Interview: Jason Isaacs on ‘Mass’, Active Listening and Why He Doesn’t “Plan Anything”

Jason Isaacs talks about his role in MASS, his take on 'active listening', and how he prepared for that devastating monologue.

Jason Isaacs Interview Mass

In the new film, Mass, actor Fran Kranz‘s directorial debut, Jason Isaacs has a monologue that is so powerful, so heartbreaking and brilliantly acted that I had to stop the film to go back and re-watch it. It’s just one of the many moments that make it a must watch.

The film, which was also written by Kranz, is about two sets of parents (Isaacs and Martha Plimpton and Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) who have agreed to finally talk after experiencing a terrible tragedy.

In this interview, Isaacs talks about his role in the film, his take on ‘active listening’, a commercial audition so bad that he told his agent not to submit him for them and how he prepared for that devastating monologue. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or on YouTube.

Everything about the film is absolutely wonderful.

Jason Isaacs:  I think it’s a really, really special piece of work. The truth is that it’s always about writing and directing, and this is the most extraordinary story told in an extraordinary way. And we just, I don’t know, we’re lucky enough to be carried along by the wave. The four of us, we just got out of the way. We got our own shtick and our bags of tricks and just parked them at the door and tried to tell this story honestly and let the power and humanity of this story unfold.

I feel odd even talking about process and the rest of it. I don’t f— know what we did. Honestly, it feels like I was in some strange kind of blackout. Sometimes if you’re really, really lucky, the lay lines cross and writing and directing and acting all just gel and something better than any individual ingredient comes out and that’s what happened this time.

I saw that you were the one who actually contacted the Fran about the script. How do you find a script?

Jason Isaacs:  Well, it’s very interesting that that’s the story that Fran tells because I don’t remember it that way at all. We both have the same agency, so someone put us together. I seem to remember somebody saying that he’d like to meet you, and then he remembers me having read the script. He’s much younger with a better memory so that makes more sense, I suppose that it would happen that way.

I do remember reading it and just being, I dunno, the words are so inadequate, you know? Just using these cliched phrases like blown away or devastated or inspired or whatever it was, just being affected and overwhelmed by its power and complexity and the hope it offered despite the pain of the characters involved. The kind of growth and change that they were managing to find in however, small piecemeal away. It was so sophisticated and so feral, so kind of a venal in what’s eventually uncovered when all the layers get stripped away.

And I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe some first time writer written it. I didn’t have any confidence that it would either get made or work as a film. But I knew that this is the reason I became an actor. These things come along, you know, once in a lifetime, once in a blue moon. Somebody telling a story that is both as engaging, thrilling, suspenseful and human and with some purpose.

At one point you said that were terrified about taking this role?

Jason Isaacs: Well, yeah. I mean, it’s embarrassing to pull the curtain back, but many of the times I get asked to do things that there’s some vague amalgamation or reconfiguration of things that I’ve done before and I know I’m going to get away with it, whatever I do. And it may or may not be good or interesting, but it’s never going to be much of a stretch. It’s not going to demand of me to go to places I’ve not gone.

But it pays the bills.

Jason Isaacs:  Yeah. And that’s fine and it’s enjoyable and sometimes they’re good stories. By the way, great projects don’t have to be a stretch for the actor, it’s the audiences experience that counts.

But this needed all of the actors to do something, I don’t know, to strip all their auspice away and to get to the heart of things.

I don’t think the characters earnest, by the way, they’re absolutely crippled with layers of self-denial and manipulation and try to manage each other and stuff. It’s just that it required a level of truth and everyone left their bags of tricks at home and arrived raw.

And I didn’t know if I could do it. And when I found out the people who were going to be in it, and I’m such a big fan, I admire them so much and I’d seen such authenticity they’ve brought to work before I got even more scared. But it turns out that a rising tide lifts all boats. You look at these other three actors and they are in the moment, they’re in the scene.

When we rehearsed, when we really built the backstory and we built the foundations of what was going on outside the room for these people. What had gone on outside the room for Martha and I and what the therapist had told us to say, and when we were going off topic, what were the trigger points? We built those things. Just get in the room and just let it unfold. Anybody could go in any direction at any point; crying, laughing, shouting, walking about. No one knew what anyone was going to do and we all felt you felt safe in front of everyone else that they were going to keep you grounded and real.

You kind of mentioned this, but like the cast spends a lot of time listening to each other. Watching you guys, the listening is so active, you know what I mean?

