Post-Armageddon, He Becomes a Soldier
British actor Jason Isaacs is best known in the U.S. for genre blockbusters like Armageddon, Event Horizon, and Dragonheart, but in England he's an audience favorite for independent films, television series, and the Royal National Theatre production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America. This week he appears on American screens as a "space Nazi" in Soldier; he's played other villains who are almost as bad.
"I've played wife-beaters and rapists and savage soldiers, and those are always the parts where people say, 'Oh, you were so sexy!'" laughs the Liverpool native, in Los Angeles this week for Soldier's opening. "The times they say a part is particularly sexy is when you do something really horrible - when you're kind of unapologetically cruel or tough. I guess Colonel Mekum will be sexy."
Mekum, the despotic military leader who commands the genetically engineered soldiers led by Jason Scott Lee's character Caine 607, is ruthless and megalomaniacal, but doesn't engage in the high-level martial arts which star Kurt Russell and antagonist Lee perform. "I'm the guy in the Nazi movies who marches in the room, strokes his mustache, says, 'Kill them all,' and then marches out," explains Isaacs. "I have Jason Scott Lee to do my bidding. He's genetically bred and I'm using him - I'm a really pushy exec, if you imagine the army as the grunts and the execs. I'm marching inexorably upwards and onwards, using these people to as my path to the top. I really couldn't care about anybody or anything."
Isaacs had worked with director Paul Anderson and co-producer Jeremy Bolt on Event Horizon and Shopping, but had to pass muster with producer Jerry Weintraub before they could cast him in Soldier. "I thought, there's no way, this time - clearly this was a much bigger film than Event Horizon, it was star time for everyone involved. I'm sure they went to a dozen other stars first as always happens, but in the end they came back to me."
In fact, the actor had known Anderson from early in his career, and went to college with Bolt: "When he started producing, I would always find unemployed actors to work for free in the things he was doing. I even volunteered my girlfriend once to be in a commercial they were shooting and to have a cockroach coming out of her mouth!"
Russell had been cast long before Isaacs' audition, but chose to spend more than a year training for the role, which gave the team time to film Event Horizon. "Kurt asked for a year to build his body up - Kurt is incredible in this movie, you should see the size of him, he's kind of Schwarzenegger-size," Isaacs marvels. "He was unbelievably pumped and trained." Mekum's main adversary in the film is not Russell's character Todd but Todd's commander, played by Gary Busey, "the old colonel who's in charge of the old soldiers, and he's kind of like an old soldier - it's all for the men. I just couldn't care less about loss of human life."
What did Isaacs draw on to play such a villain? "Wish fullfillment!" he cackles. "A few times I've played these unbelievably tough, scary, nasty men, probably because I'm such a wimp in my life. I don't confront people, ever, or stand up to them. I get to be the bully that I never was, I was always the bullied. It's pretty good therapy!"
Isaacs noted that he's never met and certainly wouldn't want to anger any of the legendary Italian-American film gangsters, Pacino and De Niro and their collaborators, "but I suspect they were bullied at school as well, because they play it so well. All bullies are cowards, in my experience. I have that to draw on, that's for sure!" His character D.J. met a spectacular end in Event Horizon, and the actor jokes that he thinks director Anderson worked on trying to top it for Mekum. "I have mixed feelings about that!" he laughs.
Being the star of several action films is "kind of weird" for the actor, who's "not particularly a science fiction buff," yet appeared in Dragonheart and on Highlander. "I spent a year being on overheated tin sets with red lighting everywhere - enough already with the spaceships," he groans. The draw for him was working with Anderson: "If he was doing a Western, I'd have done that. In some ways Soldier actually is a Western, when you see it."
