Interview: The Brilliant Jason Isaacs Talks SKYFIRE & Filming During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Movies In Focus had the great opportunity to chat with the brilliant Jason Isaacs about his latest film, Skyfire. Isaacs has had roles in everything from the Harry Potter franchise to Star Trek, The Patriot and Event Horizon. He’s a captivating screen presence and heightens everything that he appears in. Skyfire is a rollicking rollercoaster ride of a movie which delivers exactly what you want from this type of disaster movie (Read the Movies In Focus review). 

When I caught up with Isaacs we talked about the making of the film and what film production is now like in the post-COVID-19 era. 

Enjoy…

How are you? 

I’m never happier than talking about myself, my wife would say. 

Are you in England?

Yeah. Yeah. I’m in the the house, the loft. I’ve been consigned to the attic. 

I’m in the spare room myself – hidden away. 

I’m not normally allowed here. This is where the kids normally come but they were at school, so I’ve nabbed it. I’m sure they’re downstairs asking ‘why is dad in the loft?”

On the eve of Lockdown 2 as well. 

Exactly. Right. Well, not full lock down. I’ve got a 15 year old. She’s still going to school. Which, you know, there’s no science in that. 

We won’t even get into that. But anyway, it’s good to talk about your movie, Skyfire. So thank you for spending the time.

Yes, that’s right! Let’s talk about the movie

So how did you get involved in it? 

Well, I knew Simon West, the director, because I auditioned for Con Air about 500 years ago, which I’d never forgotten because I was a young actor. I came in to play one of the bad guys and it was for the Malkovich role or something and I was meant to have a gun, I said ‘I’ll just use pencil or something.’ There was an actor reading with me and the man with the camera went, ‘well, just use this’ and took a gun out of his pocket and gave it to me. He said, ‘The safety’s on. You’re fine’. 

25 years later  Simon offered me a job in a film that I couldn’t do and it didn’t happen anyway. And I reminded him of that and we had a good laugh and stayed on Skype for hours. Then six months later or something he called, he said, ‘that film never happened, but I’m doing a big Chinese disaster action movie. Are you in?’ And I’m like, ‘yeah’. He said, do you want to read the script?’. I went, ‘Is it good?. He said, ‘yeah, it’s great’. ‘I’m in’. 

So I just trust him. He’s a really good storyteller. He’s a really nice guy. He said, ‘you’ll have a riot and you can rewrite your lines. You can pick an accent you like’. And he was absolutely right. I had a fantastic time. It’s good old fashioned, big, broad strokes storytelling with modern technology.

It is. Going into it, I presumed you were going to be – from roles you’ve played before – the villain of the piece 

How dare you!

You’re quite a sympathetic character – was that something on the page or did that develop?

No, no, it’s on the page. It bears resemblance to many other big disaster movies and in some ways to Jurassic Park, you know, I’m Richard Attenborough, if I’m anybody. I’m an entrepreneur. Yes, I’m pursuing money, but it’s not like I ignore the scientists. People told me it was safe to build a resort on the edge of this volcano and I’ve used the top scientists and seismologists. If anything, nature is the villain or maybe human beings are the villain for thinking they can beat nature with technology – if there’s a message at all. There’s not a message, it’s a big rollercoaster romp. 

It’s like you said, it’s a huge spectacular film. how much was practical and how much was CGI?

Well, we shot an active volcano and there were  a number of times we had to abandon the set because lava outbursts, you know, I’m not talking bollocks . No, there’s none of it, obviously. I mean, it’s true that there were big boulders, but they’re boulders of polystyrene There was a lot of smoke in the air and lots of paper, that kind of paper smoke type stuff that you ended up just coughing up, you know, strings of black snot with white paper. 

There was fire everywhere and there’s explosions everywhere but it was done very safely. It was a huge crew and they’re very experienced. It’s as dangerous as your imagination can make it – like any of the dangerous things do on camera. Thee job of an actor is to try and put yourself in fight or flight mode and as authentically as possible, imagine yourself in danger. So weirdly you go back to the hotel room as if you have been through some gigantic, life threatening event and you have to remind yourself and it’s all just pretend.

