Q & A: Jason Isaacs Talks ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, Summer Camp in New Jersey and ‘Angels in America’
Jason Isaacs stars in the new NBC mini-series, Rosemary’s Baby. The show premiered last night and I thought it was fun. Creepy, yes. But definitely fun.
Rosemary’s Baby stars Zoe Saldana, Patrick J. Adams and Isaacs, who plays Roman Castevet, in the update to the 1968 film.
Isaacs talked to a group of reporters last week about the new mini-series, his character and what he thinks is one of the worst things that can happen for an actor. He also chats about the time he starred in the play, Angels in America, with Daniel Craig. That’s a great story about acting and the importance of living in the moment.
The conclusion of Rosemary’s Baby airs this Thursday, May 15th at 9pm on NBC.
There’s this kind of new popularity with doing shorter seasons and I know this is more of a mini-series but was that format something that attracted you to the role initially?
Jason Isaacs: Well I was in the commissary at Universal on a Friday afternoon and I got a phone call saying we’re making Rosemary’s Baby. Will you meet on Sunday? And you’ll be back in six (unintelligible).
And so it certainly it – what’s great now about television, the changing landscape, is you can go off and do a job – like I’ve always done in Britain frankly and most of the world does. Where someone says we’re making this it will be over soon.
Do you like the story? Not do you want to live in this world for the next 10 years or seven years or we hope you go on forever. But this is a story with a beginning, a middle and end. Great director. And it should be, you know, it should be a fun adventure.
And so that appealed but really the same thing is, you know, the same reason why most actors do most jobs; which is – is it any good, will I have fun doing it and do I think if I’m lucky enough have a choice so I think the audience will have fun watching it.
And so, you know, the first I heard the worlds Rosemary’s Baby and I thought they’ve all lost their mind. And then I thought – and then I heard it was a four hour mini-series (I missed a halumer) I do think. And it was for talking about gentile people I admire enormously made awake and I thought who else is doing things like this? Who else has got the guts to be a two-night horror event on?
And when I and Margaux and Roman described to me and the fact that it was in Paris, I realized it was so – I mean it was Zoe at the head of it. I thought it doesn’t really bear any resemblance other than the great bits of the hook of the plot to the Polanski original. So it’s not like anyone’s going to sit in a side-by-side and do a Ph.D. on it.
Why not? I mean that’s one of the great fun things as an actor when you’re not signing up for long-term series is that you can go and walk in some extraordinary shoes for a very short while and then stand back. And it’s certain Roman’s shoes are very odd.
Is there something specifically you tap into because obviously, I mean I know you’ve played evil guys before but, you know, he’s kind of bad and he talks a little bit about kind of Hollywood and all that need to, you know, what that kind of stuff. But is there anything specific other than that just to get into that type of character.
Jason Isaacs: Well it’s just, you know, it’s the same thing whether you’re a wizard or just as a so-called Stockholm Pennsylvania which is about some – 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, you know. 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 (act my purpose) though that doesn’t seem like a big stretch to me. And then it’s tis other thing (unintelligible) shoots big in Israel but the U.S.A. and, you know, most of the time you try to create nuanced characters that are like most of us driven by, you know, kind of a bubbling cauldron of fear and confidence and love and need and all the rest of it.
And every now and again it’s nice to throw that all out of the window and just lick your lips and be deliciously, confidently evil. And the nice thing about Roman is that everything is going his way. He has all the power in the world.
And even if this doesn’t work out with Rosemary and Guy, you know, they’re entirely expendable, you know. 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.
Was anything about this character that you added that wasn’t originally scripted for you.
Jason Isaacs: 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. And I think in the ‘60’s 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 – kind of serpent earring, right – gave me a deadly rash.
So that’s from the outside and then on the inside I think he’s enjoying himself (blemen). I’m not sure whether it was necessarily imagined but he enjoyed the game. It’s like someone enjoys going fishing or hunting, you know, the journey is as much fun as anything else because he thought that (sepry) who knows 100 years, 200 years, 300 years.
And there was something of a deliciousness of the kind of bait and switch and reeling going in quite sated in the middle of it all. But I’m not sure, I might be wrong, was in the original scripts. And then there was a big question about how I should talk. This is a man who’s probably lived in many countries and speak every language and I wanted, you know, at first I thought I might have fun and I think it might have been written originally in a second language.
So it was as if he was speaking with a French accent because it’s set in Paris. And then we realized that he probably speaks 20 languages perfectly. He’s had enough time after all for sitting in a million Pimsleur courses. So I just once – the first time for a very long time I used my own accent.
What do you think it is about the film that will really capture the viewers?
