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2015 Sundance Film Festival Portraits - Day 2
Credit: Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Suddenly, Jason Isaacs is everywhere, and he is freaking you out. In theaters this weekend, the 53-year-old British actor plays Heinrich Volmer, the soothing doctor offering a unique health-spa experience in Gore Verbinski’s psychological thriller A Cure for Wellness. And on Netflix’s cult sensation The OA, Isaacs played another science-garbed character, the mysterious Hap. We spoke to Isaacs about his current roles, his history playing big-screen antagonists, and how Ian McKellen changed his life.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve played antagonistic figures before, but when we first meet Heinrich Volmer in A Cure For Wellness, he seems like an almost angelic figure, constantly smiling. Was that an important part of your performance?
I wanted to do what the film does, which is keep the audience guessing, not tilt too much one way or the other. He’s a very charismatic leader of what almost seems like a cult, but these are people who are looking for a respite from modern life — and god knows we could all do with that today! They’re captains of industry, but they need a strong leader, and [Heinrich’s] got absolute belief he can help them. It’s this little fiefdom in which he is the benign dictator. And it’s challenging for him when Dane [DeHaan]’s character, Lockhart, comes in, and I don’t think he’s been challenged like that for a very, very long time. He tries to stay the calm, centered, benevolent host, but it’s difficult, because he’s not used to the level of truculence and aggression. He’s not used to a bit of New York coming to the Swiss Alps.

The accent you use in the film is so particular…
I actually met somebody, an Austrian who’d gone to British public schools. He’d grown up very highborn. There was no point trying to sound like everybody else who plays German antagonists, so I wanted to give him a tinge of that Euro aristocracy, he’s very comfortable in all the languages that all his guests speak. I love accents, I think they’re fun, and there’s a couple of vowels that people overcompensate when they try to sound like they’re to the manor born in England. Foreign visitors who go to Eton, or anyone of those schools, end up with accents that sound slightly overboard.

Also, Germans have a much more extensive vocabulary than English people do, and they can use seven words when we would use one. So there’s this notion that he might have a slight German accent, but actually his knowledge of English – and the way to say one thing but mean ten others – far surpassed any of his American visitors. I wanted him to feel in control. The audience should feel it’s his place, moulded in his image. I wanted to be unshakable.

There’s a slow-building paranoia through this whole film, but none of the things Volmer does or says is openly hostile. What are the challenges of playing that subtle dynamic?
When I’ve played characters that are vaguely or completely antagonistic, I never want to wink to the audience. I never want to lean out of the camera, and twirl an invisible mustache. I want to do things that seem believable to me.

The challenges are making sure you keep things real. It’s a heightened realism, this film, and how Gore shot it…every frame is a like a poster. The other factor that made it quite hard for me is: We were shooting in the most haunted building in Germany. In Beelitz, this place where Hitler was rehabbed after the first World War, and then German soldiers in the second World War, and when it was taken over by the Eastern Bloc, it was a giant psychiatric village where they sent dissidents to be lobotomized. It’s been the site of numerous massacres, and all kinds of nefarious things have gone on there. The challenge was not while we were filming, it was between scenes how terrified I was to walk back to the trailer by myself in the dark.

I thought it was interesting seeing you play a mysterious scientist in A Cure For Wellness so soon after watching your role in The OA, which is similar in some respects.
I’ve done two jobs this year that are very difficult to talk about! It’s a tiny bit unfortunate they’re coming out in close proximity. I didn’t film them in close proximity. I’ve got four or five films coming out – I don’t mean to sound blasé, there are many years I’ve had nothing coming out, but I’m coming along like buses in the rain at the moment.

It’s a little bit of a shame that back-to-back, there are two scientists. What they don’t have in common is that the pieces are so different from each other, and explore such different themes in such different ways. One of them is a German scientist who owns a spa, and the other one…I’m loathe to say what happens and describe who he is. Though I think he’s the hero! But I’m the only person who sees it that way. Not even my dog agrees with me.

I doubt very much whether I’ll be doing a Cure for Wellness sequel, but I do hope that we get to tell more of the story in The OA. Like everybody else who comes up to me in the street, I’m dying to find out what happens!

I was trying to recall the first time I saw you play an antagonistic figure onscreen, and I think it was in Dragonheart
Oh my god, that is an obscure call! I thought you were going to go to The Patriot!

Was that the first time you’d been called upon to play a villainous role in a film?
Absolutely, I’d never done anything like that before. I had just done Angels in America onstage for a year at the National, so you couldn’t have had a bigger contrast. In fact, I was offered something like Uncle Vanya, some classy play to continue staying at the national theatre. I was doing a workshop with Ian McKellen – he’s now Sir Ian McKellen, of course. He saw me looking one troubled one day and he said, “What’s the matter?”

I said, “I’ve just been offered Second Bad Guy on the Left in this Hollywood film about a dragon, but I’ve also been offered fill-in-classical play at the National.”

Richard III hadn’t come out yet, the film that launched him onto the international stage. He went, “Oh my god, if I had my time again, I would play every f—ing butler, walk-on part, and English Best Friend. I’m a household name here in the theatre, and I can’t afford to service my f—ing Mini. I’d do it, darling.”

And it’s because of Ian that I took the part. I went to Hollywood, got an agent, had a whole bunch of American side of my career opened up, television and film and things that followed on from that. Had Ian not said to me that, I don’t think I would have done it.

