A suit from Savile Row, a briefcase full of briefs, a membership in a posh, private club was never enough for actor Jason Isaacs.
He studied law for three years and had an older brother who was a lawyer, but he gave it all up – for what?
“I’m running across the rooftops in Jerusalem and fighting and having sex with Anne Heche and crying and watching the collision of different sects of Christianity, and I’m engaging with passion and faith and history – and find me a lawyer that does that on a Monday morning,” he says in a noisy coffee bar.
Isaacs is doing all that for his role in “Dig,” an international thriller airing 10 p.m. Thursdays on USA Network. Isaacs plays an FBI agent investigating the murder of a young archeologist only to discover an ancient and invidious conspiracy.
Never miss a local story.
The star, who’s best known as the villainous Lucius Malfoy from the “Harry Potter” movies, also from projects like “Awake,” “Case Histories,” “The Patriot” (shot partly in Historic Brattonsville in York County, S.C.) didn’t really intend to be an actor. In fact, he was drunk when he stumbled into his first audition.
“I went to university and was surrounded where everybody sounded like Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley. I was born in Liverpool, and that was not the world I grew up in.”
He felt out of place. “About a week into university I was badly drunk, as we all were trying to fit in, and I saw a sign saying, ‘Can you do a northern accent.’
“I went into this room, and I was so drunk I was completely uninhibited, and I was cast in a play. So I had somewhere to go every night, somewhere to go besides students’ rooms and trying to drink my way into the place. I had somewhere to go where we started telling stories about ourselves and we had this instant intimacy.”
It wasn’t so much the performing that he loved, but the camaraderie he felt there, he says. “It was more just being in a room with people and having these incredibly honest discussions. That hasn’t ended for me. I still find the research every bit as interesting as the performance. The doors that open to you as an actor – whether it’s a policeman or shadowing politicians or drug dealers or hospice nurses, or whatever it is – people who are amazingly honest to me and share their hopes and fears, I respect that and I get to try that on screen.”
But getting that on screen wasn’t easy, though Isaacs managed to make a living at it. He found himself deep into alcohol and drugs until he just couldn’t keep calm and carry on. “I ground to a halt,” he shakes his head.
“It was either change something or die. I was just not able to function anymore. I was always working, but the intellect was dead. Who I was just ground to a stop. I couldn’t function. And Emma, my wife, saw that – because I was very good at hiding things. And I’m in one of those few professions, acting, music, I don’t know what the others are, where you can be completely out of your head all the time and nobody cares. If you produce the goods, it’s fine.
“I was working very successfully all the time. I just couldn’t function anymore. I had to change. Also if I was going to have a family, something had to change. I was just not going quick enough. That whole James Dean thing: ‘Die young and leave a good looking corpse.’' I was getting too old. I was too decrepit for that to be cool anymore.”
He says it wasn’t his wife who cured him. “Nobody who ever gets sober or clean does it for another person,” he says.
“If they do, we’re lost. It doesn’t happen. From my limited experience, I’m no expert, nobody does it for anybody else. She saw something in me that I certainly didn’t see in myself, that was worth waiting for.”
The father of two girls, 12 and 8, Isaacs says that nurturing his family has moved to the top of his obsessions. The most difficult thing in his life now is managing it all. “Trying to find great work with interesting people, be a good dad, be a good husband, plan for the future but live for the present – all the things that everyone else struggles with in modern life,” he says.
“Try not to live in the past or the future but try to plan sensibly. I’m terrible at all of it. I’m a terrible human being and hopelessly dysfunctional, but the place I’m really happy and comfortable is on the set. When I get to be and deconstruct and reconstruct another human being and their dilemmas, then I’m in my comfort zone,” he says.
“It’s a bit like sports. I’m a crazy, crazy obsessive tennis player – doesn’t mean I’m good, but I’m crazy about it. The reason I love it is if you’re not right there, in the moment, when the ball’s coming and you’re not focused on it, forget it. You might as well go home. You get to do that in acting. That might be one of the things I love about it. You get to be right there inside a person’s head with all their thoughts and feelings and hopes, and I can put mine on hold. It’s when I switch me back on that life gets difficult.”