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A good baddie has to have something valuable at stake, Jason Isaacs explains to Andrew L. Urban, and he should know: he’s the man who shot a kid in The Patriot and now turns up as nasty Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.

Jason Isaacs is a man we love to hate – on screen that is, as Lucius Malfoy, the cruel and humiliating father to Draco, Harry Potter’s arch enemy at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. His mane of white hair and black cloak add to the image of a man with a hard heart. Striding through the lobby of a Sydney hotel for our interview in fashionably torn-at-the-knees jeans, T shirt and baseball cap, his English charm oozing all over the place, Jason Isaacs seems less …er…confronting.

But then I think of his meanly memorable turn as Colonel William Tavington in The Patriot, who shoots Mel Gibson’s little son, for gawdsakes. I throw my notepad at him and curse “You bastard!” but the fantasy soon slips away as we sip at our mineral water and exchange pleasantries. “Your best roles are often …well, you’re a swine!” I say with a professional hiss. 

"a soft glint in his eye"

Jason Isaacs, a soft glint in his eye (the other eye is winking) smiles. No, not that sneering smile, but his own. “Well, I don’t know if that’s true actually,” he says a tad defensively. And no, it’s not true: he’s in Australia playing the nice Mr Darling in Peter Pan – as well as Captain Hook. So maybe it’s half true. (Peter Pan shooting in Queensland, directed by Australia’s P. J. Hogan of Muriel’s Wedding fame.)

“I actually only played ONE villain before in a successful film, The Patriot. The thing about it is it made such an impact on people. The character got under their skin so badly, like herpes…it wouldn’t go away. Which is a tribute really to the storytelling abilities of Roland [Emmerich, director] and Dean [Devlin, producer] who made the film . . .and the writer [Robert Rodat]. It’s a wonderful character and I was very careful not to do another villain afterwards. It would have been easy, god knows, to cash in, when I wasn’t working, to play rent-a-villain opposite your favourite muscle bound hero. But most of the time they’re so poorly written; they think that I’ll bring that evil quality to the script, but actually that quality is in the writing.”

Way too modest, Jason, but then the English….you know. And he went from playing that hard bastard to playing a drag queen opposite Keanu Reeves [in Sweet November]. “Then last year I went from being this ridiculously tough, fearless, God-fearing Army ranger in Black Hawk Down, to a romantic comedy where I’m playing a card sharp and bit of a loser…the next day!” He loves the variety. 

"no cardboard baddie"

So what about Lucius Malfoy. Now Lucius is no cardboard baddie – even if he does wear a black cloak. He is on a moral crusade for the purity of wizardry. He’s a purist, driven to his actions. Isaacs rises to this, he’s animated: “Well, the only way you can play anything truthfully is to believe in the character. As soon as you try to be evil for the sake of the audience, you’re lost. They’ll see right through you.” 

Baddies have to have something at stake, he says. “If Tavington [in The Patriot] lost the war, he had nothing to go back to. His contemporaries were all aristocrats with land and status and he had nothing. Same way Lucius Malfoy: you don’t have to look very far to find parallels. This guy believes in the purity of wizarding blood, and resents the change around him. He thinks the world would be a better place without muggles [wizards from mixed marriages, as it were]. It’s easy to play him truthfully.”

Isaacs wasn’t playing ‘evil’: he was playing ‘purposed’ - a man who knows what he wants. Isaacs brings up the Yugoslavia’s ex-President, Slobodan Milosevic, being tried at The Haague for war crimes. “He doesn’t think he did wrong…he had a purpose. ” 

But it’s his relationship with his son Draco that Isaacs brought to the part as his own input. It’s not in the script. “He’s an abusive, cruel dad; he humiliates his son in front of his peers. He bullies him. And I felt that was Lucius’ tragedy; you can see why Draco has turned into such a little shit, because Lucius thinks the way to raise a child is through humiliation and fear. And I’m sure that’s what his dad did to Malfoy – and back through his family to time immemorial…”

"a pure fantasy adventure for children"

We’re alone in a cavernous room in the Westin Hotel, part of it was the Sydney GPO once, and Isaacs’ last phrase echoes around the room with unnerving gravitas. 

Yet it doesn’t seem at all strange that we’re talking about the deepest aspects of the human condition as a part of a conversation about Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. The film touches on fundamental issues, even though it can be enjoyed as a pure fantasy adventure for children. (Ah, but that’s why stories like this become classic children’s fantasy adventures …)

I suggest to Jason Isaacs that the film’s greatest impact comes from the sense of reality that colours the tone of it; there is no dumbing down or playing for effect, even though it’s a fantasy. Director Chris Columbus seems to have instilled in his cast a desire to play it like a drama. “That’s terribly perceptive of you (I can’t help reporting what the man said!) and it’s almost like you were on the set because my first instincts – and I’m sure everyobody’s who first puts on these outrageous clothes – is to give an outrageous street theatre performance. Kabuki on acid! Every single note of Chris’ to me was about the size of the performance and the reality of it. It’s very easy to get gothic burlesque with it … 

“I remember sitting at the make up table one morning and Kenneth Branagh was sitting next to me and I said ‘how’s it going mate?’ and he said ‘all right, love, how’s it going with you?’ So I said ‘well, I think I’m being a bit big…’ and he said ‘I’m being bloody huge.’ I said ‘well, I’m going off the scale…’ and he said, ‘oh, I don’t even register!’ So Chris was always telling us to keep it real. He believes in this world. He doesn’t patronise the kids or the audience. And I’m glad he did, especially watching the film for the first time.

“My first instincts were kind of outrageous and maybe wafer thin – and he fleshed them out.”

"I was so thrilled how it turned out"

It was also the first time that he watched a film in which played a role that he actually forgot he was in it. “I don’t think it’s ever happened to me that I could sit with everyone from my six year old godson to 60 year olds – I had a private screening ‘cause I couldn’t get to the cinema – so I had a bunch of kids there, including teenagers who dragged their asses there and didn’t want to be there thinking it was going to be way too childish…and a bunch of grown ups…And we sat there gripped. We all screamed at the same time and we all laughed at the same time…and we all had a quiet choking moment when things worked out all right… and we all had sweaty palms in the spider sequences and at the Quiddich. I was incredibly glad I had agreed to be in it. I did have some doubts at first… but I was so thrilled how it turned out.”

Published November 28, 2002

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Jason Isaacs - in Harry Potter


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