By the way, just in case there’s any actors reading this, this is how arbitrary the world is. I got the part in Dragonheart because a wonderful British actor had the part already, and was offered a part in Cutthroat Island. They made an assessment, thought that Cuthroat Island was going to be a giant hit and Dragonheart was going to be a flop, and dropped out of the film on very short notice. So they were auditioning people with the same size chest and shoes and height, because they’d already made the costumes. A very narrow band of actors, very similar in build, who stood in the casting director’s office. That’s how I got the job.

THE PATRIOT, Tom Wilkinson (center), Jason Isaacs (right), 2000. ©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett
Credit: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

You mentioned The Patriot, where you played Colonel Tavington, an incredibly memorable villain. Since he does so many horrible things onscreen, was it difficult to bring a bit of humanity to that character?
I did think there was something human about him. He’s just a guy trying to win the war. He’s dehumanized the enemy, because if you don’t dehumanize the enemy, you can’t kill them. He’s lost his soul in that journey.

You see moments of it with his boss, Tom Wilkinson, which were scenes that came in after I arrived, after discussions trying to give him a backstory. This came out of research, that lots of the British officers in that war were either second sons who were going to inherit nothing, or the first sons whose parents lost their estate. They felt like it was their place in life to be aristocrats, but they had no money. And if they won the war – they used to carry maps with them, and mark down territory they’d won, because it would be their new estate. So Tavington is fully invested in winning, because there’s nothing for him if he goes home but shame.

After The Patriot, were you offered a lot of villain roles?
Yes, I was offered millions of them! I took the career suicide route instead, came home and did a play in the Studio Theatre about peace in Northern Ireland, and then went to play a drag queen opposite Keanu Reeves [in Sweet November], because I wanted to make sure I didn’t do the same thing twice in a row. In retrospect, I probably should have just knocked off four or five villains and bought my house, then gone off and done a play, but I was young and stupid at the time.

The parts that came my way afterwards – briefly, the window was open – were turns opposite every kind of male star in Hollywood, and they were very poorly written. I thought The Patriot was incredibly well-written by Bob Rodat, who wrote Saving Private Ryan, and incredibly well directed by Roland Emmerich. The things I was offered afterwards, and most of the villains you see in films, are unmotivated. They’re doing things people wouldn’t do, just so the audience won’t like them.

One of the reasons Alan Rickman, for instance, is still remembered as being a brilliant screen villain is not just because he was a magnificent actor, but because his character in Die Hard wants the money, and he’ll do anything to get the money. He’s not doing anything to make the audience go “Boo!”

One of the other things is that Mel [Gibson] is a great storyteller, as we now see again with Hacksaw Ridge. One of the things he brought to The Patriot is he was willing to be scared of me. He was willing to give me status onscreen. When we choreographed the fight at the end of The Patriot, we spent a lot of time re-educating the stunt guys, because their first instinct was to make Mel look like he was a much better swordfighter, and I needed to be much better. He needed to win through an element of surprise and dogged will, and not because he could fight better. It took them a long time to come around to that.

Often the lead actors don’t like to give themselves low status onscreen. But if you take the power away from the villain, you haven’t really got a story.

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, Jason Isaacs, 2007. ©Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collec
Credit: Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

You mentioned how Tavington lost his soul, which makes me think of your turn as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, who is openly malicious when we first meet him. But we see him gradually break down over the course of his arc.
I felt very, very lucky in those films. Many of my friends and colleagues got to play the same character and quality for ten years. Whenever I went back to the film, something was different with Lucius.

When you first meet him, he’s incredibly arrogant. He’s a racist, and he’s a man who believes in pure blood, and is harking back to a time when he ruled the world, when things were better. I don’t mean to make too political points about the modern world, but you don’t need to look too far for people for whom that’s their raison d’etre. That’s why they get out of bed in the morning. Particularly people with ludicrous hair, like Lucius had.

And he’s so desperate for attention and approval from his boss, Voldemort, and Voldemort can smell that a mile off, and rejects him. I saw my job, initially, as explaining to the audience why Draco was such a little s—, being a bully, being loveless, implying generations and generations of soulless parenting. He’s a cowardly bully. He’s scared of the future, scared of people who are different from him, scared of losing his status. By the end he was this pathetic, emasculated shadow of the man he started out as. It was a banquet for an actor.

We see him slinking off into the shadows at the end. Do you think about where he goes after the end of the film?
He has no place in the future order of things, because Voldemort loses. Even if Voldemort had won, he had no place. He got his wand snapped, which, let’s face it, is castration – at my table, in front of my wife. But also, I’d shown my true colors to my wife and son. In the end, I’d put my own status ahead of their well-being. There’s no place for him in the future. Unfortunately, like in the real world, he’ll be protected by his money. That’s sadly how the world works, but luckily, [J.K. Rowling] didn’t write that chapter.

A Cure for Wellness opens this weekend. It’s a famously difficult film to describe to people. So, please try to describe it.
I’ve just been to the Sundance festival, and the best films I’ve seen in my life are the films where someone says, “You need to see this.” You go into a big dark room. There’s a hush. Light starts flickering on the screen. And I have no idea what’s about to unfold. I think it’s got thrills in it, and I know it sounds paradoxical, but it’s utterly beautiful to watch, and there are some dreadful things happening. It’s a big story, and god knows in today’s world we need some escapism. You might even come back to the awful things going on in newspapers and think at least you’re not Dane DeHaan for two hours!

A Cure for Wellness
  • Movie
  • R
  • 146 minutes
  • Gore Verbinski