Think it's Healthy To Find it Weird
Isaacs has a kind of energy that you don't see every day. He's certainly
enthusiastic – he likes his work, which is acting on stage and in movies, 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.
just finished breakfast, the thirty-seven-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
Fuchs: How did you get involved in The Patriot?
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.
Well, there's Godzilla.
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 were crammed, and do lots of
promotions, and to let the film speak for itself.
You seem to know a lot about how the business works...
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?
Is it important for you to know all this stuff about the money end of
Hollywood filmmaking, aside from your acting?
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 just don't, 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 is 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.
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?
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.
That self-destructive thing also moves Gibson's character, the
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, forty 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?
In the theater, viewers were just gasping at those battle scenes.
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 are huge trenches full of
human bodies. It's just as low tech today:
people just don't see it.
I have to ask you, briefly, about the hubbub concerning the portrayal of
the British villains.
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
Were you at all daunted by the hugeness of this project?
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, and 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.
That sounds like a healthy perspective.
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.
What possessed you to take up acting, when you were in law school?
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, as well. 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.
You were thinking stage only, at that point?
I never thought of even being on telly. The biggest difference between
actors on the West coast and European and East coast actors, 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, 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.
You have a clear sense of what celebrity means, for yourself.
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 an 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
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?
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.
Click here to read KJ Doughton's review.