritical/interviews/isaacs.htm
Hello! Canada video from the Toronto Film Festival 2008 (look for the thumbnail with the face of Viggo Mortensen)
Interview on CC Variety TV discussing his Golden Globe nomination; A transcript from this chat is here Liverpool.com magazine's "complete this sentence" interview of November 2007
http://icliverpool.icnetwork.co.uk --Icliverpool.uk article bragging on Jason Isaacs for snagging a role on The West Wing.
http://icliverpool.icnetwork.co.uk/ --A slightly ruder Icliverpool.uk article which refers to Jason Isaacs' "weasel-like features". Dating from the end of 2003, I think.
http://www.jasonisaacsonline.com/LAtimesart03.htm --a very awkward re-posting of a saved version of a 2003 article by Los Angeles Times writer Susan King. I couldn't find it in the archives of LA Times, but the text is preserved here verbatim.
http://jasonisaacsonline.com/Australian%20interview%20page.htm --An interview published 20 November 2002, discussing playing Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
http://www.jasonisaacsonline.com/TotalDVDBHDOctober02.htm --text of an interview originally appearing in Total DVD in October 2002 with Jason Isaacs talking about filming Black Hawk Down.
http://www.tribute.ca/newsletter/16/starchat_01.html --link to an interview ca. 2001, full of typos (including a misspelling of Mr. Isaacs' name...)
http://www.jasonisaacsonline.com/interviewtry2a.html --transcription of a rather nice long interview which appeared in the online version of the UK's Sun "newspaper". The print version included several small photos, none of them original to the article.
http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/films/articles/560603 --Servalan shared this link to a fun (British) interview/article from July 2000, midway between release of The Patriot and completion of Sween Norverber.
http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=2347 --an article dated 30 June 2000 from the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Unusually long and frank.
http://www.patriotresource.com/cast/jason/chat.html --Transcript of an MSN webchat from 6 July 2000, focusing mostly on The Patriot
http://www.patriotresource.com/cast/jason/chat2.html --and a Yahoo! chat of 27 October, 2000--ditto
http://www.nostalgiacentral.com/tv/drama/capitalcity.htm --A tribute page to Capital City, from people who actually watched it. Inexplicably, they didn't seem to have noticed Jason Isaacs...