From filmmakers Logan and Noah Miller, the indie thriller Sweetwater, set in the late 1800s, tells the tale of what happens when a fanatical religious leader (Jason Isaacs), a renegade sheriff (Ed Harris) and a former prostitute (January Jones) collide in a blood triangle, on the rugged plains of the New Mexico Territory.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Jason Isaacs talked about what attracted him to this quite brutal and violent story, how brave and bold he thinks the Miller brothers are, as filmmakers, how much fun it was to play such an evil and crazy character, and the biggest challenges in pulling off the role. He also talked about how he feels about the way his former NBC series Awake turned out, that he hopes to return to television soon, and how he’s next going to be shooting roles in the David Ayer film Fury, set in World War II and starring Brad Pitt, and London Fields, from the book by Martin Amis. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JASON ISAACS: I read the script and it was slightly different, but it was clearly done with original voices, as Logan and Noah Miller are identical twins. It was a very unusually told story, and I said, “Can I meet them?” So, I met them for lunch while I was shooting Awake, and we stayed there the entire day and closed the restaurant on the Fox lot. They’re a force of nature. They’re quite extraordinary. They are more than the sum of two people. It’s like there are five of them. And their hunger to tell stories, and their ability to consume material and turn it into stories, was incredible. In that discussion, I said to them, “This preacher is fabulous, evil and fun, but does he believe in God?” They said, “Why are you asking?” And I said, “Well, if he doesn’t believe in God, then he’s just raping and killing people to feather his own nest. If he does, then he’s truly and evangelical lunatic.”
They said, “I think that’s more interesting. Give us a couple of days.” So, they went away and they devoured a library’s worth of books on fundamentalist religious extremists, and they handed me a couple of them. Under the Banner of Heaven is a fantastic book. So, they rewrote it and created this guy who had a cult around him. He became a self-declared prophet who had been expelled from Utah for being too extreme and wanting his own religion. Suddenly, there was something to play that I believe in, far more. This guy wasn’t villainous, he was insane and possible schizophrenic. When he hears voices, he’s convinced that it’s God telling him that he can do anything to anyone, anytime and anywhere. Once they set something as juicy and fabulous as that up, they then also riddled him with doubt and insecurity. These are guys who don’t adhere to the genre conventions. They’re not interested in that. That made them very exciting to work with.
ISAACS: That’s absolutely right. That’s a very perceptive comment. While we were doing it, we were told, “Let’s not even call it a Western,” but you can’t avoid it because there are hats and there are horses and there are guns. But not only does it not adhere to the genre rules, it doesn’t adhere to the paradigm of most normal stories. They’ve got three elements. There’s me, who’s this cold leader having a meltdown and whose ego is in severe flux. And then, they’ve got January [Jones] playing this prostitute, who is trying to settle down somewhere but, boy, did she pick the wrong town when she came to Sweetwater. And then, you’ve got Ed [Harris] wandering into town, who’s this very eccentric and wickedly entertaining sheriff who is searching for some other people. There are these three narrative strands that wind around each other, like a helix, until there is inevitably a collision, but they don’t tell a simple story and none of the characters do what you think they’re going to do, when they’re going to do it. And that’s deliberate. It’s not accidental.
They understand completely what a normal film would do and when it would do it, and they want to mess with your expectations. That’s so ambitious of them, and it’s only their second film. It’s very much their piece, and I think there’s going to be a lot more to come from them. I’m glad that I know them. I really enjoyed making this. Obviously, it was fantastic and good fun to work with Ed and January, and to play a character as juicy as this, but the biggest take away for me is that I’m really glad I got to know them and I hope that I get to be in more of their stories ‘cause they’re not going to make stuff like other people do. Maybe because they have each other, they look inwards at each other for support and creativity, and they don’t look outwards. These guys are bold, and that’s a rare thing.
How much fun is it to just totally disappear in a character, like you did with this one?
ISAACS: That’s what I aim for. The European tradition of acting is so much about trying to disappear into character, and finding something new and different to do, every time. And then, there’s a movie star thing that happens with some people. They have a quality that is so magnetic and charismatic that that’s what they trot out, every time, and that’s what makes them very big stars. There are a lot of those people, here in California, and sometimes I feel like I’m a fish out of water because I just want to try to create somebody new, every time.
ISAACS: When I get offered a job that I think is fun, it’s mostly about, “How can I do this, so that I believe it?” If I believe it, then there’s a human being there. Whether he’s awful and morally reprehensible or not, at least there’s somebody human there, and he’s not just a cartoon created to have an effect on other people. I believe this guy’s egomania and insecurity and schizophrenia. Nowadays, he would be on meds. Then, he had an entire town following his cult. The book Under the Banner of Heaven opened my eyes to how many cult leaders there are and how many people followed them. Although he might not be someone you want to take home to your mother, he is human. He is rounded. You see him rife with insecurity and doubt.
There are monsters all around. There are people behaving in monstrous ways. You don’t have to look very far to see these things. They can rationalize it. They think that they’re right. Mankind is capable of quite spectacular dehumanization of other people to such an extent that they can do anything to anyone. You can find inspiration not that far away. It’s easy to find people who justify the most outrageous behavior, quite apart from which it’s phenomenally entertaining. Most of us spend our lives trying not to slam the door on the person behind us, and trying not to fight over parking spaces, and trying to be vaguely civil, so to play someone who just does not give a flying fuck about anyone else, at all, because they’re all way beneath him on the great pyramid of life, is not only personally great therapy for me, but really interesting for all of us.
