'Awake' Star Jason Isaacs: 'I Would Have Been Resentful If I Passed Up This Job'
NBC's much talked-about show Awake marks the TV return of the very talented Jason Isaacs (whom you should remember from his compelling turn as Providence mobster Michael Caffee on Showtime's best kept secret, Brotherhood). What drew Isaacs to the role of Detective Michael Britten, who finds himself in two separate realities at the same time? How does he tackle dual storylines within one show? He recently talked with me about that and more.
For more Awake, you can also read my recent interview with executive producers Kyle Killen and Howard Gordon, and tune in for my review of the series premiere later tonight.
You were so fantastic in Brotherhood for three seasons. What was it about this project that drew you back to television?
We just couldn’t stop ourselves. I was in Los Angeles because I had sold an idea for a TV show that I was desperate to make, that I thought would be something that I’d really like to be in and help make. I was being asked if I would like to do various pilots and I said no because I really didn’t want to; I wanted to do my own show.
Bob Greenblatt, who I know from Showtime, wrote me an email and said "I’d really like you to take a look at this thing," and again I said "That’s very kind of you but I have my own show that I am developing." And I sat down with Howard [Gordon] and he said "Look, Jason, I just read this thing. I did 24, I’ve got Homeland starting, I really don’t want to get involved but I read it, it’s just too good. I’m asking you, just please take a look at it."
I looked at it and it was like somebody giving me a hit of crack -- I just couldn’t get it out of my system. I took the job not even because I wanted to do it; it was just because I would have been too resentful if anyone else had done it. And if I had to boil it down to one thing, I wanted to find out what happened in episode two before anyone else.
It felt like an insane thing to try on television, but it’s very rare to find good writing and interesting writing, and it’s very rare also to find someone like Howard Gordon whose storytelling skills I respected a lot. I thought he was great when he wrote 24 and The X-Files. And I trusted Bob from Showtime who had done some amazing work there. I thought, "How often do circumstances come together to bring a talented group of people together with a great idea. You know, I’d be an idiot to walk away."
I talked with Howard and Kyle about what it takes to keep these worlds straight. You're actually going through this stuff - so does it really feel like two separate universes?
It does actually. I have two different sets of people I work with. I work with Wilmer [Valderrama] and Laura [Allen], who plays my wife, and whatever is going on that side of the story. And then I work with Dylan [Minnette], who plays my son, and Steve Harris is my partner. Laura Innes who plays a police captain in both, [is] the only person that overlaps [at first], although as the season goes on the writers started to be slightly more insane and very imaginative things happen where people cross over.
I feel like I’m the hub. There’s a cast that normally feels like a family but most of them only have scenes with me and I’m the only common thread. But it’s less really that my colleagues are split, more that I have to really work to remember what has happened in what world in exactly the same way that Michael Britten does. And hopefully me struggling through that is entertaining to watch because we all like to watch other people suffer.
Hopefully, it's not too difficult for you?
Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing if they designed the schedule around making it easy for me? No, we don’t shoot anything in any kind of order or any way that makes it simple. I’m very often to be caught in the corner of the set just frowning fetally and sucking my thumb and wishing to God I could understand what was going on. But luckily there are some smart people around me with scripts with many markings in [them]. It’s like doing a cryptic crossword puzzle blind with your hand tied behind your back.
By the time we finish it and pull it all together, our top priority is to make sure that an audience has to work just hard enough to enjoy it and not hard enough to be put off. I don’t think anyone can ever discount how important it is to literally create interesting, dynamic pictures, things that are visceral and geophysical and the part that music plays. And I think we have people in every craft department who are just playing at the top of their game.
The concern with ambitious shows is we always worry whether a wider audience will connect with them. It's a great idea, but what do you think is going to make this stick with viewers?
Well, I think that the fear of losing a loved one is ever present, and that hand in hand with the opportunity to rebuild, the opportunity to take a second run at making a marriage work or being a parent, to somehow step outside yourself and go "What if I had a chance to do this differently," I think that’s a very universal thing.
For me, I dream very vividly, and I often wake up and there’s a hangover from the dream that takes me into my life. I treat people differently during the day based on things they did in my dream which is really no part of their problem. So those things I think are very universal.
And then the other thing is that as a man I’m playing a man who is a fixer, a guy that sorts other people’s problems out. He doesn’t like to have problems. That’s certainly true of a lot of men that I know. They don’t like to think of themselves as needing help ever. And this is a guy whose job it is to fix the world. He sees himself on a mission to make things right everywhere and he’d like to make things right for his wife and son. All of us in the audience can see he’s probably the one that needs most help of all. And I think for anyone who has ever had to deal with a man I think that’s a pretty universal thing also.
The first level of any storytelling needs to be that it takes you on a ride, and this thing takes you on an extremely unusual ride that holds your imagination. We have this plot engine every week that he’s a detective so cases come his way. And he and us, the audience, are constantly thinking "Is this really a case? I can see so clearly how this could spring from stuff that’s going on in his life. This could so easily be his imagination creating this." And so there is a puzzle and everybody loves puzzles. Certainly I do. So I hope the combination of those things.