In Europe he is currently being celebrated for another sexy bad guy - IRA boss Cow Pat Keegan in Divorcing Jack, a black comedy set in Belfast. "I play a really nasty piece of work who kind of rapes people, and sure enough, even my girlfriend goes, 'Oh, you're so sexy in that film!'" Isaacs shakes his head. "It came from a Northern Irish journalist who writes a dangerously subversive, cynical column in the newspaper there. He's been really popular for a long time because he can make fun of both sides of the religious and political divide - the gunmen and the bullies on both sides, the para-militaries and the IRA and the UVS and the government and the soldiers."
The book on which it is based, "this kind of farcical madness of a journalist in Northern Ireland trying to cover things," has been a bestseller across Britain and Ireland: "He puts the point of view of a normal person who's just sick of it all and thinks they're all thugs and self-serving idiots, and ought to just leave the public alone," Isaacs relates. And the film has gotten rave reviews in Europe - "For the very first time, there's a film about Irish people written and made by Irish people, and they've gone bananas for it."
But while the movie has been a success in both Belfast and Dublin, "they're just falling out of the seats laughing and screaming with recognition," Isaacs isn't sure whether the movie will open in the United States. "American buyers saw it, and I think it didn't fit into the neat categories they like Irish characters to fall into," he says. "It's a shame, but it kind of overturns America's nice simple view of who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. I don't think it will open here."
Isaacs did appear in the American miniseries The Last Don II, playing what he describes as "the only good guy in that. I was playing a priest, I was the only person who didn't get to kill anyone. Although I had sex with Kirstie Alley, which is sinful if you're a priest!" So he resists being labeled as a villain, pointing out that he saved the world in Armageddon as Professor Ronald Quincy. "I'm the man who devises the plan to save the entire planet! I think that's pretty good!" he exclaims.
The actor came to film Armageddon from the set of Divorcing Jack - whose entire budget, he jokes, was lower than the budget for doughnuts for the crew of the asteroid blockbuster. "I guess when I was here for the Event Horizon premiere, the casting director thought, 'Oh, English guy, space movie, let's get him in for our space movie,' and god bless her for it!" Isaacs explained that he auditioned for director Michael Bay, who asked him to improvise; "I thought nothing of it, and went back to England. A couple of months later, they offered me a part - a slightly bigger one - but I couldn't do it because I was working. I couldn't believe it, quite honestly. I had just been trying to improvise comedy when I'd been improvising for Michael. When they offered me Professor Quincy, I had no idea what it was. It was a long time since I'd read the script."
The Bristol University graduate pronounced the difference between the low-budget Irish film and the Hollywood blockbuster to be "weird culture clash in the extreme. It's not about acting - it's a strange kind of business thing that goes on, on an industrial scale. The thing not to do is to compare it, because it's not the same filmmaking, just as it's not the same going to McDonald's as having haute cuisine or having a picnic. All these things are different experiences, so I didn't make the mistake of thinking of it as art. I thought of it as commerce. And sure enough, it took hundreds of millions of dollars in."
Isaacs calls director Bay "an incredibly bold character to work with, kind of a bundle of manic energy." Despite feeling dwarfed by the production itself, he had a very good time working on Armageddon. "Quite honestly, it's hard not to have fun if you're shooting at NASA and you're getting on the space shuttle!" he points out.
Most of Isaacs' scenes were with Billy Bob Thornton, whom he describes as "a hysterically funny man - absolutely obscene, but very smart. He's a real actor, he's been around for a long time, he's done a lot of stuff, and his head is not carried away by all this nonsense about the hundreds of cameras and sets and star stuff. Any time that anyone would get slightly carried away, all he had to do was raise a quizzical eyebrow to send me into hysterics."
Isaacs, too, says he has been around long enough not to be thrown by the American celebrity system. "I know I've got a career in England so it's not like I've got everything in the world invested in how I do these 'save the world' lines. So I had fun with it." He describes his current trip to the States as something he did "because I'm in the movie and I can - it's one of the perks that you get to fly in a ticket class that you would never pay for yourself," though he is reading scripts and going to meetings while he's here.
