Jason Isaacs on ‘Awake’

The star of NBC's new series tells us about life in two worlds.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell


As an actor, Jason Isaacs is best known for his villainous turns in "The Patriot," "Brotherhood" and his role as Lucius Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" films. But American audiences will soon see an entirely different side of Isaacs in the NBC series "Awake."

Isaacs portrays the lead character, Detective Michael Britten; a man who begins living in two realities after a horrifying car crash. In one world, Michael's wife Hannah (Laura Allen) was killed, while in the other, it was his son Rex (Dylan Minnette) who perished.

Now every time that Britten goes to sleep, he wakes up in the other world, often investigating cases that seem oddly linked in each reality. Complicating matters, Britten has a different partner in each world, Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama) and Isaiah "Bird" Freeman (Steve Harris). Britten also has two different therapists, Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong) and Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones); who each try to convince him that their reality is real.

Last December, CraveOnline was invited to the set of "Awake" to speak with Isaacs as the crew prepared to shoot a new second episode which was retroactively slated to air after the pilot (which debuts on March 1st). Isaacs was so busy that day that the only time he had to conduct any interviews was over his lunch break.

Jason Isaacs: Hi, how are you?

CraveOnline: Good, yourself?

Jason Isaacs: I’m kind of starving.

CraveOnline: What are you eating?

Jason Isaacs: Chicken roast napa cabbage, carrots, red cabbage. Do you see any carrots or red cabbage in there? It’s just green and beige, isn’t it?

CraveOnline: Maybe in this world, carrots are green and beige.

Jason Isaacs: That’s right. Nice segue.

CraveOnline: Were you worried about the ambiguous premiere date for "Awake"?

Jason Isaacs: No, not at all. God, no. I’m English so I’m stunned by what happened in September when I saw that suddenly dozens of shows were all put on in the same week and I had lots of friends in many of them and they were very good and there’s only room to find an audience for one or two so the more isolated we can be, the less we can be thrown out in the same week as hundreds of millions of dollars worth of other people’s drama, the more chance you’re able to find the audience that I hope the show deserves.

CraveOnline: Can you tell us about your character, Detective Michael Britten?

Jason Isaacs: What can I tell you? He’s trying his best, that’s all. He’s living horribly in denial. He knows that what he’s doing is really dumb and not trying to work out which world is real and not being really the best husband he could be to his wife who lost his son and the best father to the son who lost his wife. But this way he gets a little bit of both and if he really engaged with which one of his worlds was real, he might lose the other. So he’s a great detective and he’s a slightly flawed human being, but who could blame him?

CraveOnline: Is Michael able to move past his grief?

Jason Isaacs: Well, you know, the thing this too shall pass. I mean feelings really take hold but the amazing thing about grief and loss is that you can move beyond it. It never goes away. People never lose it, but you get on with the job. You still laugh and you still love and you still have adventures and there are times and days and hours you forget and there are times that it overwhelms you.

He is slightly stuck in a very unusual place in that he’s not really lost his wife or his son. The people around him have which means on the one hand he’s not experiencing the same level of pain but it means nor is he able to move beyond it. So what felt very unusual to me about the pilot, and no episode is the same as any other episode, that’s why the writers are having such a challenge to produce good stuff.

But we’re trying to make sure that as well as the procedural element, it always comes from an emotional place. There’s real feeling in it, so it’s not a sad show. These people are not sad people. We were aware that A: we wouldn’t want to make [it morose] and B: nobody would want to watch. But it’s an emotional show because it’s nice to feel something as well as think something when you watch television.

CraveOnline: Which loss is worse for Michael?

Jason Isaacs: Rex.

CraveOnline: How are the cases he investigates connected between the two realities?

Jason Isaacs: Well, he only wishes he knew how it works, but it works like all dreams work which is subconsciously you explore things that you may or may not have noticed in your real life. One of these worlds is clearly a dream and one of the worlds isn’t, but he doesn’t know which one. So when things appear in one world, he’s always looking for connections with the other world and trying to work out why something would appear to him.

And he begins to trust that his intuition is working better than his brain and follow things in his professional life that have been triggered by things in the other world and actually leads to the crimes being resolved often.

But it also leads to terrible problems at work with his colleagues because they don’t know what’s going on. He’s obviously behaving slightly bizarrely and he can’t explain what he’s doing. And similarly in his domestic life, things are occurring to him and helping him, sometimes hindering him from the other world and he can’t quite explain the mechanism of it. But he begins to trust it and act on it.



CraveOnline: Do you find yourself in the middle of the day keeping track?

Jason Isaacs: All the time. I’m constantly going what the hell is going on but then so is he. So is Michael so I could be in a scene and I’m given the license to be looser with the script anyway because I know it, so I can be in the scene in the middle of something and go, “Wait, we’re looking for the doctor, right?” And the other policemen can look at me like I’m insane because I think it’s quite fun for the audience. If I’m a bit lost and they’re a bit lost, I have to reorient myself and they get reoriented along with me.

So I’m constantly going wait, I don’t understand. Who’s alive? But as long as the character’s doing it as well and the audience can do it with me, I think that’s part of the enjoyment.

