For those wondering whether The OA star Jason Isaacs gravitates toward villainous roles, or if these roles come to him, the answer is neither. A Golden Globe- and BAFTA Award-nominee with a gift for portraying darker characters with added nuance, the ever modest actor simply looks for well-written material which he feels he can pull off “without looking terrible.”
Taking the leap with the Netflix series from co-creators Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling—who also stars—Isaacs found his risk-taking rewarded, as he embarked on one of the most wildly “imaginative” endeavors of his career.
Speaking with Deadline, Isaacs explains how he came to The OA in the role of Hap—a villain of a different shade—and how he felt upon reading Season 1’s scripts for the first time.
How did you come to be a part of The OA?
I was parachuted in at the last minute—they had already started shooting. I got a phone call in the middle of the night and was asked to read eight scripts. Unlike most shows, they’d written the entire thing before they started.
I said “Look, I’m really tired, I’ve got to go to bed; why’ve I got to read them now?” And my agent said, “because you’re going to Skype the director, and if you like it, you have to get on a plane.”
I read them, and I felt like I was having some wee-hours-of-the-morning hallucination. I’ve never read anything like it in my life. I Skyped Zal, and I was still kind of stunned from what I’d read. Before I knew it, I was standing in Grand Central Station, shooting, and really, I met Brit as Prairie, as The OA.
I’ve never encountered something as imaginative, as creatively free as the story they came up with. People who spend their 10,000 hours watching TV, we all know roughly what most stories are. When they start, you have some idea where it’s going.
With this one, I just had no clue what was going to happen, who the people were, and even what style of show it was, what world it moved in. I just found the whole thing to be fresh and moving in ways I couldn’t explain to myself.
So it’s not actually “What attracted you?” It’s, “Why isn’t everything this good?” That’s the real question. Because Brit and Zal, I think, are unique.
You’ve played your share of antiheroes and villains, Hap being one—do you gravitate toward these parts, or do they tend to come to you?
I just try and take things that I think I can pull off without looking terrible. That’s the bottom line—what can I do that won’t get me booed off the screen, and kill my career? The answer is always: Find the best scripts.
This is a guy who’s trying to cure death. He’s trying to make that big scientific breakthrough that will change everything, for all time, for everyone, and the things he has to do to get there cost him, morally. There’s no question. He bears the weight of the terrible things he has to do to get there, but in the end, what he’s going to deliver—what he’s going to uncover—is worth it.
He’s managed to kind of anesthetize himself to what he’s doing. He’s not a sadist, by any means—he tries to be as humane as possible—but he does the work, and then The OA comes along, and despite himself, despite what he thinks about himself, he starts falling for her, and he even, in his own crazy bubble of denial, wants her to like him, to validate him, to see that she’s on a journey with him, which is insane.
I didn’t think of him as an antihero—I thought of him as one of the richest, most complicated people I’ve ever seen on the page, and the job was to try not to f*ck it up.
The reason I think Zal and Brit asked me to do it is because they saw something called Nine Lives that I made years ago, which also went to Sundance. It’s nine separate stories about women, and one of them was me and Robin Wright, in which I’m incredibly nice and sweet, and kind of innocent. So funnily enough, it was none of the antagonists I’ve played in the past that made them ask me to do Hap.
In the second half of the season, Hap has an exchange with his scientific mentor that becomes quite heated. That dialogue seems to put your character into new perspective.
It’s a little bit like soldiers. I’ve met a lot of soldiers, and worked with them and got to know quite a few when I’ve played soldiers. In order to do the job well, they rightly have to not see the enemy as human. You can’t be thinking, every time someone’s firing at you, “I wonder if they’ve got a wife and kids at home.” You have to do what you have to do, and soldiers who can encompass all those contradictory feelings are always surprising and impress me.
I think my mentor in that show has internalized that, and he just sees [his experimental subjects] as animals. Hap, maybe he might have been going in that direction, but the bond that his subjects are feeling, and the feelings that Prairie’s unlocked in him, are confusing him, because he doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to continue down this route.
I thought that was such a brilliant thing of Brit and Zal, at that very juncture in the story—to peel those layers back and show that he’s struggling with it, and that he’s human. To me, that motive ties in to the moment in Cuba when he decides to broadcast in the cell the sounds of Homer having sex.
