Jason Isaacs is musing on the nature of big breaks and whether he’s ever experienced one. He thinks not. “There are no big breaks. Well, for me there haven’t been. Every time I think something is a big break, it flops and I spend a year doing dinner theatre and children’s entertainment. I’ve just been lucky to keep working.”
That Isaacs saying these words while sitting in the kitchen of a luxury central London penthouse on the market for £18m suggests something must have gone right somewhere along the line. Granted, it’s not his £18m penthouse – we wangled an afternoon there for the photoshoot – but when luxury lifestyle magazines are photographing you in £18m apartments in order to put you on their front cover, that’s not exactly a sign of career torpor.
Let me stress: you will never meet a man happier with his lot than Jason Isaacs. He may be a self-confessed catastrophist but he loves his job, adores his family, and is profoundly grateful for both. But he’s right. He never had a big break, one of those roles that changes everything, slingshots you to superstardom and a nice little private island in the Caribbean. He’s been lucky, and he’s kept working. And to tweak that famous Gary Player quote, the more he works, the luckier he gets.
Join me on a whistlestop tour of Jason Isaacs. He was born in Liverpool to a loving and profoundly unartistic Jewish family. “Nobody in my life read books. No one played an instrument. We never went to a gallery. We went to the pantomime once a year. That’s why it was such an insane idea to be an actor – it felt like crossing the seas in a boat to make my living as a snake charmer.”
Instead he studied law at Bristol University. One day, a little worse for wear, he stumbled upon an audition in the union building. They were looking for students who could do a Northern accent. He was cast and found his calling as a performer. He successfully applied for the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama so “I could stay being a student for a few more years and then I’d get a proper job.”
He emerged with a job lined up doing theatre back in Liverpool, living in digs with his uncle – hardly the stuff of escapist fantasy. “I didn’t want to go,” admits Isaacs. “It just seemed like a prison sentence. It wasn’t what I wanted for my first job.”
So he dropped into his agent’s office – “I didn’t know at that age that you don’t drop into your agent’s office, that’s not something actors do” – and asked to be found something else. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” said his agent. “You’re just out of drama school and you’ve actually got a gig!”
An incoming phone call interrupted the argument. The agent, new to the business herself, took it on speakerphone. A casting director needed young actors for a new ITV banking drama Capital City. Across the desk Isaacs began gesticulating wildly – me! I’m a young actor! Tell them about me!
The agent relented, a decision possibly influenced by the casting director having already seen the rest of her clients. “I have a guy out of drama school. Jason Isaacs.”
“Is he Scottish?” asked the casting director. The agent glanced inquiringly at Isaacs, who fluttered his hand in the universal gesture for ‘sort of’. If you want me to be. “Yeah, I think there’s a Scottish connection,” said his agent.
And so Isaacs spent two years playing a junior trader on ITV. Hardly a huge role but it helped pay off the student loan. An American talent manager happened to catch one of his showcase episodes and offered to represent him in the US. “That was a break,” says Isaacs. “I didn’t get any big parts but it started.”
In 1993, Isaacs played Louis Ironson in the debut London production of Angels in America – Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning theatrical epic. His co-stars included Stephen Dillane and Daniel Craig. He describes Angels as “probably the artistic highlight of my working life. There’s nothing like it. It was a very, very powerful experience.” When the play finished – “there’s no fucking way you’ll condense this into a story,” Isaacs tells me but it’s a very good story so let’s give it a go.
When the play finished, Isaacs went back to the National to workshop an all-male version of Twelfth Night with Jude Law and Sir Ian McKellen. Two very different job offers arrived simultaneously. The National asked him to do another play, he can’t remember exactly which play but it was something worthy and Swedish – Strindberg, maybe. Call it Strindberg.
Then his agent phoned: would he like to be a villainous nobleman in a medieval Hollywood fantasy film about a talking dragon? Not the main villain but the main villain’s right-hand man. He’d have a name and dialogue and a death scene and a pay cheque to make Strindberg weep.
It would be an oversimplification to describe the decision as between art and commerce but perhaps not a huge one. He had recently turned 30. What kind of actor did he want to be? He was chewing over this decision in the canteen when a familiar figure appeared. “Are you alright, darling?” inquired Ian McKellen. “You’re looking a bit grumpy.”
Isaacs explained his dilemma: Strindberg at the National or dragons in Hollywood? “Can I give you some advice?” said McKellen. “Do the film.” (Here, Isaacs drops his voice several octaves to perform an uncanny impersonation of the great thesp.) “As you know, I’ve done every Shakespeare, played every lead at the National for the past 30 years, and I can’t afford to service my fucking Mini. If I had my time again, I’d take every butler, every monocled villain, every moustache-stroking twat sent my way.”
