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Jason Isaacs: I want to punch walls

#MeToo, Trump Jason Isaacs is furious and his own movies are the last thing on his mind, says Rachel Cooke

Traditionally, journalists and actors are supposed to spend the first half, at least, of their allotted time together in some airless hotel room politely discussing The Work by which I mean the stars latest project, whether magnificent or corny. But tradition can go hang. Thanks to Harvey Weinstein and all that has followed in the months since his disgrace, such encounters have a strange new energy, a directness that makes short shrift of such matters as awards season and the ordeal of the red carpet. Journalists want to know if the atmosphere in meetings and on set has changed and, if so, whether such a shift is likely to be permanent; their interviewees accept that, for whatever reason, such questions cannot be ducked. For the time being, then, a certain amount of soul-searching is the order of the day.

But perhaps Jason Isaacs would always have been desperate to talk about something other than Monster Family, an animated movie in which he hammily voices Dracula. For one thing, he still hasnt seen it. For another, far too much of his head space is currently occupied by Donald Trump, a man for whom his fear and loathing seemingly know no bounds. Im not a breakfast television presenter, he says. I find it hard to go from this fucking monster to by the way, my new film opens next week. Most of all, though, there is the fact that Jeffrey Tambor, with whom he starred in Armando Iannuccis satire, The Death of Stalin, is among the ever-growing list of men who now stand accused of sexual misconduct (Tambor, who has denied any wrongdoing, left the award-winning TV series Transparent last November, following allegations of inappropriate language and physical contact). I found Jeffrey to be so incredibly charming and delightful, he says. Does he believe that Tambors career is now over? Who knows? America loves nothing more than a second act.

Isaacs, who has already reminded me that he read law at university, believes that the ongoing situation is complicated; he would, you gather, rather run the risk of being quoted out of context than give in to easy platitudes. I feel deeply uncomfortable that people are being convicted by accusation, he says. Its open to abuse. Trial by Tweet seems extremely dodgy to me. Plus, theres a difference between rape and inappropriate comments; between kissing and sticking a hand up a skirt. These are not subtle differences for me. Theyre binary. I dont know what Jeffreys story is. I just hope that the truth will emerge, and that he will be judged by that. I want to listen to his accusers, but that doesnt mean that Im not crushed by this happening to him, because I am. His work is so brilliant. Can anyone ever truly clear their name after the mud is slung? I dont think they can. Luckily, I live a spectacularly dull, suburban, bourgeois life. No one can accuse me of anything other than bad puns.

Taking the reins: Isaacs character Dracula, in the animation Monster Family.

Isaacs has just wrapped a series of CBSs Star Trek: Discovery (he plays Captain Gabriel Lorca); soon, hell return to the US to film more episodes of The OA for Netflix. So has the atmosphere changed? Hed surely know if this was the case. Well, heres the thing most people dont realise, he says: Whenever you work for a studio, you do a half-day seminar on sexual harassment. Things are laid out very clearly and in a very extreme way. Ive done so many of them. Weve all sat through them so many times theyve become places where you snigger and pass notes to each other. So, the HR rules have been in place for a long time; they certainly dont need to be amended. Its more a question of whether the mechanism is enforced. Who would, say, a vulnerable young woman who doesnt yet have a job report to?

He thinks #MeToo has empowered young women, and that this can only be a good thing. But now men need to change, too. How do we confront those who contravene the rules? he asks, possibly thinking aloud. Like everyone, Ive been asked: Why have you kept quiet? The answer is: because there are defamation laws. You cant just say: Ive heard this person is a pig. Ive heard terrible things, but I would be bankrupt if Id repeated them. Theres one particular man I hope gets caught. Everyone in the industry hopes hes going to jail very soon. If I have ever witnessed it [harassment], I have challenged it. I have young daughters, and Im horrified that everywhere I turn, sex is commodified and women are judged by how they look and how much flesh is showing. Im mortified by it. I feel like King Canute, trying to protect them from it. But I just dont know how one legislates. The entertainment business is trying its best. Maybe its as basic as saying that people mustnt have meetings in private any more.

Its no coincidence, he insists, that these allegations have come to light at a time when America has for a president a man who seems to be a poster boy for predation and its this non-coincidence that, in his darker moments, keeps him going. The things Trump says and does encourage the worst instincts in people, but they also provoke change. Nevertheless, it still seems ludicrous and even a little surreal to him that so many voters decided to throw their weight behind such a dangerously unstable and ignorant sham of a man I still find it bewildering: not that people felt betrayed by the political class, but that this was the man they thought would be able to help them.

Is this why hes so active on Twitter? Im not sure what you mean by active, he says. Im only playing with my mobile phone. Im not leading marches down Whitehall.