What were the biggest challenges in playing this guy, and pulling it off and making him as effective as you wanted him to be?
ISAACS: It was just about making sure that inside my head, I believed the moments. He does what he does because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. It’s never for the audience’s sake. That’s always the challenge when you’re playing the antagonist. The physical challenge came from filming in New Mexico and essentially wearing a great big dress. I was trying to run around and ride horses, but I had a big wig that was full of flies and sand, most of the time. I was trying to shoot guns and shoot straight. But apart from the physical challenges, it was not laughing when Ed Harris was playing the most entertainingly wicked sheriff I’ve ever seen. It’s like Ed Harris has had a lid put on him for the last 30 years, and then someone said, “Just go batshit!” So, he was having a fabulously good time. I just tried to keep it truthful. My job is always to keep it truthful. It doesn’t matter if it’s a $200 million movie, or a $2 million movie. I just try to make it truthful and entertaining.
Awake was a TV show that was critically acclaimed and a fan favorite, but never found the audience numbers it would have needed to stay on the air longer. Do you regret not having had the chance to do more seasons?
ISAACS: You know, I thought NBC was fantastically bold and brave and creative to commission it, in the first place. It was always going to be a show that you had to concentrate on, and a show for smart people. There were complex storylines that overlapped in interesting and complex ways, emotionally and forensically. The people who put the effort in were enormously rewarded. NBC stuck with it for a whole season. They put it all out. And I’m not sure what we could have come up with for Season 2, quite frankly. But, I loved doing it and we loved making it, and the people who watched it loved watching it.
I don’t really have any regrets. I thought NBC was fantastic with it. They took a swing, knowing full well that it probably wasn’t mainstream entertainment. They just thought the writing was terrific. They’re storytellers, in the end, and they wanted to go with it and see it themselves. In England, we do four or six part television series. If you do a second series, that adds up to 12. So, to do 13 hours in a row felt like a triumph to us. But in America, if you’re not still on nine years later and the actors don’t have yachts from it, it’s regarded as a failure. But, I loved making Awake. I can’t pretend it was fun because that guy was having a tortured time of it. He really was not enjoying one minute of his day, ever. It was a heavy coat to wear. I think we did a good job, and it was time to move on. There’s more fun to be had acting, also.
Because you ultimately had such a positive experience doing Awake, do you think you’ll return to television, anytime soon?
ISAACS: Oh, god, yes! I’m out devising things, and pitching things and meeting television people, all the time. I think television is a fantastic medium where you can tell interesting, long-form stories. Even on network television now, they are all swinging for the trees, knowing that the landscape has changed, and they’re looking to do serialized things and complex things. Storytelling has a value. I love storytelling. Anytime you do something that is truthful, as long as it’s in an entertaining framework, it makes us all feel a bit more human. You can show what makes us angry, love, hate, be jealous, be violent or any of those things. You’re in people’s front rooms, so you bypass a filter. I think storytelling is enormously influential and important, generally. I love storytelling on television. I can’t get enough of it. So, I’m absolutely looking to get into more television series. I did a pilot last year that I thought was terrific, but it wasn’t picked up. I hope that I do another one this year that is. We’ll see.
ISAACS: I’m out there pitching a whole bunch of stuff, as an actor and as a producer. What I’m doing right now, next, is that I’m off to do Fury with Brad Pitt. That’s the David Ayer movie in Europe. And I’m going to do a part in London Fields, as well. That’s Mathew Cullen’s movie, from the Martin Amis book. And then, when I come back to L.A. in December, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know I’m out there trying to sell television shows, and we’ll see what comes of any of those.
What was it about Fury that made you want to get involved with that? Is it the chance to work with writer/director David Ayer?
ISAACS: Yeah, it really is. I sold an idea for a show to FX, a few years ago, and I was desperate for him to write it and he very nearly did write it. When he passed because he was making a movie, he kept sending me notes by email, and they were so brilliant and so insightful and some of the best ideas that ever happened on that show, even though he wasn’t the writer. We occasionally kept in touch, and I spoke to him after End of Watch. I thought it was a magnificent film. And then, he said he was doing Fury, and I was in London, so we had a cup of tea. The film is essentially about Brad Pitt and the other guys in the tank, like Shia LaBeouf and Michael Peña and Logan Lerman, but I would have made coffee on the set.
It’s a film about war, unlike any I’ve ever seen. It tells a story about a bunch of people who are told to hold a corner in a village, and they don’t know why and they don’t know what the bigger picture is. They’re not winning the war. They’re not losing the war. It’s a corner in a village. There are a million stories that are that small. A number of soldiers that I know have said that when you’re in battle, it’s like watching a football game through a straw. You don’t know what’s going on anywhere else. You just do what you need to do, in this bit, right here in front of you. That’s what David has written, and he’s written it so brilliantly that it took my breath away when I read it. When I first talked to him, I said, “They’re never going to let you make this, like this. They’re never going to let you make the script that I read.” And he said, “I believe that they are.” So, I have a very small, but a very proud part in it. I think he’s really something special.
What kind of character are you playing?
ISAACS: He’s a soldier in war. They’re all soldiers. They’ve all got backgrounds. In my own head, I know what he did. He’s a guy who has a bunch of people under his command, and some of them are dying and some of them aren’t. What his background is, where he comes from, and what he thinks and feels about those things are up to me to hide. When you’re in the middle of what happens there, you need to get on with what happens there.
Sweetwater is now playing in theaters and is also available on VOD and Digital.