Upon arriving on the set of Dragonheart, Isaacs had dinner with the director Rob Cohen. “I’m so glad you’re here,” said Cohen over pasta. “I know there’s not much on the page but we are going to make it a real character.”
“I’m happy to be here,” said Isaacs. “I wasn’t sure about this film initially but Ian McKellen said he would’ve done it.”
“Really?” said Cohen. “Is he available?”
While toasting McKellen, we should pour one out for Patrick Malahide: the actor originally cast as Lord Felton but ditched Dragonheart to film the pirate swashbuckler Cutthroat Island. (Still cited by the Guinness World Records as the biggest box office bomb in history.) “They had already made the costumes to his very specific chest size and height,” explains Isaacs. “And so they were casting for someone who had exactly the same proportions as Patrick Malahide.”
Lord Felton was only a henchman but the late 1990s also brought Isaacs the opportunity to play a truly blockbuster antagonist in The Patriot. Ruthless redcoat Colonel William Tavington would battle Mel Gibson across the American War of Independence. Massive film, massive role – and the studio wanted Jude Law. It’s nice that they’re seeing your tape but they want Jude. It’s nice that they’re flying you to LA but they want Jude. Only Jude never signed and Isaacs portrayed a villain for the ages. I can’t really imagine a young Jude Law as the sadistic Tavington… “Oh, he’d have been fantastic,” says Isaacs. “Great screen presence.”
And then there’s Harry Potter: “the most high profile thing I have or will ever do.” He nearly didn’t do it. He auditioned for the buffoonish Gilderoy Lockhart and was unimpressed when asked to read for aristocratic snob Lucius Malfoy. (Probably helped.) He didn’t want another bad guy on the resume, especially as he’d just signed on as Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Lockhart went to Kenneth Branagh; Lucius was offered to Isaacs.
Over the weekend, his phone vibrated with the pleas of assorted nieces, nephews and godchildren. “They all begged me to do it. They just begged me. Not for my career,” he adds. “They just wanted to visit the set. That’s all they gave a shit about!”
He has spent the two decades since Potter doing pretty much everything. Lead roles in TV shows such as The State Within (he played a diplomat), Case Histories (a PI), Brotherhood (a gangster), Star Trek (a Starfleet captain) and The OA (a scientist). Voice work in Star Wars Rebels, Castlevania, and Robot Chicken. He stole The Death of Stalin as the hilariously forthright Marshal Zhukov (“Did Coco Chanel take a shit on your head?”). And he broke my heart as a grieving parent in Mass.
“They’re all luck,” says Isaacs. “I never for a second think the fact I get jobs and I can make a living is any kind of meritocracy. One of the things that makes actors mentally unstable is that so much of it is arbitrary.”
Speaking of mentally unstable actors: Isaacs’ latest role is Archie Leach, more widely known as Cary Grant. One of the most famous film stars in history, and one of the most complex. To quote Isaacs: “This is a man who took acid hundreds of times with a therapist to try to rid himself of the continual nightmares of his life; of the inner rage and torment and maelstrom between his ears that destroyed his marriages and many of his relationships.”
We’ll come back to Archie Leach.
Speak to friends of Jason Isaacs about Jason Isaacs, and certain characteristics will start to recur. He is ferociously intelligent. He is a brilliant raconteur. He plays a mean game of tennis. He is extremely competitive and even more self-deprecating. His energy never abates. Nor does his curiosity. He is serious about his craft but not pretentious. He would never describe acting as a craft. He laughs often, and loudest at himself. He loves his wife and two daughters more than words can ever convey. He is opinionated. He is kind.
James Purefoy was a contemporary of Isaacs at Royal Central, and the pair remain close friends more than 30 years later. “He was clearly the brightest spark there, and somebody who I was immediately drawn to,” Purefoy tells me over Zoom. “In terms of his acting, he wanted to try everything. Funny voices, funny walks, funny noses, funny makeup accents, everything you could possibly throw at him, he would give it a go.”
Little has changed in that regard. Isaacs arrives at the penthouse severely jetlagged, apologises for this jetlag, and proceeds to hurl himself into the photoshoot as though it’s the last one he’ll ever do. When we relocate to Lambeth Bridge for some outdoor shots, he leaps onto a plinth and wraps his arm around one of the columns.
The afternoon is blustery, the plinth wet, and it’s all too easy to foresee the imminent arrival of a wind gust potent enough to send one of Britain’s most feted actors tumbling into the Thames. Across the road, a family of three are watching on with interest. Isaacs waves at them. Several joggers are sent on their way a cheerful “Keep going!”
