starring in The Patriot
by Cynthia Fuchs
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
+ The Patriot review by Cynthia Fuchs
Jason Isaacs has a kind of energy that you don't see every day. He's certainly enthusiastic - he likes working as a stage and move actor and he likes the traveling that goes with it, which he's doing presently to promote The Patriot, in which he co-stars with Mel Gibson. And he's certainly earnest when he talks about it all, seeming actually to consider your question before he answers it. But Isaacs has an unusual playfulness, generosity, and attentiveness, too, a keen sense of humor and perceptiveness that don't surface often in your everyday movie star.
Having just finished breakfast, the 37-year-old Liverpool native wants to talk in his hotel room, which is, frankly, a mess. There are suitcases half-unpacked, and sneakers strewn about, his laptop ready-to-go on the desk. He's embarrassed by the disorder, but not too. He's clearly at ease with himself.
Cynthia Fuchs: How did you get involved in The Patriot?
Jason Isaacs: I get to read lots and lots of scripts, and almost all of them are crap. Not that the people writing them aren't talented or the people developing them aren't talented, but something doesn't quite work. If you ever start reading one and you're still reading it by the end, when you should have actually gone somewhere else, and you've been reading it on the steering wheel of your car, and park in a parking lot to finish it or read it in the tub until your skin goes wrinkly, you know it's something good. And this script had me sobbing. Those sentimental moments, when they work, it's difficult to orchestrate them well. I think that's one of the great things about Roland [Emmerich] and Dean [Devlin]. They can take those moments, and even intentionally telegraph them, and do them well enough that they can always hit a chord.
CF: Well, there's Godzilla.
JI: Actually, Godzilla is the second most successful film the studio had ever made. But for Roland and Dean, they made a sub par film, which is one reason why they wanted to make a film of this [The Patriot's] kind of grandeur and ambition, and they were careful to test it, and very deliberately, they made sure it was underhyped, so they didn't buy the first weekend. The Perfect Storm, as it happens, took in a bit more money this weekend, but it was always part of the plan not to make the cinemas crammed, and do lots of promotions, and to let the film speak for itself.
CF: You seem to know a lot about how the business works...
JI: The thing is, amazingly, for the people who've made some of the biggest popcorn movies in history, they were the most gracious and inclusive people I've ever worked with. I know about the business because they included me in, at every stage. It was very collaborative. They invited input on the script and such from early on. But you wanted to ask what?
CF: Is it important for you to know all this stuff about the money end of Hollywood filmmaking, aside from your acting?
JI: No. I'm one of those people who, if the door is slightly open just a crack, I will charge through. So if somebody says, what do you think of the script, do you have any ideas, I'll show up with a sheath of notes and never stop. And that's made me some very good friends and some people who never want to work with me again. But I think I'm sensible enough to know that sometimes you're just a hired hand. And I expected on something of this scale to be something of a hired hand, and far from it. They were as collaborative as we used to be when we'd devise plays and take them to festivals in England, as students. You don't need to know stuff about the business; what's been useful for me is to stick with your instincts, and it's been my instinct to get involved in telling the story as best I could, and never be swayed or overawed by the history of the people involved, or the wealth or power of the people involved. I think my ideas are as valuable as anybody else's. And it turns out that that's what I've been hired for over the years: I don't just read the script, I tell people what I think.
CF: I found Tavington fascinating, in part because he had to carry a lot of the class shifts and anxieties in Britain, partly through the story about his father. How did you come to that characterization?
JI: That wasn't originally in the script, and I did a lot of research on the person he was loosely based on, Tarleton. And his father died and left huge gambling debts, which a lot of people had during that era. And he himself had been a law student, like I was, and a third son, like I was. And he dropped out of law school because he had a gambling and whoring problem, and I went to drama school, so the parallels continue. When his father died, suddenly he wasn't wealthy anymore, and his mother packed him off to the colonies and bought him a commission in the army. And it was imperative to him — which I brought to Roland and Dean and they stuck it in the script — that he succeed in the new world; he had nothing to go back to. He was one of the swaggering young British officers who expected to inherit the new world. He'd ride around with a map in his pocket, and after each victory, carve out a bigger piece for himself, and he also carried around a book on polygamy, because there were going to be new rules in this new world. And he'd already picked out several wives for himself. When real life doesn't help the drama, you junk it, because in the end you're telling a story. But this was a gift. I had a complete psychological landscape for this guy: he was bitter. I was constantly looking for approval from my father figure, General Cornwallis. And I don't get it, I get humiliated, which fuels my rage. And reports of Tarleton were that he was a spectacular warrior. He used to ride headfirst into battle, without any sort of strategy. And he won lots of things, outnumbered; it was a pretty low tech war, you're just riding in with a sword. He had a kind of self-destructive death wish, and that lends itself well to being a villain.
CF: That self-destructive thing also moves Gibson's character, the "patriot."
JI: There are great parallels between our characters. Our way of fighting is all or nothing, and we're completely fearless. We both see through this extraordinary formality of war. I can't imagine how they used to do that: lining up, 40 yards from each other. They'd fire once, everyone around them just dying, cannonballs plowing through them. Then they'd reload, fire again, then they'd go, "Oh, two's enough," and then they'd charge. Why two?