"Basically I live in England, I have a pretty good career going there, and I have a girlfriend and a house and friends and a life and all the rest of it - I'd like to be bicoastal, I'd like to move back and forth for the work, but I'm not just going to take anything for the sake of it because I don't really need to work for the sake of it when I can work in England and sleep in my own bed," he notes. "It's got to be something I want to do. I just love the thrill of excitement I get every time I open one of those big brown envelopes from ICM and I don't know what's going to be inside it, and I just dive in - if I'm still in the bath when the water's gone cold, I know it's a pretty good script.
Isaacs' favorite role was Louis Ironson in Angels In America, of which he says, "It's one of those things that I may well look back on - no matter what I achieve or how much money I earn - unquestionably that will have been the artistic highlight of my life." The play has won virtually every award in Britain and America given for drama. "It's the best piece of writing I've ever come across in my life. It was an honor to be in it. When I read it, my hands were trembling; it's a work of genius."
The play passes Isaacs' "acid test" for what he desires in the projects he becomes involved with: "In my dreams, when the piece is finished, it makes you want to argue. It makes you want to think about the way you treat people, talk about your life and the people in it. That's really what I look for. It's nice to watch popcorn movies like Armageddon, but that's like riding a roller-coaster when you watch it - I don't think people really go out afterwards and talk about, what would happen if you had to sacrifice your loved one to save the earth from a giant comet?"
Unlike many American actors, Isaacs is not reticent to say he's interested in politics - he nearly became a lawyer before realizing that his elder brother didn't really like the profession. "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."
The actor got his Actor's 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. He says he's "absolutely dying to have kids," though he wants to continue to travel "and work with people who can challenge me." His favorite aspect of acting is the research he does for roles: "It's as close to journalism as I get to do. I played a policeman investigating child abuse who had to have hypnotherapy, so I had regression sessions. I played an amnesiac who had a midlife crisis, so I went and spoke to lots of peopele who'd had amnesia or trauma to the head and lost their memory. The background stuff is fascinating."
His next project, the independent film All For Love, will be released by Miramax some time next year. It co-stars Isaacs and Jean-Marc Barr (The Big Blue) as brothers separated as children during the French Revolution; the cast also includes Miranda Richardson and Richard E. Grant "and a hot young English actress called Anna Friel who's in lots of things that aren't out here yet." Isaacs describes his part in the adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel as "tremendous old-fashioned sloppy hair acting. It's Three Musketeers-land, and I got to be incorrigibly bad in that too, gone to seed, but only because my heart is broken. We got to shoot in castles all over the world, riding horses. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that these things happen and I was getting paid for it!"
Though he learned swordfighting in acting school and on Highlander amd got to spend several months at a stunt riding school for Dragonheart, thus making him marketable for costume pieces, Isaacs prefers contemporary settings. "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."
In that regard, he has ambitions as a writer-director-producer; "My ambition is to be a hyphenate," he laughs. "I want to be a true Renaissance man. I have projects on my hard disk, though I don't know what will ever happen with them." Citing British theatrical superstition as the reason he can't discuss his writing or it won't happen, he does note that they're contemporary and would allow him to perform as well. "I want to do everything - one of the reasons I'm an actor is that I'd like to live 25 lives. I'd like to be a journalist, I'd like to be a politician, I'd like to be an explorer, I'd like to be a policeman, all those things. I'm very frustrated by only having to do one thing in life."
At present, however, he's not complaining. "The last couple of years I've had a laugh, I've done everything," he notes. "I did a couple of films in Ireland; I did St. Ives, this swashbuckling thing on a horse, with swordfighting and wigs and that sort of stuff; then I went and played an IRA guy; then I played NASA's smartest man on the planet; and then I got to be in a Mafia series which is the closest I'm ever going to get to being in The Godfather, which is every actor's dream. And now I'm a Nazi in space. So it's been a pretty fun year and a half - the kind of thing kids do in playgrounds all over the world, and I got to do it and be paid for it!"