Its first thing in the morning when I speak to Jason Isaacs, and already the Liverpool-born, North London-raised actor star of Brotherhood and now the new Netflix series The OA has been up and about for hours.
He’s clearly someone who thrives on being busy; in the past year he has made four films on top of his television work, and travelled between New York, India, Australia and Canada.
“I’ve got a lot of air miles,” the father of two jokes of his peripatetic existence. “It’s a strange lifestyle.”
The 53-year-old, perhaps best known as Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter, says he tries to turn work down “when I can bear it” in order to spend more time with his family (his partner of nearly 30 years is documentary filmmaker Emma Hewitt). That’s an enviable position for an actor to be in. But Isaacs, while not necessarily a household name, has worked near constantly since leaving drama school, which he attended after studying law at Bristol University following Haberdashers’ (he is occasionally associated with Jewish alumni David Baddiel and Sacha Baron Cohen, and was a peer of film critic Mark Kermode).
Isaacs’s career has ranged from starring roles in the television series Awake to Hollywood films including The Patriot, a turn as Detective Jackson Brodie in Case Histories and the lead in Dig, a Jerusalem-set drama made by Homeland’s Gideon Raff. The latter was shot in Israel, where his parents lived, when fighting broke out in the summer of 2014. The subsequent shutdown in production allowed him to be with his mother in the months before she passed away.
He has spent this year working with Gore Verbinski on the horror-thriller A Cure For Wellness, about an executive on a retreat where all is not as it seems, and filming Hotel Mumbai, a dramatisation of the terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in 2008, when the Chabad House was also the scene of mass murder. Other projects have included an Armando Iannucci satire, and a Vancouver-set thriller, Behind the Glass, directed by Israel’s Assaf Bernstein.
His latest role is as Dr Hunter Hap in The OA, a genre-defying, utterly baffling series about the mysterious return of a woman who was blind when she disappeared from her home town seven years earlier, but is no longer.
The part came out of the blue; he had to fly to New York on just a few hours’ notice, after being sent the script in the middle of the night. “Something had obviously gone fabulously wrong with whatever they’d started shooting because they needed an actor the next day for a scene in Grand Central Station, for which they had hundreds of extras,” he says.
He devoured the script as his family slept, Skyped the director, and by breakfast was packed and saying goodbye. He didn’t think twice about taking the part. “You spend your life in search of good material and when something fantastic like this comes along you literally pack overnight and leave.”
The series is unlike anything he’s ever made before. “I don’t think you have any clue after the first episode what kind of show it’s going to be,” he says. “You don’t even know how long the episode is going to be because they play with the form. It continually pulls the rug out from under you. You’re not sure who to have allegiance to or who is telling the truth. Everybody has some secrets and at some points you’re asking yourself is this really happening.”
He is tight-lipped about his character, saying that it would ruin the show to reveal anything about his identity or motivations. “All I will say is, don’t rush to judge him. One of the things that I always look for and I found in spades in this part is someone about whom it’s easy to make an initial judgment and then the issue ripens,” says Isaacs. “This guy is probably more morally conflicted than anybody I’ve ever played, and the cost of what he’s doing and the reasons he is doing it weighs possibly more heavily on him than the people who may be his victims.”
Making television for Netflix as opposed to a traditional channel was a different experience; more like doing a film. “They do use the fact that lots of people are going to watch all eight episodes in one go,” he explains. “There’s a joy in not having to repeat things all the time, you can texture it like a novel. There are all kinds of set-ups and payoffs. There is an assumption that people are watching carefully and will watch it again.”
The show has divided critics; some say it compares poorly with summer’s surprise streaming hit, Stranger Things, which starred Winona Ryder, but others say it is must-see TV. “Consistently bewildering and suspenseful,” concluded the Washington Post. “The ending… was ludicrous and cheaply provocative; some folks wired differently may find it haunting and profound,” was the New York Times’ verdict. Nevertheless, fans are already clamouring for a second series.
Isaacs says nothing is decided yet. In the meantime, he is enjoying some down-time; when we speak just before Chanukah he tells me he will be spending the holidays at home in north London with his family, watching this year’s Bafta screeners and trying to discourage his 14-year-old daughter from going out all the time.
The family have both a Christmas tree and a menorah; Isaacs generally tries to mark the Jewish festivals with his daughters. “They have, culturally, exposure to as much Judaism as they can without any of the religious elements, which is basically none because all of the cultural stuff is allied to the religious,” he says. “They are aware that dad is, mum isn’t, and that they are this strange hybrid.” It’s easier bringing up mixed-faith children in the US than here, he says. ”In America, that allows them to be Jewish but here it doesn’t really. In Los Angeles, there are so many mixed-faith couples, so what communities that there are cater to that. That’s not so true here, although there are places.”
King David Primary School in Liverpool and cheder twice a week cemented a strong Jewish awareness; he sees a religious education as the underpinning of being Jewish. “Without that stuff, I don’t know that there is a foundation [for my children],” he says. “What I mostly hope they inherit from it is the sense of identifying with victims or underdogs — a certain responsibility to look out for people who can’t look out for themselves.”
As for himself, he rejects entirely the idea any kind of external deity controlling things with an outstretched hand. “We’re not seeing an outstretched hand at the moment in Aleppo, and we certainly didn’t see it in the 1940s in Poland and Germany, so I’ve never believed in an interventionist God.”
He finds little to be optimistic about in the political events of the last year or so; he voted against Brexit and is horrified by Donald Trump’s election. “To my mind, an awful lot of people were fooled about what could come about but what won’t,” he says, pointing to the claims made on the Leave campaign’s bus. “I was horrified because there wasn’t a real argument being made, there were all these lies. There was a gigantic omission of discussion about what a post-Brexit universe might look like, and now we’ve got this government led by someone who was never destined to be a leader, who can’t decide.”
Once a New Labour supporter, like many people he finds himself politically homeless today, sighing that the party is “running around like a whole flock of headless sheep”. “I’ve divorced myself from it, I’m hoping at some point there is a centre left party that I can throw my increasing weight behind,” he says. “I despair. People deserve better. In America and in Britain people deserve better leaders.” He happened to be filming Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, about the scramble for power in the Soviet Union, “at the very same time the Conservatives were ripping themselves apart” in the wake of Brexit.
“It felt like we were taking their lines and putting Russian uniforms on it — it was hilarious,” he says.
He appears in it alongside such luminaries as Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin and Andrea Riseborough and Simon Russell Beale. “I walked in on the first day and they were all sitting at the table and I thought what an insane collection of people, how fantastic.” It marked a rare comedy appearance for Isaacs. “My mates think I’m funny but I’ve never done it on screen. I’m normally killing or being killed or raping on screen, so I was thrilled to get the call.”
As for 2017, he says he has all kinds of plans “but if I say them out loud they won’t come true. Even if I think them they won’t come true.” Such uncertainty is par for the course. “It’s an unfortunate side effect of having chosen a profession where I have almost no control of how my time maps out,” he says. “I keep the bags packed, keep the passport up to date and try and make sure my kids know what I look like.”