In the new NBC drama, Awake, Jason Isaacs stars as Michael Britten, a homicide Detective who is coping with the aftermath of a devastating car accident that involved him and his wife and son.
When he wakes up after the accident, he realizes that he exists in two realities. One reality has the son that survived the crash and his wife does not, and the other where his son is the one who died while his wife survives. Not wanting to face either loss, Britten begins to exist in both realities.
In this interview, Jason talks about the show, how he got involved, the acting challenges he faces and how working in the UK is different from the US.
With your character Michael Britten living in these two separate realities, does it ever feel like you’re working on two different shows with different casts simultaneously?
Jason Isaacs: It does actually. I have two different sets of people I work with. I work with Wilmer and Laura who plays my wife and whatever is going on that side of the story. And then I work with Dylan who plays my son and Steve Harris is my partner.
Laura Innes who plays a police captain in both are the only person that overlaps although as the season goes on the writers started to be slightly more insane and very imaginative things happen where people cross over.
But yes I feel like I’m the hub. There’s all this – there’s a cast that normally feels like a family but most of them only have scenes with me and I’m the only common thread.
But it’s less really that my colleagues are split, more that I have to really work to remember what has happened in what world in exactly the same way that Michael Britten does. And hopefully it’s me struggling through that is entertaining to watch because we all like to watch other people suffer.
When you shoot the episode do you film all of the red world scenes together and then all the green scenes or do you flip back and forth to add to that confusion?
Jason Isaacs: Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing if they designed the schedule around making it easy for me? No we don’t shoot anything in any kind of order or any way that makes it simple.
And I’m very often to be caught in the corner of the set just frowning fetally and sucking my thumb and wishing to God I could understand what was going on. But luckily there are some smart people around me with scripts with many markings in it. And it’s like doing a cryptic crossword puzzle blind with your hand tied behind your back.
How do you look at your struggle to play Britten effectively in contrast with what he’s trying to figure out as a character?
Jason Isaacs: Well all great storytelling is what if, I mean, all the things I love to watch are just scenarios in which you can just try and imagine yourself in them. And nobody wants to watch, you know, what if I had to go to the grocery store and buy bananas. We all want something more exciting and different and this is incredibly engaging.
So I just – all acting is the same. What if I was a wizard, what if I was stuck behind the lines in Somalia, you know, I’ve done all those things. What if I was a priest or drug dealer? And now it’s what if I didn’t know which of my worlds was real? How would I cope?
So, you know, I do my job because I find it fun and exciting and sometimes I think it’s useful as well and that living a life through other people’s challenges can be illuminating and invigorating.
So I just try and throw myself into his dilemma and not prepare too much and see, you know, like most of us. Most of us don’t plan what we’re going to do, the day happens to us. We just try and roll with the blows and that’s what I try and do as Michael.
How did you in your mind decide what is Michael’s reality and what is his dream just to play the part?
Jason Isaacs: Yes I know, if we were ever forced to make a decision to tell the public I know exactly what we would do, something Kyle and Howard and I know and we are never going to tell anyone. I think – well certainly I have taken the pact of (unintelligible). I haven’t told my wife, I don’t know if they have told theirs.
But it really doesn’t affect anybody watching because for Michael Britten both worlds are real and that’s the central hook and concept of our – of, you know, that’s our premise. And he doesn’t know which one is real and has to treat both with equal respect and honor them.
And it’s one of the things obviously that frustrates his therapist and frustrates him because he knows one of them must be his imagination but he just can’t tell which. But I know, yes I know exactly what’s going.
And did you feel that was important to be able to play the part to know in your own mind what was real and what was unreal?
Jason Isaacs: No just I’m a producer on the show, I’ve been in on the discussions from the beginning and shaping the story and the story lines and, you know, it’s one of those things obviously when we sat down over coffee to dream ourselves into the universe we discussed with each other. But it’s not that relevant.
Why did you decide to get involved with this project? Were you looking to get back into series television after Brotherhood?
Jason Isaacs: No I wasn’t, I really wasn’t. And, you know, I was – I’m deeply resentful that I’m here. And I know Howard Gordon, we just couldn’t stop ourselves. I was in Los Angeles because I had sold an idea for a TV show that I was desperate to make that I thought would be something that I’d really like to be in and help make.
