English actor Jason Isaacs is known for his Death Eater Lucius Malfoy role in the Harry Potter films. He was also seen in The Patriot and starred as Michael Caffee in the television series Brotherhood. He conquered the stage with Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes for the Royal National Theatre in London in 1993.
Isaacs played the whole range of a drag queen in the movie Sweet November and a priest in The End of the Affair.
He returns to television this week in Rosemary's Baby as Roman Castavet, the mysterious neighbor of Rosemary. This two part miniseries adapts Ira Levin's best selling novel now starring Zoe Saldana tells the story of a young couple moving to Paris and the pregnancy that occurs.
Nunn called Isaacs about the new version of the scary story.
JN: (Jerry Nunn) Hi, Jason. I'm calling from Chicago.
JI: (Jason Isaacs) Great.
JN: What was it like working with the director of Rosemary's Baby, Agnieszka Holland?
JI: She's a force of nature. She doesn't take prisoners. There are five languages in which she can swear like Richard Nixon. I think she's phenomenal and I would walk off a cliff behind her.
She's made some of the most brilliant European films and mini-series along the best of American television. She just is not interested in derivative acting or any kind of emotional bullshit or sentimentality. She has seen and is continually curious about the worst aspects of human behavior and the corruption of the soul.
She's Eastern European and was glued while we were shooting to the news coming out of the Ukraine and went immediately there to Crimea to speak when she wrapped. This is a powerful, talented artist who is plugged into the real world and brings that to everything that she touches. And I was a fan before and I'm a bigger fan now.
JN: Did you read the book about Rosemary's Baby?
JI: I have read the book. I think what the writers did and all the best producers and they look at the films and they looked at the books and they cherry-picked the best of the narrative. They set it somewhere completely different and it's over a much longer period of time. They've changed the characters of Roman and Margaux entirely and then having Zoe at the center of this immediately makes it a piece of a different tone because she's such a modern woman.
There's nothing weak about Zoe. When you put Patrick as her husband, John Cassavetes there was something about him I wouldn't dare to presume what he was like in real life but something on screen came through untrustworthy about him from the beginning. Patrick has such an open face and feels like a such a charming, lovely, fine young man and kind of the kind of person that parents would happily have taking their daughter out to prom.
So the fact that he sold his wife out, it takes longer to come to terms with the terrible thing that he's done and the terrible price that he's paying. I think it took Patrick by surprise how he struggled with it. It was enjoyable to watch it's how much Guy is struggling with it. Whereas with Cassavetes he enjoys the fruits of this deal he's done with the devil so much that you can condemn him as the dealer.
With Patrick you look at him and your heart goes out to him even though he's in some ways the most despicable character on the screen. So they're all so different I think that hopefully Ira Levin would enjoy it, hopefully Polanski enjoys it and they will all recognize the spirit of their story, but not the details.
JN: Since Rosemary is more modern this time out was class discussed?
JI: Yes I think one of the things that attracted me to this is that it is so different from the original story. It seems to bear only the title in common.
And whereas Roman and me in the Polanski film are these rather harmless and sweet old couple. Carole and I tap into the worst elements and neurosis and egomania of all of us which is there are other people who are cooler, sexier, chicer, richer and in every way better than us.
So I think that's one of the great things about this is that we, obviously since Roman and Margaux have been around so a very long time, accumulated such wealth and power and clout in French society and high society generally that you can't help be near us and be intimidated.
It's one of the things we recognize and we guide that weakness, that desire to be someone else that certainly living in Hollywood there's very few people here that put their address book in pencil waiting for the day that they can write more important people in pen.
That's something that I recognize we could use and so it made it so different from the original that I didn't feel like it was any part of us that was recreating anything. It's a human instinct that I think is in all of us and it in so many guys as a writer.
My writer friends are so neglected and so much third class citizens of the artistic world. But that need and narcissism ran deep in him. And it felt like a great story point.
JN: You have played evil guys before but how do you get into this character?
JI: It's the same thing whether you're a wizard or just as a so-called Stockholm Pennsylvania which is about a young girl who'd been locked in the basement for 20 years of her life and now love the guy who locked her up.
You just try and find what's real. Who are the people who would do these things? It's a tougher gig your imagination though. What would it be like if I'd been alive forever and I was the devil's child?
For some odd reason I knew how to though and that doesn't seem like a big stretch to me.
The nice thing about Roman is that everything is going his way. He has all the power in the world.
Even if this doesn't work out with Rosemary and Guy, they're entirely expendable. There's an infinite amount of time to do the devil's work so it's nice just for once to take out that it's not driven by fear and neurosis.