CF: In the theater, viewers were just gasping at those battle scenes.
JI: Yes, war is kept from us nowadays. We see these video-game versions of what's going on in Kosovo or Iraq, when actually there's huge trenches full of human bodies. It's just as low tech today, people just don't see it.
CF: I have to ask you, briefly, about the hubbub concerning the portrayal of the British villains.
JI: I think it's very entertaining. Lots of journalists, whose writing I respect and read in England, have decided to fill columns and columns about it. And I hope it sells newspapers and gets them higher salaries. On the other hand, I think it's faintly ludicrous that the British have a glorious history of Empire with their colonies abroad. There are a few things to say about it. One is that the British are not portrayed in a terrible way; I am. Cornwallis wants to conduct the war in a civil way; my men don't want to carry out my orders. I am the one who is seemingly amoral. But look closely at any of our current war heroes, or go to the places they've earned their spurs: speak to the Iraqis and see how they feel about Colin Powell. The guy I'm based on is known as The Butcher. I don't quite understand why they're doing this. I understand the fuss about some of the other big American movies that are crediting Americans with things that the British actually achieved. But in general, the British have a very inglorious past in terms of our colonies. We didn't leave India with gift baskets.
CF: Were you at all daunted by the hugeness of this project?
JI: No, it's a tribute to Roland and Dean, they were careful to make sure there was an atmosphere of play. When I had my big finale fight with Mel, which we did repeatedly, I was meant to chop to his knee. And suddenly you smash into a superstar's kneecap with a big sword, and you say, "Whoa, can we stop for a second?" And Roland would say, "Sure, no problem. Can we just rest those 500 horses and put that village back up and plat another 50 bombs and send those 2000 people over the hill?" And you say, "Oh my god!" But they never ever made us feel responsible or tension for any of that; I didn't hear a raised voice in six months. I've worked on much smaller things, when the tension is much greater, and you don't get a sense of free play, which is what acting is all about. It's not a very serious business in the end.
CF: That sounds like a healthy perspective.
JI: It's a great catharsis. It's very cheap therapy, a wonderful outlet for all these things that I'm never going to live, rage and sadism, to cry and laugh and kill. It's a fabulous relief.
CF: What possessed you to take up acting, when you were in law school?
JI: I auditioned for a play because it was one of the many things you were supposed to do in school, and when I was rehearsing for the first time, I felt completely at home, truly comfortable and able to express myself. Not necessarily to do with the acting, but the ready-made family unit, like I belonged. It was free of a sense of class, and history, and ethnicity, and gender, almost. Though it was an easy way to meet girls, share dressing rooms. I became obsessed, every summer, every role I could take. When it came time to leave law school, many of my contemporaries were applying to drama school, which seemed to me insane, to think you work professionally at it. I was never going to do it, I was going to get a letter, if I was lucky, and keep it on my wall, to show to my grandchildren. And then this woman called me to Central, and invited me to attend. And I went, "Oh, thanks very much." I remember vividly, thinking, as I was walking down the road, leaving, that my English good manners had made a life decision for me.
CF: You were thinking stage only, at that point?
JI: I never thought of even being on telly. The biggest difference between actors on the West coast and European and East coast is that I started because I loved the experience. I loved doing plays. I loved rehearsing. It was the rehearsing really, you're in a room, working with people, exploring the human condition. People on the West coast, or Los Angeles, they go because they have the best teeth or the best tits, and somebody's said to them, "You could make money out of those," and they go, "Oh, I could, you know." More power to them. There are people who want to be famous and people who become famous. For me, there isn't really any difference [between] being in giant movies, little movies, being in tv, or on stage. Things get in the way sometimes, stars with baggage or an entourage, or the fact that they don't want to be there to work with you. But when you're doing scenes with good actors whose egos don't get in the way, it's always the same.
CF: You have a clear sense of what celebrity means, for yourself.
JI: I've never been out of work. The success of things I do is almost irrelevant to me, except that it provides more opportunity. I got this job when I was, in American terms, completely unknown, and I'm sure I'll get others, so it doesn't really matter to me. And I've never been very famous, but I've seen friends get very famous, seen them lose themselves in a big swirling sea of their own hubris. I've been doing this for a long time, and so I know who my friends are. Then there are people like Mel, who's as famous as Jesus: everywhere he goes, people behave in unconscionable fashion, and he is about as healthy an example as you could ever wish to find. He still asks questions and listens to the answers and still has raw nerve endings, and is humble. But it's not a nice life. I can see why he works all the time, because work is a normal environment. I don't really aspire to that. I think it's healthy to find it weird, not to be at ease with it. I know my place in the food chain at the moment.
CF: Don't you imagine that people who have fallen into the awful crevice of celebrity think that about themselves at some point, as grounded and together?
JI: Oh yes, they say, "I don't care about the size of the trailer," and you have to treat people well who do the small jobs. And it's clearly not true for them. So yes, everybody thinks of themselves as grounded, so I have no idea how much I am.