And Howard who I had met a long time before similarly was given this thing to read and I was given it to read. I was being asked if I would like to do various pilots and I said no because I really didn’t want to, I wanted to do my own show.
And Bob Greenblat who I know from Showtime wrote me an email and said I’d really like you to take a look at this thing. And, you know, again I said that’s very kind of you but I have my own show that I am developing.
And I sat down with Howard and he said look Jason, I just read this thing. I create my own things, you know, I did 24, I’ve got Homeland starting. I really don’t want to get involved but I read it, it’s just too good. I’m asking you, just please take a look at it. And I looked at it and it was like somebody giving me a hit of crack — I just couldn’t get it out of my system.
And, you know, I took the job not even because I wanted to do it, it was just because I would have been too resentful if anyone else had done it. And mostly if I had to boil it down to one thing I wanted to find out what happened in episode 2 before anyone else.
You know, I just – I had no interest in doing a network show, I was developing a cable show and, you know, I had come from Showtime. And I just – the idea was too good. I didn’t know where it was going to go, what we were going to do with it.
And so I had to let my other series go on the back burner for a while and I hope it does happen sometime. But, you know, it was a great giant big ostrich in the bush as opposed to two tiny sparrows, you know. Or in the hand, sorry, as opposed to two sparrows in the bush.
The other reason is when I sat with Howard he said why don’t you want to do it and I said well Howard I’m producing something, I’m rather enjoying spreading those wings and, you know, I have – I’m kind of in on creating something. He went well produce this with me.
And it was like a great secondhand car salesman, he just closed me down. You know, it was like he said if I get you the blue leather one by Tuesday with the radio will you take it? And I just had no reason to say no.
Did you do any research on any particular or similar reality type cases that helped you get into your role?
Jason Isaacs: Well I did. You know, first of all I went on ride-alongs with homicide cops both in Chicago last year and Los Angeles this year and it’s, you know, I have to say it’s nothing like what you see on TV. I don’t mean necessarily on our show, I mean on shows generally. There’s very few shows that reflect the reality.
And so I tried to bring some of the most dynamic elements back into the show. Obviously there are many, many hours doing nothing at all and taking statements which we don’t want to have on TV.
But because of that I asked the advisor, we have a great advisor on the show who was the advisor on The Shield for a long time and we try and make things more accurate to how investigations are. So, you know, that’s on the cop side of it.
And on the imaginative side of it my brother is a psychiatrist who deals a lot with post traumatic stress disorder, in fact he was helping me with the series I sold to FX. And so I talked with him quite extensively about how – what might happen in these areas and what would be realistic and what wouldn’t be realistic.
Kyle Killen said that you do a lot of preparation to help keep the two worlds straight in your mind. Can you talk about some of that and how you deal with it?
Jason Isaacs: Well, you know, you have to – I have to have a little timeline separately because different things have happened to him in these different worlds. But the great thing for me is that, you know, very early on there was quite a lot of discussion about, you know, will an audience know that what has happened in this world, will they be able to separate the two worlds. And I kept on saying to them, guys that’s the whole hook of our story.
If Michael wakes up and he’s at work and he says the wrong name for the case or he looks for the wrong partner or the wrong relative walks through the door and he’s surprised, that’s exactly as it should be. The audience should go oh my God, I forgot. This is where Rex is alive because I’m forgetting.
So all I do is the – I don’t live in two separate worlds, I live one life, you know. And if you woke up one day in France and the next morning in Louisiana and the next morning in France, you’re still the same person who’s waking up.
So I’m just a guy – so my job is the same as it is on every single film or television program or play I’ve ever done which is I just have to put it in order in my mind. I don’t separate the two worlds at all because it’s quite tough for him to separate the two worlds.
And so the real challenge like anything on camera is that you shoot all the scenes at one location in one go. So you have to go wait, this is – is this guy dead yet or have I met this here, has my wife cried yet? Oh no this is after, you know, my arm is blown off or whatever it is. And so that’s really the preparation you have to do.
But Kyle is being very sweet because the horrifying truth for the crew until they got to know me and visiting directors is that I seem like I haven’t done any preparation at all because I never learn any lines. I never look at the script or the sides. I have taken a quick skim through it before we start and then I arrive in each scene.
As long as I know the order of events as they have happened to me which I have a simple list on one piece of paper, I then just let it unfold and I either learn or evolve or rewrite the lines as we rehearse the scene then shoot it. And it’s a technique I learned from much more experienced and better actors than me and it makes everything fresh and organic.
