From executive producer/writer Kyle Killen (Lone Star) and executive producer Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24), and with a pilot directed by David Slade (Twilight: Eclipse, 30 Days of Night), the NBC series Awake follows the life of Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), who wakes up from a car accident with his wife (Laura Allen) and teenage son (Dylan Minnette), to learn the devastating news that his wife died in the crash. And then, he wakes up a few days later to realize that his wife is very much alive and his son died in the accident. When Michael goes back to work solving crimes, alternating between realities provides some challenges when he realizes that these realities overlap in fascinating and inexplicable ways.
At a press day held on the show’s set during a break from filming, actor Jason Isaacs talked about this complex and intriguing new drama, how the universal themes are what made him want to do the show, that no episode will be the same because the character’s world changes all the time, why they decided to shut down production for a month, and that, as a producer and part of the storytelling process, he knows which of the worlds is real and which one isn’t. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
As a character, you’re living two lives, which has to be exhausting. As an actor, you’re in just about every scene of this show. Are you equally as exhausted?
JASON ISAACS: I am. I fell asleep during Cherry Jones’ close-up yesterday. I felt very guilty since she’s one of the greatest actresses on the planet. She called me on it, and I tried to bullshit her and pretend that my character was closing his eyes. She went, “No, I saw you fluttering.” I’m physically exhausted, but that’s fine. It’s fun. I go to work at five in the morning and I go home at nine or 10 at night, most days. It’s mentally exhausting because I don’t have an awful lot in my life that parallels this.
Most acting is, “What if?,” acting. It’s pretty easy to find something in your own life that vaguely approximates what your character is going through. You go, “Oh, this is like when my cat died,” or “This is like when I lost my child in the supermarket.” But, I don’t have anything to draw on for, “What if I didn’t know what was a dream and what was real?” So, it’s that much harder to place myself in his shoes, which is all acting is. It’s, “What if I was this guy, in this situation, with these things happening?”
And Britten could be the only person in the world that has this affliction.
ISAACS: Yeah, that’s true. The only reason that I wanted to do this show, and that I hope people find it and like it, is that it’s completely universal. Although he has a unique situation, through that prism, we can explore what it’s like to be a father, what it’s like to be a husband, what it’s like to reboot a marriage, if you didn’t get it right the first time, and what it’s like to explore your subconscious. We’ve all got a subconscious. We’ve all got dreams. We all have fears, anxieties and hopes. In one of those worlds, those are made manifest. He just doesn’t know which one. Hopefully, there’s something very universal, as well as unique, about it.
Audiences will want to know which world is real, but is that something that Britten wants?
ISAACS: Not initially. One of the challenging and fun things about this – and you can ask the writers how much fun they have, but I think the answer would be, “None” – is that nothing is the same. No episode is the same, as things progress. Although these are completely weekly, close-ended, procedural stories, it’s also true that his world changes, all the time. When we first find him, in the pilot, he absolutely wants things to stay the same. With these two worlds, he doesn’t know which one’s real and he’s fine with that. He’s not stupid. He knows one of them must be a dream, and he must have either lost his son or his wife, and he doesn’t want to engage with that loss. But, that will take its toll on him, and there will be consequences. There’s a price to pay, for that kind of denial, partly in his relationships with his wife and his son. So, he will change his attitude to it. Of course, he will.
As an actor, do you not want to know which world is real?
ISAACS: Oh, I know. I know where we think we will go with it, should we ever get there. I know, Kyle [Killen] knows and Howard [Gordon] knows, but nobody else. I don’t think we’ve told our wives. I certainly haven’t told my wife. She can’t keep a secret at all.
Why did you want to know?
