Capone sits with Jason Isaacs for GOOD conversation about HARRY POTTER, GREEN ZONE, and how to love Paul W.S. Anderson!!!
Published at: Dec. 30, 2008, 11:07 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey folks. Capone in Chicago here.
A few weeks back, I interviewed Viggo Mortensen about a film coming out in very limited release this week called GOOD. Set in the early days of the National Socialist moment in Germany, GOOD centers on a German professor (Mortensen) who wrote a harmless novel years before World War II that inadvertently served the Nazis as a justification for their theories of racial purity and the killing of the Jewish people. The book serves as such a great inspiration and blueprint for the Final Solution that the professor is elevated through the Nazi ranks almost without any ambition on his part to do so. Jason Isaacs play's Mortensen's best friend, Maurice, who just happens to be Jewish. The changing dynamic of their relationship serves as the films metaphor for how ordinary people who never had a prejudice thought in their life could inch by inch be pushed into such deplorable circumstances and deeds.
Isaacs in one of the great character/lead actors working today. Most people recognize him from his role as the white-haired Lucius Malfoy in the HARRY POTTER films. But I remember him going all the way back to his early work in British cinema, including perhaps the only Paul W.S. Anderson film worth watching more than once, SHOPPING. He has made fairly memorable supporting appearances in such films as DRAGONHEART, EVENT HORIZON, SOLDIER, and ARMEGEDDON. But for many it was his prisoner-killing portrayal of Col. William Tavington, the evil British officer in THE PATRIOT, opposite Mel Gibson, that solidified Isaacs in their mind as a force in acting.
Since THE PATRIOT, he's been one of the busiest actors on the planet with roles in such films as BLACK HAWK DOWN; WINDTALKERS; THE TUXEDO; PETER PAN (in which he played Mr. Darling and Captain Hook); NINE LIVES; and FRIENDS WITH MONEY. Isaacs has also done his fair share of TV acting with a memorable three-episode stint on "West Wing," a recent hilarious turn on "Entourage," and a leading role on the recently concluded Showtime gangster series "Brotherhood."
Much like the interview I had with Mortensen, Isaacs and I didn't really have a time limit…and the man is a great talker…and he'll answer any question you put before him. I can't think of a better set of circumstances. I've always dug Isaacs as a solid, all-purpose performer, but I was lucky enough to find out he's a great guy to converse with on top of that. Just to put this interview in full context, we actually spoke at the end of October 2008, so his references to "Brotherhood" might make more sense in that time frame. Enjoy Jason Isaacs!
Jason Isaacs: So this is for the fantastic Ain'tItCoolNews.com?
Capone: It is. I just got around to watching the episode of "Entourage" that you're in. I had no idea you were even in it.
JI: Ah right. That was really quite fun. I had such a great time doing that.
Capone: I'm not used to being surprised by "Entourage," but that was a great little twist about your character.
JI: Me too! My agent goes, "Listen, you're going to be in L.A. anyway, and they wanted to know if you wanted to do an episode of 'Entourage.'" And I said, "Are you kidding? I love that show; I'd kill to do it. What is the part?" And he said, "I don't know." And I said, "Whatever it is, I'll do it." So they sent the script over, and I suddenly got to the last scene and was like, "Oh yeah!" I'm in!
At should say that as far as Ain't It Cool News, I'm a total techno-geek. Even before my children arrived, I was on bulletin boards before there was a world wide web. I've been on Ain't It Cool News since its very, very first text-based construction. I have it on my bookmarks and go to it constantly. I love the breadth of it and the passion for film of the feedback, and how it maintains a sort of outsider status among the, let's face it, mainstream establishment of review sites. And I mean that in all the right ways. Like the Olympics used to be amateur, there's an amateur approach that you are not part of the establishment. I love it.
Dean Devlin [producer of THE PATRIOT and GODZILLA, among many other titles] is a friend of mine, and I remember he was one of the first people to go, "We should invite this guy to the set." It was one of the very first set visits web writers ever did, because that didn't used to happen.
Capone: Mel Gibson returned the favor by coming down to Austin a couple of times for screenings of PASSION OF THE CHRIST and APOCALYPTO. We weren't feel like outsiders then.
JI: Do you have a name you write under?
Capone: I write as Capone.