But I’m sure that many of the visiting actors who come in think I’m, you know, I’ve just finished drinking a bottle of Tequila in the trailer. It’s exactly a considered approach.
Obviously you have done a lot of work here and in the UK. Is there anything different about working there than it is here?
Jason Isaacs: There isn’t a huge difference. There may – all of it is storytelling. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing, you know, there is an alien space ship about to land.
You know, I did – I’ve done a bunch of green screens. I did (Event Horizon) and a solder and Armageddon and all these, you know, I’ve done a bunch of that stuff and I’ve done a ton of (unintelligible) things shot out the back of a van. It’s all the same, storytelling. All it is our, you know, I’ve got to imagine myself being this person in this situation.
The main difference is the food. In England you get there, there’s a couple of fried sausages and bacon in the morning and then maybe something very heavy like prison food for lunch. And if you’re lucky there’s some sandwiches made out of leftovers about 4:00 and an urn of tea.
And here on an American film and television set, there is a rolling buffet of every single edible substance known to man from the second you arrive in the morning until the second you roll yourself and squeeze yourself in a car in the evening.
And how there aren’t more deaths by heart attack on set I have no idea. You know, why they don’t have to adjust the costumes every week. I mean, literally there is a truck that stands – it can’t be more than 50 yards from the set at any time. It’s got every sandwich and every bread and every potato chip and hot snack and soft drink and ice cream and candy bar that I have ever seen.
And then at lunch time they serve you a dozen meals and then all afternoon they continue to bring you cakes and creams and jerky and God knows what, you know, trays of hot food all day.
I don’t understand it, I have never understood it. Literally I have never understood why that’s a necessity. And when I mention that it seems like overkill I look around and there’s hundreds of people looking at me with, you know, their jaws dropped as if I’ve been working, you know, behind the Iron Curtain in 1970. But really we make quite good films in England without it.
You have played all different kinds of roles but you’re most known for Lucius. This time you’re more of a good guy. Do you prefer one over the other?
Jason Isaacs: You know, my – it seems like my job is to try and tell stories in a believable way and find the humanity in anything. The hardest work I have ever done in my life is with crap scripts, you know, to take a really bad story or somebody saying something they would never say in a situation they would never find themselves in and try not to look like you’ve got egg all over your face. And to try and stop people, you know, either switching off or throwing baseballs at the screen.
And so good stories well told where your character is saying, doing, or thinking something that we believe they would do are all the same. And whether it’s, you know, this is one of those brilliantly written stories or these hour long episodes in which I work hard and fight hard sometimes to try and make things believable, that’s exactly the same journey.
But, you know, I could point out and I won’t indiscreetly some of the unutterable builds I’ve done in the past and that’s the stuff that’s hard to do. But for me there is literally no difference between having an elf next to me or having an LAPD badge on my belt if the story is well written.
You mentioned the differences between the UK and the US but what – have you noticed differences between shooting film and TV and then this project?
Jason Isaacs: Well first of all Bob Greenblat is taking over NBC and Bob Greenblat ran Showtime for a long time. He’s a very smart guy, he’s film maker and creative friendly meaning he lets people tell stories the way they like to tell stories.
And then Howard Gordon came in to run it who has just won a whole bunch of awards for Homeland. So there is – cable sensibility is the wrong word but there is a sense that nobody wants to try and do exactly what has been done before and the way it’s been done before.
So that’s true anyway of the people who are overseeing it and then it’s also true that the premise itself meant that when the writers sat down they were given a certain freedom every week to think differently. And some episodes come along and just sideswipe you and they’re nothing like the episode that was the week before.
So, you know, if you ask me what an episode of House is like which is a show that I love watching, you know, there’s very similar plot lines every week and that’s one of the reasons you tune in because it’s familiar and you know roughly what’s going to happen but they deliver it in a very entertaining way.
I think it’s pretty hard to know exactly what’s going to happen. Sometimes, you know, some similar things happen on our show and sometimes we can go right off pace and take you off in a different direction because you know – once you know the central idea and you’re in tune with the characters we can take you to many places.
I think the writers felt that freedom and that challenge. And so did the directors. We’ve got some great directors, guest directors that come in. And if we get to do a second season I think we would go even further off field with it.