Evil Genius

Skyfire star and cinema’s favorite baddie Jason Isaacs talks to Jack Moulton about imitating Elon Musk, the power of fantasy storytelling, the agony of picking a movie to watch with teens in lockdown, and why he loves discovering new independent filmmakers.

I think sci-fi, fantasy and adventure is an easier way to touch people morally and get them to help frame their ethical universe.” —⁠Jason Isaacs

Keen-eyed members of the Letterboxd app will notice that actor Jason Isaacs—known to most of the world as the villainous Lucius Malfoy—is the subject of one of our Easter eggs. The nod to Isaacs in Letterboxd cast lists is a reference to a long-running meme on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Review, which grew out of Kermode’s self-confessed schoolboy crush on Isaacs (as documented in his 2010 autobiography). Kermode and Isaacs were classmates at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, and Isaacs appears regularly on Film Review, where he champions independent film and shares his insatiable appetite for movies.

With Isaacs’ latest film, Skyfire (天·火), now available on demand in the US, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to chat with the egg himself. Skyfire, intended to be the first of a blockbuster trilogy, was initially released in China in December 2019. A month later the worldwide lockdown postponed its release—theaters reopened in China in July and since then, Skyfire has experienced a slow global rollout, now reaching the US via on demand platforms.

Hannah Quinlivan as Li Xiaomeng in Skyfire.
Hannah Quinlivan as Li Xiaomeng in Skyfire.

The plot is simple and prescient: warning signs are ignored, disaster strikes, everyone has to run for their lives. “This movie is no different than the Covid-19 pandemic,” observes Letterboxd member Sven Segers. “Experts tell us that shit is fucked up and we need to do something about it, but money and ignorance makes everything worse.”

Isaacs plays Jack Harris, a tycoon who has built a hotel in a volcano. He was pitched the role by director Simon West, known for action spectacles Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and was immediately on board. He is the only white guy in the film’s cast, and one of its few primarily English-speaking performers (lead actress Hannah Quinlivan is Taiwanese-Australian).

It’s the kind of CGI-heavy hot mess that’s best experienced in cinemas; as Todd Gaines remarks, “this disaster movie is something you would expect to see at the movies while you are eating your weight in popcorn and other tasty snacks.” Nevertheless, the high melodrama, hot lava, fire rocks and snappy 90-minute run time is like catnip to action lovers stuck at home.

What enticed you to a shoot that was so far from home?
Jason Isaacs: Yeah, it was in Malaysia—I was enticed because it was Simon West. [He] had offered me a job a year or two beforehand that I wasn’t able to do, then he called up saying he was doing a Chinese disaster movie and it was impossible to say no. If there’s anybody who is a master at orchestrating gigantic set pieces, it’s Simon. He does it so calmly and he was a pleasure to be around. Plus, apart from the fact that I knew it would be fun, the peripheral pleasure I get from work is that I get to go to new places and meet new people. This was an entirely different culture of filmmaking, but also a different universe of engaging with human beings.

Jason Isaacs as Jack Harris in Skyfire.
Jason Isaacs as Jack Harris in Skyfire.

Which entrepreneurs or fictional characters did you base your character Jack Harris on?
He’s part Richard Attenborough [in Jurassic Park] because I’ve built a resort in a place that the scientists tell me will probably be safe, and luckily for the audience it all goes horribly wrong quite quickly. Then also part Elon Musk because he’s slightly flashy and attention-seeking, and I gave him a South African accent just for a laugh. Though that was at the point when I knew Musk was South African but didn’t know that Musk had very successfully buried and hidden his South African accent a long time ago. I like action movies—they take me away from myself. Maybe I wanted to say something about technology and what we’re doing to the planet. Who are the people making giant strides in our name, and are they really strides?

It’s a painful irony that a natural disaster disrupted the film’s release. It’s gone from escapism to unfortunately relevant, and your character’s hubris is reflected in the denial and selfishness we’re now seeing every day—do we never learn from movies?
I have to say the answer is probably no, not directly in a way we can correlate. One of the reasons we might learn from movies is because no-one trusts facts anymore. If you can’t persuade the population to source their data properly and be able to sift between the nonsense, then maybe fiction can inspire people. I think sci-fi, fantasy and adventure is an easier way to touch people morally and get them to help frame their ethical universe. So whether it’s Star Trek or Star Wars [Isaacs appears in the Star Trek: Discovery and Star Wars Rebels television series] or exploding volcanoes, we find it easier to identify with the moral choices than we do when it’s set where we live, because all of our partisan biases kick in.

An Bai, Shawn Dou and Xinmo Ma in Skyfire.
An Bai, Shawn Dou and Xinmo Ma in Skyfire.

Playing villains, antagonists and fiends is largely your forté, of course. How has your understanding of the “baddie” psyche evolved over the years?
Yes, of course, I’ve played antagonists—I’d be a fool to pretend they aren’t written to be that—but I try to take parts only where I can find three dimensions in them. Where they can look in the mirror and think they’re doing the right thing. The man who no longer occupies the White House thought he was doing the right thing sending a mob crashing into Congress, which ended up with people dying. He doesn’t think of himself as a villain, he thinks of himself as a white savior—or whatever it is—and that he’s being outdone and robbed by everyone else.

