The Interview: Jason Isaacs on bullsh*t, honesty, and villains - real and imagined
Even in his choice of Zoom backgrounds, Jason Isaacs has no time or tolerance for bullsh*t.
Whereas most interviews conducted via video-conferencing typically tend to have actors in front of a plain white background, or in one case, a strategically drawn curtain, Jason Isaacs has adorned his background with merchandise from 'Scoob!', his latest role in which he plays Dick Dastardly, late of 'Wacky Races' fame.
"When I've done these Zooms, there's all this pretentious bollocks about what books you're going to have in the background, to show how eclectic and well-read I am, or how intellectual my life is. So I set up a little merchandise stand in the background. Let's not pretend what's going on, I'm here selling 'Scoob!'," Isaacs announces from the get-go.
On the topic of his role as Dick Dastardly, Isaacs is surprised to learn that 'Wacky Races' and 'Dastardly and Muttley In Their Flying Machines' received regular airtime on Irish television in the '90s, as he recalls it being a staple of TV in the '70s in London. "I mean, they re-invented (the character) so completely that I didn't need to engage my shitty mimicry skills, and what would be the point? They'd be better off getting an impressionist," he observes, once again proving how little time he has for bullshit.
"It seems ridiculous since it's so over-the-top, but it still feels like there's a human in there," he remarks of Dick Dastardly, "it all comes from tremendous insecurity and a need for affection, but maybe that's just me, the actor, trying to figure out some way of getting through it and hang to a shred of truth."
Even in that, Isaacs rankles at the idea of describing recording his lines alone without other actors as 'difficult', and is quick to point out that there's plenty of other people doing truly 'difficult' jobs. "It's a relative word, difficult. It's a job of pretending to be other people, but it's much easier to do it when you're looking in someone else's eyes. Although even saying that, I wonder if shame would have gotten a hold of me in some way, because I'm so far over-the-top, I'm having such a good time, I couldn't have done it looking at someone! But, you know, part of an actor is having no shame."
On the topic of shame, the conversation turns to Thandie Newton's much-talked-about interview on Vulture, wherein she discussed shame, sexual abuse, systemic racism in Hollywood, and much more. As it turns out, Thandie Newton - or 'Thands', as Isaacs calls her - lives "just up the road" from him in Kilburn, London. "I read that interview, and it's one of the most extraordinary interviews I've read. I've done a billion interviews in my life, and it's not that I lie, but I certainly have never let go in the way that Thands did. She decided to tell the truth about how a whole bunch of things in her life. You don't encounter it, actors just don't do it."
"She's looking at misogyny and racism, and the way she's been treated, and it's not things I've suffered from, but I'm just blown away by what she decided to do. Obviously, I've known her for a long time, people tell me stories about what goes on behind closed doors all the time, but they very rarely talk to journalists like that," Isaacs says.
That level of honesty, of course, just doesn't occur naturally in interviews. It's not for lack of trying on journalists' part, but more that there is less of an opportunity for it to happen. After all, as we point out in our interview, we've got fifteen minutes and we have to cover ground that includes discussing 'Scoob!' or whatever movie or content that has brought people together.
"Also, I'm ever aware when I'm talking of service of something to an employer, the idea is to drive people to watch 'Scoob!' or whatever. It's much easier when it's good, or you like it, and you think people will have a good time watching it," Isaacs says.
"Right now, people are having a pretty shitty time, they're scared of the future; anything that helps you escape the world for two hours is great! I'm embarrassed about wanting to sit down and watch 'Scoob!' Sometimes, I'm less proud of it and I'm trying to get off the subject and on to something else, but for Thandie to use an interview as a reason to unveil and unleash a bunch of stories about how people treat each other in the industry is incredibly brave, I think. You wouldn't catch me doing it."
Is Isaacs tempted to do the same, at some point? He refers to Julia Phillips' scandalous autobiography, 'You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again', which detailed the peccadillos and perversions of Hollywood's most well-known names in the '70s and '80s, as well as her own debauched life in brazen fashion. The book was effectively Phillips' way of torching the bridge on her way out of Hollywood and became a massive bestseller. "She thought, I'm done in this industry, why not tell these stories? While you're still working in it, it's pretty impolitic and scary to do it."
That said, he points out, most people are lovely. "I could tell a billion stories, but nobody's interested, about the day someone was nice and the set was great and people were friendly! But there are, occasionally, monsters and you come across them in your daily life. There has to be a very good reason to take aim at them in public."
On the topic of playing monsters, however, Isaacs doesn't have to reach too far into his past or present to find inspiration. Although he previously drew upon his experiences of being beaten and chased by neo-Nazis from the National Front in the '70s and '80s, there's enough awfulness in the world today to easily draw and inspire a performance from. "I can just switch on the news and watch vainglorious racists bullying the world, or even just the person having an argument about not wearing a mask. My job is to imagine being other people. There are examples all around me of damaged people, damaging other people - and that's what villains are."
Yet, for all this concern with honesty and truth, Isaacs remarks that the thing he loved most in watching television or movies was that he could completely believe what he was watching, and had no sense of those who he was watching. Social media and the entertainment industry have lain bare what was once obscured by mystique. "If I'd known Robert DeNiro grew up in a middle-class background with artist parents, or if someone was gay or straight or Catholic or Jewish, it would have in every way taken away from my ability to suspend disbelief. The whole game of telling people about yourself runs counter to help you enjoy the stories."
"If I could work," Isaacs declares, "and tell good stories well and not do any of this, well, maybe 'Scoob!' because it's fun, but when it comes to the serious work, where you want people to go on an emotional journey, I would much rather they knew nothing. The best stuff I've seen is at a film festival, it's midnight, I don't know what's on, I've got a ticket, the room goes dark and a story takes you somewhere."
But, as Isaacs concedes, "you can't gather people around the fire unless you talk about yourself."
'Scoob!' is available on demand from July 10th.