Star Trek's Jason Isaacs explains why William Shatner is a genius
Jason Isaacs makes his Star Trek debut Sunday night as the imposing Captain Gabriel Lorca, a steely war commander who takes an acute interest in First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Below the Harry Potter actor gives a fun and candid (but non-spoiler) interview about joining the series, the acting skills of original Trek star William Shatner, and why you can never punch a Klingon in the face.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were talking earlier about how—
Jason Isaacs: Are you recording?
Yeah. The recorder is over here.
Well, why don’t you put it closer?
Some people get weirded out when it’s so close.
Oh for god’s sakes. People should just get over themselves.
Right? So when I saw you on set a moment ago, during the battle while you’re commanding the bridge. That must be fun?
Well, I don’t want to say it’s not fun because this is an interview promoting Star Trek.
Just be honest.
The truth is, no, it’s not fun. Scenes that are really fun are scenes between human beings where you’re talking to someone else. There are lots of those in the show. It’s a very different show from other Star Treks. There’s a lot more emotional and personal interaction than plot. What you saw was a weird thing because I’m looking at a screen and it’s going to cut to a bunch of ships and things blowing up. I like scenes that are about people. What you look for as an actor is stuff that’s engaging on a human level. Weirdly, I don’t look at the lines ever before I go to set. You can always absorb it during rehearsal. But when it’s 25 non-sequiturs about ships blowing up, it’s actually hard to do.
Were you a Trek fan before this? That’s an obvious question…
For me it’s The Original Series, being crammed on the couch watching with my parents. I’ve seen every episode many times. There’s an episode that gave me nightmares, and I recently showed it to my 11- and 15-year-old. They won’t listen to any music that isn’t in the Top 10 and won’t watch anything they don’t recognize as having come out recently in the cinema. It’s very tough for me to get them to watch all the great things in the past because they have such resistance to it. But I put on an episode — “Miri,” the one where there are only teenagers left on the planet — and my 11-year-old was absolutely gripped and couldn’t wait to watch more.
I’ve been re-watching TOS episodes for the first time since I was a kid and one thing that really struck me is how people have this impression of William Shatner nowadays as this hammy actor and he was so great.
He’s a genius! He elevates his dialogue and makes it epic and truthful.
Yeah, what he’s doing with really tough dialogue in those scenes, the way he knows which lines to just casually throw away and others where he just really sells it.
It’s so tough. He sells everything. People who think he’s hammy are people responding to other people doing funny impressions of him. If you watch the original he’s utterly brilliant. He was one of Canada’s top Shakespearian actors. He brings that level of commitment and epic high stakes to what could have been ridiculous dialogue. He and [Leonard] Nimoy together were a genius double. Anyone who thinks they’re hammy should try to do it themselves. I’m trying to do it now and, I’m telling you, it’s not easy.
What was your reaction to being offered this part?
Terror really. Just the idea of sitting in the captain’s chair having grown up watching this. Anything that scares me is something I run towards, so I tend to jump off buildings and out of planes and accept public speaking engagements, things that make the general public quake in their boots. It seemed like a ludicrous and terrifying notion.
I heard a podcast that claimed when early man came out of their caves and stood in an exposed environment with a lot of eyes on them it meant being vulnerable to attack and in danger — and that’s why we instinctively hate public speaking.
I heard the same one! What was that on?
Tim Ferris. It could be bullsh– but I like the story.
Yeah. So I thought it’s a mad and terrible idea. The producers told me all the reasons why it’s Star Trek but not as you know it. It’s not about the captain, it’s about [Sonequa Martin-Green’s character Michael Burnham], and she’s fantastic. One of my best friends is in The Walking Dead and I’ve taken a great interest in her stuff. It’s serialized, which is unusual. And they told me — and I don’t want to ruin it for anybody — but the role gives me something to act. Beyond the fun of saying “Energize! Phasers to full! Shields to maximum!” which is over in 10 seconds, I wanted something to do that fell somewhere in the wheelhouse of what I’m used to — which is pretending to be people who have secrets and have stuff they care about. They gave me some juicy morsels. It’s hard to talk about because there’s a complicated and layered story which one isn’t used to from Star Trek. When you say “I’m in Star Trek” other people get excited by the phasers and Klingons and uniforms and things, but all that wears thin very quickly if you can’t do what we do as actors — which is be involved emotionally in things that are recognizable.