JI: Oh, you're Capone! And Moriarty, who I've met, has always been unbelievably nice about me. And it's weird when you meet people who have been nice to you because you think, "I'm going to blow it." And they're going to think, "That guy's a dick, I'm never going to say anything nice about him again." But he was really charming and lovely. And, hey, there's no social obligation for you guys. If you see something and you think it stinks, you have to call it like it is.
Capone: Are you still friendly with Paul W.S. Anderson? I thought I'd read somewhere you might be making a new movie with him.
JI: I'm very friendly with him, and he's a lovely guy who was very helpful to me early on in my career. But I've just never been available when he's been making films lately. I've read a lot of his scripts and saw cuts of DEATH RACE and stuff, but I never see him. He lives in L.A.; I live in London.
Capone: At one point I thought I'd seen you in a cast list for a film called MAN WITH FOOTBALL.
JI: I don't even know if that's a film. I said to him, "What is this film we're making together?" [laughs] I hadn't seen him in ages, and he had a baby with Milla [Jovovich], and I went 'round his house to see him. I never come to L.A. anymore because I've been making "Brotherhood" for years and doing other things. L.A. is a place I go to find work, and I wasn't really available for a time. I was in L.A. for the Golden Globes this year, which didn't happen, so I had time for social things like calling on old friends, like Paul. So I called Paul and went to see the baby, and saw a cut of DEATH RACE. And I said, "Hey, do you know we're making a film together?" And he said, "Yeah, what the fuck is that?" I had no idea. But I'd love to work with him again because there is a shorthand--I know this is cliché. As an actor, your job is to feel loose and free and you're going to have fun and remove every trace of fear and anxiety from your body so you can do your best work. The last thing you want to think is, "Geez, all those people by the monitor are wondering how I'm going to fuck up their film and waste their $100 million." And when it's someone you like and likes you and likes your work and you like their work, you just feel free to go nuts and reach for stuff.
I'm doing GREEN ZONE with Paul Greengrass as soon as we finish "Brotherhood" next week. You get the same feeling, when it's an old friend of yours, you get to do your best stuff. So I'd love to work with him again.
Capone: Paul gets a lot of crap on the internet…
JI: Especially from you guys, are you kidding?! [laughs] He is an absolute hate figure for you guys. But if you spent time with him, you'd think he was a really nice guy. He loves the kind of films that he makes. He just likes simple, cracking, bold-edged storytelling. Every time I see what Paul is up to, I ask him, "Is this really what you want to make?" And he's like, "Are you kidding? I can't wait to make it." It's great that he loves those films and likes that genre and that he likes to work on those types of stories with those types of pallets. There are people out there, not just in film, who are worthy of that kind of venom, and he's just not one of them. It's so odd for me to read it.
Capone: I'm not one of the knee-jerk haters. I actually had fun with SHOPPING, RESIDENT EVIL, and DEATH RACE. How does he handle all of that disdain?
JI: You know what? He's a really remarkable man. One of the reasons I like him so much is that he's remarkably optimistic and positive about everything in his life. And there's no question that SOLDIER was a setback for everybody involved. There's no way to reconstruct the experience; it was an out-and-out failure for everybody. And Paul just retrenched, locked himself in his lovely house, wrote some scripts, worked his way back, never felt sorry for himself, never got bitter or blamed the marketing or the poster, never got jealous of anybody else. He just went, "Okay, well that didn't work. Now I'm going to do something that does." He did a pilot for FX. He wrote a script for someone else to direct. And finally RESIDENT EVIL was the thing that put him back at the Hollywood top table. There was no part of him that became embittered by the process. He thought, "I got very well paid to learn a very expensive lesson to follow your guts." He had a great script for SOLDIER, which was not the script that they shot. And God knows, everyone should be allowed failures. I don't really understand baseball statistic, but if you bat .450. you're one of the greatest players ever. If that statistic was applied to a film director, you'd be a Hall of Fame film director.
Capone: Most of his movies make money. There's no denying that.
JI: Right. And more important for me, the end result is one thing and it's key if you want to keep being in films like he does, but the process of making them is really my experience. You write your articles; you don't read it. So my experience has been, I have a great time making stories with him, and that's important.
Capone: I did not have a chance to meet Paul at ComicCon this year when he brought the DEATH RACE footage, but I would have liked to.