JN: Do you like playing a villain or a hero better?
JI: Well I just like stuff that's well written. The worse thing as an actor is to go somewhere because it's well paid or the food's good. I try and pick things to do that I think are fun and different and will be fun to watch; but mostly that when they say action I will have some idea of what I'm going to do that is truthful. All the rest of it, the deals, the costumes and the settings, even how big the thing is going to be and who's going to watch it all feels like all those things feel like they matter.
I felt like Roman was a giant and within the confines of this story there was a way to play him believably. The camera loves an inner life. It loves secrets. If you can't have something going on behind your eyes then there isn't really a thought process that the character will be going through.
They're only saying or doing things because the writers put them there so that the audience knows something. It doesn't matter if you're Marlon Brando you'll look like an idiot. So mostly my career choice is about trying to look as little like an idiot as possible.
JN: Is there anything you added to it that was not in the original script?
JI: Well if I stop at the outside I know that in the original Rosemary leans over and says to Guy it's weird he's got a hole where he had an earring. I think in the sixties that might have been strange that someone might have an earring, but it's not such a weird thing so Agnieszka and I said let's just wear an earring; which I regretted five minutes after I said it because the dragon, a kind of serpent earring, gave me a deadly rash.
There was a big question about how I should talk. This is a man who's probably lived in many countries and speaks every language. At first I thought I might have fun if he was speaking with a French accent because it's set in Paris, then we realized that he probably speaks 20 languages perfectly. So it was the first time for a very long time I used my own accent.
JN: What do you think in Rosemary's Baby that will really captivate audiences this time out?
JI: There's not that many great plots around us. This is one of those fabulously scary creepy things. Pregnancy is a kind of enormous vulnerability and when you really need to feel safe and you can trust people.
Zoe does an unbelievable job of being in a state of emotional distress for the entire four hours. She doesn't know eventually who's going to stay alive, who she can trust, whether she can trust her own husband, whether she can trust this lovely, glamorous chic couple that have basically adopted them and given them a lifestyle beyond their wildest imagination. At some point she thinks I can't trust anybody.
JN: In the original movie we don't see much of the baby. Will we see more in this version?
JI: Well two things. One is of course the great strength of any story, but particularly a creepy suspense horror thriller you don't know what's coming next. I shouldn't really tell you exactly what's going on but I can tell you this; which is that we have four hours of television.
The Polanski movie was in many ways an exercise in paranoia. You could finish the entire film and go is she imagining this? Did any of this really happen? You know certainly from Mia Farrow's point of view. Well that isn't our story. Stuff happens. It's a lot gorier, nastier, creepier and more horrific I think. It's more flat out-and-out horror, certainly in the second night. So I'm not going to tell you how much you do or don't see any baby but I will tell you that it's not an exercise in paranoia stretched to four hours.
JN: American Horror Story centered around a coven this season. Did you study it or anything similar about witches?
JI: No I didn't. I'll tell you what I never do and I think is a real trap for actors because I have done it in the past. I never look at any other picture when I'm trying to create fiction. It's why cop shows look like other cop shows.
JN: Before you go can you talk a bit about being in Angels in America?
JI: Sure. It was the greatest writing I've ever been anywhere near in my life. Stephen Dillane, Daniel Craig, David Schofield and all the actors, we stood in the wings every night for all seven hours of it two or three times a week and we policed each other.
I've never felt anything like it. We wanted to make sure the actors never got in the way of what was a work of genius, you know. There was a time near the end of the run when I was sitting in the wings and the two older actors in it walked by me and they said, "You all right?" And I said, "No, I was just thinking that whatever I do for the rest of my life nothing will ever touch even the foothills of this."
You would think the older actors would say to the young actor, "Don't be silly. You've got your whole career ahead of you." They said, "We were just saying in the dressing room how glad we are this is coming at the end of our career." I think it's a truly genius piece of work.
On the primary level, which is the most important thing, just like with Rosemary's Baby, very entertaining. The audience fell out of their seats laughing but also were choked with tears. Most importantly they were forced to think, change and confirm all the things they ever thought were true about the way people treat each other and how to face problems.
It had a message about how to deal with difficulty that transcended any of the characters. I still to this day get letters from people who were in situations that are not analogies to the play but still take great inspiration from it.
It will always be the highlight of my working life. I think one of the great, great works of theater.
JN: Thanks, Jason. I appreciate it.
JI: My pleasure.
Rosemary's Baby premieres Sunday, May 11 on NBC and returns, Thursday, May 15. Check local listings for details.