Sometimes it's easier than other times for an actor to disappear into a character, and for Jason Isaacs to let himself slip away and take on the persona of one Archibald Leach, a.k.a. Cary Grant, in the new Britbox miniseries Archie... Well, that took a quite a bit of work, as one might expect from being tasked with playing arguably the most famous - and most frequently badly imitated - movie stars in the history of cinema. Thankfully, as Isaacs was happy to reveal to Q, he had a lot of help behind the scenes, not just with the look but, indeed, with the voice.
Additionally, Isaacs was happy to field questions about a few other past projects, including his stint within the Harry Potter film franchise as well as some of his sci-fi work on both the big screen (Event Horizon) and the small screen (The OA), but since this is Q, we also tasked him in advance of the conversation with telling us The Record That Changed His Life. Thankfully, he came to the chat fully prepared with an answer, not to mention an entertaining tale about his preferred state of consciousness while listening to the album in question. (Not anymore, of course. But once upon a time.)
First of all, did you have any idea that you'd be able to disappear into Cary Grant as easily as you seemingly did? Because I was in awe from the very first shot of you.
That's very kind of you, but it's because of what I look like. It's got nothing to do with me, it's got everything to do with the incredible makeup and hair department, Liz Hedley and Annie, who did the... Well, she didn't make the costumes herself, she got the world's greatest tailors in Saville Row to make these extraordinary suits and to make me look like I'm standing upright with a decently shaped body when, in fact, I'm all twisted and hunched. But with great tailors, they can compensate for those things! [Laughs.] And whoever made the wigs, and the opticians who made the contact lens, even. I had no idea that there were that many people who could do that much work to make me look less like myself!
But I did think how much fun it is to play dress-up, because male actors very rarely get to disguise themselves. I do a lot of voicework, and I love doing voicework, because I play characters who don't look anything like me. But generally I look like me onscreen, so I love a wig and, like most actors, I love a funny voice and a limp and a parrot and anything else you can give me where I can do a disguise. Partly because it's fun, simply, and also partly because... [Hesitates.] To get really pretentious here - and you must make sure your readers know I know I'm being pretentious! - but...it's a little bit like commedia dell'arte. Working with masks. When you do masks, you look in the mirror for five seconds, you turn 'round, and you just let a character out that's inspired by a quick glance at the mask. And they're very often big, bold choices that are nothing to do with what you look like. And since film is a literal medium and you're often trying to be entirely naturalistic, it can lead to you making small choices. And when I looked in the mirror, I just didn't look anything like me, and it allowed me to make big choices.
Do you happen to remember the first Cary Grant movie you ever saw, or when you first became aware of Cary Grant?
No, I didn't, and I wasn't sure if I'd seen any of them! And when I got the job, I thought, "Okay, well, let's start the research process!" Which was very, very lengthy, and it turned out in retrospect that watching the movies was the least useful bit. But I sat down to watch most of the key movies, and it turned out that somehow I knew what was going to happen next. So I figure I did see 'em when I was a kid on television, I just forgot that I'd seen 'em. Obviously, I remember the iconic bits of the plane flying over him in North by Northwest, and little bits of To Catch a Thief, but I thought I'd seen the stills. As the movies unfolded, I thought, "Wait a second, I know exactly what happens next!" So they must be somewhere in my DNA.
You said that was the least useful bit of the research. What else did you end up doing to prepare for the role?
Well, first of all, I read everything. There's a bunch of fantastic biographies, lots of them, incredibly well researched, with - because they were written closer to the time and when people who were alive who knew him - lots of stories from those people. You can piece together a pretty accurate picture of this complicated man. Then other people's biographies or autobiographies from people who overlapped with him and that met him, had encounters or relationships. And then there was Jennifer Grant, his daughter, and her book, and most importantly, most usefully, Dyan Cannon's book (Dear Cary), because we concentrate on that era of his life where he wooed her, married her, had a child with her, and then in so many ways abused her terribly...or suffocated the youth and life out of her.
So not only was her book useful, but Dyan herself was an incredible resource. It's so many years ago that she's very, very generous, having - in her own words - healed, done a lot of healing work. And she can see the fault lines in him that led right back to his appallingly abusive [behavior] and a youth in which he was abandoned and subject to such degradation that it's no surprise that when she came along, even though she was his fourth wife, he still had no handle on his uncontrollable rages and his desire to control things and many of the other symptoms of his broken childhood he had. And now she can see that at a distance. At the time, she felt like it was her failure, and she was eventually made so mentally ill by how he treated her that she was in a psychiatric institution.
Was it cathartic for her to be able to make this miniseries?