JI: He has a relish. You know what I really enjoy in filmmaking? There's nothing greater than a relish from everybody who can't wait to tell the story, and they're enjoying themselves. There are two types of directors to me who sit behind the monitors watching--and the end result may be the same, but for an actor the experience is very different. There are those who call "Action" and wonder what's going to fuck up. How is this person going to get it wrong? How is the camera going to move wrong? How is the scenery going to be wrong? What will we have to correct to get what I need? And you feel that; you feel that negativity, that fear. It may produce good results, but it's not as much fun as an actor. Then there are the ones who sit behind the monitor and go "What awesome magic is going to be unleashed now?" And you see it sometimes, they sit there biting their knuckles or shouting out things that need to be cut out of the soundtrack later. They get up if it was good and say, "That was great. Hey why don't we do one like this?" And all you feel is positive energy.
Capone: I've always been a fan of Paul's film SHOPPING, which you were in. And it was probably the first time I'd ever seen Jude Law in anything.
JI: Yeah. Paul came from a world…he'd written a couple of episodes for television…but he came from Newcastle, and he and a couple friends of his set up a little video company and wanted to make fabulous, glossy commercial flicks, at least that's what Paul wanted to do. That was not the climate at all in England at the time at all for filmmaking, and he made SHOPPING, which didn't look like any other British film at the time. And it got him MORTAL KOMBAT. It's just like Roland Emmerich, he made a sci-fi movie for film school in Germany, and it was big at the German box office, because he's always wanted to tell stories like that. He loves them. There's nothing cynical about either of their approaches to storytelling.
Capone: I interviewed a director earlier this year who went to film school with Michael Bay, and he told me a similar story. "He's always made movies like that."
JI: Well, I was in ARMAGEDDON. He is a phenomenon on set, really something to watch.
Capone: We should talk about Maurice and GOOD for a little while. The character of Maurice is a reminder, sometimes an unpleasant reminder to John [Mortensen's character] of where he came from and who his friends used to be. What kind of man is Maurice to you?
JI: One of the reasons I couldn't wait to play him is that he was nothing like any of the Jewish characters I'd seen in films set in the 1930s. To be strictly honest, I don't think I've seen a film set in the '30s about the Jewish experience. Some journalists have said to me, "This is not a film about the Holocaust." And I say, "Are you insane? Have you watched this?" It's set in 1933-36. The Holocaust barely comes into it until the end of the film, but this is about a society will all kinds of very powerful modern parallels, which is why I wanted to make the film. And Maurice is a guy who is absolutely German to his core. He fought in the first World War. He unapologetically carnivorous and misogynistic. He's a big character. He fucks and he eats and he drinks, and the reason that his first World War buddy likes to hang out with him is that he's got a very sedate, dull suburban life. And he love the kind of light and energy that comes off Maurice, and the fun and scabrous wit. And what was really engaging was to watch the dynamic of that relationship change, as a microcosm of Germany generally. There's no message in this film; these people are representative. They are very specific individuals. Viggo and I were both very careful when we were shooting and researching the film, we only read contemporary stuff. We didn't read anything retrospective. I read diaries from the time, listened to recordings from the time. I read books and newspapers from the time, so that nobody had hindsight.
I like the unapologetic nature of Maurice, and how he dominated the friendship. You watch that power paradigm shift gradually, and I thought that was incredibly engaging. What it cost Maurice to lose his dignity--the kind of incremental change in his life--I had to chart, because obviously you film things out of sequence. Not only that, I was shooting "Brotherhood," so I'd go over to Hungary for a week, came back to do two weeks of "Brotherhood," went back to Hungary for a week. As I get off the plane, I had to turn into Maurice from having been a Providence gangster. So I had to have very specific reference points: "Okay, this scene in 1935. At this point, I can still practice as a doctor but I can't employ my maid. This scene, I've still got money in the bank, but there's been two boycotts. I had to know exactly where we were in this gradual erosion of my life. We made the costumes get slightly bigger as time went on because he was getting skinnier; he couldn't afford meat any more. And his apartment, they were brilliant at taking some of the paintings away, because he was hocking his possessions. So you see this beautiful art deco thing--he's clearly a very wealthy single man when you first meet him--then you see the same place bare later in the '30s.
