Jason Isaacs: A Villain with a Heart of Gold
When it comes to villains, it’s easy to rattle off all the ones we love to hate. But the list grows shorter, and becomes predominantly composed of truly great actors, when we start narrowing it down to the villains we secretly liked a little bit – not to mention those we flat-out, openly loved.
A perfectly executed sneer, a well-timed dip into a lower vocal register, a delightfully wicked quirk of the eyebrows, and suddenly, we can see where someone might just be persuaded to go to the dark side. Villainy is undoubtedly an art, and when Harry Potter fans make their lists, Jason Isaacs is undoubtedly on it.
Not only is Isaacs the actor behind Lucius Malfoy, the father who apparently heard about a great many things while son Draco was at Hogwarts, but he’s also brought to life a variety of other excellent baddies, from Captain Hook in 2003’s Peter Pan to Colonel Tavington in The Patriot to, most recently, devious scientist Hap Percy on the Netflix series The OA.
“I’m unlikely to be cast as the insurance agent or the best friend – and I wouldn’t want to play them,” Isaacs recently told the New York Post.
I like to play things I can get my teeth into. You call it villains; I say they’re people who provide the engine of the plot. There is no drama without conflict. If you have a day where everyone’s nice to you and one person treats you appallingly, that’s the thing you’re going to remember when you go to bed.
Lucius became more pitiable than unlikable by the end of the Potter saga, but he was ideally wretched at the start, insulting the Weasley clan whenever possible, instigating the reopening of the Chamber of Secrets, and callously abusing his suffering house-elf, Dobby. The key, Isaacs says, was commitment to the character’s character.
What makes a great antagonist that the audience loves to hate is somebody who utterly believes in himself. Lucius Malfoy doesn’t look in the mirror and think, ‘I’m a bad guy.’ He thinks, ‘We need Muggles out of this place because wizards should rule the world.’
Isaacs also recently sat down with GQ for an in-depth interview that saw the actor opening up about everything from what drives him forward in life to mental health issues and how powerful fiction can help people cope.
Isaacs told the magazine he was a “very uncomfortable teenager” but that acting helped him grow into himself.
I think that’s the teenage condition, feeling like other people have the secret. I was constantly curious about people that fit comfortably in their own skin. Were they faking it? How could they be so certain about things? Then I discovered the rehearsal room, where you could delve into other people’s heads and hearts. Actually, that’s still what I love most about my work.
The actor strives to get inside his characters’ heads, stating that “99.9 percent of an actor’s role is embodying their psyche. Simple in concept but bloody hard to do. You can’t prepare too much; you have to be completely in the moment when the camera rolls.” Still, he prepares as much as he feels is prudent, having trained with United States Army Rangers at Fort Benning in Georgia for Black Hawk Down and watched extensive survival footage for Hotel Mumbai. Some roles, of course, he’s had no choice but to improvise: “If you’re playing a wizard, there’s not many people you can go and hang out with.”
Isaacs embodied fear just as well as treachery in the Potter films but says that in real life, his only true fears are for his children – and the world’s current political landscape. A lover of tennis as a means to unwind, he says three five-set matches in one day during filming for Star Trek: Discovery left his knees in a state akin to IKEA chairs: “You can only bend them a certain number of times.” He still plays, however, and the sport and watching his children laugh are what give him the most pleasure. “But they’re teenagers, so I’m not sure I’ll see that again for a couple of years.”
As for favorite roles, his is always “the next one,” but Isaacs says he’s perhaps proudest of those that have had a significant impact on the public, including Malfoy, whom he’s said he would portray again “in an instant” if the opportunity ever presented itself. He’s also played his fair share of therapists, doctors, and even abuse victims; those roles, he says, have helped solidify his belief that there should be no shame associated with mental health issues.
I have asked for help at times in my life, and it’s always been incredibly useful. There should be no stigma attached to it. For humans to ignore experts and live like islands is nuts. […] Look, I’m no guru or poster boy for anyone that’s got their shit together; I wouldn’t pretend to be because anyone who knew me would laugh themselves into new underwear if I did. […] What I do know is that if things are going wrong in your life, then the worst thing to do is to knuckle down and hope it’ll go away. If your car is broken, you go to the mechanic. You don’t think ‘oh, crap, there’s a flat tyre, better keep driving until it inflates itself.’ It’s as simple as that.
Along the way, Isaacs has also become a believer in the healing power of stories like Harry Potter. In times of crisis, he says, people often look to fictional narratives and characters as guiding lights through the storms in their lives.
I used to come across ‘Harry Potter’ fans who said that the books had saved their life, and I’d think, ‘Well, that’s sweet, but really?’ Then they’d explain how the books had provided solace and support when they were feeling their darkest or most alone. That’s when I realised it was something bigger than we could’ve imagined. [J.K. Rowling] is a true magician. Those books will pull on heartstrings across the world forever.