I think writing the book was cathartic. And it took 10 years after writing the book... [Pauses.] Jeff Pope approached her 10 years ago - and Jennifer! - and had to navigate very careful between this daughter, who remembers a wonderful, doting father, which he was, and Dyan, who remembers the most charming, iconic superstar in the world, who - when he married her and closed the front door - became the very polar opposite of everything the world knew him for...and it terrified her! So he had to watch this extraordinary tightrope and come up with a story that... He wasn't serving their needs, he wanted to tell his story, how he saw Cary as. So I think it was cathartic when she wrote the book. I think watching it... You know, I've just spent a couple of days doing publicity, and she found it very upsetting, lots of it, watching myself and the brilliant Laura Aikman, who plays her, recreating scenes which were so pivotal and did so much damage to her and took so long for her to be able to get beyond. She thought it would be easy, but words on a page are not quite the same thing as watching things that felt like she was just looking into a time tunnel.
The one firsthand story I ever heard from anyone who spent time around Cary Grant was Alex Rocco, who met him at a party. Rocco was feeling awkward, and Grant immediately used Rocco as a buffer from anyone else. Rocco said that Grant was wonderful, but that he clearly didn't want to interact with any more people than he had to.
Right, Dyan said, "We just stayed at home. We just stayed at home and watched TV." And she was young! She was a kid. I mean, she was young enough that she should've gotten to go out. He didn't want her to work, ever. Or go out, or talk to people, or... [Pauses.] I mean, the great dramatic irony of his life, of course, is that he was so horrendously abused and neglected and abandoned and unloved - he didn't feel unloved, he was unloved: nobody loved him! - and hungry. Starving. For love, but for food as well! And, you know, he was a male escort when he was in New York. He was on the streets. He was desperate! He had a desperate childhood. The irony being that he went at it like a cruise missile to try and get love from anybody he met.
He learned how to use people, he used his sexuality, his beauty, to make people like him and want him, so much so that he managed to make the whole world want him. Literally. Anybody in the world who went to the cinema, he was the icon. Men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him. Actually men wanted him as well! And it just made him feel even more unlovable, because he knew the creature they were falling in love with wasn't him, or anything like him. It was a creature he'd created, an avatar he created. Kind of wish-fulfillment. A displacement person that he hid behind like a shield. And only inside, right inside the tent, with the people that he married, did he drop that mask completely. And they saw something entirely different. So that's what's worth making a TV show about.
What would you say was the most challenging aspect of playing the part?
Well, I knew would be a thing for the audience. I mean, I'm never gonna look like Cary Grant. Dyan was... Well, I mean, she helped me enormously in creating his inner life, but she occasionally throw things into the conversation like, "I mean, honey, you have to understand: walk into a room with Cary, and the room just stopped. He was so beautiful. And he had such a perfect body. Clothes looked amazing on him..." I'd go, "Dyan? Let's go back to things I can actually do, if you wouldn't mind." [Laughs.] So there was the certain knowledge that people were going to watch and, even if they thought I did my job quite well, they'd still be going, "Well, he's no Cary Grant, is he?"
And then at some point I was going to have to speak...and is there anybody in the history of the entertainment industry with a more singular and recognizable voice? But I was given license by talking to Jennifer, first of all, who told me that he was much more English in life than he was onscreen. By breaking down his voice in the movies and realizing that his dialect changed from movie to movie, he was trying to be American, oddly enough. He wasn't very good at accents. And then ultimately, by finding one illicit recording... Because I searched for an interview, and there's no interviews with him. I defy anyone to find one. Get on YouTube, see if you can find him chatting to anyone. He didn't do talk shows, didn't speak to reporters... Nowadays you have to. He didn't have to, and he didn't. I suspect for fear that his mask would slip, and they'd find out who he really was when he wasn't carefully curating a public image.
But I did find a guy who was a student journalist in 1986 who'd had a chance to talk to him. He thought it would be in written questions, but it turned out Cary Grant said, "Just phone up and I'll talk to you." And he had a long chat with him. He was in the university radio department, and although Cary Grant said straightaway, "You''re not recording this, are you? Don't!" "Well, I was going to..." "No, no. Absolutely not. Don't record it." He gestured to his friend in the booth, who said, "Alright, fine." And when he got off the phone, his friend said, "Well, obviously, I did record it. I'm not an idiot." And through a bunch of detective work, I tracked him down. He's no longer a student journalist, obviously. He's a grown man who's a screenwriter. And I said, "Will you play it to me?" And first of all, he denied it existed for a second, because he wondered if I was a reporter. And then when he realized who I was and why I wanted it, he very generously - because he hadn't played it to anyone in 40 years, he respected Cary Grant's wishes - sent me a link, and I listened to it. And that's the voice that I worked on, and that's the voice that hopefully, in my best version of it, is the voice that the audience will hear.