So I loved that it was a character from that time that I had not seen before. And that friendship reflected things I hadn't seen about that time period. But mostly what I liked about the story generally and why I got involved in the first place was that I find modern life really difficult. I mean, I've got two little kids, and I struggle to do things that I am ethically okay with, that I go to sleep at night not thinking, "Fuck, I just completely sold myself out." Or more importantly, will my kids judge me and find me wanting? I don't know what I should do about the fact that we torture in my name or that we'd done away with the right to silence. I don't know what we should do about in Britain that asylum seekers are locked up behind barbed wire fences and are given no appeal and are sent back to places. Sometimes there are these economic migrants--a phrase that seems to be on par with leper or a being from outer space--when I think of them, I think it means someone who has come here looking for a better life. And what's the sin in that? I don't know what to do about the fact that probably everything I'm wearing is made in China by people working in conditions I would find abhorrent. But I know what I can easily do if I'm not careful: I could rationalize everything. I can say, if I don't buy this stuff from China, yes they're kids and yes they work in conditions we wouldn't allow in the west, but they need to work. I can rationalize why I don't give money to every homeless person in the street, because I give to a homeless charity. I don't want to pull a $20 out because they might drink or take drugs, but either way I'm not taking money out of my pocket. I can rationalize why I don't give more of my money to charity, when I know that an extra $3 can pay for a cataract operation.
My life is a morass of rationalizations to make me feel okay with the things that I'm ignoring. And the temptation is to go, "You know what? Fuck it. There's just too much of it. I can't draw a line in the sand anywhere. All I can do is vote, hope the representatives make the right decisions." They shouldn't take planes for leisure, but I'll vote for a higher airport tax. But while there isn't one, I might as well get on the plane because it's going anyway. You could drive yourself insane with this stuff, and the film reminds you to do, even though it's complicated, never to lose sight of the fact that we do have a moral compass or we need to have one. And you need to draw a line in the sand, no matter how difficult it may be or how shifting the ground is. I think it does it. I call it an ethical thriller. It does it in a great storytelling fashion, so you're not quite sure what these people are going to do next. What they don't do, any of them, are any of the things I expect them to do. It's Viggo Mortensen, it's Aragorn for God's sake [laughs], surely he should be joining the partisans and hiding people in his attic and getting a machine gun. Maurice should be grateful and slide off somewhere and cower in the corner. None of the characters do what you expect them to.
Capone: That scene between the two of you where you are essentially begging him for a train ticket that you're not allowed to buy yourself is really hard to watch.
JI: The history between them is so prevalent in that scene. It reminds me, I did a film called NINE LIVES, and there's a scene with Robin [Wright Penn] and I, none of it is about what happens between us. It's all about our history.
Capone: You're talking about the scene in the grocery store?
JI: Yeah. It's all about everything that has happened to us previously. And that scene with Viggo and I, which is somewhere at the heart of the film, that's all about everything that has happened to us previously and how this impacts on us and how difficult it is when friendships change in light of external circumstances. It was easier to think about McCarthyism by writing about the Salem Witch Trials. These are very difficult times for us ethically. Should I be marching up and down Pennsylvania Avenue with a placard? I don't know. What should I be doing? By looking at a different time period, the film reminds us that we should be monitoring ourselves, always, for what we're doing and what we're ignoring.
Capone: Viggo said something similar. The film isn't a call to action, but a call to just be aware of your surroundings.
JI: That's the first step. Look, the highest aspiration of any great story is that you're not bored, you're engaged, you want to know what happens next. If you don't do that you're fucked. You have to wonder what's going to happen next. I certainly did when I read it. But then after that, if you can aspire to anything else beyond that, it's that people don't do, "Oh that was good; let's eat." You want them to go somewhere to eat and start arguing, the fall out, they throw cutlery. I remember going to see [David Mamet's] OLEANNA, and going to a restaurant after and screaming, but nobody noticed because everybody else in the restaurant was screaming, because it was right next to the theater. No one stands up and cheers at the credits of this film; they start thinking. And you want to know what the guy does afterwards. "Have I ever done things like that?" Was he making decisions at the time? In retrospect, is it easier to see how wrong he was?
Capone: That ending, my God. I don't want to give anything away, but I never would have guessed that would be how that film ended. But of course, that's the moment where Viggo sees what all of his concessions have been building up to.
