Good is the kind of movie that “starts arguments,” says Jason Isaacs, who was reluctant to play the role of Viggo Mortensen’s Jewish best friend in thirties Germany. Isaacs’s stage and screen career is deep best known for playing villain Lucious Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, he was in The Patriot and Black Hawk Down, played one of the brothers in Showtime’s Brotherhood, and also performed as Louis Ironson in the debut London production of Angels in America. We spoke to Isaacs about his distaste for Holocaust movies, moving a work from stage to screen, and how appearing on Entourage is the most fun you can have as an actor.
You were initially hesitant about doing this movie.
Producer Miriam Segal called me and she said, “I have the rights for the play Good, and I want to make it a film. Do you want to help me?” And I said “No! I think it’s deeply offensive, and you as a Jewish woman should be ashamed of yourself. It’s an apology for Nazism.” She asked, “Have you read it?” and I said “Of course I have,” and she said “Well, read it again and think about it.” And I took it from her, because I was lying — I hadn’t read it and I hadn’t seen it because I found the idea offensive. And I read it and I found that okay, I’m wrong, and we should make it. It’s important. There’s almost no area of life where there isn’t some ethical challenge.
How did your Jewish background influence the role?
I’m particularly sensitive about this area. It’s long been a bugbear of mine that people should not be allowed to piggyback on the high stakes of the Holocaust and tell stories. Unless there’s a very, very good reason to revisit it in drama, no one should be doing it. So when I knew it was a story about this time, immediately my antenna went up. But Maurice was the very opposite of every victim that I’d ever seen. He’s an unapologetic womanizer, a drinker, and lover of life.
He’s certainly more German than he is Jewish.
Oh, much more! And the more I read about the era, the more I realized how secular and assimilated the Jewish community was then. So it was a side of the Jews in Germany that I hadn’t seen before. And certainly a character I hadn’t seen before. One who felt absolutely German to his core and completely justified in his place, and also was kind of a self-hating Jew. There was nothing about Maurice that made him Jewish, except the circumstances when people started defining him as such.
This is a year when there’s a lot of Holocaust movies out. How is Good distinct from them?
Apart from one scene at the end, this is set in the thirties. The thirties were a time when Germany was absolutely coming to life, it was blooming — it just so happened that a small sect of society was having their civil rights curtailed. The ability of most normal Germans to compartmentalize what they really vehemently disagreed with parallels my own daily life. We live in a society where people are detained without trial, when my government’s torturing in my name. I don’t think we need to imagine. It’s what’s happening now.
The truth is I still have qualms about whether it was right to be doing it. Somewhere inside I had this niggle about what I was doing and whether it was right and whether this is a story to tell from that time. I remember seeing Life Is Beautiful and being very upset. The story to tell of the Holocaust is not that love will save you all. Love didn’t save anybody.
Good was first a play. What makes it work as a movie?
One of the great things about adapting it from the play is that really in many ways the biggest character is Germany. You can’t get [that] onstage, but you can get it on film. You get a sense of the country.
You were on Entourage this past season. Is that as fun as it looks?
It was fantastic. I would’ve stayed there forever. When you shoot, each scene is like a mini-play, and they always do a freebie. They write a script, but they’re not precious about it. They go for the funny. So for my last line — where I blow my cover and come on to Adrian — every single line I came up with was so completely filthy, it either freaked him out or made him burst out laughing. I think they went with easily the cleanest thing that I said all day. It was too disgusting even for an HBO audience.