The brainiest Brit in Hollywood

JASON Isaacs likes to say that he travels by Tube to film premieres, where he goes undetected until he arrives. That’s when the fans – many of them female – explode in excited frenzy. For Isaacs treads that odd line between A-list celebrity, a face that a critical mass knows and cares about viscerally, and, well, being just another good English actor that gets around, and that you may have seen somewhere on TV or stage but can’t quite remember where.

Those who don’t instantly recall the burly, witheringly handsome actor tend to be set straight at the mention of Lucius Malfoy, the character he plays in the Harry Potter films. It was landing the job as Malfoy that shot Isaacs, now 46, into mainstream fame (for Potter watchers). But Harry Potter is the gloss on a deep and rather varied career. Films include Hollywood blockbusters like Black Hawk Down, alongside acclaimed independent films such as 2009’s Good, about the rise of socialism in 1930s Germany. Now Isaacs is starring opposite Matt Damon in Iraq War movie The Green Zone, directed by his chum Paul Greengrass (the Bourne series, United 93).

I was warned (affectionately) that Isaacs is a talker, but what that turned out to mean is that he is startlingly articulate and highly intelligent. He was in no rush either – he told me his feet were up and he was admiring the view of Chicago from his room at that city’s Four Seasons Hotel, where he is staying while filming a pilot for American TV. And what a treat it is to be privy to his smooth, caramel, clever voice. Never mind that he grew up in an affluent family in Liverpool, went to Bristol University where he studied law (it was at Bristol that he caught the acting bug). What oozes from his every word is the degree of high-level thought he has given everything he does, including the profession of acting and its – thus his – role in the world. This is real intelligence, not degree-formed pomp.

We start straight in on the politics of film. The Green Zone is highly critical of the Iraq War, and some feel Hollywood should keep away from such matters lest it simply put its gloss and its bias on it. But Isaacs sees it a different way. “When people think of Vietnam, people are thinking of the movies they’ve seen about Vietnam; Born on the Fourth of July and so on. Films are an incredibly powerful tool for processing what’s just happened.

“Paul Greengrass is one of the only people working in the world today who wants to take on the biggest subjects of our time and make big blockbusters out of them,” says Isaacs. “He’s shown through the Bourne films that he can make pure popcorn-guzzling Saturday night entertainment. So when he takes on one of the biggest foreign policy issues of our time and makes it into a big piece of popcorn entertainment it’s about as exciting as it gets in film. So no, I have no doubt that big issues like Iraq, about which our leaders lied to us, belong in the public domain.”

Making the Green Zone involved spending months on set in Morocco with real members of the US Special Forces, people who’d been in Abu Ghraib, people who had just returned from duty, and WMD specialists. “Filming was intellectually and physically knackering. To prepare for the final scene I ran through the night for three months.” As for working with heart-throb Damon? “He’s an incredibly down-to-earth person and a grounded, fabulous guy. On the first day of filming I had to beat the crap out of him, and I was worried we’d get off to a bad start so I held back. But he said, ‘no, go for it’ so I left him black and blue and we shook hands at the end of it.”

But with his gift of the gab, and his degree, one wonders what he could have been in a life that didn’t involve walloping the likes of Matt Damon in front of a camera, and if he sometimes wishes he’d become an unknown City lawyer with a quiet life. It’s a yes and a no. “I’m here in Chicago playing an ex-cop turned lawyer and I’ve spent a lot of time in courts here. My degree always comes up. But I look at them and I think, thank Christ I don’t do this. However, I do like to see three sides of any argument. I miss the idea of having a job where what I think about something is what’s important rather than my emotional instinctive response. Acting is entirely subjective, and I do sometimes crave that notion of objectivity. I love a good argument basically.”

He certainly also has his own views about things – his open derision of the leadership responsible for Iraq is one example. The film industry is another. “There’s lots of superb work being done all over the place. But the Oscars is the result of two things: one, who has run the best campaign and two: the characters of the members of the academy what they like, what their sense of story is, their politics. Nobody gets an Oscar nomination by accident – there’s always a budget and great strategic minds behind them.” For the record, Isaacs’ top films of the year are the French-made A Prophet, art-house supernatural horror film Let the Right One In and British art-house sci-fi film Moon.

As for the British film industry: “It’s very tough and cold out there,” says Isaacs. “There have been some great British films this year, but people in our film industry treat every awards ceremony like a wake, grumbling about how hard it is to raise any money for things without global superstars in it. Big studios used to make 40 films a year, now they’re making 12, and these are mostly superhero comic blockbusters. For someone who loves watching films, this is quite depressing.”

For a man that stars in the biggest film franchise of all time and plays a rough cop-turned-lawyer as easily as he does a tough US army guy, his list of favourite new releases is suggestive. For Isaacs is not your ten-a-penny big studio hunk: he is every bit the thinking, sophisticated Renaissance man, who reads good books and seeks out the best independent films in his spare time. With his combination of brains and brawn, it’s safe to say we’re only going to be seeing more of him. Ladies, rejoice.

Jason Isaacs is a judge on the Done In 60 Seconds short film competition. The winner will be announced at the Jameson Empire Awards on 28 March.