JI: But what did he do? Who knows what he did afterwards? Who knows who he became? It's important. It's an unusual film, narrative wise. Both of what watch hundreds of films, they all have essentially the same narrative structure, and they all resolve themselves in the same way so that you feel resolved and the chapter has been closed and you feel distant from it. "And that's what I would have done, rolled my sleeves up and kicked some ass." This film is more adult, and the only way we're going to find an audience is by being championed by the press. It's touch to go into a multiplex and be surrounded by CGI films. But I'm an audience for films like this. I love sophisticated, grown-up storytelling that doesn't tell me what to think and is specific and human and not predictable.
Capone: And concludes in a way forced you to talk, or at least think, about it.
JI: That's the most important thing you could ever hope for.
Capone: You have a history of playing villainous characters. In fact, there are entire online communities devoted to earlier antagonistic characters. What do you think of those sites?
JI: First of all, I'm amazed by it. Who wouldn't be amazed by the thought that there are people somewhere else who spend a lot of time thinking about them? It's weird. In the UK, I had a stalker for a long time, which is very difficult and scary and dangerous, and I had to go to court and have her dragged away from outside my house, this very mentally unstable person. I was nervous at first when I first saw this stuff appearing. But actually, these women--I've met them, they're mostly women--are so lovely and so devoted that they run websites and archive material that I don't even remember being in. If I paid a team of graphic designers, I couldn't have websites like these women run. And I'm disproportionately represented on the internet, considering where I live on the great fame totem pole. They are so kind, and they come to wherever I am. They all made a pilgrimage to Providence [where "Brotherhood" shot] and brought gifts for my wife, my family, my kids. When I was on stage in London doing "The Dumb Waiter," there were people who came to every single night of the production, people who came from all over the world. But I'm not like Viggo; I can walk down the street anywhere, anytime, and people, if they recognize me, are very pleasant. So I'm not mobbed anywhere. But I have this unbelievably devoted band of misguided women [laughs] who think the sun shines out of my Levis. Who wouldn't like it? They are so supportive. Some of the worst things I've ever done, they tell me "Oh, that was genius." It's like having a team of affirmation counselors.
Capone: And you work so often, sites like that can be helpful to point the fans toward appearances in movies or TV shows that they might not know about.
JI: Hey, when I want to know when something is coming out or when an article has been published or when something is on TV, I go to the fan sites. That's the only time I go, because my friends sometimes go on the message boards and create fictitious characters and go on the message boards and start scurrilous rumors about me [laughs], and then send me the link to some debate about whether I have had a baby with a makeup artist. Or whether I wear a wig everyday.
Capone: You seem to have made a transition from villains to men in the military.
JI: I was in BLACK HAWK DOWN because, well, it was Ridley Scott. And now there are films about Iraq. Hopefully I'm going to be in the best one, GREEN ZONE. Back in the same place, some uniform shooting a very different film in a very different time.
Capone: What a cast on GREEN ZONE too. Are you done filming that already?
JI: We filmed it, but didn't film the ending because of a potential SAG strike, and Matt [Damon] had to go off an honor a commitment somewhere else. As soon as I finish "Brotherhood" next week, I get straight on a plane to Morocco to shoot the ending, which I just read this morning.
But I do play a lot of military guys. As I get older, I get promoted. I was Col. Tavington, then I was Major something. When I first got started, I was in a series called "Civvies," which was very successful in Great Britain. I was a Sergeant in that, so I'm moving up in the ranks. They are all very different. You said there is an amazing cast in GREEN ZONE, and there is. But almost everyone on the screen, apart from a few actors, are real members of the military who are just back from Iraq and Afghanistan, including Iraqis who served as translators; there are an awful lot of those people around. None of them fit my preconceived notions of what soldiers would be like. It was really a privilege to work with them.
I think the reason that Tavington worked so well in THE PATRIOT and the reason I didn't take any villain roles for many years after that, really not until Lucius Malfoy and Captain Hook came around, was because Tavington felt like a real person in the sense that he had a reason to want to win the war and do the things he did. He killed his prisoners because in those days a lot of people decided to kill prisoners because it was too expensive to transport and feed them. He wanted to rule by terror; God knows we've all wanted to do that a lot. For Britain, the tide of the Second World War only turned when we started carpet bombing cities. So this is a guy who had a huge investment in winning the war; he had nothing to return to in England. The backstory we created for him said that if he won the war, he was going to be a major land owner, a force to be reckoned with. And if they lost the war, there was nothing for him. All he was trying to do was win, and one of the difficulties I had with the parts I've been offered and turned down since then was that I had no idea how to play someone who can say and do things just to make the audience go "Oooh." Actually, it never really works, because you can only hate someone that you believe in. If something is written in a cartoon way to twirl and invisible mustache at you, you know it. And almost always, the heroes are smarter and stronger and more able. But in THE PATRIOT, Roland is such a skilled storyteller and Mel is such a talented and smart actor, they wanted to make the character powerful and believable.
