Jason Isaacs Interview On “Star Trek: Discovery”
By Abbie Bernstein
In STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, which premiered its first episode on CBS and is streaming the rest of its first season on CBS All-Access (new episodes premiere each Sunday), we are in the universe of STAR TREK Prime, aka STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES. However, it is ten years before the U.S.S. Enterprise launches its exploratory mission.
Jason Isaacs plays Gabriel Lorca, captain of the starship USS Discovery, at a time when the Klingon Empire is threatening war. The English actor has plenty of genre cred, having played Lucius Malfoy in the HARRY POTTER films, as well as Captain Hook in the 2002 feature version of PETER PAN, the detective hero of the reality-switching police drama AWAKE, the villainous Satanist husband in the TV remake of ROSEMARY’S BABY, a police detective investigating an apocalyptic cult in the series DIG, a scientist playing with longevity in A CURE FOR WELLNESS and one of the leads in Netflix’s series THE OA. On the straight drama front, Isaacs also played Rhode Island gangster Michael Caffee in three seasons of BROTHERHOOD and a Jew in WWII Germany in the film adaptation of GOOD, which he also executive-produced.
Isaacs is at a party thrown by CBS for the Television Critics Association at the network’s Radford Studios facility. The STAR TREK: DISCOVERY executive producers are also present, along with some of Isaacs’ cast mates, including Sonequa Martin-Green, who stars as Lt. Michael Burnham, James Frain as Michael’s adoptive father (and Spock’s biological father) Sarek and Mary Chieffo as Klingon battle deck commander L’Rell.
Everyone appears to be having a good time, but Isaacs would rather not be asked general questions, like what he’d most like people to know about STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. “Oh, nothing that you could sum up. That’s the worst thing about publicity is that you feel like you have to encapsulate something, or tell people why something is good. Watch it. Like it or don’t like it. I can’t control that. We’re making the best story we can.”
However, Isaacs is perfectly happy to respond to more specific queries, both during the Q&A session with his comrades and in a one-on-one conversation later.
For starters, yes, he is a lifelong STAR TREK fan. “I come from a family of boys, and we used to fight, or still do fight, all the time. In England, when I was eight, there were only three channels, I think, and the thing we fought most about was which channel we were going to watch at night. [But] there was never an argument when STAR TREK was on. The whole family crammed onto the couch watching STAR TREK.”
Those viewings did not prepare Isaacs for actually acting in STAR TREK. “The idea that I was ever going to be a spaceman and play football for Liverpool …” he laughs, recalling these childhood aspirations. “I don’t know that [at age eight] I thought about being an actor, but the notion that I would get to stand one day and say, ‘Energize,’ and point phasers and run in exactly the same way they did fifty years ago – run to the left and run to the right, because there’s no CG way to look like you are being hit by a torpedo, other than an embarrassing way – it’s unimaginable that we are doing it and that we get paid for messing around like children in the backyard.”
STAR TREK has always been known for its science-fiction take on the issues of the day. Does Isaacs feel that STAR TREK: DISCOVERY continues in this tradition? “Yeah, I think we have manifestations of that. I think we live in troubling times, dark times, where this extraordinary prism of sci-fi and fantasy and Gene Roddenberry’s vision to examine the craziness that’s going on on the nightly news and how the world is getting more divisive and groups being pitted against each other, and we are separating and isolating. And I don’t know how to explain it to my children. I don’t know how to tell them why there are people in power who say and do these awful things and create this much division.
“So there’s no question that we are part of a story that shows not just how it can all be harmonious in a big Diet Coke effort, but how you get there. There’s a lot of conflict between us. We are complicated characters for complicated times, and our journey through the struggles that we have together and where we fall out or don’t fall out, whether we make poor or good decisions, are everything the show was always about, but for the twenty-first century and for the nuanced times we live in, definitely. So it throws out difficult choices. All great storytelling is, ‘What would you do?’ Well, we’ve got some fantastic situations to go, ‘What would you do? Who do you identify with?’”
There are a lot of battle scenes in STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Does Isaacs feel that the series is telling a war story? “Yeah. But since all stories are about people in crisis, there is no story if there is no crisis, the biggest crisis you can have is war, and it reveals sometimes the deepest truths about people. So the stakes start very high, and then they climb.”
Is playing a captain, someone in charge of a group of others, different from playing a subordinate or a loner? “Well, there is,” Isaacs replies, “but there’s an old acting maxim – ‘You can’t play the king.’ What it means is, you can’t take stages, people give you stages. My first day of rehearsal at drama school, we were doing A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, and I felt they were all being very disrespectful to Bottom, who was meant to be a brilliant actor. And the director took me aside and she said, ‘Stop trying to make them respect you. They’re doing it wrong, I’ll tell them that they think that you’re Marlon Brando.’ I’m surrounded by brilliant actors here [on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY]. They all make me the captain, so I don’t have to do very much. You don’t have to stamp your authority on a group of people that recognize the chain of command.”
Having worked on some very high-profile fantasy and science-fiction projects, how does Isaacs rank STAR TREK: DISCOVERY in terms of ease of immersion in the reality of its story?
“Acting is a very simple job,” Isaacs says. “You just have to imagine you are somebody in a different situation from yourself. There are many things that make it easier, like brilliant sets, like great actors around you, who you just look at and believe, but most of all, a script, a story that feels like something a person might do or think or feel or want in that situation. There are some very talented storytellers back in Los Angeles, and they’re on the set working with us. So one of the great things about building these huge sets, you don’t have to use your imagination. Like HARRY POTTER, they built all the sets [as opposed to having digital extensions]. But mostly, the other people’s eyes. If you look at somebody, and they really feel like they’re in crisis, you want to help them, or you want to make it worse. So the better the script, the better the other people, the easier the job is. This is a very easy job.”
What is Isaacs watching on television these days? “I watch everything on Netflix, because I’m in the Netflix family with THE OA. I watched THE OA. I watched 13 REASONS [WHY] – Dylan [Minette], who’s the lead, played my son in AWAKE, I thought he was magnificent in that. I watch a ton of TV. There’s extraordinary work going on everywhere. It’s a time of peak TV. And viewers have just got an amazing choice of quality work across all networks and streaming networks now. I don’t know how I’m meant to find the time to watch it all, but every time I do, I’m rewarded.”
As for the possibility of a second season of THE OA, Isaacs relates, “You should only know the plans they [creator Zat Batmanglij and star/creator Brit Marling] have. They had five seasons in their head before they sold it. They spent two years mapping it and mapping out a lot of stories. I hope they get a chance to tell those stories. They are the most imaginative and freely creative people I’ve ever met in my life. The first season was so successful – they don’t release figures, Netflix, but I just know anecdotally, everywhere I’ve been in the world, people come up – although it’s not called THE OA [everywhere]. People come up and go, ‘AO, AO!’ But instead of being paralyzed by its success and how much people loved it, they [the creators] are fully empowered. Their imaginations are flying free. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for the second season.”
A last question, working on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, is Isaacs having fun? He laughs. “Oh, are you kidding me? I’m captain of a starship!”
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Jason Isaacs Interview - Star Trek Disovery
STAR TREK has always been known for its science-fiction take on the issues of the day. Does Isaacs feel that STAR TREK: DISCOVERY continues in this tradition?