By Moonah Ellison
photographer: Jennifer Rocholl
When you possess something that other people covet, it’s hard not to feel superior—or at least a little smug. British actor Jason Isaacs enjoys a career that is the envy of many in Hollywood, starring in big blockbusters and finding success in virtually every acting medium. Yet he maintains an air of normalcy and self-awareness that is extremely rare, which, if anything, makes him even more enviable. And yet, you just can’t help but like the guy.
Isaacs began his career at Bristol University where he studied law, but he found himself acting, writing and directing most of the time he was there. So after graduation, he trained for three years at London’s prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama. In 2000, his breakout role as Colonel William Tavington in Roland Emmerich’s film The Patriot garnered him numerous nominations, including one from the British Film Critics’ Circle, and kick-started his career in the performing arts.
Films to his credit include Black Hawk Down, Armageddon, and more Harry Potter films than you can count. He also appeared in the feature Sweetwater alongside Ed Harris and January Jones, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Look for him alongside Brad Pitt in Fury, which opens this October.
This Golden Globe, BAFTA, International Emmy and Critic’s Circle-nominated actor has also made his mark on the stage, perhaps most notably in the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning Royal National Theatre production of Angels in America: Parts 1 and 2. He recounts his time with Angels fondly, working alongside fellow British actor Daniel Craig, as a high that he’s still trying to recreate. “When you’re in something good, there’s nothing like it. But if you do a bad one, it’s monstrous.”
And then there’s the small screen, where Isaacs successfully navigated both the American and UK scenes in shows like NBC’s Awake and BBC’s Case Histories and The State Within. He also appeared in the NBC miniseries, Rosemary’s Baby, in April 2014. No matter what he does, the awards and accolades follow, but it has yet to go to his head.
Refreshingly, he shows as much passion for world politics and raising his two daughters as he does for improving in his career. Not one to keep his opinion to himself, he shares, “I lean to the left.” That’s apparent, as he elaborates, “I don’t do my job for the money. I would be happy if we all lived in the same sized room. We should all have access to the same things. And I think most people believe these things, but the far right just doesn’t think it’s possible. But I do think it’s possible.”
As for religion, it’s a topic that’s top of mind as Issacs navigates his most recent project, Dig, an action-adventure series for the USA Network (from the minds behind Heroes and Homeland), premiering in late 2014. Set in contemporary Jerusalem, the story is a murder mystery on the surface, but ultimately explores “a bigger issue that threatens the entire world as we know it,” he shares. “I don’t want to tell too much. I just want to nail people down to watch the first ten minutes because after that, I know they wouldn’t be able to walk away.”
A show based in Israel can’t avoid the topics of religion and war. Isaacs notes that after learning that much of the show was inspired by real life people and events, he immersed himself in material about the country and its history. “There are a lot of batshit crazy people in the world, and a lot of the time you find they’re doing it in the name of religion or what they think is the greater good of mankind, which is served best by slaughter,” he observes. After the pilot was in the bag, the show was actually put on hold in the midst of rising tension in the region, but Isaacs chooses to focus on the positive experiences of his time there. “I see my job as a storyteller is to keep alive the humanity in the most inhuman situations. If you’re in the arts, your job is to continue to find a human connection in things, and not to make judgments. My experience in Israel is a result of individual people I met, not people who can be lumped together in one category.”
War and strife and despair are topics that Isaacs deals with frequently, if only in his attempts to protect his two school-age daughters from it. “I’m horrified and challenged every day in how best to help them be in the world and make sure they get the most out of life and they enjoy themselves,” he admits. “The papers are cover to cover full of ugliness. If you’re so inclined, you could begin to feel like there’s nothing but depressing things going on. Society is getting ever more fragmented. And I don’t want my kids’ childhood being filled with that.”
The actor, perhaps as a result of being immersed in media, is well aware of the specific pressures put on women. “I don’t like the fact that all [my girls] see on billboards are women dressed like prostitutes, and they’re being taught that the world values them more for how attractive they are than what they bring to the party. It’s tough. I don’t think any of us have the slightest clue what world our kids are going to inherit.” Still, exposing his children to the larger world in a positive context—they’ve lived and traveled throughout North America and the UK for his projects—is helping give them perspective on what’s important. “When you ask about people’s greatest memories, it’s never what they owned or what they watched. It’s always a memory from the outdoors, [like] playing in puddles or swimming in the summer. That’s what people remember.”
Despite being committed to Dig, Isaacs is staying involved in as many projects as he can, working on scripts, releasing a number of indie films, and toying with the idea of directing. “I love the idea of directing. I just don’t know if I’m of sturdy enough stock to take the blows along the way. The instant gratification of acting, as opposed to the lengthy and heartbreaking path of directing your own film, is hard to step away from.” But don’t expect the actor to get pigeonholed. “My favorite food is Chinese or tapas, because I can’t decide what I want,” he laughs. “The same is true professionally. I don’t want to get bored.”
But boredom doesn’t seem to be an element in Isaacs’ life. His range of abilities and interests promise to keep him onscreen for a while to come. He’s just trying to balance it all and enjoy the ride. “Most of the people who are lucky enough to be in my business, we just bumble forward…. I’m always reminding myself to just have a fabulous time when you’re working and do the best you can.”