Life & Culture

Revealed: Why Jason Isaacs wanted to turn down the role of Cary Grant

He plays the Hollywood great in a new TV series 



If you are looking for some non-war television to get lost in, you won’t do better than Archie, a new drama project for Jewish Harry Potter star Jason Isaacs. In fact, I’d say it’s the best thing he’s ever done.

The four-part series about the life of Hollywood icon Cary Grant isn’t an easy watch. The actor, who was born Archie Leach in Bristol, had a really tough childhood. The series goes backwards and forwards in time as we see how, despite all his success, he was broken inside by his childhood. But it is a must-watch not only for film fans (I recommend watching the iconic North by Northwest as preparation) but for anyone interested in the nature of celebrity.

Isaacs, who is also a co-producer on the show, admits he was surprised when the script was first sent to him. “I thought it was a terrible joke. I thought who is the idiot who’s written this? Why would anyone try and put Cary Grant on the screen? And I thought you’d have to be a moron to take the job.”

But the fact that the script was written by Jeff Pope, who has won many awards for his adaption of real-life stories — most recently The Reckoning — made Isaacs stop and think again. As did the fact that it had the backing of Grant’s third wife, the Jewish actor Dyan Cannon, and their daughter Jennifer.

“What convinced me was when I realised that Cary Grant didn’t really exist. He was a character who Archie Leach invented because he was so tortured and, though he may not have recognised it, who needed the love of as many people as he could get. There was a hole in him he needed to fill. I also liked the idea of how perhaps the first time he felt he belonged anywhere was when he had his daughter. I recognised myself in there.

“I thought I can play a really messed-up man who can fake many things in many situations to many people. I can’t play Cary Grant, but I can crack it as plain Archie.”

As well as telling the story of Grant’s childhood, the series delves into his romance with Cannon and also focuses on the end of the end of his life when he reconsiders his past and his career.
To get into the character of Grant, Isaacs watched as many films and read as many biographers as he could get his hands on. He spent time with Cannon and Jennifer and even read the court documents about Grant’s divorces — he was married five times.

And he worked with a vocal coach to try and understand the cadences of Grant’s trans-Atlantic accent. He also realised he needed to find a recording of Grant speaking out of character, something that would really give him a clue about the man he was playing. This was not easy, but eventually some detective work led him to someone who had interviewed the actor when he was a student — and when Grant didn’t, apparently, know he was being recorded.

“I begged to listen to the tape and when I did I heard many of Grant’s insecurities, and felt that I had made a real connection with him. I also noticed that his accent was much more English than it is in his movies, which was exactly what his daughter had told me, that he was more English off camera. Before I heard that tape, I was bricking it but after I thought, now I know who he really was.”

Cannon was at the recent London press screening of Archie where she called described Isaacs’s depiction of her ex-husband as “really wonderful” adding: “He is not an easy man to portray, he was so complicated and Jason has touched on his many, many colours.”

Archie was released on ITVX this week.

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