Forget morphing mutants, trigger-happy drug lords, and deadly Nor’easters: ”The Patriot”’s church-burning, child-murdering Colonel Tavington is the villain most audiences are loving to hate this summer. As Tavington, Jason Isaacs — the 37 year old, Liverpool born actor who had small parts in ”Armageddon” and ”Soldier” — has generated comparisons to Ralph Fiennes in ”Schindler’s List” and even talk of a supporting actor Oscar nomination.
Yet all that, Isaacs says, pales in comparison to the reaction from movie fans whenever he appears on screen. ”I’ve had such abuse hurled at me,” the actor tells EW Online. ”Last night, the people sitting behind me were going, ‘F—ing asshole, c—s—er, Kill him!’ It’s fabulous. It means I’ve earned my spurs.” Even so, Isaacs plans to remake his attractively sinister image: He’s busy filming ”Sweet November,” starring Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron, in which he’ll exchange his 18th century army uniform for a more contemporary ensemble — including, he says, a ”lovely green, sequined frock.”
You’ve played priests (”The End of the Affair”) and scientists (”Event Horizon”), yet it’s your wicked deeds in ”The Patriot” that have made you famous. Why?
They’re the ones you remember. I was the smartest man on the planet in ”Armageddon.” I save the entire world and nobody said a single thank you — not a flower, not a card, nothing. Kill people and you get loads of attention. It’s a terrible life lesson.
Your character in ”The Patriot” is based on ”Bloody” Banastre Tarleton, who was considered a Revolutionary war hero in England and a monster here. What do you have in common with him?
Well, I learned that he was the third of four children from Liverpool, and I’m the third of four sons from Liverpool. The fact that he went off to study law was great for me as an actor, because I went off to study law (at the University of Bristol). He left early because of gambling and whoring addiction — that was good, because I went to drama school… So you see, there are LOTS of similarities. But really, I imagined him to be a very bitter, very angry person, because of what life had dealt him: His father had left huge debts, and he really needed to succeed. He had a kind of crazy death wish.
Where would you be, then, if you’d been pushed into soldiering rather than acting?
I don’t know where I would be in a war. Probably cowering under a table somewhere. When I was making ”The Patriot,” families kept inviting me to go deer and dove hunting with them. And I went, ”Doves? Little birds of peace? Noah’s doves? I couldn’t kill a dove.” And their little kids are standing there with rifles twice their size…. Look, pretending is good enough. Mel [Gibson], Heath Ledger, and I trained for a month before we started filming, riding horses and throwing tomahawks and loading and firing muskets. It’s too much fun, boys and guns.
With all you learned, did the makers of ”The Patriot” mind you making suggestions to the script?
Actually, one day [producer] Dean Devlin came to me and said, ”The screenwriter has sent us these extra scenes in for you.” Secretly, I was thinking, ”Great!” And then I read them, and the first scene was [Tavington] going into the stables, and I’m supposed to start beating my hands against the wall until they bled, going ”Why me, oh Lord? Why have you chosen ME to do your evil deeds on this land?” And I thought, ”This is kind of corny dialogue. Well, I guess we could work on it, but…” And then the next scene is [Tavington] raping this charred, dead body and going on about Mel’s character the whole time, and I think, ”I would NEVER!” And then I got to the end and realized it was all a joke they were playing on me.
”The Patriot”’s been savagely criticized in the U.K. for being historically inaccurate and over the top anti-British. Allow me to turn that around: Growing up in England, what lessons did Hollywood movies teach you about Americans?
Oh, bizarre things. When I was 18, I worked at a summer camp in Pennsylvania, and my only experience of it all was that I’d seen ”Friday the 13th” — one and two. I think I saw the third one, in 3-D, that summer. I arrived and it looked just like the set of the film, the boat bobbing on the lake, everything, and I was terrified. Terrified! But once there I found that my American contemporaries seemed so much more grown up than me. They were having so much more sex, taking so many more drugs. I did my best to catch up, though.
Despite that education, you haven’t, in the movies, had much luck with romance. Will that change in ”Sweet November”?
No, I play [the heroine’s] best mate, who’s a drag queen. I get to wear modern clothes from Barney’s, and also an extremely tight corset, some rather large breasts, and some great false nails. The size of my breasts was the subject of raging debate on the set. If they were in proportion to my shoulders, they were going to be like a lap dancer’s, and we couldn’t have that. So we tried small ones. You know those kind of like silicon, chicken fillet things they advertise on infomercials? I ended up with nice, kind of medium-chunky ones. The skills you learn making a film… Loading and firing a musket is all very well, but nobody ever teaches you how to pull up panty hose with false nails on.