CraveOnline: Do you know where the story’s going to go?

Jason Isaacs: I know exactly where we’re going to go and also I know exactly which world is real. But all our lips are sealed. Kyle [Killen], Howard [Gordon] and I know what we want to do. I haven’t even told my wife. I’m certainly not going public.

CraveOnline: Do you have an idea of which world is real?

Jason Isaacs: Yes, I don’t have a theory. I know.

CraveOnline: Does anybody else know?

Jason Isaacs: Yeah, the writer knows. The writer and the show runner but the entertainment value I think for the audience will be first of all not knowing which world is real like Michael doesn’t know which world is real and then the weekly story, seeing what the consequences are both professionally and then personally for him of this very unique and troubling situation he’s in.

CraveOnline: Will there come a point where it’s such a burden to keep these two worlds that he’ll want to finally correct it?

Jason Isaacs: I think that there will be consequences and they won’t be that positive. It’s certainly working out for him professionally in that it’s helping him solve cases but it can’t be good that his wife is trying to move beyond having lost her son and he’s not moving anywhere. And he’s not really able to experience what she’s experiencing similarly with his son.

So our plan is, and we’ll be able to do it, but things are going to get very, very tricky for him. He’s on very shaky ground and it makes it very entertaining. Funny enough, it sounds ironic, but it makes it sometimes very funny because since he gets into extremely tense and difficult situations, there’s some light relief from it. But ultimately it’s very, very difficult for him and not only is it where stories have naturally led us, but it’s also true, the old showbiz maxim, that nobody buys a ticket to see The Village of the Happy People. It sure makes for great television.

CraveOnline: How demanding has this role been for you?
Jason Isaacs: It takes a bit more effort than I’m used to. And it’s really worthwhile. I’ve never worked this hard physically because I go to work at 5 in the morning and I come home at 9 or 10 at night because when we wrap I have script discussions. But also the scenes don’t play themselves. I have to try and make sure that the audience shares the secret with me of what they know is happening in the other world. And since we’re shooting out of sequence like all things, since I have two roles, I’m in danger of being brain all over the walls of the trailer most days.

CraveOnline: What will be a hurdle in getting viewers?

Jason Isaacs: Well, it’s the make people watch it because when people watch it they’re hooked. When I was asked to do it originally, I didn’t want to do it because I had so many other things going on for me, I was rather enjoying developing and producing this thing. I got a few pages in and in many ways I just took the job to find out what happened next.

That initially worried the producers and directors and writers, whether people would get it. And I played them this thing I’ve got on my iPhone with my then five-year-old daughter Ruby explaining the plot to me. Everybody gets it when they watch it and I think it’s very satisfying, rewarding and fun. You can overcomplicate it and explain it. The biggest challenge as with anybody else who has a show on television or a show out in the cinemas or a play on, is how do you get people to come see it initially? Then you’ve got to be good enough for them to want to come back.



CraveOnline: Are viewers harping a little too much on what the answer is, when it’s really the story that’s important?

Jason Isaacs: Well, look, I don’t blame everybody in the room. You’re all really smart people, watch a lot of television, you’ve only seen the pilot. What else are you going to do? The pilot sets out the stall, but if we repeat it every week, I’d have walked off the set. We don’t do that. We tell different stories and some of them are absolutely wild and left field, some of them are more procedural, some are very emotional, some very personal.

But without sounding like some snake oil salesman, hopefully we tick pretty much every box every week. We give you something dramatic. We give you something emotional. We give you something puzzling. We give you something funny. We give you something that’s kinetic and intellectual.

One of my favorite people sometimes would ask me, “Is this show going to be too difficult?” A: I don’t think it’s difficult at all to follow and B: my favorite network television show of all time is “The West Wing.” They took incredibly complex issues and made them incredibly easy and personal and emotional to follow. If we could even approach the foothills of that we’ll be doing ourselves very proud.

CraveOnline: Does episode 2 raise even more questions?

Jason Isaacs: I’m told that I should give you tidbits. Backstage they said, “You’ve got to tell people what’s up” but because I come from an old fashioned tradition of storytelling, I kind of want you to watch it. I will say this though, we try, and hopefully succeed in delivering something closed ended every week, but the ongoing emotional drama and progress never goes away because storytelling is movement. There is always movement. What it doesn’t become about every single week is “Which one’s real, which one isn’t.” It becomes more about what if. All great stories start with what if, and this is really unusual.

CraveOnline: With the American accent, have you heard people comparing you to Jon Hamm?

Jason Isaacs: I have not but I’ll be compared to anybody who is working, thankfully, rather than selling food, that’s fine.

CraveOnline: Will the "Harry Potter" fans tune in?

Jason Isaacs: Well, a lot of them did come to Comic-Con. We showed the pilots for thousands of people there and many of them I think were hoping that I would turn into an elf. So yeah, I’ve no doubt that part of the reason I was lucky enough to be offered the job is that people see me in other things and they hope it brings an audience. But these series television cop movies, having been in big movies doesn’t really necessarily help.

What matters is A: did you get an audience in the first place for the advertising blokes, and then if the show is good enough to keep them coming back. It’s my first experience of network television. I’ve done episodes of “West Wing” and stuff before, but I’ve never done a series. It’s a brutal world.