ISAACS: I’m part of the story. I’m a producer on it, and I’m part of the storytelling. Actors are all storytellers. We’re all part of the whole thing. I get to be part of the writing process as well. There’s no formula for what we’re writing. There’s a lot of veterans on this show, who have worked on many, many other television shows, many of which essentially write themselves, once you get the formula for it. Most television, including all of the television I like watching, is exactly the same, week after week. You just change the colors of the suits, or make a slight change in the plot. They are essentially re-inventing the wheel here, every week. They’re writing little movies, every week, around the same premise. All these pieces of this jigsaw are meant to go together, to make a bigger jigsaw, and it’s a real challenge for them. I didn’t want to be surprised by that. I enjoy being a part of creating that.
ISAACS: It’s a fucking nightmare! No, it’s great. It’s completely satisfying. That’s what it is. There is some sacrifice to be made, domestically. We just shut down for a month to let them catch up with themselves and write more episodes. These episodes are so rich and so detailed, and they want to make sure that everything cross-references in the right way, so they needed a bit more time. That was great for me because, suddenly, I had a break that I wasn’t expecting. It’s like sticking your head up and realizing that it’s daylight again, after a month in a pit. I go to work when it’s dark and I come back late at night, and we shoot late, certainly at least on Friday nights, and so I wake up on Saturday afternoon. It’s non-stop. But, I’ve done the opposite. I’ve sat at home and got under everybody’s feet, for months at a time, and I know which one I’d rather do. I’m young enough and have enough energy that I can do this. I’m very lucky that I like my job. I’m sure that if I was going down in a tin mine somewhere, I’d want a break, but this is what I would do for free, if I got paid to do something else.
Given that you do know which reality is real, do you find yourself ever playing scenes and having to remind yourself to ground it in reality because the character thinks it’s real?
ISAACS: No, I’m playing Britten. I’m not playing Jason. As Jason, I know all kinds of things. But, as Britten, he doesn’t know which is real and that’s the central dilemma. That’s the hook of it. It’s not the only drama that keeps you watching, week to week, ‘cause if it was, it would get boring, quickly. There’s many other things that happen. There’s human drama, and then there’s procedural drama. Britten is struggling often and, as Jason, I’m struggling to be Britten, struggling often. Nothing good ever comes easy. Certainly, when we finish a scene, it feels like there’s all kinds of layers to enjoy.
ISAACS: Friends of mine, who I thought were smart, say to me, “I know. Actually, what it is, is that he’s in a coma and they’re both dead.” I don’t know why anybody thinks that they know, but I’m glad and thrilled. Hopefully, that’s the game that people will be playing at home, trying to guess, and we will play with their expectations, hopefully in an enjoyable and not a torturing way.
For the last couple development seasons, you’ve been one of the in-demand actors. What was that like?
ISAACS: I got offered some jobs. It was a bit like tulip fever. There was a moment where I got offered some jobs and somebody else went, “Oh, my god, if you get him in your show, it will get greenlit by the networks,” and then somebody else offered me a job. Suddenly, there’s a rush on you, like you’re stock in some company. But, in the end, you can only do one job, and then people either watch it or not. It felt very heady, for about a week, when these offers came in, but most of those things didn’t ever end up on television, and the ones that did got canceled. I was just trying to pick something I thought was interesting and would last a long time.
Were you looking for something where you could have that producer credit?
ISAACS: No, I wasn’t looking for anything to do. I had been in Harry Potter for so long that I wasn’t available for network television. I didn’t know there would be any interest in me. It started with Mark Gordon, who’s a prolific television producer and a good friend of mine. He offered me something, and I suspect that he started pushing a very small pebble down the hill, gathering stones. Other people went, “Well, Mark offered him a job.” I have him to thank because, all of a sudden, there was a flurry of offers, both years.
I did a pilot last year that I thought was lovely, and then, this year, I wasn’t looking to do one. I was looking to do this thing that I had sold myself and was developing, and I just got side-swiped by this script. It didn’t read like anything else I’d ever read. I didn’t actually think beyond that month of shooting with David Slade, directing the pilot. I didn’t even think about it being aired or picked up to series. In a slightly blinkered way, I just looked at the thing right in front of me, like a child, and went, “I’ll have that please,” and grabbed it. So, being in or out of fashion, I try not to take too seriously because I’ve been out too and I’m sure the swing will turn around again.