You can hear some of his rhythms. A little bit of the rhythm and the punctuation, the percussion he has in delivery. But what it doesn't have, because it's what he didn't have in life, was the absolute certainty and unflappability that he projected on the screen. Because he was extremely flappable in life. But that's what I was most worried about. I felt empowered hearing this thing, but I still thought, "They're all gonna think it doesn't sound like the guy in the movies." In fact, what they're really thinking is, "It doesn't sound like Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot." Because that's the thing people most remember: when he did a parody of Cary Grant, a wild exaggeration. But anyway, to me, when I hear myself, I sound like the recording, so I satisfied my own expectations. Hopefully it works for the audience, too.
On a different note, how many people are surprised to discover that you played Lucius Malfoy?
Well, I don't look like him, so many people! It's mostly kids who are surprised when adults drag them up because they recognize me from...whatever, something I look like myself in. Star Trek: Discovery or Brotherhood or The OA or something. Death of Stalin, whatever. Someone comes up in the supermarket with his poor kids, who are subjected to me, and they go, "Look who it is!" And the kids just stare at me, nonplussed. And they go, "Tell them who you are!" And I go, "My name's Jason." They go, "No, tell them who you play!" And I go, "Well, I've been in a few things..." "You know." And I go, "Alright, fine: I'm Lucius Malfoy." And the kids go, "No, you're not." And then they invariably ask me to do the voice, which I haven't done for over 10 years, and I go, "I don't want to do it wrong, and by the way, it'll just confuse your child. Honestly. And I'm buying toilet paper. So can we just move on?" [Laughs.]
One of the first things I remember seeing you in was Event Horizon, which is one of my favorite underrated sci-fi films.
Right! Well, you say "underrated," but it's become a giant cult hit - if you can become a giant cult hit, if that's not an oxymoron - over the 25 years since it came out. But you're absolutely right that, when it came out, it was underrated, because it took in about 25 cents at the box office.
Well, I paid my quarter, I promise.
Well, thank you very much! I mean, subsequently, there's so many films that've copied its entire story structure and placed it in a slightly different environment. I don't know, the lay lines met when Paul [W.S. Anderson] directed that thing, and it was so beautifully designed. I mean, normally if you go to see something in the theater and you go backstage and meet them and you go, "My God, those sets are amazing," it's because you can't think of a nice word to say about it. [Laughs.] But actually, in Event Horizon, the sets are half the character! I mean, it really felt like that ship was dark, and the Lewis and Clark, that we escaped to, was a bright, safe place. It was a remarkable thing.
You mentioned your voice work. You've done a bit of superhero stuff over the course of your career. Are you, in fact, a comic book fan?
Oh, God, yeah! But I have a strange relationship with comic books. Because on Sundays... I'm English, I'm from Liverpool, and my dad and I would go and buy fish and chips and bring them back to the whole family, and we'd sit and watch television. All we ever did was watch television with the family, but we'd eat fish and chips. And next door to the fish and chips shop was a little convenience store, a news agent, and they had boxes of Marvel and DC Comics. But they weren't in any order. They were cheap, second-hand. So I ultimately read all the Marvel stories and all the DC stories, but in no chronological order at all, nor by series or character or anything. So I have such a strange notion of how these stories unfold. [Laughs.] But, yeah, I was a huge comic book fan. And I drew them! I was always drawing them on my school papers.
Do you have a favorite?
Well, I loved Daredevil. I could draw Spider-Man, so I liked him for that reason. [Laughs.] But I always loved Daredevil because he didn't have any magic powers. It seemed to me in my recollection, or I may have missed the origin... In fact, I probably did miss the origin! But it seemed to me that he was blind and taught himself echolocation or had some other kind of sixth sense to move around. And so I would blindfold myself, and I would get two walking sticks, and I'd smash the furniture and crockery to pieces trying to teach myself the same skill!
As far as your TV work goes, do you have a favorite project from the small screen that didn't get the love you thought it deserved?
Well, I was crushed when The OA was canceled. I thought that was absolutely heartbreaking. It had tens of millions of fans around the world, and Netflix have their own corporate reasons for canceling things before season three, and at the time they'd just had an earnings call, I think. I don't really understand the business behind the decision. It certainly wasn't to do with it not being popular and beloved. Still that's the thing that most people who come up to me on the street want to talk about...and when they talk about it, they talk about it like a long lost lover. So that was upsetting, because there were five seasons planned. I've been in many things that were canceled, and I enjoyed them all enormously, and I had good time doing them, and when they get canceled, you move on to something else. But that was meant to be five seasons. There are five seasons in it. There's still three seasons of story we have left to tell...and we could tell them. At any time. So, yeah, that's one that got away.