His enthusiasm never abates over the course of the shoot. I wander past the balcony and see Isaacs curled up in an alcove, having taken off his shoes. He tries everything; he gives it a go. Throughout the afternoon, he shares pieces of his life with us. Should he attend tomorrow’s press screening of Archie? “Is it weirder to go or not to go?” ponders Isaacs. “I suppose if I go, there’s less chance of anyone sneaking out halfway through.”
His wife Emma Hewitt FaceTimes as we’re all standing in the hallway. “Hi, darling! Say hello to everyone!” He arcs the phone around the room, then shows off his designer grey suit. “Enjoy it – I’ll be back in trackies tomorrow.”
We go outside for some more shots. Isaacs heel kicks along a drizzled Millbank; balances an umbrella upside down on his fingertip beneath the palm tree on Lambeth Bridge roundabout. When handed the umbrella, I attempt to emulate this trick with much less success. Isaacs comes over as we head back inside. “The trick is not to over-correct,” he says. “Don’t move your hand about too much.”
As a teenager, Isaacs did a lot of magic. “I’ve always been a code switcher. Different in every group of people I was with. I practised lots of things you can practise by yourself – magic, origami, skateboarding. You think they’re going to make you mates or get you girls and clearly they do the opposite.”
He used to skateboard on the South Bank. One day a businessman approached him, seeking advice in breaking into the skateboard industry. “Why he took business advice from a 14 year old, I don’t know,” says Isaacs. The pair struck up a partnership. “He had a couple of antique shops on Kensington Church Street, converted them to skateboard shops, gave me licence to hire the best skaters to be in our team. I wasn’t anywhere near as good as they were but we had a team. We would open skate parks, do exhibitions, be in magazines.” They even designed the boards that were sold in the shop.
Like most ventures that seem too good to last, it didn’t. “Unsurprisingly he went bust. We got there and the shop was shut, padlocked, and he never answered the phone again.” All the skateboarding equipment was locked in the shop. Isaacs’s teammates were furious with him and threatened retribution. “These were rough kids and when they wanted to hurt people, they really hurt them. I gave my skateboards away and never skated again.”
We should probably talk Archie. The series explores the remarkable life of the man the world knew as Cary Grant; a life that was half Dickens, half Scott Fitzgerald. A man, says Isaacs, who was “known the world over and adored by everybody except himself.”
He was born in Bristol as Archibald Leach. Endured what Isaacs describes as a “brutal, violent, and desperate childhood.” Joined a vaudeville troupe, learned to juggle, perform acrobatics, ride a unicycle. (No skateboarding but he’d have been a natural.) Travelled to America, refined his accent, changed his name. Found fame and fortune as the greatest film star of the age. Also found his mother in a mental hospital – he’d long presumed her dead. Married five times, sired one daughter and retired from acting to raise her with the love and stability he’d never known.
Archie is a show about relationships: between Archie and his mother Elsie, Archie and his fourth wife Dyan Cannon, Archie and Cary Grant. “He was playing Cary Grant,” says Isaacs. “There wasn’t a Cary Grant. He didn’t just invent the name, he invented the persona.” Isaacs read five biographies to prepare for the role, watched all the films, spoke extensively to Cannon and Jennifer, Grant’s daughter. “Both of them were amazingly brave, courageous and vulnerable in the things that they shared with me.”
He even tracked down a phone interview with Grant – remarkable for several reasons. It was conducted by a student journalist who had arranged a Cary Grant film festival at his university. It took place in 1986, the last year of Grant’s life. And it provided the only example of Grant speaking in his natural voice rather than the much-imitated ‘Cary Grant’ voice. Grant requested the interview not be recorded but the journalist’s friend recorded it anyway. The journalist thought this a terrible betrayal of his hero and never played the tapes to anyone for 40 years – until Isaacs came calling.
How did Grant sound? “Well, hopefully a bit like you’ll hear in the show,” says Isaacs. “He was very at peace with many things, at peace with Barbara [fifth wife], and with his working life and films long behind him.” In terms of accent, “he was much more English. Jennifer told me that he would correct her pronunciation all the time if she didn’t do the correct English pronunciation.”
The interview proved an invaluable resource to Isaacs – not only aurally but psychologically, too. For example, Grant named Grace Kelly as the finest actress he ever worked with. Why? Because she was always relaxed. “That didn’t surprise me,” said Isaacs. “Acting was never easy for him. It never came easily to him. So it’s not a surprise that the greatest quality he thought an actor could have is to be relaxed.”
