Jason Isaacs Muses on being the eternal Ra’s al Ghul
Jason Isaacs, renowned for his villainous turn as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, assumes another dark iconic role as the voice of Ra’s al Ghul in Batman: Under the Red Hood, the latest entry in the ongoing series of DC Universe Animated Original PG-13 Movies coming July 27, 2010 to Blu-ray, DVD, OnDemand and for Download.
Isaacs, who portrays Malfoy in five Harry Potter films, is well known for his lead role on the Showtime series Brotherhood, as well as starring opposite Mel Gibson in the revolutionary war adventure, The Patriot. The British actor has also racked up credits in films like Armageddon, Black Hawk Down, Peter Pan, Grindhouse, DragonHeart and Green Zone; TV series including The West Wing, Entourage and The State Within (for which he received a Golden Globe nomination); and in the voiceover realm in everything from documentary narration and commercial advertisements to video games and the popular animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender,
In Batman: Under the Red Hood, Isaacs gives Batman’s nemesis Ra’s al Ghul a sympathetic twist as the villain attempts to right his own wrongs and help Batman in his efforts against both Red Hood and the Joker. Isaacs is an integral part of an all-star cast that includes Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek), Jensen Ackles (Supernatural), Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) and John DiMaggio (Futurama).
Produced by Warner Premiere, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation, Batman: Under the Red Hood will be distributed by Warner Home Video as a Special Edition version on Blu-Ray™ and 2-disc DVD, as well as being available on single disc DVD, On Demand and for Download.
Isaacs splits his time between the UK and the US, but still found a few moments to chat about his latest animation voiceover role, his yearning for an actual super power, and his childhood addiction to comic books.
QUESTION: This isn’t really the Ra’s al Ghul we’re accustomed to seeing – what’s the nutshell synopsis of his part in Batman: Under the Red Hood?
JASON ISAACS: This role is a bit unusual for Ra’s al Ghul as he’s been Batman’s nemesis a lot in the past. But this time he is actually full of regret for a mistake that he has made, and his inability to control the Joker. A lot of what happens for Ra’s in this story is him explaining to Batman how things went so badly awry, and how Robin ended up quite so dead.
QUESTION: Liam Neeson set a standard for Ra’s in Batman Begins.
How did you decide to approach the voice for this film?
JASON ISAACS: Well, I didn’t think there was much point to doing
an impression of Liam, mostly because he does it far better than me (he
laughs). So I read the script and I looked at the pictures. He looked
like a man with a lot of dignity and authority – there’s a kind of
stateliness about him. He’s been alive for six centuries, which would
give him a certain classiness, I thought. Obviously he’s been powerful
all that time, and certainly possessed tons of wealth and influence. So
I tried to put all of that into the tone to his voice.
QUESTION: You were very participatory in crafting some of the
dialogue as you recorded the film. How important is it for the actor to
be able to contribute to the character?
JASON ISAACS: This is one of the things that happens when a
script has been written and rewritten and rewritten again, and
considered by so many people so often, and they all have different
agendas. They all know what story blocks they’re putting together, and
what the visual sequences look like. And then the actor comes in.
Sometimes just the very last set of eyes laid on the script, by the
person who’s meant to bring it to life, can point out an inconsistency
or a logical flaw where the meaning isn’t clear. It’s happened a few
times in my life that you see a room full of people surprised because
they thought the meaning was crystal clear. But if I don’t really
understand what I’m saying or why, I’m not sure the audience will,
either. So I offer up my thoughts to the director or whoever and, if
they agree with me, then we change it. And if they don’t, then I do
whatever I’m asked because, in the end, I’m just a hired larynx.
QUESTION: Do you believe there is a certain elegant villainy to a
British accent? Or is that a purely American concept?
JASON ISAACS: I think one of the reasons British people play
so many villains in Hollywood stories is that there’s a tradition of
theatre acting and a kind of chameleon-like change that comes from
Europe. Well, that and all the good leading parts are already snapped
up by the Americans over here (he laughs). I think we have a theatre
tradition, and are slightly more prepared to chew the scenery and relish
things a bit more. It has more to do with reaching the back row.
Besides, very often the juiciest role is the villain. The hero is
difficult to play anyway. They’re mostly homegrown and very good at it.
QUESTION: Is villainy fun to play?
JASON ISAACS:The thing that’s fun to play are well written
parts. It’s absolutely torturous to play something that is written
purely for its effect on the audience, and doesn’t seem believable to
you. Or, even worse, somebody that just has no reason to be or speak.
