Jason Isaacs On Playing The Villain And The Historical Accuracy Of Harry Potter
Jason Isaacs knows what you’re thinking: He has a thing for playing crazy-ass doctors. Alas, it’s just a coincidence that A Cure for Wellness, a bizarre thriller from visionary director Gore Verbinski, comes mere weeks after Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s The OA divided critics and viewers on Netflix. Both projects feature ambitious storytelling, and in both, Isaacs plays a crazed, smarmy doctor who has taken his manipulative machinations to the extreme.
But the 53-year-old actor has made a career out of playing the bad guy, from a merciless British soldier in The Patriot to Captain Hook in Peter Pan to Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise. Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness, however, finds Isaacs at his most menacing as Dr. Heinreich Volmer, the man who looms over the Swiss sanitarium that serves as the ominous setting of the film. There’s a certain thrill in watching Isaacs chew his way through a Verbinski film; you never know what the actor or the auteur is going to do next.
MTV News chatted with Isaacs about working with Verbinski, stepping into the role of the mad doctor (again), the embarrassment that comes with telling people you’re an actor, and why Harry Potter is more historically accurate than The Patriot. (Yes, really.)
[Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
You’ve played so many really creepy mad scientist–slash–doctors recently.
Jason Isaacs: I didn’t shoot them one after the other, but it’s a little bit weird they came out on top of each other. I know what you’re talking about. You’re talking about The OA.
As I was watching A Cure for Wellness, I was like, “I’ve seen this before…”
It’s slightly unfortunate because I’ve got a whole bunch of things to come out, but I wish they hadn’t come out one after the other. But obviously they’re enormously different from each other: the stories, and the context, and the styles, and the tone.
They are, but I also found the parallel between both of them is kind of that they defy genre.
I do think that this one—it’s a Gore film. When people ask, “What is it? Is it a horror film? Is it a thriller?” you go, “You know what? It’s a Gore Verbinski ride, and just get in the carriage, pull your hands and feet in, and just go on it, see where he takes you.” He doesn’t do what horror films do, for instance, which is sudden loud noises, or sudden shocks, or lots of young women getting stabbed and stripped. He’s doing something else. It’s more about dread than horror—creeping you out, and upsetting you, and disturbing you. It’s like picking a scab. You savour the awful torture that Gore puts you through.
I was reading an interview in which you said you’ve never played a villain, and that you don’t take the job unless you can make the man human. So I’m wondering, how do you justify Volmer’s actions?
At the moment, there’s an awful lot of people saying things about Donald Trump, or making these comparisons, whether they stand or don’t, with Trump or Hitler. But if you sat eyes with them here, opposite you, they could absolutely justify every single decision and every comment they’ve made. It’s just about that for me: I want to play parts that don’t make me look bad, and you look bad when you’re only existing for the audience’s pleasure or distaste. This man, Volmer, is completely driven by self-belief. He’s absolutely on a course where he thinks he’s improving the lives of all the people around him, has a lot to offer, and that he’s thoroughly justified in any agenda he’s got. There’s no point at which he’s doing things that are written to wink at the audience, “Aren’t I evil?” So that’s what I mean by villains and heroes. There are many poor scripts around where there’s a character written just so the audience goes “boo,” and he’s twirling an invisible mustache. I wouldn’t know how to play them and not look terrible.
This film also operates somewhere between fantasy and reality. You never really know what’s real.
I had no idea until I saw it what an extraordinary stylist Gore was, just how sumptuous every frame would be, and how much that affects what you think and what you feel, and this creeping sense of dread he manages to inculcate so brilliantly. But I knew he was very specific, in the sense that he brought a giant storyboard—all the storyboards—to set every day, and you shot what he had in his head, but I had no idea quite what a mastery of his craft he had until I saw it put together, at which point you just have to say, “I’m not worthy.”
It’s also a great chance for you to do more accents.
Given what we ultimately find out about him, and who he is, I thought [Volmer] probably speaks 30 languages, and all perfectly. So how do I indicate that while still being German? So I picked a couple of very upper-class vowels that made it seem like he’d had an upper-class education—maybe he went to boarding school, maybe he’s had so many aristocrats staying at his place that those accents rubbed off on him. I had the voice[s] in my head, before we got there, of people who have clearly only mixed with money and aristocracy and don’t know what people in the streets sound like.
You really are a vocal chameleon.
I do start with the voice, often. A lot of other people start with shoes, or hair, or whatever the hell else other people—you know, you could start with the memory. But I’m British, and we’re really fascist about voice. If you open your mouth in Britain, everybody can tell not just where you’re from, but where you’re from socioeconomically, how you’d like to be perceived, and if you’re trying to disguise your roots. So that’s one of the first places I start, and it’s fun. I’m not an actress, so rarely do I get to change the way that I look substantially. If I change the way I sound, I can feel like somebody different, and acting’s all about what you feel like.
You just fell into acting, right?
It’s a weird thing to want to do. I’m always nervous when some people go, “Oh, my 9-year-old wants to be an actor.” I think, Well, just go and beat it out of them, or show them that there are more important things in the world. I ended up doing it partly because I did a little bit of it just as a hobby, and it got ahold of me in an obsessive way,. But I never thought about it too much.
I’ve had days recently where I wake up in the morning, read the news, and say, “Why am I writing about movies? I should be doing something more important.” Do you ever feel that way?
I’ve always felt that. I was very embarrassed to be an actor for a long time. I would never put it on forms. But then you get slightly too recognized to pretend you do anything else for a living. Then sometimes there’s a job that feels like it has value in the world. It helps people. Most of the time it is incredibly trivial, but oddly, in these times, when nobody believes the news—although they should—and you can’t believe the politicians—because you shouldn’t—then maybe it’s the storytellers, maybe it’s fiction that’s going to have to show us who we are and who we have to be.
And then there are people who say, “Actors shouldn’t talk politics,” which seems incredulous when you think about how we got here.
Most of the intelligent [people] that I’ve come across are finding the fact that [the] most powerful man in the world lies all the time and watches TV about himself, and is vain enough to want revenge on people who are writing sketches whilst the world is waiting to find out if we’re going to die in a nuclear attack, horrific. It has nothing to do with politics; it’s just to do with personalities. Whether I should be quiet or not, I don’t know. I can’t imagine that the small number of people who are listening to me have any influence or reach as it is. So until the men in suits come to my door at night, I’ll keep shouting.
Speaking of work that has meaning during these uncertain times, a lot of people have recently turned to Harry Potter as a beacon for hope. What do you think about that?
Why the books resonated even then and now: They’re about truth and honesty and faith and lies and loyalty, and the need for constant vigilance in the rise of fascism. Anybody who thinks that she wrote these silly books about magic, and says, “How dare she talk about politics,” didn’t read the books carefully enough to understand how committed she is to try to engage with people and make them think and feel. The number of people that I’ve met in the Harry Potter world who have come up to me and said how important those books have been to them on a personal level—things don’t resonate and work like that if they’re just plot. They’re way more than that. They’re about life. That’s why they’re still read by tens of millions of people every day.
One last note: I just want you to know that I watched The Patriot five times in history class throughout my public school education.
Oh, I know how many people are shown it in history classes, which is horrendous. Let me say this to anybody who is currently studying and reading this interview: Harry Potter is more historically accurate than The Patriot. So if your history teacher shows it to you, they understand that the most interesting thing to study is [stories that vary] from what really happened. Otherwise we’ll have a Trumpian version of history being told.
A Cure for Wellness is now playing in theatres.