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Jason Isaacs, best-known around the world as Harry Potter’s sneering adversary Lucius Malfoy, has the gift of the gab. Words pour out of the British actor in a torrent. “I became the world’s most irritating lay epidemiologist,” the 58-year-old says, grinning, about the early days of the pandemic, when he was hoovering up science podcasts to decide which jobs were prudent to take. “I was way ahead of other people's curves on what we should and shouldn't do.” And the result? He decided he “was absolutely not going to go to work.”
However, after a few months locked down with his wife Emma and teenage daughters in London, he satisfied himself that, under the right Covid-secure conditions, there was plenty of acting to be done, and he started accepting jobs - a couple of days in Hungary here, a week in Texas there.
He was tempted to the Wye Valley for a small role in Netflix’s Sex Education and replaced an indisposed Rupert Everett for a cameo in the music biopic Creation Stories (about the Creation Records founder Alan McGee), where his five-minute bit as a posh wreckhead in Los Angeles stole the show – a frequent feat, as anyone who’s seen The Death of Stalin will agree.
He’s also wily and commanding as Royal Navy Admiral John Godfrey – supposedly Ian Fleming’s inspiration for M – in John Madden’s forthcoming wartime espionage thriller Operation Mincemeat. He had seven films out in 2021 and has the same number due this year.
His only problem is a very British allergy to bigging up his own work, which he finds excruciating. He makes an exception, though, for his role as a bereaved father in the extraordinary US indie drama Mass. Set six years after a high-school shooting, it concentrates on two sets of parents meeting around a table in a church basement. The son of one now-separated couple, played by Ann Dowd and Reed Birney, killed the son of the other pair (Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), along with nine other teenagers, before taking his own life. Painful scars are reopened in this four-way conversation, but in the hope of forging a truce, even achieving a measure of atonement.
Isaacs, whom we perhaps associate most with an air of devious mockery, is startlingly sincere and moving in this part. It dwarfed all his other recent roles in terms of emotional investment, he says, even if the entire shoot happened over just two weeks in Sun Valley, Idaho. He’s justifiably over the moon with the resulting film, even if he keeps saying how nauseating it is to have to watch himself.
“A film this rare is the reason to be an actor,” he declares. “Sometimes I wish I wasn’t in it, though. Being in it makes it slightly sickening, to be as impressed with it as I am.”
For Isaacs, the most important element of Mass is its exploration of blame and “the absolute necessity of forgiveness”. Plimpton, however, had a rather different take on the material and, Isaacs says, over a series of dinners, they went round after round, disputing how Jay and Gail’s marriage had survived, which spats in the script they’d had before, when they’d last had sex, and so on. They tussled between takes and let that same energy loose on camera.
“I’m playing a man who thinks he's come here because his wife can't function,” Isaacs reflects. (The meeting has been suggested to them by a therapist.) “He himself has taken this terrible thing, and turned it into solving problems outside himself. He’s an activist, he wants to change the law, he wants to change psychiatric definitions. He wants to change the mechanisms in school about reporting children early. He thinks he's above the pettiness of these other individuals.
“And that's where the great storytelling is. Because he's utterly blind to all the forces that are completely unresolved in him. How much rage and pain there still is inside.”
Naturally, the subject of America’s gun laws is part of the film’s fabric, but it is not front and centre. Isaacs sees the film almost as a parable about bridging a seemingly impassable chasm, a great divide. He mentions “lunatics like Trump, weaponising blame and hatred”, and the misinformation spread everywhere on social media.
In 2009, after ribbing David Baddiel, a friend of a friend, for surreptitiously tweeting jokes at a dinner party, Isaacs decided to see what the fuss was all about. He joined Twitter with the handle @jasonsfolly, and has amassed about 300,000 followers. Rather than pumping out trailers for his films, he’s been more likely to weigh in on issues, such as refugees, Brexit and the botch of Jeremy Corbyn’s vision for Labour.
The son of Jewish parents in Liverpool, Isaacs grew up sharply attuned to anti-Semitism, not least because he endured his fair share of bullying as a schoolboy when the family moved south. The fact that he has recently completed a film co-starring Mel Gibson (the aforementioned job in Texas) is therefore quite surprising. The two men played mortal enemies in The Patriot (2000), but since then Gibson has faced a barrage of criticism from the Jewish community, for an infamous anti-Semitic tirade against a police officer in 2006. It would, Isaacs admits, “have been very weird” if he and Gibson had crossed paths on the spy thriller Agent Game, but fortunately, Gibson had already wrapped his part by the time Isaacs flew in.
Then again, he also understands that some controversies can be blown out of proportion. He finds it hard, for example, to take offence at the characterisation of the goblins in the Harry Potter films, which the American comedian Jon Stewart recently said contained anti-Semitic tropes.
“If you watch Stewart’s broadcast, it was meant to be funny,” he says. And, indeed, Stewart himself insisted he was not being serious when his comments were picked up by the media. “You have to be wary [of social media rows],” adds Isaacs. “I think it's one of the reasons there's been this huge growth in WhatsApp groups. A lot of the energy I used to put into Twitter now goes into groups with friends instead.”
Since Biden’s inauguration, Isaacs has evidently taken his foot off the Twitter pedal, mainly out of exhaustion at all the forms of division the platform seems designed to stoke. Notoriously, there’s the disagreement between Rowling and her franchise’s youngest cast members on whether trans women are women.
“There’s a bunch of stuff about Jo,” he muses. “You know, I play complicated people, I’m interested in complicated people. I don't want to get drawn into the trans issues, talking about them, because it's such an extraordinary minefield.
“She has her opinions, I have mine. They differ in many different areas. But one of the things that people should know about her too – not as a counter-argument – is that she has poured an enormous amount of her fortune into making the world a much better place, for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children, through her charity Lumos. And that is unequivocally good. Many of us Harry Potter actors have worked for it, and seen on the ground the work that they do.
“So for all that she has said some very controversial things, I was not going to be jumping to stab her in the front – or back – without a conversation with her, which I've not managed to have yet.”
I’m anxious that we’re running out of time, but Isaacs is in no rush, and for a bonus quarter-of-an-hour he’s perfectly happy to delve into his past life as a heavy drinker and drug addict. He’s been sober since 1998. “I was seeing the world through a 3-ft Perspex wall. I would always seek out somebody else like me who wanted to go and take drugs. They were the people I had a sixth sense for. And what's extraordinary is that I no longer have that sense at all. When I'm on a set now, when it’s pointed out that someone is wasted or doing cocaine, it always floors me.”
No one in Hollywood cared about his addictions, when he was first gaining attention in films like Event Horizon (1997) and Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998). He feared that going sober would be a professional disaster. “I worried that I’d be a really s****y actor – because I play people who are slightly crazy. I felt like I might become unbearably sane, once I wasn’t always out of my head. But it turns out that I’m just as disturbed and cracked as I ever was.” That faintly diabolical grin makes a reappearance. “I just have no way to hide from it.”
Mass is on Sky Cinema from Friday January 21