Jason Isaacs has played quite a number of unpleasant and unsympathetic characters in his career. He does have that icy, aloof look. But by all accounts, the British actor is a really nice guy, polite, patient and charming with anyone who interviews him. Nolene Clark of The LA Times has the pleasure to do just that, during a press junket for the final “Harry Potter” film.
Nolene Clark: Lucius Malfoy is a fantastic bad guy. Do you think of yourself as a villain actor?
Jason Isaacs: I hardly ever play villains. I’ve only done a couple in my life. It just so happens that one of them is in the most successful movie franchise of all time, so it ended up making that kind of high profile. But I just finished a series [“Case Histories”] here on British TV where I play a kind of very heroic detective that everybody loves, based on a series of very popular books, and so I’m not thought of that way here, but I know that I am in America.
NC: Sorry about that.
JI: That’s absolutely fine. I couldn’t give a monkey’s. Nothing has brought me greater joy than being in the “Harry Potter” films for 10 years, and if the fact that when I die, I’ll be Jason-in-brackets-Lucius-Malfoy-Isaacs, if anyone cares to mention it anyway, is only a badge of pride. There’s nothing about it that I would like to change in any iota.
NC: As a villain, Lucius Malfoy has a very interesting character arc.
JI: Well, he has an arc. I think that sets him apart from an awful lot of the adults who do not have the luxury of playing that. It’s not that we haven’t all had a riot doing it. But the Lucius that you see, shambling along, this alcoholic husk of an emasculated man in the “Deathly Hallows” films is so completely different from the strutting peacock of “Chamber of Secrets,” and it’s been enormously good fun to play that journey.
NC: Did you see that coming?
JI: Oh, I don’t think anyone expected anything. I mean, most of us would run to the bookshop at midnight when the books came out, partly because we’re fans, and partly to find out if we had a job next year. I had no idea. All I knew was this: Whatever I predicted, Jo [J.K. Rowling] was always infinitely more imaginative than I was. And whenever I thought I could see which way the story was going, it would take me entirely the opposite direction. The only thing we all knew was that at some point, it was going to end, with Voldemort and Harry, face-to-face, pointing wands at each other. And sure enough, you get exactly what you’re looking for.
NC: How has your approach to playing the character changed?
JI: There’s a whole bunch of things that go into being in the “Harry Potter” films. First of all, you’re aware that there is a sacred text, and that all over the world, there are people who can recite everything back to you, from memory, including the punctuation marks. So the first thing you have to do is just throw that away and forget it, and I think that the filmmakers have always striven to make sure that we feel completely free on the set, that the actors are there to create something and not to re-create something. That’s made a huge difference, and I think you can see that right from the get-go.
NC: What did you bring to Lucius Malfoy, then, that’s different than the character in the books?
JI: Well, first of all, the look. They had some preliminary sketches for Lucius, and he didn’t look anything like this. He didn’t have long, blond hair. He had short black hair, and he had a pin-striped suit and stuff, and so I was very keen to — I figured if I was going to play a wizard for once in my life, I was going to look like a wizard. So I campaigned for a blond wig and a bunch of velvet and handmade clothes and stuff, and Chris Columbus was very nice and let me get away with it. And then I asked for a walking stick, and he thought I had something wrong with my leg. I had to explain I wanted a wand to come out of there. And once again, he took a beat, and he frowned for a second, and he said, “I think the toy guys are going to love you.” So the whole look of the thing came from my desire to try not to be upstaged by the genius I’m surrounded by. I was trying to find some kind of visual props.
NC: What about his personality and his relationship with his son Draco?