This is what’s great about playing well-written characters, just like in life. You can ask people why they’re doing things in life, and they’ll tell you. But I’m not sure that anyone fully understands themselves, or is honest with themselves. He would probably tell you, at that point, it’s because he needs to break up the unity in there, because they might start keeping secrets from him that will affect the work. But the truth is, he’s just jealous. He wants Prairie to begin to hate Homer to make some room in her heart for him.
I’ve found that when I’ve played real-life characters in the past, talking to them about themselves is way less useful and honest than talking to other people who know them. That’s what that scene with [Dr. Leon Citro] gives you a chance to see: Hap as others see him, and maybe as his friend sees him, and not as the subjects see him.
Remember, the story is always being told by Prairie. One of the things that’s completely brilliant about the show is not only do you ask yourself if she’s telling the truth, but you have to ask yourself, are we watching what she’s saying, or what those people in the attic are imagining?
Bearing in mind the last-minute nature of your casting, were there specific preparations you put in as you embarked on the project?
I was cast overnight, got on a plane and went straight to Grand Central, so in terms of preparation, it was mostly packing my toothbrush, and explaining to my kids why I was leaving. I was catapulted into it.
But one of the many things that made it interesting to work on is that not only had they written all the scripts—which is very rare—and thought it through in great detail, but then they did an extraordinary thing. They made a seat at the table for all the actors, so I got there and even though I’d only read it for a day, they were open to any ideas that any of the other actors came up with; and many of them, it’s their first job ever.
They would sit [with] Zal and he would go, “Well, you know this guy better than me. What do you think?” It’s a very clever, very creative and open way to direct, but it’s a way to get everybody on set owning their character and inhabiting their journey.
I knew everything they had to tell me, but they were also open to changing it—and not just what we were saying, but what the backstory was, if it felt like it was a better idea. They’re remarkably ego-free about where ideas come from. That’s a very rare thing to find on sets, particularly with writer-directors.
Can you expand on that process of collaboration with Zal and Brit?
I got to know Brit much better since we’ve wrapped, by watching her on other peoples’ talk shows, and reading her interviews, because Brit was closer to Prairie on set than she was Brit. All the discussions that anybody had about script and story and what we might and might not do were with Zal.
On set, Brit stayed in a very intense, quiet place. She wasn’t exactly in character, but she wasn’t in violation of it, either. I got to know her like everybody got to know her, and fall in love with her as Prairie. There’s nobody in the show that isn’t affected by her, and isn’t drawn to her, by her quiet magnetism, and that’s who she was all the time I was working with her.
I feel like I know all the others very well. We spent a lot of time hanging out and laughing, clowning around, and she never did. Zal, I got to know well, because he directed every episode. It was like making an eight-hour movie. Plus, we had very, very long hours in a quite depressing dungeon, so peoples’ character flaws and joys reveal themselves pretty quickly.
And then we went to Cuba. I imagine when they wrote it, they didn’t think that they’d really get to shoot in Cuba, but there we were in Havana, having a completely different experience with this amazing Cuban crew, and it’s reflected on screen.
You’re watching it and you think you’re never going to get out of the basement, and suddenly, there’s this magical, kind of sexy freedom, filled with music and color and art, and I think you feel what Homer feels. Like, “The world’s exploded—the world around me, it’s too much for me.”
I remember watching Emery [Cohen], being curious about what he was doing. He was reacting as if he was being assaulted by things, and only when I saw the show did I realize what he was doing. It’s PTSD for him.
How did you tap into Hap, in terms of the specificity of his job, and the scientific world that surrounds him?
What was interesting was all the technology there is in service of the [near death experience] stuff, so I read a lot of NDE stuff, and it was mind-blowing.
The big imaginative leap you have to make is, what are those gadgets, and what do they do? I had to invent for myself exactly what they did. It’s a bit like Alien—when you see the people wake up in Alien, and they really look like they work there. It’s a place where they work.
When I go and make that stuff in my own head—technology I’ve invented, and had to work out what every piece of what it did, and why—if you do that and you play it like it’s normal, then the audience buys that it works. You don’t want to stop for too long and have the audience go, “Wait a second—exactly what does that helmet do?”
So I had to invent the whole bizarre, completely unscientific gobbledygook inside my head that made it work, and nobody ever questions it.