Playing a child-abductor in Lifetime’s Stockholm, Pennsylvania is something of a departure for the very likeable Jason Isaacs. Yet he manages to bring his unique brand of sympathetic depth to the character of Ben McKay, who kidnapped Leia (Saoirse Ronan) as a child. The film begins when Leia is returned to her mother (Cynthia Nixon) 17 years later, with Isaacs’ initially featured in a series of flashbacks. Written and directed by Nikole Beckwith, who originally intended it for a play, the film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, then on Lifetime in May 2015. Of the sinister subject matter Isaacs says, “Nikole uses everybody’s complete grotesque fascination of the subject to open the door to a much more interesting discussion than I think anybody predicted.”

Let’s talk about Stockholm, Pennsylvania

Yes. Let’s talk about locking children in basements for 20 years.

It’s so cheery! But being a father yourself, could you in some way relate to Ben because he’s this father figure, wanting to protect his pretend daughter?

I think he wants to be important to someone. I think he wants to have a project that makes him feel like he belongs in the world and he is seen in the world. You know, we’re just in a massive explosion of social media that everyone needs to be validated by everybody else and there’s nothing that delivers that more intensely, for Ben, than having a person to whom he’s interesting in the world. He’s made her feel like the world is over and he’s her savior. It’s not an act of malice. I mean as a father, as soon as you hear that someone’s locked someone else in the basement, you assume that the story behind it is going to be the stuff of horror that we read in the newspapers, but that’s why I think Nikole is such an interesting writer. She uses that as a jumping off point to show what it really means to love someone, to dominate them, to need them, to be needed by them. And what are the building blocks of our personality.

 It was meant to be a play and then it was a screenplay on The Black List – how did you hear about it?

I heard, long before I read it that there was this thing which this young woman had written, which had been on The Black List and at the Sundance Lab and won a Nicholl Scholarship, and immediately my interest was piqued, because things like that just don’t happen to people and they certainly don’t happen with their first screenplay. Then when I asked what it was about and I got the one-line pitch from my agent, like anybody else, I’ve always been, we’re all completely repulsed by that, the nightmare scenario of these basement abductions and I’ve always wondered if anybody would have the guts to dramatize that, and if they did if it would be interesting and worthwhile. The story is about Cynthia and Saoirse. It’s about this mother trying to bond with this girl and this young woman not being what anyone else thinks she is and not having had the experience everyone else thinks. Although I’m nine times her age, I’ve been a huge fan of Saoirse Ronan for long, long time. I just think she’s got it, whatever it is, she’s got it. And there’s just something that happens to her when someone calls action that she’s absolutely is in the moment and transforms.

Jason Isaacs in Stockholm, Pennsylvania
“I think he wants to be important to someone,” Isaacs says of his kidnapper character in Stockholm, Pennsylvania.

You have The Infiltrator coming up too, what drew you to that project?

Well, a very good friend of mine is producing it (Miriam Segal) and I’ve been tracking various things she’s doing. This one was not only a fantastic and such an unlikely and brilliant story and book, but then Bryan Cranston was going to be playing the lead.

If Bryan Cranston is playing the lead, I would be very, very happy to be cleaning the dog s**t out of his shoes with a Q-Tip.

What about Dig? Would you do more of that?

It would be up to Gideon (Raff) and Tim (Kring) if they came up with a great scenario. I mean, I thought that was a fantastic story in that I’d never seen it before. Those two are great, great storytellers, classic storytellers. They’re the kind of people who will tell you about getting a parking ticket and it’s 20 minutes and you’re laughing and holding your breath. So they took this story that grew out of a relationship Gideon had with Jerusalem and I thought made something very unusual and very complex, rich in character and then also rich in fabulous plot twists. So I wouldn’t put it past them to come up with another one. I’m in if they come up with something.

Are there any roles on your bucket list?

You know what? I never had a bucket list. I think that’s the smartest way to be. I’m about to go off and do two very low-budget films, one in Australia and one in Tanzania, just for a week at a time and I don’t care whether I play a tiny part or a large part. I don’t care whether it’s a shoestring budget or you spend the entire time hiding in the trailer while they build green screens. I just try and find interesting things to do and surprising human beings and hopefully something a little different from what I did last time. I’ve been asked sometimes what part would you like to play. I don’t know. It’s not written yet. I’ll wait until they send it to me. I’m endless fascinated by other people that I meet and by people who do extraordinary things or in extraordinary situations and I get to walk in their shoes and that’s just a great job and so I try not to plan.