JI: I saw my role originally as first of all, to try and make him real, because these are fantastical characters, I needed to find a way to “believe” in the separation of races and racial and genetic supremacy. You don’t need to look very far, unfortunately, in the modern world to hear people standing up on platforms spouting that kind of filth. And then secondarily — maybe more important in the story, and particularly now that I see where it ends by the time we get to the end of “Deathly Hallows” — is to explain how Draco turned out to be who he was. Because in many ways, to me, Draco is the hero of the whole saga. I think Harry has his destiny. There is only one choice Harry can make in every situation. Harry makes the right choice always, and he’s admirable for doing so. But Draco has a bunch of choices, and Draco has to break the bonds of the shackles of his past. He has to break the chain of this kind of abuse and hatred and selfishness and entitlement that his father has been part of, and probably his grandfather and stretching back for generations. And so I saw my job as trying to illustrate how you end up with a kid as messed up as Draco. In “Chamber of Secrets,” I just tried to bully him as much as I could, and be as unloving as I could. And in every opportunity, I wanted to be the kind of father that was so selfish and so egotistical and narcissistic that I would happily sacrifice my son and/or my relationship with him for status. So that was the main point, was to try and explain Draco and make his decision that much more heroic, to try and do the right thing. And the other thing was to show what happens when you over-invest in your position in the world. Voldemort is definitely right to point out when he comes back that I’ve been enjoying my status far too much. And everything I do is directed to my place in this future world when Voldemort will rule it. All of my investment in the future is completely about standing at his side. So when Voldemort comes back and rejects me, I can’t work out where I fit in the world. And what you watch is essential nature, essential selfishness and soullessness played out as he realizes there is no place for him at Voldemort’s side. There’s no place for him by his wife and son’s side. And there’s certainly not going to be any place for him by Harry Potter’s side. And so he’s a wounded animal slipping down the well, no matter how much he scrabbles. And that was kind of fun to play, I have to say.
NC: What a tragic outcome.
JI: I went to prison for all of “Half-Blood Prince,” and when I come back, I am a shadow of a man. I can’t stand up straight anymore. I always used to look down my nose at people. And I’m kind of an alcoholic and unshaven, and my once beautiful mane of hair is now mottled and has probably got a bunch of lice in it. I try as hard as I can to present the front, the facade of who I used to be and hope against hope that maybe Voldemort will find some drop of sympathy inside himself. But weakness is leprous in the Death Eater world. And by the time we get to the beginning of “Deathly Hallows” where Voldemort takes my wand and snaps it, and un-mans me, castrates me, basically, in front of the rest of the Death Eaters, I’m done for. You just watch the slow collapse of a human being. Every single actor who plays a part that is on screen even momentarily can talk like this about their own characters, because you’re always there. You may not be speaking or the camera may not be pointing at you, but you create an entire life for yourself so that when the camera does catch you, you’ve got something to bring to the party.
NC: And there are some incredible actors in this franchise. What’s it like to work with them?
JI: If you go to work, and you look alongside you in the makeup chair or in the canteen, and to one side is Alan Rickman, and then look the other way, and there’s Richard Harris or Michael Gambon, and Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton and Gary Oldman, who is a hero for my generation. If you look around you, there’s those people there, and they are all chewing up the scenery, turned up to 11, you make sure you bring your A-game. There’s a very healthy, very enjoyable rivalry going on. We’re all trying to out-act each other. We’re all aware we’re going to be in the film for three or four minutes, and I think you see us kind of relish the performance. There’s the very theatrical side of British actors playing itself out on screen. We’re all having frankly far too good a time to get paid for it. But anytime I offer, they won’t take my money back.
NC: Here you are in these movies starring children whose on-camera experience is limited to this franchise. And surrounding them are these giants in the world of acting and film. What’s it like to be the mentor?
JI: There’s no question that is how I had been thinking of it and experiencing it, but actually, on the ground, what became clear very quickly is that these young people have more hours banked in front of one of the world’s biggest, most impressive camera crews and craft departments than most actors have in a lifetime. So their level of skill and attention and focus and ability to bring a scene to life, carrying these huge movies, was dizzying, right from the word “go.” I think that’s a tribute, not only to their talents, but to how they were chosen. Because had they been chosen wrong, they would never have grown into the roles, and the films would never have sustained. But there was some kind of alchemy in the air when they were chosen. Not just Daniel [Radcliffe]and Emma [Watson], but Tom [Felton] and everybody else.
