Legendary British actor Jason Isaacs has clocked up an impressive array of characters over the course of his career. From Harry Potter to Star Trek, there are few facets of pop culture he hasn’t managed to make his way into.
In his latest venture, Skyfire, he finds himself the owner of a doomed volcano theme park in China. We caught up with him to discuss the challenges of shooting a film in another language, as well as his recent TikTok adventures, and the mysterious things cluttering up his closet…
Before we get to the film, I do have to congratulate you on breaking the internet with the “Pottah” challenge with Tom (Felton)!
I still have no idea what this is! I got a message from Tom; he’s my mate, my quasi-son. I was in Hungary and he asked me to say “Potter” a few times on camera for this thing on TikTok. And I didn’t know what it was! I don’t do TikTok! So, I did a few gags and he put them on his TikTok. I don’t know how many people watched it, but I understand that he owns TikTok now, so good for him! I love Tom. I’ve known him all this time, since he was a kid, and now he’s this wonderful man. He’s just an incredibly artistic man. He plays the guitar and he wanders the streets playing songs, and people try to give him money and he says “I’m not busking, I’m just singing!” He’s really coming into himself. He’s found this audience, and he’s on top of the technology. He’s being very creative with all of it. These are pretty dark days and he’s providing shafts of light in people’s lives. He’s doing online gigs. I think he’s fabulous! The stars are really coming in line for him.
Well that’s all a father ever wants, isn’t it?
(Laughs) I do have two kids of my own, and he does have his dad, but he can always have a second one and I’m as proud of him as I could be of a son.
So, with you having done so many diverse roles; you’ve done Harry Potter, you’ve done Star Trek, you’ve even been Dick Dastardly recently, which I didn’t even realise was you until the end credits…
Well you shouldn’t! I’m not trying to sound like a man who did a law degree and grew up in Liverpool! I’m trying to sound like Dick Dastardly, so that’s good!
…What drew you to Skyfire?
Oh, it was Simon! Simon West. I auditioned for him for Con Air twenty-five years ago. I remember it so vividly. I have a terrible memory, but I remember this audition. I had to go in and pretend to be… I think it was Malkovich’s part, so it was never going to go to me… I had to put a gun to someone’s head, and there was an actor reading in, so I said “I’ll use this pencil as a gun”. And the guy by the camera says, “Oh don’t worry, just use this” and took a gun out of his back pocket. I shit myself! I said “Is this a real gun?” and he said “Yeah, don’t worry, the safety’s on.” I could barely get through the audition! Cut to twenty-five years later and Simon offers me a job in a movie that didn’t get made, and then he calls me three months later and tells me he’s doing this big, epic action movie for China and we’re shooting in Malaysia, and of course I said yes! He asked me if I wanted to read the script. I said “Is it good?” He says “Yeah”” I said “Have I got a nice part?” He said “Yeah!” I said “Alright, I’m in!” And sure enough, I got there and I’m deciding what accent to play him in, and I decided to go South African; make him a bit of an Elon Musk, because he’s a sort of an entrepreneur, pushing at the edges of things. Little did I know that Elon Musk doesn’t even sound South African anymore, but I pitched it South African, and I had this tremendous license, because the rest of the film was in Mandarin! We had great fun. There is no more fun than doing a big, old-fashioned disaster movie with new technology. Acting is sometimes a very serious job. You have to take your imagination to some painful places. But when you’re making a story like this, it’s just endless fun!
With the rest of the film being in Mandarin, did you speak any Mandarin prior to making it?