Capone: And then Malfoy arrived.
JI: Malfoy and Captain Hook arrived the same week, and I thought I couldn't do both. You can't possibly do two children's films, so I thought that I'd do PETER PAN because it's a long job, it's two parts--Mr. Darling and Captain Hook--and everybody I knew verbally beat me. So I instantly changed my mind for fear of assault and battery from my various godchildren. And I did both, thank God, PETER PAN is a beautiful and stunningly good film. It wasn't initially successful, but now on DVD, it's become a staple in everyone's house who has kids. Apart from that, I got to live on a beach in Australia for a year making this, what I think is, a classic film.
And then HARRY POTTER, it's been such an enormous part of my life for years now, and almost everything else I do, I knock myself out to try and make things real--I research them, I over-research them. I steep myself in it and torture myself at night trying to make something interesting and believable and human. But then you suddenly get handed a wand and full-length velvet cape, and you're sharing scenes with some of the biggest and best scene stealers who have ever lived. You really have to hit the ground running. To give that much joy to so many people and to have such a laugh doing it feels like an embarrassment of riches.
Capone: I know that Lucius is not in the sixth book, but I heard you might still make an appearance in THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE.
JI: I'm not in the sixth book, but I might be a moving painting for a frame. I'm not in the film essentially. Luckily they let me come and say hello to everyone for a day and put my costume on, but essentially I'm not in the film. Number Seven and Number Eight, no one has read the script yet. I've seen the book; I know I'm in the book. I would hope given they are making two films of it, all of my bits will make it in the movie. I wish they'd make 10 films out of it, are you kidding? First of all, here I am in Chicago, I'm shooting in Rhode Island, I'm off to Morocco, I very rarely get to sleep in my own bed and take my kids to school. So one of the great things about HARRY POTTER is that I get to live in England. Apart from that, who would not want to go and do that. Just to set in the makeup chair and look to my left and see Michael Gambon, look to my right and see Maggie Smith, or sit and hang out with Gary Oldman talking magic. I keep pinching myself.
I've been asked before, do you resent the fact that you're best known for that role. What a ridiculous question. I love the work on a lot of the jobs I do, particularly that one. Why would I mind? I don't even care about being known for anything. Most think I aspire to disappear into, but with HARRY POTTER, if you tell a kid you're in it, or even their parents, they light up. You can actually give a thrill to someone just by doing nothing. For a lazy person like me, that's a real treat.
Capone: How did you end up in Edgar Wright's GRINDHOUSE trailer?
JI: Oh, Edgar and Simon very sweetly offered me a part in HOT FUZZ that I couldn't do because I was off doing this thing called "The State Within," which was a miniseries. I played the hero of the miniseries, and it wasn't to play the hero in HOT FUZZ. I really want to work with them because I really loved "Spaced" and SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but I thought that it had been a long time since I played the hero in something and carry something, so I said, "I can't do it." And they gave me a lot of stick for it because HOT FUZZ was so successful. But then Edgar phoned me up and said, "You still want to work with me?" I said, "Alright." No money, took about a half hour in the freezing cold and pouring rain, and I'm on the screen for about three frames. Alright. And the girl in the little sequence that I was shooting was named Georgina. She's English but she lives in New York, and I asked her if she was an actress, and she said "No, I'm a fashion designer." And I said, "You're kidding, what are you doing here?" And she said, "My boyfriend's in the film business." She married Harvey Weinstein; she didn't tell me who he was. And I'm saying things like, "How's that working out for him? Are you guys going to stay in New York or movie back to London?" I wish she'd told me; I wouldn't have embarrassed myself so much.
Capone: Which part in HOT FUZZ did they have in mind for you?
JI: Oh, that wouldn't be fair. It's so unfair to do that.
Capone: Actually I wondered if it was a part that maybe left the film when you couldn't be in it.