It’s a hoary old question but did Isaacs feel much affinity with his subject? “No,” he replies. “I mean yes, you find overlaps with people. That thing about wanting to please people, wanting to be charming or feeling like external validation can fill a hole in you, I recognise something.” On the flip side, he remains on wife number one – 36 years and counting. “I’m not the most famous actor in the world and haven’t been a global icon for 30 years. I don’t wear suits and I thankfully don’t have to explore everything.
“He was a seeker and tried to quell the raging storm in his head and his discomfort in every situation that he disguised. I had some of that when I was younger. I don’t think you’ll find many actors who aren’t trying to find some answer, who weren’t drawn to it because something was a bit cracked in their childhood – not blaming the parents. Every actor I know, certainly the good ones, were initially drawn to it to try and work out how to be. [And to work out] why other people seem to be comfortable in their own skin.”
In 2020, Isaacs shared an extraordinarily candid Letter to My Younger Self with the Big Issue, detailing the alcohol and drug addictions that consumed him throughout his teens and twenties. It’s a beautiful piece of writing that I would recommend you seek out. I’m cautious to bring it up, but I was moved when reading it and I tell him so.
There’s a particularly lovely sentence about his wife Emma: ‘Without her there is no me that I recognise or would want to know.’ “That’s true,” says Isaacs. “But she wasn’t part of me giving up drugs. Nobody ever can do it for anybody else. You can’t stop drinking or taking drugs for a lover or for children. There’s just a moment where you go, ‘I’m going to die or my life will be worthless’ – or ‘I’m going to reach for something better.’ And you’re just lucky.
Corduroy suit and knitwear by Thom Sweeney
“I don’t believe in any kind of God. I never have. But there’s a moment where you go, ‘I want more than this. I don’t want this to be my life anymore.’ You’re really lucky if that moment comes to you and you have any idea what to do with it. I had that moment a million times a day but I didn’t know what to do.”
What changed? “I ground to a halt. Drugs were enormously good fun and great for a very long time. And exactly what I needed to escape from whatever I was trying to escape from. And then they were no longer fun and then I was enslaved to them and then life wasn’t worth living at all. It might’ve looked quite similar to people on the outside but not on the inside.”
He describes switching off an old television set. “When you switched it off, it used to shrink down to one tiny little pixel, one tiny little dot of light, and then it would go out. My life had shrunk to that one dot of light. I was lucky to catch it before it went out.”
That’s beautifully phrased… “That’s what it felt like. It’s not even trying to be poetic. Some people have these stories, these war stories: ‘my God, when I was young, I was crossing the Mexican border, chased by the police and the DEA, and I had 5,000 pounds of cocaine.’ No, no. My walls shrunk. The walls closed in until it was just me and nothing. Just vacuum.”
He chuckles. “I was not having mad high-octane adventures. Many friends go, ‘I took a drink on Tuesday and three weeks later I woke up in Kuala Lumpur and had my eyes tattooed on my stomach.’ None of those things. I couldn’t engage with the world. I couldn’t love or be loved. And now I have a surfeit of it.”
James Purefoy has a great line: “Our industry is often full of what you might term halfwits, and if you’re a full-wit, like Jason is, he can probably be quite intimidating.” He says this line with a roguish twinkle in his eye, although Purefoy, suave devil that he is, probably has a roguish twinkle in his eye when filling out his tax returns.
His affection for Isaacs is palpable as he shares memories from their time at Royal Central. Isaacs’ infamously messy Ford Fiesta: “There are documentaries about hoarders where you can’t get into their house – you could barely get into his car.” Their disastrous student production of the 18th-century comedy She Stoops to Conquer, in which Purefoy and Isaacs decided to do method: “We mumbled our way through this entire production and tried living as the characters… It was without a doubt the most unmitigated disaster of any performance either of us have ever given.”
As Purefoy notes, drama school is where you try such experiments. Throughout his career, Isaacs has kept experimenting with his craft: there was a period when it would have been easy to corner the market in evil aristocratic types but where’s the nourishment in that? People like to pigeonhole actors, says Purefoy. “It’s easier to put them in a box. And Jason has consistently refused to be put in a box.”
He grins when I mention the Ian McKellen story. “Did he do his impression?” Yes. It was uncanny. “He’s more Ian McKellen than Ian McKellen!” Then Purefoy asks: “Did he tell you the Harry Potter story?” How he wanted to be Lockhart? “No. When he kicked Dobby.”
