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Jason Isaacs on His Most Frightening Role, and How to Play a Truly Chilling Villain

When Jason Isaacs was in drama school, the director Peter Chelsom came to one of his classes and imparted this advice: “You may have one line in a film, but you better create a whole movie in which you’re the lead, and it happens to overlap with the one you’re being paid for by one line.” Isaacs clearly took those words to heart, because it only takes about 30 seconds of screen time for one of the many characters he’s inhabited over the years to fill you with a kind of cold sick. From heels like Lord Felton in DragonHeart and Colonel William Tavington in The Patriot, to larger-than-life fantasy villains in Pan and the Harry Potter films, to the charismatic baddies next door in The OA and Stockholm, Pennsylvania, the actor has spent a significant portion of his 30-year career making viewers’ skin crawl. He’s almost become a human spoiler; if Isaacs enters a room, it’s best you exit as fast as you can.

Now, in Gore Verbinski’s sci-fi horror spectacle A Cure for Wellness, Isaacs sweeps onto the screen like a cold wind once more, with those crystal blue eyes dialed in to disarm you before you get flayed alive. “The camera loves madness, the camera loves secrets” says Isaacs. “The camera loves anybody who is saying one thing but it’s really only a slight indication to the whole bunch of volcanic, toxic shit that’s going on behind the eyes.” On the eve of the film’s release, Vulture spoke with the perennial bad guy about how he goes about creating such “toxic shit,” the scariest role he’s every played, and if there’s any hope for the Democratic party in the United States.

I want to talk to you about your expertise in the craft of villainy.
Well, I don’t do villainy. I take parts where the person can believe that they are entirely right. Now, they may end up being an engine of some kind of antagonistic side of the narrative, but I won’t take the job unless the person can fully justify and rationalize everything they are doing. When people write a villain, very often that means it’s something two-dimensional, designed to make the audience dislike you, and those things I run a million miles from. So in this story for instance, A Cure for Wellness, this is a man so completely convinced that he has the right way and that he has simple answers to other people’s problems, that people who find their lives too complicated just throw themselves at his mercy. You don’t need to go too far in the Vulture archives to find someone else who’s doing that in the world at the moment.

I take your point about villain being too thin of a term, but the subject of villains is something that’s come up a lot lately. The real-world villains we’re looking at right now seem like they would be kind of terrible if they were in a movie, because they seem almost like a caricature of villainy. Too two-dimensional.
Well, yes and no. If you pick your favorite boogeyman and sit them down — these people who are in the headlines and giving us all nightmares — they can absolutely justify everything they are saying and doing. In fact, they have tens of millions of people who would agree with them, and that’s the key to any great antagonist onscreen. They have to fully believe that anything they are doing is the right way and they are justified. If they felt like they were doing the wrong thing, they wouldn’t be doing it.

One hopes.
They wouldn’t. I’ve met criminals — people who’ve done all kinds of things I would find ethically, morally repulsive — and they can tell you why it’s the right thing to do. It’s because I don’t understand the world correctly, they would think. I don’t see the world how it is. They have a different Darwinian view of the world. Maybe they grew up in violence, so violence is the only answer. For [my character], the way the world has treated him and the things he has to offer, he is utterly justified. All these powerful Fortune 500 heads and world leaders who come and submit themselves to his treatment agree with him.

Often times, it seems like a hallmark of these insidious characters you play is empathy, actually.
Well, that’s probably more suited to a conversation between you and your therapist, but sure. I’ll take it. Yeah.

Your characters are very seductive! And they are often terrifyingly effective at knowing what people want and giving it to them as a way of spinning up a trap.
Anyone who says “Believe me, trust me,” and says it with utter confidence has people falling in behind them. We’ve just seen that in the elections in Britain and America and all around the world, that people are so uncertain about their lives and uncertain how to navigate their way through what seems like increasing complications that they’ll take simple platitudes and lies. They’ll latch on to lies even if they suspect it’s lies, because it’s easier than trying to find a way through. I don’t know if I try to be sympathetic. I try to be human, and if you’re human at all you’re sympathetic.

If you spend enough time with someone as an actor, you can bring their humanity to bear so you can see what motivates them. Whether it’s fear or jealousy or loneliness, some part of you — no matter how much you’re repulsed by their actions — understands. So even Lucius Malfoy, who is a repulsive creature in the Potter films, is a racist. He’s a eugenicist. He’s a bully. He’s a terrible father, and you can see he’s doing it out of a weakness and a desperation for status, a fear of the future. All the pure-blood fascism is about a fear of the future he doesn’t belong in, and a longing to return to a past when he and people like him reigned supreme. The job is to make that specific and real — audiences might not like you, but they get you.

The thing I find you are especially effective at is this kind of ominous intimacy. In Stockholm, Pennsylvania, The OA, and now Cure for Wellness you end up in these narratives of very intimate psychological violation or manipulation. Is that character profile just most interesting to you?
I don’t draw patterns. The job of an actor is not saying the lines or doing things in the script. It’s creating the 99.9 percent of stuff going on in the characters head and in their past that leads into the point where the scene starts, and then for the director to say action, and then to let stuff happen, to listen to the other person. I try to engage with them, because ultimately it doesn’t matter if 20 spaceships are blowing up behind you, or if a bunch of horses are doing tai chi. What you’re really watching is human beings connecting, or failing to connect, and that’s my job, to try and connect with the other people in the scene. So if what you feel is an uncomfortable intimacy, what you’re catching is me really genuinely trying to make contact with the other person, and that’s making you uncomfortable.

Well, you do make some very uncomfortable contact in this movie and others.
Yeah. That is true.

So is there anyone you’ve played who’s scared you?
I was in a very dark place once. I was in a thing called Scars. It was based on a series of interviews that a documentary filmmaker named Leo Regan in Britain did with a man who’s had a very, very violent life. He did a series of interviews in order to help him write a script, but once he’d done the interviews it became clear that they were much better than any fiction he could come up with. He asked the man if he changed the details, could he recreate the interviews with an actor. They were completely verbatim, and it was a guy in London, a real guy, who’s led a life, from the very first second, that has been steeped in the most extraordinary and horrendous violence. And he was just one of many, many millions of people who are exactly the same. He wasn’t extraordinary. That was just the world he grew up in, and it’s still the world that exists for a lot of people. That certainly made me walk down the street and think that half the people were carrying knives or guns or clubs and if you beep your horn in the car, there’s a chance that someone might get out with a wrench and smash your head in.

It was a monologue, because the interviews had been one-on-one. So it was just me on-camera all day every day, living in this very, very dark and violent place. And as much as acting is pretend, you still have to try and get your imagination around it, and if for 12 hours a day you are leading this dark life and chronicling one after the other of these horrendous acts of maiming and burning and stabbing and running people over — that haunted me. I felt toxic. I wanted to get away from my kids. I almost wanted to take my kids to another country or wished I’d never had them, because I didn’t want them to live in this world where these things were possible. It took a while for it to clear.

So how does one create a character that instills such a pervading sense of dread?
I would say if you’re thinking down that route you should go and open a cake shop and stop acting. If you create a general sense of anything, any general wash of nastiness or friendliness it just doesn’t mean anything. Who is this person at this time with the things that have happened to them? And what do they want in this moment? Anything more general than that is for Renaissance fairs.

How, then, can we neutralize the true believers — like Volmer in Wellness or Dr. Hap in The OA — who inflict great harm, but are convicted in their moral correctness?
If you met them in real life? I don’t know, but if you find out the answer let everyone in the Democratic party know.

Jason Isaacs Explains How to Play a Truly Chilling Villain