Jason Isaacs: There’s not that many great plots around us, you know, this is one of those fabulously scary creepy things. Pregnancy is a kind of enormous vulnerability and when you really – the ground feels shaky under your feet and you really need to feel safe and you can trust people.
And 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. And at some point she thinks I can’t trust anybody.
But because it’s a modern story told in a rather brilliant, young, sentimental way by Agnieszka Holland, who doesn’t put up with bullshit. You know the idea that you would think wait a second maybe they really are all after me, maybe there are witches around.
Maybe I, you know, it’s so ludicrous to Rosemary, so ridiculous and farfetched that whilst we’re at home screaming at the television going, you know, look behind you and check book and lock the cupboard, she resists it because who wouldn’t, you know. I can’t even remember what the question was. I went off on one of my trains or monologue rants, I apologize.
I was asking what do you think it is about the film that will really capture a viewer.
Jason Isaacs: Oh yes, I think – I think because it’s a primal fear, you know, that babies are so vulnerable and people who are pregnant are so vulnerable that – and not knowing who to trust and that thing about being put in an environment where you know no one. I think it was a brilliant move to move the thing to Paris because they don’t speak the language around them.
They don’t quite understand the culture around them. They don’t even understand the medicine around. There’s Margaux making these incredible herbal drinks for her. You know in France on the public health system you get homeopathy, you get naturopathy. You get a bunch of stuff.
And so they’re not quite sure – the ground is shaky beneath their feet from the start. They’re in a tiny apartment; suddenly they’re in a big glamorous apartment. I was living there while we were shooting in a place above a bakery. The bakery opened in 1366.
So there’s a sense of history there that we would start talking about devil cults that stretch anything – any kind of belief system – any kind of cultural history. The roots are so deep and spread back so far that it feels somehow more believable. And so what will work about it, why does it resonate? Because it’s creepy.
It’s like asking why a song works. You know, some songs work and some don’t. This is a story that works. It worked once in a great film in the ‘60’s, it worked once I a phenomenal book in the ‘60’s and the writers of this cherry-picked the best elements of both and reinvented it for today. And hopefully it will work again – we’ll see.
With original movie they didn’t show the baby or too much of the baby. Is there going to be more of seeing the baby this time out?
Jason Isaacs: 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. So 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.
And the Polanski movie was in many ways an exercise in paranoia. And you could finish the entire film and go is she imagining – did any of this really happen. You know certainly from Mia Farrow’s point of view. Well that isn’t our story. Stuff happens. And stuff is really happening on screen and it’s more a case of get out, you know, the (calls) are coming from within the house, you know.
And so it’s a lot gorier and nastier and creepier and a 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.
It’s more about when is she going to realize – that painful enjoyment you have when you’re screaming at the heroine on screen going when is she going to realize what we’ve realized and get out of that house.
Could you talk about Angels in America? And your experience with that real quick?
Jason Isaacs: Sure. Yes I mean I don’t know how it relates to this but it was the greatest writing I’ve ever been anywhere near in my life. And we all stood – me and Stephen Dillane and Daniel Craig and David Schofield and all the actors, we stood in the wings every night for all seven hours of it, you know, two or three times a week. And we policed each other. We just policed the play.
I’ve never felt anything like it. It was like we were there – we wanted to make sure the actors never got in the way of what was a work of genius, you know. And 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.”
And 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.” And 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.
Because on the primary level, which is the most important thing, just like with Rosemary’s Baby, very entertaining and the audience fell out of seats laughing. They also choked with tears but most importantly they were forced to think and change and confirms all the things they ever thought were true about the way people treat each other and how to face problems.
And it had a message about how to deal with difficulty that transcended any other characters in (unintelligible). And I still to this day get letters from people who were in situations that are not analogies to the play but go, “I take great inspiration from,” and then pick any of the characters at the end of the (bellamies).
And, yes, it was easily the highlight and will always be the highlight of my working life. I think it’s – I think one of the great, great works of theater. And I mind if you should have (unintelligible) films.
I don’t know how much of a fan you may be of horror films in general but, you know, I’ve had a lot…
Jason Isaacs: Dude. Mostly because I’m terrified. I mean I grew up watching horror films. Oddly because they scared the living shit out of me, or scared the pants off me, pardon my language. And they still do. And for some odd bizarre reason I still submit myself to it.
Are there any in particular that you particularly like to watch over and over?
Jason Isaacs: No, no I – actually even the really bad ones. I mean even the, you know, awful sequels that go into Roman numerals when I was younger I watched. I remember watching – I was a counselor on summer camp in New Jersey and we sneaked off and out of the camp to go and watch Friday the Thirteen in 3D; myself and a guy called Larry.
Where in New Jersey were you?