JI: It's in the film, and another actor is playing it. And I'm sure every part I've ever played has been offered to somebody else first too. THE PATRIOT was offered to a very well known British actor who had no yet answered, and they were getting anxious about whether he was going to answer, so they did what productions often do and said to the casting director, "Look, can we just get some other people on tape just in case this guy says no?" And they saw my tape and they really liked it, and they said, "Let's just go with that guy. Can we do that?" And they phoned this other actor's agent and said, "Is that alright?" And he very sweetly said, "Sure. Fine." That happens all the time. There are a lot of things I've turned down that went on to be very successful. If we start talking about it, I might start weeping onto the table.
Capone: THE PATRIOT was a huge turning point in your career. It wasn't the first time I remember seeing you, but it was the first time I made myself remember your name from that on.
JI: I was lucky. That was a great part. I went on videotape in my own front room with my own little video camera. And when I heard they wanted to fly me out to Hollywood to meet me, I'd presumed it was to make this famous actor sign because I knew it had been offered to him, and it was just a bit of leverage to scare him. When I got there, they put me up in this hotel and had a car come pick me up. It was a Mercedes, and I thought, "They might just be serious about this." So it was the first time I'd been a part of a nice big American film. I had a nice big part in THE SOLIDER, but the film didn't do very well.
But in terms of career strategy, whatever that is, I was offered a lot of villains afterwards, and I didn't do any of them. And if I'd wanted to be much richer, I probably should have done them. But I decided to be willfully perverse and play third, fourth lead drag queen in SWEET NOVEMBER and then go do a studio play in London. That window of opportunity does not stay open. They don't keep offering lovely big juicy parts if you keep turning them down. So it was a while before I got back in the rooms where they might offer me big parts, and that's when PETER PAN came along.
Capone: Hey, you got to work with Jackie Chan [in THE TUXEDO].
JI: [laughs] I did. It was an amazing experience. I have to say, I've worked with an awful lot of superstars, and when you get to know them, they become very human to you. Nice or not nice, it depends. But the more time I spent with Jackie, the more of a superstar he seemed. I couldn't believe he wasn't triplets and they were pacing themselves coming out of the dressing room one at a time. The amount of stuff that he did for charity and for business and for preparing sequences that might or might not be used in the film and delivering sandwiches and holding the lights. Clearly, when they make films in Hong Kong, everybody does everything. It was interesting because I saw this work ethic that I'd never seen before or since. I thought that he was incredible. If there was a piece of dirt on the set, he'll help someone sweep it up. He'll do the clapper board. He'll stay long after he's finished.
And then when we were asking about this childhood, I asked him if he remembered his first karate move, and he said yes, and he did this little move with his foot in the air. And I asked how old he was when he learned that, and he said he was four. And I asked, "How do you remember it so well?" And he said, "They used to balance a pint of water on his foot, and if you spilled any water, they'd beat you with a bamboo cane until you bled." And then he started to tell other horror stories about the orphanage where he trained--although he wasn't an orphan. It was a performing-arts orphanage, where they would run around in circles holding water on arms stretched out wide, little kids, and the first person to spill was beaten until they bled. If there is any mess in the dormitory, again, beaten. No education of any kind. It was all dancing and singing and acrobatics and karate. So he has this unbelievable work ethic, but it's driven by something…as the Jesuits said, "Give the child before they're seven, and I'll show you the man." That's who he is; he's a force of nature.
Capone: I appreciate all the time you've given us. I truly am a great admirer of your work. Thanks.
JI: No, the pleasure's mine. I love to work. It's a rare privilege in my business. The truth is the bit in front of the camera is my least favorite bit. I love being able to just for a while, like in GOOD, immerse myself in the 1930s, and live that life in my imagination, not just the bits in front of the camera but spend weeks and weeks doing it. Playing a brain-damaged gangster in "Brotherhood," I've spent some time with people who are brain damaged and spent a lot of time reading about it and thinking about it. And spending time with criminals to be honest with you, and learning about that. And with GREEN ZONE, I'm so looking forward to getting back to that because of Paul's style is unbelievable, but to also be with the soldiers again who will have had adventures since I saw them last that absolutely dwarf anything that's happened in my life. That's the real privilege. The payoff is that I get to be in front of the camera and prance around and put on funny voices.
Lovely to meet you, and you know I'll be reading it because I'm on there every day.