Is there a plan for Britten’s wife and son to join him in therapy?
ISAACS: There are all these kinds of plans, but the last thing I’m going to do is tell anybody what the episodes are going to be or what’s going to happen in them. One of the great joys of storytelling is that people don’t know what’s coming next. So, we have all kinds of plans, and that’s a very good idea. He’s going to have to try to sort his relationships out. Nothing can every get truly and properly and brilliantly resolved ‘cause then the show is over. Nobody should ever solve all of their problems on television because there would be nothing left to enjoy. We enjoy watching other people’s problems. It’s cathartic for us, I think.
If you go a few seasons and your character is still going to a therapist, but not making any progress, how do you explain that?
ISAACS: You don’t explain anything. What you do is take a great original premise and you try to make a great episode, and then you try to make another great episode. You have some idea for how to make 12, this year. If it works and it’s interesting and people watch them and we like making them, and the network goes, “Well, let’s do it again,” then you sit down with a bunch of smart people in a room and you go, “Now, what do we do next year?” That’s all that’s happened with all of the most successful television series. Howard Gordon, who writes this and is the showrunner of this, did 24, and no one thought 24 would go for a second season. It’s not about thinking seven years ahead. It’s about thinking about next week’s episode. If people want to continue to live in the family and the drama of our show, then we will find ways to continue to make it entertaining.
You’ve had a multi-year run on a cable show and you’ve done a number of British shows, as well. How are you feeling about the pace of this and being the top man on the callsheet?
ISAACS: One of the things I like about going to work, all day, every day, is that finally the crew are not regarding me as one of those dainty flowers. I think they look at me as another working stiff, alongside them. Actors are laughingly called the talent, and actually regarded as the flakes. Also, I like being on set because I try to have a really good time and make sure that everybody else has a really good time. The sound department has this big box that I link my iPod up to, and everybody is forced to dance in an undignified fashion to bad ‘70s disco, and nobody is ever allowed to behave like a dick. That’s the rule. And, it makes for a happy, constructive and creative workplace.
Other than you, who dances the most enthusiastically?
ISAACS: Oh, you’d be surprised, and I wouldn’t give it away. That’s the whole point of it. We break down barriers and we all are prepared to make fools of ourselves, in front of each other, and have a great time because we could be doing real jobs.
ISAACS: I never look at the lines or the sides, until I get onto the set. I read the script once through, initially. I literally have no idea what we’re shooting. I never prepare. I try to be in the moment. I haven’t a clue what we’re shooting today. I literally have no idea what’s happening. Whatever it is, it won’t be easy. We’ll change it and we’ll have a hard time, and then I’ll put some music on and we’ll laugh and, by the time we go home, we’ll think we cracked it.
ISAACS: Well, why not? Don’t you have bizarre things happen in your dreams? Sometimes you go, “What the hell was that all about?” You wake up and go, “Where did I get that from?” And then, at some point, that day or a week later or a year later, you go, “Oh, now I know where it came from.” And, that’s our plan. The thing is not one giant, long acid trip. But, on the other hand, it is true that the writer’s imaginations are free to roam, vividly.
There is a reason for the penguins. We shot a scene which is an actual explanation for the penguins, but whether it stays in the cut or not, I don’t know. One of the things I worry about, after having done Harry Potter for years, is that you talk about your favorite scenes, and then you see the cut and it’s not there. But, there is an explanation for the penguins, and we shot one, so we’ll see.
I was crushed that we didn’t have real penguins. We had CGI penguins. That was absolutely heartbreaking to me because of my kids. I went home and told my kids, “There’s going to be penguins!” And then, I said, “It’s going to be the penguins from Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” ‘cause that’s what I was told. It turns out it is. It’s the penguins from Mr. Popper’s Penguins’ motherboard, but they look real.
Awake airs Thursday nights on NBC, starting on March 1st.