I played a soldier with PTSD very early on in my career and I learned that you can’t do a decent job with a camera pointed at you if you’re not inside their head and living with the choices they make. Sometimes people know that they’re doing the wrong thing and think they can justify it because they think everyone else is doing the wrong thing and they should do it before others. Nobody ever does the wrong thing and knows it is, and certainly if you do, the character should too, and have to wrestle with it. I studied law originally before I studied acting and I think that insists that you see the both sides to every argument.

I watch the Harry Potter series every year—I have a very fond memory of seeing your franchise debut in Chamber of Secrets for my tenth birthday—and its depiction of a dangerous fascism coming from past to present becomes more potent each viewing. How has Harry Potter’s importance unfolded for you since its conclusion?
For me, I’ve understood more about storytelling—not how to do it, but understanding the power and profundity of how much it can affect people. I’ve been lucky enough to go do Harry Potter-y things over the last ten years and when I meet fans at conventions, they don’t want to talk about the costumes or what you were like in it, people want to tell you about important periods of their life and how these characters’ journeys helped them out of the dark. They’re often life rafts in very choppy seas and the power of storytelling to change people’s lives has been a real eye-opener for me. It’s made me believe often in storytelling again in ways that other jobs can make me cynical about.

Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series.
Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series.

Let’s move on to your life in film. Who gives the ultimate villain performance for you?
Well, it’s Alan [Rickman]. It’s always Alan, when he wants to be a villain. It could either be the Sheriff of Nottingham [in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves] or it could be Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Tony Hopkins chewing up the scenery in The Silence of the Lambs, Gary [Oldman] in The Fifth Element, Jack Nicholson in The Shining—is that a villain performance? It’s when the script gives the villain all the power, or even when the villain wins, when the performance makes sense to me.

What are your go-to comfort movies, that you will watch anytime, anywhere?
I cannot switch off The Godfather, no matter what frame it’s on. Sometimes it’ll be really inappropriate where I really ought to go to bed because I’ll be picked up in a few hours and there we are, we’re in Sicily. I have an eighteen-year-old and a fifteen-year-old and since the first day of lockdown we cannot agree on what we want to watch, ever. We were arguing about what to watch on Christmas Day, and while we were talking, The Sound of Music was on telly. When we finally came to an agreement, we all just looked at each other and instinctively went, “shall we just leave this on?” So we kept watching The Sound of Music, which was utterly brilliant.

Instead of the “comfort food” of watching the same films over and over again, what I really like is watching films from brand new filmmakers where I don’t know anybody in it. I’m in a very privileged position of being on the British Independent Film Awards board, so I get to see all the independent films every year. The greatest experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema have always been when I’ve not known what’s about to happen. I remember seeing Winter’s Bone before knowing Jennifer [Lawrence] and Debra Granik and being taken somewhere else. I remember seeing You Can Count on Me, Kenny Lonergan’s first film, and feeling the same thing.

What’s your fondest memory of seeing a film in the cinema?
My mum took me to see Live and Let Die and I can’t for the life of me remember the context, but I do remember that we weren’t meant to go. She looked at me very mischievously and said “Shall we go to the movies and see the latest Bond film?” It felt illicit.

The most vivid memory I have of watching a film was at the Scala that Stephen Woolley used to run in King’s Cross, which was an absolute pit of a cinema—no cushions in the seats, everything sticky with beer. They would have all-nighters with themed films and one time [I attended when] they showed The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a bunch of other things. Then after midnight, when everybody at that stage was either drunk or high or both, on came This is Spinal Tap. Nobody had heard of it and didn’t know that it would be a parody. We just doubled over, the rows were running with urine. Nobody had ever seen anything so funny. I’m not sure that we knew it was a deliberate joke but it was one of the greatest cinema memories of my life.

This is Spinal Tap (1984), directed by Rob Reiner.
This is Spinal Tap (1984), directed by Rob Reiner.

Do you have a favorite film that came out in 2020?
There’s loads. I thought Rocks, Sarah Gavron’s film, and Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself were great. I liked Host, which is a Zoom horror film that is fantastic. His House was great, which you can see on Netflix at the moment. I just saw Tom Hanks in Paul Greengrass’s very lovely, elegiac, ‘really-should-be-seen-on-a-wide-screen’ News of the World. I inhale films and there were just so many great storytellers telling so many great stories.

I don’t get the big screen downstairs very often. My children watch TV shows—we’ve been watching Schitt’s Creek lately—and they don’t have the attention span for films, but when we do we watch The Big Chill. That’s a film I’ve watched 300 times! We watched The Big Chill the other day and it held them all from beginning to end. It hasn’t dated a second.

Skyfire’ is now available to watch on demand. Isaacs also stars in ‘Mass’, which is premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

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