So, Isaacs is in front of the camera, walking across the space, and he kicks something out of the way that isn’t there. The feedback is positive, if puzzled: “Jason, that was great – but what was the kick about?” “Isn’t it obvious?” replied Isaacs. “It’s that little shit Dobby.”
Purefoy can’t remember his first encounter with Isaacs at drama school: “I’m not sure if I saw any of the men in the room. I was 21.” However, this isn’t the case for one particular Potter alumni. No, not poor Dobby but former Square Mile cover Tom Felton – who spent his adolescence playing Lucius Malfoy’s son, Draco. Felton was introduced to Isaacs on the set of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. “He was in full costume,” recalls Felton. “It was outside Borgin & Burkes. He was telling stories and he seemed like the most pleasant, charming, lovely guy.”
The 13-year-old Felton “had no idea who Jason Isaacs was as an actor.” The pair bonded for ten minutes – “he called me ‘son’ almost immediately” – and then the scene started. “The moment they said action, he looked at me with such Malfoy-esque venom, I was terrified from the start!” Their scene involved Lucius striking Draco’s hand with a fanged cane; Isaacs inadvertently struck a little too hard.
“He may have pierced my skin,” says Felton. “It was a bizarre first hour of meeting one of the sweetest, kindest, most brilliant storytellers that you could possibly hope to meet and then being whacked around by the ear and hit by a snake-handled cane.”
Felton is staying in LA when I speak to him. We say hello and his screen promptly goes blank. I wait for ten, 20 minutes and finally he reappears, profusely apologetic – his phone had died and he’d been running around the house trying to find a charger. It would have been very easy for him not to bother, but it says a lot about the man that he did.
Felton and Isaacs is one of the great Harry Potter love stories: a father-son relationship that’s endured for more than 20 years. Felton says Isaacs encouraged him to hone his craft. “After film three or four, it could have been easier to get complacent.” Instead, Isaacs would set challenges: work on your American accent, write a song. “If I said he mentored me, it sounds like he treated me like a kid to start with and then as an adult, but he didn’t. He always treated me with the same adult respect.”
Is there a memory that Felton particularly cherishes? “There’s too many, honestly. It’s literally like saying to pick one from your own dad or mum. To be clear, my real dad understands that I am not replacing him with Jason Isaacs… But emotionally, Christ, I can’t even talk about it now,” for a moment Felton seems to choke up, “emotionally how much support he’s given me. When he came to see the show 2:22 in London, he didn’t ask if he could come – he was coming, whether I liked it or not. I think he changed two flights.”
“I did change my plans,” confirms Isaacs. “I’ve known him since he was 11 or 12. He’s got a real dad who loves him very much, and a family who loves him very much. But I often felt in loco parentis on the set. I adore him. We’ve shared our journeys, struggles, lots of private things and private moments.”
Felton cites Isaacs’ tireless charity work as a major inspiration – both are ambassadors for Great Ormond Street, to name but one of many. “He goes to every one of their fundraising events,” says Felton. “I don’t know anyone else from the cast who does more for charity than him and I hope to follow in his footsteps.”
“That’s nice of him to say,” responds Isaacs when I read him Felton’s words. Isaacs views charity work as adding value to a career spent “putting on funny voices in silly costumes. A lot of people have imposter syndrome but we have genuinely justified imposter syndrome.”
Does he have it? “We don’t do anything! I don’t have any skills! I have pretend skills. I can feel embarrassed, when I see the way other people are behaving to me – as if somehow I’m doing something of value. But if I make it of value, I’m less embarrassed. And I think Tom has felt that, too. I’ve watched him do it and realise how much more satisfying it is than anything else you can do with fame.”
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Purefoy says Isaacs should be directing and I understand why: he has the curiosity and compassion for people that define many great directors. He appeared in thriller Agent Game last year – also in the cast was Isaacs’ former Patriot nemesis Mel Gibson. Their characters didn’t share a scene, but he offers a typically thoughtful response on his erstwhile co-star:
“People often ask me about him and there is no single answer about anybody. Nobody’s one sentence. He’s many things. I had lovely times with him. He’s said and done some very difficult things that I obviously violently disagree with. He’s also been charming and self-deprecating when I’ve been around him. Particularly with famous people, we want to have the one sentence that we know about them – and he’s many sentences.”
I’ll leave the final sentences on Isaacs to his friends. Here’s Purefoy: “I love watching him. It’s like watching a Swiss clock acting. You can see exactly that this moment came to this moment came to that moment – it’s so fluid. I have great admiration for it. And he’s also one of the nicest men you could possibly meet.”
And Felton: “If you want to sum it up in a soundbite, it’s impossible. It’s Jason Isaacs.”
Watch Archie on ITV now.