Yes. And it must have been quite strange for you being English speaking actor, within the cast. What was that like? And what was the dynamic with your fellow actors like?,

It was very, very odd for me because one of the reasons I like this business, I think I was drawn to it when I was a student doing plays – is the community aspect of it, the social aspect of it. And I love to find out who everyone is on the set, and you’re there every day with them for months. So you get to know people better and better, and you go out and eat together, hang out together. And yeah, I could not understand a word anyone was saying. Very few of them spoke any kind of English at all. It meant that I bonded with the English speakers because the director and director of photography and, you know, a couple of other people. But what was interesting about it was, first of all, there is this culture clash within the scene. So that works for us.

One scene which didn’t actually didn’t make it into the film is with one of China’s most famous actors. And we sat looking at each other, not understanding what we were saying, and that was the scene and it was great. I think what I found interesting apart from the fact that I was isolated on set socially. They weren’t unfriendly to me, but, you know, chatting was hard. It was how different they were, how different their lives were and attitude to work and how they engage with each other and how they acted on camera, the styles of acting and how Chinese people express themselves emotionally and how they express anger. It’s not the same in a different language. It is different in a different language.

What about marketing the film – it was obviously a big hit in China when it came out at the end of last year, were you involved in the marketing? 

I wasn’t, I was working and I couldn’t go. I was invited to Beijing. I was of course fascinated. I’d never been, I wanted to see what that was like. I’m not sure I would have been a great marketing thrust, for the interviews would have been rather tricky because I don’t speak a word of Mandarin. 

I didn’t get to go. I did go to the Cannes Film Festival with the film though and and that was interesting too, because the lead actress, Hannah and her boyfriend are the kind of Jay Z and Beyonce of China. He’s a huge pop star and she’s a huge star. And many of the actors are very, very well known. They weren’t well known in Cannes and there were a lot of very famous people there. They had a quite a large entourage of people because they trust their own people to do make up and security and the rest of it and navigating around Cannes was an interesting experience because I knew more people and obviously I speak the language and stuff. In the end it did the job that they needed. Back in China, they saw that we were on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. And that was the only publicity I got to do. I haven’t even seen the film yet. 

Have you not, no?

Unfortunately not. I’m dying to see it.

It’s actually a great rollercoaster of a movie. It’s just a big fun blockbuster.

I mean, I knew it would be. I just knew that Simon West can do that stuff really well. He could do it in his sleep, but not to say that he wasn’t on his front foot and excited to explore all the new possibilities of technology and things you can do in the computer and things you can do practically. But it just felt like very, very safe hands to tell an epic story like this, but I haven’t got a chance to sit. It’s odd even doing publicity for film I haven’t seen, but I have no doubt that it does exactly what it says on the tin.

It’s just a good entertaining blockbuster, you know, an old fashioned disaster movie, but like you said with modern effects.

I’ve spent a lot of time in lockdown my family watching a number of foreign language things. Apart from the fact that stories are often told differently by different cultures, it’s how people express themselves. So how Chinese people, individuals, so there is no generic term, but generally how people in that culture express fear or hope or anger or emotion looks and sounds so different than how we do it. I found that fascinating and even doing scenes with them and having to learn little bits of Chinese. I mean, they wanted me to do more, but as I mangled it appalling, they gradually trimmed it down to the bare minimum. But even how you ask a question in Chinese or how you express anger in Chinese is so completely different, and it can be misread by a Western person.

Is it an experience you would like to do again? Is it something you enjoyed?

I often get embarrassed talking about my work because even the word ‘work’ feels false. You know, I do this thing that I enjoy. It started as a hobby, you know, meet people and I make friends and I’m still doing that. I love the adventure of it. I’m kind of making a film in Hungary and going back to this weekend, it’s different culture. It’s set in a different time period. I always get to play different people and find out what their lives are like and when possible I do the research and shadow people in real life. Whether they’re politicians or pimps or you know, drug dealers or soldiers or whatever, you know, I get to walk in other people’s shoes, but safely. So yeah, it was a very eye-opening experience to find out how the Chinese film industry works, which is completely different to ours. What their work ethic is like, what their relationships with each other are like, how people speak to each other. I hope that for all of us, we get to travel, but one of the great aspects of my work pre COVID, is that I traveled and got to dive into different universes. 

