Exclusive Interview: Jason Isaacs on Sweetwater
One of the standout films for me at Sundance this year was Sweetwater, a western starring January Jones as a woman avenging her husband (Eduardo Noriega)’s murder at the hands of religious zealot Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs). Since the film is now available on VOD and in theaters this weekend, I got another opportunity to talk to Isaacs by phone, and this one was a doozy. Isaacs called from Brazil, and used his hotel room phone because his cell phone kept cutting out. I hope his per diem covers this. We spoke for 36 minutes.
Crave Online: First, we were all pulling for “Awake.” Was the ending of that first season always how the series was going to end, with waking up in a world where both the wife and son were alive? Or, was that just the twist of the first season?
Jason Isaacs: Actually, to be honest, we shot the entire season before it went on air and that was never an ending. So people who think that that last episode was written as an ending because we knew we weren’t coming back are completely wrong. It was written so the opposite from it being an ending. It was actually to open up a third reality. It was going be that there was a reality where my wife was dead, one where my son was dead and also the fact that I could dream in either of those worlds and have a genuine dream. So it was going to get really head-scratching and I don’t know how the hell the writers were going to come up with that stuff every week without having an aneurism or a brain transplant, but that’s the challenge they were setting for themselves. There was no part of them that was trying to draw the thing to a close at all.
So had it gone five or six years, do you know which reality would have been shown to be real?
Yeah, I know, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll be honest with you, I was amazed that NBC had the courage to pick it up to a series because I didn’t know how we were going to get through even half the season we did because it’s such an interesting complex emotional psychologically rich premise. It just didn’t feel like network TV and it’s a tribute to American audiences that a fair number of people found it and loved it and were prepared to stick with it and to struggle their way through the maze every week. It was just really, really smart drama. It didn’t get gigantic numbers but the people who watched it, loved it and I’m pretty proud of it.
I will confess, for my part, I had no idea what we could do in the second season because at some point it was going to have to bring itself to a close. Like everybody else who worked on it, and NBC who commissioned it, we just loved the idea and the writing and no one was really thinking too schematically about commercial success. We just though, “I want to see this story play out.” I’m glad there’s still people working in television who think like that. It’s pretty rare.
Now that it’s over, can you say which reality was real?
Absolutely not, couldn’t possibly do that. There are too many people who are too invested in it and it would stop people coming up to me every day in Starbucks and asking me. Those are some of the most enjoyable conversations I have because everybody has their theories and pick up on details which, by the way, were not accidental details. The writers deliberately were constantly planting clues and unplanting them. I thought they did a remarkable job because they were trying to tell ordinary engaging stories at the same time as running this three dimensional cryptic crossword through the entire season. Far be it from me to oversimplify that for anyone.
Well, I wouldn’t want to stop people from coming up to you, so that’s fine.
When it was on, people were driving by with their windows down going, “Your son’s dead!” At the top of their voices, or people come up and whisper conspiratorially to me in the supermarket, they go, “I know your wife’s dead.” Anybody else who was overhearing these conversations, I can’t imagine what they made of them.
You’ve played your share of villains, but is it rare that they are as dimensional as Prophet Josiah is in Sweetwater?
It is. It’s extremely rare and it’s a tribute to the boys, Logan and Noah Miller, the writer/directors who are identical twins. I was asking them questions like, “Does this guy believe in God? Is he schizophrenic? Is he faking it?” They took those ideas, they ran with them, they gave me a number of things including Under the Banner of Heaven which is a phenomenal book I recommend everybody reads. I just read the entire thing with a slack jaw.
What felt like an enormous extreme, when you find out how many self-proclaimed prophets and cult leaders there have been and still are in America, we didn’t scrape the surface of some of the depravity that goes on. I didn’t feel like I was playing a cartoon. I felt like I was playing a dangerous, sick individual. What’s amazing is how many people will fall in line with people like that in life. You don’t need to look too far to find cult leaders. You certainly don’t need to look far to find communities full of incest and what’s essentially slavery. I found him to be monstrous. He’s egomaniacal. He’s also got a crippling sense of inferiority. He’s probably schizophrenic. He’s like an entire psychiatric textbook. Beyond that, as an actor he’s just utterly delicious to play.
At the same time, is it still a good gig if you get a role that’s maybe just an evil British colonel in The Patriot or Captain Hook himself?
I’ll be honest with you, I can’t think of a one-dimensional part I played. The guy in The Patriot was trying to win the war, there was a scene in it in which it was made clear that while many of the other aristocratic officers had estates and huge inheritances to go back to, this guy had nothing. Like many people who fought that war, he rides around with a map in his pocket and every time he wins somewhere, he thinks, “Okay, this is going to be part of my land in the future.”
We don’t ask too many details of the people we send off to conquer countries for us. We certainly didn’t in the old days and this guy, unfortunately, it’s true that in war very often, not the urban conflicts we’re involved in now, but in many wars in the past, one of the ways to win is to dehumanize your opponent. You don’t need to go too far back into Rwanda or the Balkans to see what happens when people turn on their leaders and no longer see them as human. Once you don’t see someone as human then nothing you do to them is cartoonish. Nothing is unbelievable. So I found the guy in The Patriot to be a monster but a creature of war, and it was a pretty nasty war. He wasn’t the only person who was killing his prisoners. That happened a lot.
Captain Hook, funny enough, once I started, I realized something about Captain Hook that people don’t talk about, which is Captain Hook is the biggest loser in the history of movies. You think you’re playing the villain and then you realize when you start to strap the hook on, that even before the story’s started the hero has got the better of you. In a previous encounter, he chopped your arm off and fed it to the crocodile, and he’s not the slightest bit scared of you. Hook loses at every turn. He kind of breaks the paradigm of villains. Villains at some point should be too powerful and Captain Hook is completely impotent, so I thought like a lot of bullies, he was a very interesting coward to play.
You always have to find the truth. That’s the thing. If you’re playing something that maybe even the writer, but certainly the audiences have to hate, then you’ve got to find what’s human because you don’t hate things that are inhuman. Nobody hates a cartoon. So Lucius Malfoy is a racist and a separatist and segregationist because he’s scared. He’s scared of muggles, he’s scared of humanity, he’s scared of human beings, he’s scared of progress. Then when his great lord comes back, his essential weakness of character is transparent to Voldemort. Voldemort bullies him mercilessly. He’s a guy whose wife and child rejected him in the end, and so does his cult leader. So I can find [dimensions] to play in characters even if you can’t, which is fine by me because it’s my job to at least bring it to the set.