Jason Isaacs: Well actually it was in – it was called New Jersey White Camps but I think it was in Milford, Pennsylvania really. But we sneaked out, walked through the forest to where he had hidden his car you remember that (unintelligible) me. We drove into town. We saw Friday the Thirteenth in 3D. And I was 19 and it was, you know, we were both – certainly he was much more macho than me.
And we sneaked back through the forest holding hands I remember (unintelligible). We didn’t even part until we got to our bunks. So I’ve always been scared of them. My best friend (Katie) growing up who lives in Paris oddly and I relieved a lot of it when I was shooting Rosemary’s Baby because we used to watch horror films at each of our, you know, about she lived very close to me and either at my house or her house.
And the other person would be too scared to walk home so, you know, there’s be some strange way we’d agreed to walk to the middle of both of our houses, then part and run home. Yes they worked on me as a kid, they work on me now. I think they – everybody loves to be scared.
It’s why people – why do people ride roller coasters? It is a deeply unpleasant experience. You scream. You’re not screaming out of pleasure. You scream and then you laugh with the release. And there’s something about being taken to a place that where your stomach is in knots and you’re on the edge of your seat, your heart races but that you’re just – you’re so glad to have lived through the experience that the relief is worth it. It’s like wearing a tight pair of shoes all day. Just at the moment they come off.
And I think Rosemary’s Baby, you know, it’s such a creepy tale. It’s so deeply nasty and it turned its vice slowly on you. And you just, you have a creeping sense of dread and horror. And in this four hour mini-series there’s a difference from an hour and three quarters – exciting paranoia. You just, you know, there’s no way out of it.
You know what’s coming and you kind of get on this conveyor belt and you gradually tighten your knuckles until you look down and your nails are digging into your palms. That’s the idea anyway. I can’t – I wouldn’t presume to tell people what will happen to them, but that’s the intention.
You’ve said that you chose this project for the director almost. I was wondering if you could talk about what it was like to work with her?
Jason Isaacs: Yes. She’s a force of nature. She doesn’t take prisoners. She – there are five languages in which she can swear like Richard Nixon. She, you know, she – I think she’s phenomenal. I would follow, you know, I would walk off a cliff behind her.
She’s made some of the most brilliant European films and mini-series and (unintelligible) the best of American television. She just is not interested in derivative acting or, you know, 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.
You know, 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. And 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.
Have you read the book?
Jason Isaacs: I have read the book. I was (reading that in town), yes. I mean it’s an odd thing because people talk about the iconic (Libby) but you know he made the movie from a phenomenally successful and popular book as all his books were and they all made great films.
And 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. And then they set it somewhere completely different. 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.
And so, you know, there’s nothing weak about Zoe. And then when you put Patrick as her husband – John Cassavetes 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. But Patrick has such an open face and such a – feels like a guy, such a charming, lovely, young, you know, fine young man and kind of the kind of person that parents would happily have taking their daughter out to prom.
And 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. And I think it took Patrick, you know, it took him by surprise how he struggled with – not struggled – I mean the part was enjoyable to watch it’s how much Guy is struggling with it. Whereas in Cassavetes season he enjoys the fruits of this deal he’s done with the devil so much that you can condemn him as the dealer.
But 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.
Do you have a preference between playing a villain and a hero?
Jason Isaacs: Well I just like stuff that’s well written. I mean, you know, the worse thing as an actor is to go somewhere because it’s well paid or the food’s good or something and that all the stuff is great except when they say action and then you just step in the (wazoo).
You know 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. Because all the rest of it – the deals and the costumes and the settings, you know, 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.
But if you can’t do the job that (unintelligible) and I felt like Roman was a giant I got and I could see that there, you know, within the confines of this story there was a way to play him believably. And, you know, the camera loves an inner life. It loves secrets. And if you can’t have something going on behind your eyes – that 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.
I respond to the best material that is in front of me and it doesn’t really matter. You know, I never think of them as villains or heroes because those out and out heroes are not only very boring, but almost impossible to play as are out and out mustache twirling villains.
Unless you can believe them yourself the audience will never believe you. And you might as well be playing, you know, standing up at a renaissance fair and not that there’s anything wrong with that, working a renaissance fair (unintelligible).
But I just would want to find something that I believe so even Lucius Malfoy (unintelligible). There’s a guy who was a racist and who was felt left behind by the times. And whose boss who he worships utterly rejects and emasculates him at every turn. His wife rejects him and who feels the march of time has left him behind. And so I believed all that stuff. And I just try to find stuff that makes emotional sense to me and might be interesting to watch.D
Did you study any coven-related type shows or movies while doing this? I know that American Horror Story centered around a coven last season. Did you look in any of this?