What did you think of the uniform when you first put it on?
I thought, “How am I going to get into this thing?” and that I’m going on starvation rations for awhile and get to the gym. We all did. It fits a lot better now than in episode 3. I did send an email [to the producers] saying, “Please don’t make me wear that baby puke mustard” [yellow captain’s shirt from The Original Series] and they said, “Don’t worry, it’s blue.”
Shatner got away with it, but by season 3 it was pretty snug.
He got away with it. I have blue eyes and I was enormously relieved.
What can you tell us about your character?
Absolutely f— all. It’s clear when you meet him he’s a man with conflicting agendas. I seem to take an interest in Burnham, which is surprising. I’m interested in helping her regain her — f— I don’t know if I can say that…
I’ve been assuming your relationship would be antagonistic for some reason.
No. It’s odd because I bring a history of playing a couple high-profile antagonists to this, but I’ve also played a bunch of heroic characters. I generally don’t accept a job unless there’s something I think I can do with it that’s interesting. The more nuanced the writing the better I look as an actor, it’s pure vanity.
What’s been the most fun part of this?
The first day I said “energize.” You beam in and out of places the same way they [filmed] it in the 1960s. You say “energize,” you stand there for a minute, then you run off the set, and then they carry on filming. Literally all the iconic moments: Holding a phaser, beaming in and out of places, fighting a Klingon, holding a Tribble. The whole sentence, “I’m going to be a captain in Star Trek” was in all capital letters, like a Trump tweet. Then once you’re here, it’s like every other job as an actor. As ridiculous as sci-fi can be sometimes, it’s got to be completely real to you in that situation. You have to imagine you’ve trained in Starfleet, you’re in a battle, you’re a leader. The fun’s over now; the fun is for people watching. Luckily, it’s a really nice group of people and Sonequa is queen bee — she organizes games nights and BBQs. It makes a huge difference for the actors on set.
Aside from the special effects aspect, what’s been the most challenging aspect?
Well, it’s a giant, big budgeted thing. You’re servicing a million needs. The challenge is to stay truthful to what’s inside it and not get swept away by plot and effects and toys. In the end, it’s exactly the same as doing dinner theater. Something truthful and interesting has to happen between people. If it’s just reciting plot, people just tune out. Like in the scene you saw. There’s new technology [a Klingon cloaking device] that [Captain Lorca has] never come across. So on one hand, I’m scared. On the other, I don’t want to show the crew that. Also, this is a challenge, and I like battles and war, and I’m sure there must a way around this. So those are the moments that are interesting.
Any good anecdotes from shooting so far?
When you fight Klingons, they’re big tough nasty guys. But their faces break if you touch them. [The prosthetics are] actually very fragile. So you have to fight very tenderly with as much aggressive violence as you can. There’s also been this bizarre backlash online about how ethnically diverse our cast is. I think they don’t quite understand what Star Trek is about in the first place. It’s always been about that.
Especially The Original Series, which was famously progressive for its time, though that same level of groundbreaking and controversial boldness is something the latter Trek shows seemed to shy from.
There’s a gay couple in this show and our show does delve into characters’ private lives. I think will be surprising for the viewers. Just the interest out there is insane. I Instagrammed a photo of my script with all the lines blurred out and all you could see is my name on it. It turns out there are some Trekkie Putin-hackers who managed to enhance left-right like in Blade Runner and make out two words from which the extrapolated a sentence and there was much debate about what it meant. What’s been amusing how wrong fans are about what this show is about and who’s going to do what. There are some genuinely surprising plot twists. The scripts are about 60 pages and the nondisclosure agreement was about 300 pages. On Harry Potter, we had nondisclosure agreements and I always signed them as “Mickey Mouse,” “John Lennon” or “Jesus.”
Well, the books were the bestselling books in the world. What are we keeping secret? But on this thing, people really care about the minutia — how many buttons are on my pants, where somebody stands on the bridge, whether the communicator flips open or not. If I tell you anything they’re allowed to take my childrens’ kidneys out with a blunt spoon.
The production did have a bit of a challenged reputation for awhile with delays and producers changing. Did that impact things on your end at all?
That is true, and it’s not a secret. But it’s also true Game of Thrones re-shot most of its pilot, Westworld shut down for awhile and Titanic went twice over its budget. None of those things matter. It’s not a guarantee of success either. But I’ve been around plenty of things that had teething trouble.