Jason Isaacs:  I do, but that’s because when most people listen, it’s because they’re thinking, “I want to talk.” When you’re listening, another thing that’s going on, you’re thinking, “I need you to say something else. I don’t want you to say that I want you to say this.” And then you go, “When do I interrupt?” To re-steer what is going on.

In this particular encounter, I’m in there as a manager. I’m there to manage my wife and I’m there to manage these people because I’m all about solutions and fixing things. And little do I know, the forces that are really at play in me and the denial I’ve been living in and how unaware I am of my own emotional needs.

But when I’m listening, I’m thinking, “No, that’s not what you should be saying. And I’m going to make you say the thing I need you to say because I’m going to persuade you of it.”

When Martha is listening, half the time she arrives so angry, so utterly full of contempt and anger and not ready to listen to any of these justifications or rationalizations. She won’t hear anything about how they would try to be decent parents, they’re to blame. And so when they’re talking, she’s thinking, “What the f— are you talking about?”

That’s what they call active listening.  I think active listening is a more constructive thing than what we’re doing with, its destructive listening that we’re doing most of the time.

You have this monologue about how your son died it and it’s just gut-wrenching. Did you rehearse that like on your own or internalize what you wanted to do and then just go for it when the camera was rolling, because that was just brilliant.

Jason Isaacs:  Well, that’s very kind of you, but no. Neither. I don’t plan anything.

When people speak, you’re an actor you know this, but some might not know this, but I don’t know if I’m going to say a word or a sentence or two. Let me start speaking and “Oh, now I’m making a speech.” Now this answer I’m giving you; you might come back with something to re-steer my answer or you might listen and I might talk for five minutes. So, he doesn’t know what he’s going to say, he doesn’t know why he’s saying it.

And by the way, he wasn’t planning on saying any of this. He’s so irritated at the point that happens. He’s so infuriated by this other person’s attitude and what he thinks is this other person’s attitude, more to the point, that he needs to force the other guy to realize something.

And all I’m thinking while I’m talking, is to make this guy admit that he doesn’t know that he’s thoughtless. To make the other guy admit that he’s been insensitive. To make the other guy horrified. I’m trying to break him. I’m not expressing myself; I’m not thinking about how I’m going to say what I was going to say.

He’s got something to say to the other guy, to make the guy apologize and admit that he is, you know, not thought this through.

But a force takes me over and I’m leaning into it. It’s a bit like when you’re punching someone and their unconscious and you keep punching. I’m driven by something I don’t understand and need to make the guy realize how much worse things are than he’s acknowledged. But all of that is about him, it’s not about me. It’s about the other guy.

So, I didn’t practice anything. You don’t practice moments like that. You just let it come out. Who knows? I didn’t know if I was going to be calm or shout or cry. And we did the different takes in different ways. You just try to be truthful in the moment.

And finally, what’s been your worst audition ever.

Jason Isaacs:  Oh, f—. thousands of them. It never ends, they still continue. I mean, when you no longer are asked to read for auditions, but you meet people, I find it exponentially worse because you know that you’re not really having a chat. What they’re really doing is thinking whether you’re going to be this character and all you want to go is, “Well, obviously I’m not this f—ing character. I’m an actor who’s having a chat with you. Of course, I’m not a second world war spy or an alien. Whatever it is that you’re looking for, I’m not that guy.”

But my worst audition was for a commercial. I went in and some guy in sort of tortoise specs and the black polo neck said to me, “So, we’re doing a kind of Rudolph Nureyev thing where the guy is riding across the desert on a camel, comes across the fort, jumps off the fort, climbs up the outside and then has a sword fight and then jumps onto an awning and swing across swings through the window of the tower. He fights a couple of people on the staircase going up the tower, goes into the room and there’s the damsel in distress reaches into his ropes and in that way, that Nureyev would kind of squint his eyes and the whole of America would org—m, pulls out a box of chocolates and offers it to her.

I went, “Wow, sounds great.” He went, “So, in your own time.” And I went, “What?” “In your own time if you could.” I go, “What? Do all that on this X?” “Yeah.”

So, then I start miming riding a camel, and I realized that my mime skills leave a lot to be desired. So, I start trying to describe what I’m doing and then realizing that my mouth is moving on camera, so I’m going to have to be a ventriloquist. So I go, “I’m riding, I’m riding, I’m sword fighting.” I get up and I hand her the chocolate and I give a little squint that’s meant to make all of America org—m. He goes, “Yeah. I I leave and I go straight to my agent’s office, and I go, “That’s the last commercial I’m ever auditioning for. Thank you very much.”

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