Very often there are chunks of exposition that just would not be said
between people. So evil is fun to play when it’s written sensibly and
well. There’s nothing worse than playing a villain who is outsmarted by
the hero from the beginning, and doing things that are purely sadistic
in a way that nobody will ever do. I think the most monstrous things an
audience reacts to are when they understand that that character has to
do it, needs to do it, must do it – and if the audience was in the same
situation, they would do it, also. Nobody ever thinks they’re doing the
wrong thing. So when the part is well enough written, the actor
responds to the character, because he thinks that he’s doing the right
thing. That’s much more disturbing to watch because you recognize the
inevitability of it. You can’t escape that. The best written villain
roles are the ones that feel real and understandable – because those are
the ones that haunt your nightmares.
QUESTION: What’s it like to be the ultimate nice guy, and yet
most recognized for the villains you’ve portrayed?
JASON ISAACS: I’ve played priests and I’ve played transvestites,
wizards and pirates, and everything in between. But there are certain
roles people remember best. I think that if I spend a day going around
town and everybody opens doors for me and says “hi” and “have a nice
day,” but one guy pokes me in the eye with a toothpick, he’s the guy I
remember at the end of the day. So, if people remember me as playing
villains – and I’ve played two or three of them – that’s because those
parts have kind of hit a consciousness. I’ve been lucky enough to have a
couple of very juicy, very well written parts in stories where the
people telling the story were smart enough to give the villain power.
That’s very often not the case in Hollywood movies.
Maybe one of the reasons I’ve done well when I have played villains is
because I spend most of my life like most people – trying to make sure
that I do the right thing, and make sure that the people like me, and
I’m not behaving (badly). So when I do play a villain once in awhile,
it’s nice to be let off the leash and allowed to be deeply unpleasant
with no consequences.
QUESTION: Was your childhood affected at all by comic books, or
is the omnipresence of the super hero in Hollywood just making its mark
JASON ISAACS: I was slightly suspicious of the whole comic and
graphic novel rebirth, because I wasn’t any part of it and hadn’t read
any comics in so long. But I remember when I was a kid how addicted I
had been to all the DC and Marvel comics. I had mountains of them in my
room – you couldn’t open the door. I wondered why everyone was suddenly
(making comics into films). Then when my friend Paul Greengrass was
getting involved in preparing the Watchman a few years ago to direct,
which then fell apart and it was directed by someone else, I had a look
at it. I wondered why somebody I respected and like so much would be
involved, and I picked it up and suddenly realized the things I had been
missing for all these years.
I mean, as a kid, I was addicted to comics. I couldn’t wait for every
Sunday when my family and I would go and get fish and chips – that’s an
English kind of junk food tradition (he laughs). There was a little shop
next door that sold candy and had boxes of used comics. My dad would
give me money, and all week I would look forward to rummaging through
the boxes and seeing if I could find something that I loved. All those
wonderful characters – I was addicted to it all. I would be dismissive
of some new character – anybody relatively new I would dimiss as some
pretender, but then I would get one of their comics … and then I would
have to go get the rest of the series. My bed was propped with them by
QUESTION: Do you understand what was at the core of that love
affair with comics?
JASON ISAACS: I just know that I did. In some ways, it’s like
asking why somebody likes chocolate and somebody else likes strawberry.
There’s something that works about it there. It’s a combination of the
art and the amount that your imagination fills in between the gaps. And
the fact that the restraints and controls are taken off. When you make
a movie, it’s a very literal medium — you watch the story, and it’s as
if you’re looking through a keyhole. It’s very hard to take people on a
fantastical journey, but in these beautiful and bright frames you can
take them to any universe you create. And 90 percent of it the reader
does by himself. It’s amazing in this generation that somebody has
married all that stuff to actually very adult themes.
Maybe one of the reasons that I loved them so much is that, at that age,
when you’re a kid, you’re not quite sure what the physical realities of
the world are. It wasn’t inconceivable to me that I might get one of
these super powers soon. I might be bitten by a radioactive spider, or
that I could someday fly, or be bulletproof, or whatever. I fancied that
those powers were somehow accessible and within my reach. And sadly,
as you get older, it seems less and less likely.
QUESTION: Does acting in a Batman film have any added
significance for you?
JASON ISAACS: Well, this is probably the closest I’m going to get
to work with Chris Nolan (he laughs). Batman is such an iconic figure –
he’s rather dark, mysterious, and a disturbed damaged guy. But there
was always something very, very attractive about Batman that kind of
pulls you in. He didn’t have any super powers, and I think that was one
of the things that makes him very accessible and relatable. It always
made it seem that if you really worked hard, you might just get to be
Batman – in the same way that, when I played tennis as a kid, I used to
think that if I hit a ball against the wall all day every day, I could
eventually be beat Bjorn Borg. For me, that’s always a remarkable thing.
I remember thinking as a kid that if I just practiced martial arts all
day, and I got really good at the science stuff, and maybe made a few
billion dollars, I could be Batman. So here I am … the closest I’m