People are on for a couple weeks and then they’re cancelled if they don’t get an audience. There simply aren’t enough pairs of eyes for every good show to get an audience. So all [I can focus on] is making the thing as good as possible so that I go to bed at night and think we did a great day’s work and those are good scenes. Then it’s up to other people to try and find the audience. It’s out of my control.

CraveOnline: How did it feel to put "Harry Potter" behind you?

Jason Isaacs: Sad actually. Last weekend or two or three weekends ago I went to Florida for the DVD release of the last film. It was probably the last time we’ll all be gathered together and it was heartbreaking because it was 10 years of very good times. And the other thing, apart from my own personal experience, it’s great fun to do with a lot of my heroes acting around me, it’s also true that it was such a relief and such an odd experience in 20-odd years of acting to be telling stories that you knew had an audience and you knew that the whole world was waiting to see.

So everybody felt completely empowered. Normally most things you make, even this, there’s a big undercurrent of fear of whether it will it be good enough, will they like it, is what we’re doing working, we think it is. With "Harry Potter" it’s completely 180 degrees the opposite. We knew that we had something that was beloved and we felt like we were the curators of it and I miss that experience that’s for sure.

CraveOnline: Do you miss the long blonde hair of Lucius Malfoy?

Jason Isaacs: Do you know what? The thing about making Harry Potter is it’s very, very slow. The phenomenally enjoyable part of it was sitting around with – – you go, “Oh God, we’re not going to shoot for the next eight hours. It’s raining.” And then I look around and I realize that I was sitting in a tent with Julie Walters and Bill Nighy and Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltraine. I’d think, “Let it rain for a month.”

But one of the things I’m really loving about making “Awake” is you shoot nonstop. I get there at 5:30 in the morning, I’m the first one there often. I’m the last one to leave because I stay and go and discuss the scripts, being a producer on it. I love the fact that we are pumping out an hour’s worth of drama every week or two, as opposed to two hours worth of drama every year and a half.



CraveOnline: What’s it like working with the cast of "Awake"?

Jason Isaacs: Well, they’re great. I was very lucky because I was the first person cast and as I’m a producer, I got to be in all the castings and read with all the actors. So I got to throw my two cents’ worth in and it’s a dream cast. It’s all the people that I really liked when they came in. They were funny, smart and talented and watchable. Many of whom I was fans of already. I hope we give them enough fun things to do.

I’m sure it’s frustrating that I get to be in almost every scene with these amazing people like Cherry Jones, a much talented actress who can barely move with the clinking of awards in her household. I mean, just play the therapist, we’re desperate to get her off the couch and somewhere else but there’s just quality everywhere I look. It makes my job selfishly much easier because they’re all so great at their job.

The bad thing is if the task of acting is to imagine that you are this person in this situation, the better the other actors are, the easier my job is. People like Wilmer who I don't know, who is an icon everywhere you go. Whatever city you go to people are flocking to him on the street, and he has a massive following as well. So to me there are these people who came into the room who I met who were very fun and nice which is a huge priority, and really talented. And then I find out they’ve earned their stars many times over in the world out there. So hopefully we’re doing good stuff. It feels like we are.

CraveOnline: What’s the atmosphere on set?

Jason Isaacs: Well, I make sure that nobody takes anything too seriously. I gave a little speech the first day which was let’s nobody be a dick. That was it. I bring a big ball box on the set and play some very bad ‘70s disco and everybody’s forced to dance in a very undignified fashion. And we try to have a good time while we’re shooting it because it may be the most popular show in the world or it may have nobody and a dog watching it so let’s try and enjoy the experience.

CraveOnline: Talk about the two therapists.

Jason Isaacs: Who are very different characters and have a completely different attitude to what’s going on for me.

CraveOnline: How challenging are those scenes?

Jason Isaacs: There’s a lot of running around on the show so it’s nice every now and again to have a brief pause. No, the challenge is to make, the ongoing challenge with the therapy scenes is to make them an interesting part of the story and that the story doesn’t stop and we try and make that happen.

One of the great luxuries we’ve had since we’re midseason is that we’ve been able to go back and look at stuff that didn’t quite work and change it and make it more active and make it more engaging and work out why and where the therapy scenes can be good. Is it a challenge? Actors love sitting. I do radio plays. It’s a chance to sit down and talking, I just did it 40 minutes without breaks. Not really, no. It’s easy. When you’re looking at B.D. or looking at Cherry, they bring the thing to life completely.

CraveOnline: If you had to pitch the show, what would you say?

Jason Isaacs: I couldn’t. That’s one of the great difficulties. I’m English. People who go, “Watch this, it’s fantastic, I’m great, you’ll love it.” I don't know what to say. I’m making a show with very bright people. We all think we’re doing something really interesting, entertaining and great.

I hope that people give it a chance and that they find the same and then they’ll want to come back. They won’t keep watching it because I told them to. They’ll watch it because they like it. Our experience has been that people really love it. The pilot won a prize, an award or something. It won some award for pilot most likely to whatever it is. I think it’s good. I hope other people do.