So he doesnt occasionally get into fights? A weak smile. I do it because Im furious. I want to punch the walls. Occasionally, I cant stop myself. I cant stand by and listen to that kind of bile. Im not a saint. I look at their timelines and theyre full of white supremacists and alt-right Breitbart types. What effect has all this had on how hes sees the world? Perhaps it would be better not to look. He shakes his head. I dont think everyones nasty. And I think there have always been [bad] people in the shadows. But I am fucking terrified. Beyond all the domestic issues, the trade and the tax, and even beyond his cataclysmic attitude to climate change, that the man they support should have his finger on the nuclear button Were seven minutes away from the destruction of the planet.

History making: in the Death of Stalin. Photograph: Nicola Dove/EOne

What about art? (I have to admit that Im slightly amazed to find myself having to nudge an actor in the direction of their work.) Doesnt it matter now more than ever? Yes, art can, in difficult times, be cathartic. People still tell me how the characters in Angels in America spoke to them [Isaacs appeared in the first British production of Tony Kushners Aids-era play at the National Theatre in 1992]. But if it doesnt effect change, its just a bunch of people wanking in a dark room.

Isaacs is both famous and not-quite-famous-enough. Fans of Harry Potter, for instance, know him as Lucius Malfoy, and today a PR sits vigilantly in a corner of the room (were in a cushion-stuffed hotel just off Oxford Street). But by his telling, he can also travel home from a red carpet event by tube and hardly draw so much as a second glance. I am busy, he says. But Im often not busy, and like everyone I know in this business, I always think: thats it. The funnel is narrowing. Theres more work for 35-year-olds [he is 54]. Thats why, when I talk at drama schools, I always tell the students to consider taking the reins from day one. Make stuff, I say. There are deeper satisfactions to be had when youre not placing your id on the line by waiting for someone else to endorse you.

What about his id, though? (And, for that matter, his ego.) In interviews, Isaacs always makes such a point of his abject humility, his blessedness, his determination to be a good father (he has two daughters with his partner, Emma Hewitt). Is this for real, or is it just another disguise?

He insists its the former. Im just a dude who forgets to take out the rubbish, he says. Ive had a good year or two, but there have been other times Ive been to Sundance with eight films, and only one of them came out. Life or the movies has taught him to keep things in perspective. When I was in Peter Pan [he played Mr Darling and Captain Hook in PJ Hogans 2003 film], it was going to be gigantic. I was told it would change my life. Be careful, they said; make sure youve got the right people in place. Then it came out, and it was a catastrophic flop. It killed my film career stone dead for a while. It was a great lesson. Just have a great time and do the best you can. Sometimes I wish I was more famous; you have more choices as an actor when you are. But I tend to ask: how can I be grateful for the things Ive got, rather than for the things I havent got? Moaning is a waste of life.

People still tell me how the characters spoke to them: with Daniel Craig in Angels In America. Photograph: John Haynes/Lebrecht Music & Art

He was born in Liverpool, the third of four sons in a tight-knit Jewish family; his father was a jeweller, like his father before him. When Isaacs was 11, they moved to the corner of northwest London where he still lives. He attended Haberdashers Askes Boys School in Elstree I thought it was going to be like Tom Browns School Days, but it was a direct-grant school then, and still very mixed after which he went to Bristol University. I was good at adapting. Im quite chameleon-like, but everyone sounded like Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley; they had this ease with each other that I couldnt even pretend to have. One day, a bit drunk, he stumbled into an audition, where he was asked if he could do a northern accent. And I could that and skateboarding were my only skills and I found that in the rehearsal room, I didnt feel so self-conscious about where I was from. The discussions were so intimate and so elemental. It sounds pretentious, but it was all about what makes people love and hate, and I became addicted to it. After Bristol, then, he went to drama school.

Was he ambitious? No, I drifted into acting, and it has gone well, and I like it. I dont know if Id have stuck at it if it hadnt gone well. It thrills him that he can still surprise audiences. When I was sent the script for The Death of Stalin, my honest thought was: this is a mistake. Im not known for being funny. Thats why I said yes immediately that and the fact that Ive been a fan of Armando Iannucci since university. It was his idea to play General Zhukov with a Yorkshire accent (Brian Glover was his inspiration). Did it feel risky? Not everyone is willing to see the funny side of torture and mass murder. Yes. I knew it could be an extraordinary misfire in terms of taste, but then I looked at the cast list, and I thought: I dont care if it goes down in flames. Only when I saw it with an audience did I know it had worked. Fuck me, I thought. Its brilliant!

What will we see him in next? He isnt quite sure. Look Away, a thriller directed by Assaf Bernstein, should come out this year (it co-stars Mira Sorvino, one of Weinsteins alleged victims). But the release date of The Palace, a film about the 2008 attacks at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai starring Dev Patel and Armie Hammer, remains unknown. It was with the Weinstein Company, he says. And so we end up somehow, it seems inevitable right back where we began.

Monster Family is in cinemas and on Sky Cinema now. The Death of Stalin is out on digital, DVD & Blu-ray now

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/mar/11/jason-isaacs-i-want-to-punch-walls-monster-family

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