By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Jason Isaacs has played a number of antagonists throughout his career, from the oppressive Red Coat officer Col. William Tavington in “The Patriot,” to magic blood purist Lucius Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” films to Captain Hook in 2003’s “Peter Pan,” to Satan himself in the “Castlevania: Lords of the Shadow” video game.
The British actor, who’s actually quite charming and self-deprecating in real life, plays a financially motivated land developer in the action-packed Chinese disaster movie “Skyfire” who risks the lives of his employees and customers alike in building a tropical island resort alongside a volcano, despite warnings from geologists and volcanologists. Isaacs is one the few Western actors in the Chinese production, helmed by veteran Hollywood action director Simon West (1997’s “Con Air,” 2001’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”).
In the film, a young scientist (Hannah Quinlivan) invents a cutting-edge volcanic warning system and returns to Tianhuo Island, where her mother tragically died, hoping she can prevent future deaths. The island, located in the “Ring of Fire,” the world-famous Pacific Rim volcanic belt, is now home to the world’s only volcano theme park and resort, the brainchild of its reckless owner Jack Harris (Isaacs). Chaos soon erupts when the once-dormant volcano starts to rumble. It’s a battle with nature to get off the island while fiery death and destruction rains down from the mountain. “Skyfire” will be available On Demand Tuesday Jan. 12. It is in Mandarin with English subtitles.
Front Row Features caught up with Isaacs via Zoom at his home in London shortly before the holidays, where he has been hunkering down with this family during the worldwide pandemic. Aside from a touch of stir-craziness, Isaacs’ sense of humor appears to be firmly intact. He spoke about starring in this action-packed film, explaining that he didn’t see Jack Harris as a two-dimensional villain—what would be the fun in that? —but as a visionary entrepreneur along the lines of Elon Musk. He says he even adopted a South African accent for the role to portray his character.
Front Row Features: Are you excited to be promoting this action-packed disaster movie?
Jason Isaacs: I’ve been locked in my house for nine months and have two teenage daughters so I rarely get a chance to talk about myself.
FRF: You’re in London, right?
Isaacs: Yes, I’m in a lava cave. I’ve got a backdrop that I was given for this junket and I like it because it means I don’t have to curate my lifestyle for other people’s approval. I don’t have to have the right books up and arty objects and a map and a picture. I can’t be judged by my background.
FRF: It’s scary that people start focusing in on what’s behind you.
Isaacs: I’m doing it right now. I’m trying to see what’s behind you. (He laughs.)
FRF: How was it running through fire and dodging lava rocks?
Isaacs: It was fun. It was a laugh. I’d just come from doing a couple of serious and intense things and Simon (West), who I knew from having auditioned for him 30 years ago for “Con Air”—oddly, he gave the job to John Malkovich, which I can’t imagine why—had come to me for another film, which didn’t happen. So, he got in touch with me and said, “Look, I’m doing a giant Chinese action movie with volcanoes exploding and you build a resort in one. What do you think?” And I said, “I think when do we start? Let’s do it.” Sometimes it’s just fun to play in the sandbox. These kinds of movies don’t get made anymore Apart from “Jurassic World,” they haven’t made movies like this since the ‘70s—huge disaster movies—or as the Chinese call them, “Rescue movies.”
FRF: You’re basically like “Jurassic Park’s” Richard Attenborough character in this—the greedy, arrogant Westerner.
Isaacs: Bless you for saying that. It’s absolutely true. People have said to me, “What’s it feel like playing the villain in the movie,” but nobody called Dicky Attenborough that for building a park with dinosaurs in it. Maybe I should have had a walking stick. I’m the entrepreneur, the thrusting entrepreneur. I had Elon Musk in mind. I had a South African accent, although he’s managed to bury his. It’s the current buzzword—I’m “led by the science” of volcanologists/seismologists telling me it’s perfectly safe to build alongside this volcano and have tourists there. So, (my character Jack Harris) built one of the world’s leading tourist resorts—the eighth wonder of the world. Luckily, for the movie, everything starts going wrong almost immediately.
FRF: It starts off with a bang, for sure.
Isaacs: Simon is a master at action set pieces. He had too many great ideas for action pieces. He wanted to get it started. There were some other ideas for action sequences, but he said, “I don’t understand why we don’t have a Jeep going backwards flying over a river of lava?” He just had all of these crazy ideas and they gave him the toolbox to make it. It’s all exciting and realistic and brilliant and firmly tongue-in-cheek, all at the same time.
FRF: Your character isn’t all bad—he’s trying to run a business and keep people employed…
Isaacs: That’s right. And I get some redemption towards the end. The redemption bit was great. I was acting with a 7-year-old girl (Yiqing Li) for quite a lot of it. This little girl blew me off the screen. I’ve never been near anyone half as talented. There she was—Meryl Streep-like. She could cry on cue. Simon would give her a note, someone would translate it, and she would do it—not only could she do it brilliantly but she was there fully present, emotionally, a hundred times in a row. It made me embarrassed to complain, which I wanted to do, because I had to keep carrying her (through the fire and “lava”). She was light as a feather—at 9 a.m.—but by 10 p.m., it was like carrying a lead balloon. So, there’s some comedy in it but not slapstick-type comedy. It’s like an adventure movie they wished they had the technology to make in the ‘70s.
FRF: Viewers get to see some behind-the-scenes footage during the closing credits, and I think people may be surprised at how much was shot on a set.