Short-lived though it was, I was always a big fan of Awake.
Oh, Awake was brilliant! A brilliant concept and, more importantly, brilliantly executed. Because it's very tough for the writers to come up with two different storylines and not tip the hand either way. But I will say that playing Michael Britten, the detective in it, was tough, because, for one, it was like doing a cryptic crossword in the dark with your hands behind your back, trying to remember which world I was in and which case I was working on and which clue I was aware of. But also, he was permanently depressed and bereaved. If he ever in any way found relief from his sense of loss, then one of those worlds would've disappeared, so... I like a gag. I'm always looking for a way to squeak a gag out of any situation. And Michael Britton was sad. I was permanently sad, all day, every day. And although it's just pretend, you carry it in your cells. So although I thought it was a fantastic series, I was a little bit relieved to go on quite soon after and make The Death of Stalin and have a laugh. [Laughs.]
One of these days, Kyle Killen [creator of Awake] is going to get a series that lasts more than a season.
One day! It's a tough world, making a TV series. It's a strange thing that happens to someone who's a writer that's suddenly anointed king of the world, and they're not longer a writer, they're CEO of a giant industry with hundreds of people there: writer, director, editor, composer, the HR department... They're suddenly in charge of the whole thing! And it's tough for people to handle and still make great television.
[Writer's note: Technically, Killen has actually gotten such a series, in that he's showrunner of Halo. But given the state of the industry and the fact that season two of Halo doesn't actually premiere until 2024, it seems appropriate to hedge our bets.]
You mentioned it offhandedly earlier, but how did you enjoy your Star Trek experience as Captain Lorca on Discovery?
Well, like I told you, all my family ever did was watch television. That's my entire cultural upbringing. It's an odd thing, having an English accent in America: people think that I spent my time reading Wordsworth poems or going to the opera. No, all we did was watch television as a family. And we argued about what we were gonna watch. There were only three channels when I was growing up, and then there were four, but it didn't stop there being fights to the bone. But when Star Trek came on, there was never an argument. The whole family loved Star Trek. So the fact that, 30-40 years later, I was sitting on the bridge and saying, "Warp speed!" and "Energize!" and stuff, and rocking left and right as the ship got hit by torpedoes in the exact same way that Shatner and Nimoy and all them did - because there's no high-tech or clever way to do that, you just have to pretend you're being hit - was just beyond belief. I loved it.
Lastly, I know you knew this was for Q, because we asked you a question ahead of time: what is The Record That Changed Your Life?
You know, I sat and I had a real think about it. There were albums that I absolutely loved. Since we only watched television, the hi-fi, as it was known then, was in the garage for me and my brothers to go and listen to. The 8-track in my dad's car played... I mean, I'm from Liverpool, so the soundtrack to my youth was just The Beatles. That's all it was: The Beatles. And Sinatra, who I still love, and I never rebelled against as a teenager. But I discovered Bob Marley about roughly the same time as I discovered grass. And I fell in love with both, and I smoked like Cheech and Chong for about 20 years, and I only listened to Bob Marley. And Babylon by Bus became the soundtrack of my life. I listened to it at full ear-damaging volume from about the age of 15, when it came out, to about the age of 30. And it still remains one of my favorite albums. I think Bob Marley's a genius. If it hadn't been reggae, and it there hadn't been maybe an undercurrent of racism, he would universally acknowledged as one of the greatest pop musicians of all time. His lyrics and his unique delivery and just the infectiousness of the music and the energy and life in the music... I've just never heard it matched in any other genre.
I'm sorry, you cut off slightly when you said you smoked like...a chimney?
I smoked like Cheech and Chong. I made Cheech and Chong look like Sunday school teachers. [Laughs.] It's not an aspect of that period of my life that I'm proud of, but it is a fact. I smoked myself into a human mousse...and that's "mousse," not the animal with horns. But probably the only good thing to be said about that aspect of my life is that it introduced me to Bob Marley, and that love has stayed. When I stopped being high all day, every day, I never stopped listening to Bob Marley, and he's never gone off my playlist. I just think he's one of the great lyricists. People don't cover it because it's reggae, and because white people are uncomfortable singing the songs in a Jamaican accent. And they're so specific - you know, he's talking about being in Trenchtown - it's not that easy for someone else to cover it authentically. But I think his songs are just magnificent. And timeless.