(laughs) No I don’t! And there wasn’t any in the script when I first read it! Clearly, you’re meant to think that he understands when other people are speaking to him in Mandarin, but he chooses to speak to them in English because his Mandarin is bad, and they understand English. In reality, we didn’t understand each other at all! I would start speaking when their mouths stopped moving, and they would start speaking when my mouth stopped moving. But then, increasingly, bits of Mandarin bled into the script and I was being asked to say things like “Hello, welcome, why don’t you come in? Do you mind if I speak English because my Mandarin is bad?” And I would say “Sure!” But then someone would say something incomprehensible to me and not in a month of Sundays would I ever be able to say it! So, we’d whittle it down to a short phrase, and I would try it, because I’m a pretty good mimic, and everyone on set would be doubled over, weeping with laughter, at the monstrously offensive and obscene things I’d said! So, no, I didn’t speak the language, and it was an odd experience, because I am incredibly social. That’s one of the most attractive things of working in this industry, apart from the fun of dressing up; you’re in strange environments, and you meet a bunch of people. You become very close, very quickly. But none of that happened. I couldn’t join in with anybody’s chat. They were very generous and very kind, but the truth is, I couldn’t really banter with anybody. Of course, some of the actors are very famous in China. Hannah (Quinliven), who plays the lead, can’t walk down the street anywhere! We took the film to Cannes, and of course they can walk down the street there. Watching the ripples they make in China, and then how that is transplanted to Europe, was fascinating!
And when you were walking down the street there, did anyone recognise you without the long white wig?
In Malaysia, no. We were staying in a place that is just for work. It’s not a glamourous location we were staying in. We shot in a very glamorous location, but we were staying in a place where no one would raise an eyebrow if you spontaneously combusted. We just got on with things. But when we went to Canada, it was a different thing. There was a veteran Chinese actor that I had a scene with, which was sadly cut. They said “He’s so famous, he’s so respected, we have to put you in a scene together!” He didn’t speak any English, I didn’t speak any Mandarin, so we came up with a scene where the premise was that we didn’t understand each other. It was a great scene, but it stopped the action of the movie, so it was cut. But when he was around, it was clear that people were in the presence of the likes of Lawrence Olivier. It’s fascinating to be around that kind of hierarchy when you’re not part of it.
The scene that really shone for me was the scene with the young girl…
She was amazing! She was staggeringly good! It’s one of those times I thought “Have I actually learned anything in my thirty-odd years of acting?” Because here’s a child who instantaneously can give an entirely believable performance. You absolutely believe within a split second that her parents have been incinerated in front of her face. She manages to convey hope and fear and resolution without any words. I had to carry her a lot, and run with her a lot. And although she is a very little girl, by the hundredth time I was sprinting through the fog and mist and rain, it felt like I was carrying an Olympic shotputter! It was a very tight suit as well. The designer had me in this purple suit. Very often in a film I think “Ooh, I‘ll be keeping this.” I was not going to be keeping that suit, thank you very much!
Have you still got Captain Hook’s suit?
I don’t have the suit, but I’ve got the hook! I’ve got Lucius Malfoy’s cane, I’ve got Captain Lorca’s Star Trek badge… They’re not out anywhere in the house because my wife, rightly, doesn’t want to live in a shrine to my career! You could come in my house and never know that I was an actor! I don’t have… the Inquisitor in Star Wars: Rebels, he’s got the best lightsabre in the Star Wars universe. It’s this kind of spinning lightsabre. So, if anyone from Disney’s listening, I want one of those! Actually, the character in Skyfire drives a Ferarri! I got there one day, and I said “Well, bloody hell! Whose is that?” and they said “It’s your car!” And I said “But I don’t have any driving scenes!” And they said “You’re not driving it!!” I wasn’t allowed to drive it, but I was allowed to lean on it!
Finally, just rewinding to Disney, is there any chance of more Dark Crystal?
Well, if I ran Netflix, I’d still be doing The OA and Dark Crystal. And I might come back to Star Trek! It was an incredible project, and Louis (Leterrier) shot for a year with the world’s greatest puppeteers. It was all done practically, with a minute amount of CG. The dubbing of it was incredibly complicated. He was an exacting taskmaster and wanted great performances, but the mouth flaps were already shot, which is not how you do animation. So, it was very, very labour intensive, and I don’t know if anyone wants to take on that mammoth task of making any more of it. It was a complete story. If they were doing any more, I’d love to do it; voice work is incredible fun, but poor old Louis aged about two hundred years while he was making it!
Spitfire is out now