I remember my very first day, I improvised a line. I had my first day, probably my first short, I had to kind of flounce out of a room when Dumbledore, played by the late, great Richard Harris, put me in my place, and there was no line written, no exit line. And I’d been humiliated, and my plan had come to nothing. And I said to Chris Columbus, “Don’t you think there should be a line?” And he said, “Well, say something. Say whatever you like.” So we did another take, and I hadn’t told anyone what I was going to do. And as I turned to leave, I looked at Daniel, and I said, “Let us hope Mr. Potter will always be around to save the day.” And then Daniel, who was all of 12, stepped right up to me, looked me right in the eye, and said “Don’t worry. I will be.” A chill went down my spine. And as he did it, I thought, “Christ, this kid is good.” The atmosphere was always creative on set, where you could feel free to play, and there was no such thing as failing or getting it wrong, ever. Young people’s opinions were just as valid as knights of the theater, and that’s why they ended up turning in such great performances.
NC: Being a part of the “Harry Potter” franchise makes you part of this sort of elite club of British actors.
JI: That is true in the sense that I have many friends who are deeply bitter they didn’t get to be involved, and I am thrilled that I was inside the tent when we locked the flaps shut. But there’s something slightly bigger than that, too, which is that we’ve joined an even bigger club. One of the reasons I think that the films continue to maintain their quality — and some people would even say improve — and continue to capture the audiences they do is that everybody who works on them, from the people in the canteen, to the carpenters, to obviously the actors, to all the people on the set involved in every craft department, and the directors, and the producers are all massive fans of it. We all love it. I don’t think that you find out of any of the people who are on the websites or any of the people who queue around the block through the night to get the books at midnight, you won’t find any bigger fans outside the production than you do inside the production. And that, I think, is one of the reasons (and there are others, too — obviously the quality of the original material) that these films kind of stand outside the norm of normal filmmaking and franchises. There’s not a trace of cynicism in anybody’s participation.
NC: That sounds like it’s a special thing. It seems fantasy projects are often held at arm’s length.
JI: There’s no sense that I’ve every witnessed of either cynicism about taking part or exploitation. Clearly it’s a business. Obviously the film business is there to make a profit for its shareholders and all that stuff. But it’s as if we’ve existed inside a bubble for a decade. And, you know, this whole thing about making the last book into two films. There were voices elsewhere who said it was to try and milk it or to try and drag out the ending or make more money. But actually, there’s no question that all those voices have been raised by people who haven’t met any of the key players involved in the film, because it really was to honor the fans, to honor the stories, and to allow this extraordinary journey to come to an end. It’s received wisdom in the film business that the ending is the most important part of any film. So if you make a two-hour action or adventure movie, you have to come up with a fabulous last 20 minutes. Well, the pressure to come up with a great ending when you’re actually talking about a 10-year journey with eight movies is that much bigger. The filmmakers wanted to get it right. I’m sure, from knowing them, from talking to them, from experiencing what they’re like at work, they just wanted to make sure that there was no part of this octology — or whatever the hell you call eight films — octet, that there was no weak link. We all know in the storytelling business that the end of the story is the most important part.
NC: And you think this movie’s done it justice?
JI: Oh, yeah. One of the things that was a joy to watch over the years was as the films became separate creatures from the books — inspired by the books and of the books, but not transcripts of the books — that both the directors and the producers and [screenwriter] Steve Kloves and all of those who wrote the script felt more and more empowered to create a visual and a cinematic experience to rival, to complement the books. They were different things, different media, and they required different storytelling. And I think you see that when you watch the last film. It’s clear that what they wanted to do was deliver a cinematic ending. And when you’re watching a movie, they’re moving pictures, so you have to be taken somewhere. It’s a much more visceral journey than reading a book. You’re not taken to your imagination. It’s a very literal medium. And they strove to put that on screen. They gave themselves the time and money on the screen and in post-production to make sure they got it right. … The whole thing has been an incredible experience for all of us involved. I just hope they lose all the negatives so we have to go back and re-film it all. I’m heartbroken that it’s all over. And yet I’m glad that Jo was smart enough to write an ending that’s really an ending so that nobody’s ever tempted to dilute the beauty of what we’ve managed to do over the last 10 years.
“Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2” premieres 14th July.