How do you think things are going to happen moving forward? Obviously you said that you’re going to work now – what’s different. Or what do you expect to be different?

Oh my God, what’s different? Some things are exactly the same. So it was, it was lovely not having filmed anything for a very long time to be back on a set and be able to forget momentarily, the dark clouds that are looming over all of us and the potential consequences of this beyond the monstrosity of the disease, what will emerge into. 

On the other hand, the other set is completely different. Rigid protocols with zones. It’s much less social. I’m trying not to talk. You got masks on, in between shots. There’s some anxiety around how rigid is the protocol, you know, and, and how long do people quarantine for and has everybody had a test. 

Then thankfully when it actually starts a bit like watching sports on telly when they don’t have crowds and stuff, but when they start kicking a ball or serving over a net, they’re doing the thing that they know I’m doing the thing that I know, and I was able, briefly to just be in scenes with the wonderful Lesley Manville and try and fall in love with her – which was easy and not think about, how many extras that were in the room and whether they’re being responsible when they get away from the set.

Thats’s just it, the whole thing’s changed, even distribution. The way everything has gone to streaming, Is it for the better, or for the worse? How do you think it’s all going to plateau out?

I mean, it’s a terrible, terrible shame that we don’t get to gather in groups and tell stories at the moment in theaters or in cinemas, because something completely different happens when you’re with a large group of people in a dark room. There’s a social contract for start. You’re all just going to be quiet and you’re all going to listen. And you’re going to lend your imaginations to a tale in the theater and in cinema that you will be taken somewhere because the pictures move, they take you to other worlds. Well, there’s something else. You watch a piece of truth on screen. You know, it most manifests when he will laugh or when you all scream in a horror film – and then you laugh because you all scream. But really when there’s less obvious shows of unity, you’re still feeling other people are sharing human behavior with you and you feel less alone.

You feel more connected with the world because you go, yeah, I’ve done that. I thought that, I felt that – that’s the job of an actor to kind of peel the layers back and go look at what we have in common. And you don’t get that when you’re watching it by yourself, you don’t and you can’t. So I, if anybody watching this has ever noticed stand up comedian or very funny person, they can be incredibly irritating at dinner. But if you’re sitting in a crowd of 500 people, you have to cross your legs and try not to wet yourself. There’s something different happens to us when we tell stories in a crowd. And yeah, I don’t know what’s going to happen, nobody knows what’s going to happen. I hope the good version iswe go back to the cinema and go back to theatre.

That’s it – it’s just one of those strange things. I saw Tenant and there were 13 people in the cinema and everyone was masked up and it was just a very strange experience. Have you been?

I haven’t gone to the cinema or theatre. I’m anxious about it. I understand that it’s spread, it’s an aiborne disease. I don’t think that necessarily six foot does it if someone’s got it and they’re shouting or laughing or screaming, you know, singing, I’m sure no one is singing in the cinema, but, other people in different age groups manage their own risk. It’s a great loss and cinema and theatre as well. ‘cause I lump them together can provide a real solace and real comfort and real hope. Like all the arts can for people in dark times. Literature is still available and there are many things that are still available to lift your spirits and to let you know that other people have felt the same, but there’s something truly magic that happens in a group of people when they’re taken on the journey.

You said you’re currently working, what is it you’re filming at the minute?

A film, Mrs ‘Arris Goes To Paris with Lesley Manville and a bunch of other wonderful actors, including a lot of French actors, which is  interesting.

And after that, is there anything in the pipeline?

There’s things – are they’re going to happen? I don’t know. Yeah. There are things and offers and pilots that I’ve signed up to do that we didn’t get to shoot in March that’s supposed to happen at the beginning of next year. I’m quite comfortable being at home. I’m incredibly privileged that I’m not broke or homeless or hungry, which lots of people are. I don’t know what we’re going to emerge into if we emerge into anything. One thing’s for sure. I guess our industry won’t stop because people will be at home watching television. I don’t know if we will get to continue to make it depending on the prevalence of the disease in the community but I look forward to going back to work. I mean, I love going to work. I love my job, but I’m not so stupid as to prioritise that over the safety of my family and my parents, my dad.

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