Perhaps most recognized for his role as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise, Jason Isaacs, fresh off of his Peabody Award-winning series Brotherhood, is returning to TV with NBC’s intriguing new drama Awake.
In the series Isaacs’ portrays police detective Michael Britten who, following a tragic car accident, finds himself awake in two separate realities: one where his teenage son, Rex (Dylan Minnette) died in the crash and his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen) survived; and another where Hannah has perished, leaving Michael and Rex to move on with their lives.
The dueling realities are spotlighted in therapy sessions with Dr Evans (Cherry Jones) and Dr Lee (BD Wong), who both insist theirs is the real world and the other ‘therapist’ is in his dreams.
I spoke with Jason at the TV Critics tour about the show and his thoughts on the legacy of the Harry Potter movies.
As an actor you’ve played in fantasy productions. Did they help you get your head around the premise of this series?
That’s my job to pretend that I have an elf, or to pretend that I can fly, or whatever my job is here. The reason I wanted to do this show is the fantastic what-if. That’s what I’ve been doing professionally for 20-something years. What if? What if I had these incredibly elaborate dreams, and neither of them feel like a dream.
So in some ways, it’s less of a stretch of the imagination than anything I’ve ever done. I have a real world. I have a real life with my wife, and I’ve lost my son. I have to experience all the things that go with that. I close my eyes, and I’m in just as real a world [with my son].
I can’t share it fully with anyone except the audience what they’re like. It just takes on a great imaginative journey.
When it’s well-written and you have great actors around you and you have a great story to tell, there’s really not much to do.
When you read this script did you have the same questions that journalists have about the show?
Because I’m experienced in this world, and have been reading a lot of pilots, I had a strong suspicion that nobody really knew what would happen in this. I sat with [producers] Kyle [Killen] and Howard [Gordon], and if they had definitely all the answers mapped it out, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to join in.
I wanted to have creative input and they opened the door and gave me a seat at the table. That’s one of the reasons I jumped on board.
You were quoted by a journalist saying that this series was too high-concept for American network TV.I think I might have said to someone it’s fabulously high-concept! I was either misquoted or my teeth got stuck. What I meant was it’s a very unique and unusual way to tell a story.
Kyle and Howard were talking about, ‘How do we differentiate between the two worlds? Is there something we should do cleverly on the screen with different colors and different angles?’ And I played them an iPhone clip of my 5-year-old daughter explaining the story to her best friend in the park. So I think most people get it.
Can you talk a little about Michael being a cop?
He’s a great cop. He’s an instinctive detective and human being. We all wish we had a little Michael Britten in us, I think. It’s not a mistake that his mind has come up with this dream. He’s the perfect person to be in this situation. I think it makes him a better policeman.
Even if he didn’t have these two realities, he’d be a very good detective because he understands human beings. And in his unique situation his antennae is out all the time. He watches things, and he feels things. His emotions are closer to the surface.
What’s difficult and interesting, I think, for the audience is that every time there’s a case, he has to ask himself, ‘Am I imagining this? Which one am I making up?’ He’s not stupid. He’s not insane.
He knows that somewhere he’s creating one of these worlds, but he’s not confident enough about which one he’s making up to dismiss them. And that’s the fun. He’s not ahead of the audience at all. You have the adventure with him.
Any final thoughts about the Harry Potter phenomenon?
I don’t think it’s because I’m personally involved, but I feel they produced something that in eight films never once dropped the standard. Sometimes people use the word franchise, to me that’s the way that you sell fast food, or a film is successful so you add a Roman numeral and make another one.
This was one story told over eighteen or twenty hours and they got better and richer. They brought the audience into adulthood, but also brought along new audiences, reaching across every single culture in the world.
They never once compromised on the storytelling, or the casting or even the craft of it. It looks phenomenal, it sounds phenomenal, and I think maybe because it’s so popular, the craft and the genius of the art involved has been overlooked.
What do you feel is the draw for audiences with Awake?
I think everybody’s experienced waking up and knowing that they had a very vivid and powerful dream that was probably interesting and useful for them, but forgetting it instantly. You wake up, and poof, it’s gone, and it was so real.
This guy remembers everything. So in some ways he’s living out our fantasies. He’s learning about himself by dreaming constantly. One of the questions we’ve got a lot from journalists is, ‘Do you know what the end is?’ And the answer is, I’m afraid to say that we do.
We have a plan. And we’re never going to tell anyone, so you can stop asking!
Awake gets it’s first airing on March 1, 2012