Isaacs: Yeah, but they also did lots of stuff practically, which was staggering to see. It was interesting to see how many things had to be shot with models and computers and people on wires against green screen because A) we weren’t really near a volcano, spoiler, and B) you can’t have people too near fire. I think I got closest to the fire than anyone else. I was running through real fire and they were shouting in Mandarin at me: “Watch out on your left. Look out behind you,” but I didn’t know what anyone was saying. (He laughs.)
The underwater sequences were very taxing for those two actors (Shawn Dau and An Bai) who were underwater. If it’s possible to say that watching a lot of people suffering and dying is fun, it was enormously good fun.
FRF: How was it filming a Chinese action movie versus a Hollywood action picture?
Isaacs: I think it’s cathartic to see these people go through trauma. Also, because it’s Chinese, disaster movies are always about people, relationships. It tells us a lot about Chinese society when you see what relationships in this are prioritized. It’s the father-daughter relationship that is prioritized; it’s not the lovers. It’s the inter-generational stuff that’s so important in China. So, it has a slightly different tone to it.
FRF: How was it working with a mostly Chinese cast and crew? Did you learn a little Mandarin?
Isaacs: I don’t speak Mandarin and (my co-stars) don’t speak English but you can see that Chinese people—I don’t want to generalize but the people in this film—express their emotions differently when they’re angry or scared, when they’re loving—whatever it is—when they’re contemptuous. It comes out differently. And the tiny bits of Mandarin I had to speak, it was a profound embarrassment all around. I’m a pretty good mimic; I thought I was mimicking perfectly. I speak a little bit of French and Spanish but (Mandarin) is such a completely different language. I would say, “Come and sit down and have a drink, and it would come out as “Your mother has a donkey’s behind.” Watching them talk to each other and watching them engage with each other, on and off camera, was such an eye-opening insight into how very different their culture is to my own, and how differently they relate to each other.
FRF: Was the lobby of the resort’s hotel a practical set or was it an actual hotel lobby?
Isaacs: We shot in Malaysia. We were in a not very interesting dump of a town. (He laughs.) Malaysia is a stunningly beautiful country but we were in this concrete jungle where there were all these horrible Western fast-food places. They found this half-built resort to shoot at. It was an amazing location. It was perfect because it’s meant to be a half-built resort (in the film). I asked them if I could just stay there because it had six swimming pools and palm trees. They said, “It’s not real. The sand is only about an inch thick. There’s oil underneath.” The palm trees were held up by steel girders. So, I said, “OK, I guess I’ll stay where I am.”
FRF: It seems you’ve got so many films coming out. You’ve got “Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets” (based on Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos) which actually sounds comical. Is there a bit of comedy mixed in with heartbreak?
Isaacs: I don’t even know how to describe it, which feels like I’m giving it short shrift. First of all, it was a short (film). I saw it and said, “This is brilliant.” The writer/director (Yaniv Raz) is incredibly talented, and I got in touch, and he told me he was making it into a feature film, and asked me if I wanted to be in it. And I said, sure. It’s oversimplifying it monstrously calling it a “coming-of-age story” about a boy, because really the way it’s shot, it would be like describing a David Lynch story as a romance. It’s a really unusual, almost absurdist take on a young boy’s maturing and romance. I’ve got a feeling it will be a cult classic. But it’s brilliantly directed and it’s a very unusual story which I’m peripherally in.
FRF: Are you the pigeon?
Isaacs: The pigeon is the boy’s psychiatrist. It’s a mad time, adolescence. People’s hormones and people’s neurons are firing in all directions and that is reflected in the telling of the story in what is going on inside the main character’s head. That is coming out on all streaming platforms in January at almost the same time as “Mass,” (by Fran Kranz) which is showing at the Sundance Film Festival, which now means showing all of the world because Sundance is virtual (this year). It’s a beautiful, human story.
The bare bones of the plot, if relayed, might put people off. It’s two sets of parents who meet. One set has lost their child in a school shooting. Years later they haven’t been able to recover. Their marriage is in tatters. So, their therapist suggests they meet with the parents of the shooter, and they sit down together and talk it out over an afternoon. What it’s really about is forgiveness and hatred and division—those things that are ripping America and Britain and maybe the world apart at the moment.
(It addresses) how you get beyond events, how you get beyond your baggage. It’s a particular story about these people but it’s not a “message movie.” It takes you on a journey. It’s about how all of us are held back by things that we won’t let go of and how we don’t see each other or hear each other. It’s a stunning achievement. But I’ll tell you, I haven’t seen the (finished) film, but the experience I had making it was easily the most overwhelming emotional experience I’ve ever had at work. All four of us (Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, Reed Birney) felt like something enormous had happened.
I have no idea if any of that was captured on camera or if even a fraction of that will be conveyed to the audience at all. You can go through something as an actor and the audience is at home checking their texts. But it’s getting a fabulous response from people so I have a feeling that it might capture some of what we went through. I hope so.
FRF: Have you been able to do anything during lockdown? You also do a lot of voiceover work and animated features and video games…
Isaacs: I’ve done lots of charity galas. I auctioned myself off to families on Zoom. Charities have never had so much pressure and demands on them and all of their donations have dried up. So that’s one of the things I’ve done. Whenever I feel sorry for myself or start getting apocalyptic, I’m humbled by the people I get to work with charities that are out there making a difference, either on the front lines of health service or refugee services. This microphone has mostly been used to try to raise money. Apart from that, I’ve done a lot of washing up. Hopefully, I’ll get to make some more (films) soon. It would be nice to leave the house. My family is sick of me so it’s about time I went out and did my day job. But I can wait.