Jason Isaacs: It did. No I didn’t. And I’ll tell you what I never do and I think is a real trap for actors and I’m not fully (unintelligible) because I have done it in the past. I never look at any other picture when I’m trying to create fiction. You know, that way madness lies.
It’s why cop shows look like other cop shows and why, you know, I’ve been in things where plot lines come up or the police behave in a certain way and I always have a technical advisor for instance. A cop called (Jesse) who was on The Shield, who was on our show.
And I’d ask (Jesse) what cops really do because once you start looking at other TV shows, or other films, or other fiction you’re looking at other people’s imagined ideas of what goes on. And why not look for what really goes on?
So I’ve read about covens. I’ve read about witches and then a bit about the devil. And I try always to go to (tryamee) sources. In fact even more so when I’m playing real-life people or recreating a real-life situation which is not here.
I try and find diaries because, you know, history is written by the victors and so and it’s retrospective pieces about history, the civil war for instance or the holocaust or various other things I’ve been involved in.
They have the wisdom of time and so I try and find contemporaneous things. I’ll always rather read a diary from someone that a piece written by someone analyzing the situation. And in this instance there was plenty of stuff around, you know.
Are you excited about the way television – both network and cable – especially in America has broadened itself and it has become really inviting to actors of all sorts?
Jason Isaacs: I think it’s amazing. I think these are amazing times of making script to drama. And I don’t know if there’s enough eyeballs unfortunately for all the fabulous new outlets are opening up.
It’s making broadcast networks obviously take much bigger risks and do short forms of this, you know, (Jen) and (Barbara) decided to make a two-night horror event but it’s also making writers use their imaginations and dare to dream. And not be commissioned by, you know, executives but instead go I’ve got an insane idea, what do you think of this.
And in many instances they’re finding outlets for them. I, you know, I think it’s a golden time for commissioning and making things. I’ve – there just aren’t enough viewers in the English-speaking world to sustain the – I heard the other day there were 47 fires – that’s scripted dramas in town.
You know, and everybody’s, you know, getting into the drama business which is fabulous for actors and the salary might come down but I’m sure , you know, nobody I know into it to try to get rich. People – we just love telling stories.
But what that will mean – how it will all shake out in the long run I don’t know. There are so many new players. But you can’t really expect viewers at home to subscribe to Amazon and Hulu and Netflix and HBO and Showtime and the many other people and channels who will have to start charging.
So I don’t know where it will go but I do know that as a creative person and, you know I’m also trying to sell and produce things and come up with ideas and take them around.
There are so many rooms full of interesting creative people who would like to help me make stuff that it doesn’t bear any resemblance to what it was like 10 years ago.
And it’s great for the viewer. It’s just great for the viewer.
So, you know, you need to get a big DVR. There’s just so many good things coming on and coming out. And the shame of it is that, you know, many of them will be canceled because you just – if every single person in America sat down to watch TV every night there aren’t enough viewers for as many good products as are coming onto our screens.
You’ve obviously done a lot of different roles. But was there something about this that still challenged you?
Jason Isaacs: Yes. I think you always have to adjust what you’re doing to the style of the piece and work out what is the piece that you’re in. You know, don’t do – you don’t do slapstick comedy the same way you do, you know, Ibsen, you know.
And so it’s just finding the tone of the thing and finding out how much to kind of wink to the memory of the audience. And the challenge was the fact that a number of people – not the audience actually funnily enough – but journalists generally.
And my friend will come to it and go what. You’re remaking the Polanski film? It’s a work of genius. It’s sacrilege – how dare you. And that was in some ways the most fun thing about it at all. Because I knew that we were was so different it’s not a remake at all.
I mean there were all these clumsy words like reimagining. But it’s not just telling a great story. It’s got the same title. It’s got roughly the same plot line but it’s all so different that I quite like the sleight of hand. You know, maybe we’ll draw people to it hoping to be – to sound smart when they go well I prefer this and that as if they were watching another production of Hamlet.
But, you know, these are different words and different characters in different situations. So that was a challenge in a way, to invent something new that worked in and of itself.
And the other thing is, you know, all actors are outside. As all actors feel like they don’t quite belong at the party. And, you know, we’re always looking in through the window at the world we want to belong to.
But for Margaux and Roman they are the “it” crowd. So for me to imagine myself being the “it” guy was a huge stretch of the imagination because I experience myself as the very opposite.
So, you know, unlike Carole Bouquet, my screen wife who is the queen of Paris. You know, she’s a massively iconic not just actress but presence in France. I mean you walk down the street and, you know, the Red Sea parts for her and any call she made people would open any institution any time of day or night. And I think it came – she had such a natural elegance and grace and beauty it came easily to her.
But I very rarely play the winner as it were. And he’s such a winner, Roman, that that was a challenge for me.