Sometimes you find yourself in a room talking to Lucius Malfoy about soup dumplings. Jason Isaacs, predictably, isn’t terribly Lucius Malfoy-y. He’s played scores of menacing baddies though, and not just in the “Harry Potter” movies. He’s possibly sinister in the Netflix series “The OA,” but we don’t want to spoil anything. But in person, he’s friendly and gabby. He even admits to feeling uncomfortable in his own skin. This, from a man whose performances have haunted a generation of Potter-heads.
Isaacs is in New York to talk about “A Cure for Wellness,” a creepy, crazy (and very long) horror film. He’s the villain: a doctor at a dilapidated spa tucked away in the Swiss Alps who may be doing something evil to his guests. While here, the actor, 53, made sure to stop by his favorite restaurant in the world: not some three-star staple, but Joe’s Shanghai, a hole-in-the-wall joint in Chinatown, which he says has the best soup dumplings he’s ever eaten. So we start there.
The soup dumplings at Joe’s are amazing.
They’re the best. I’ve chased them all over the world. Anywhere else that pretends to have soup dumplings, there’s hardly any soup in them. They’re actually just “juicy dumplings.” These have actual soup.
Spicy Asian food might be the best food in the world.
I have a tin mouth, so I’ll have incredibly hot stuff. I always ask for the menu they don’t give to Westerners. They go, “Well, it’s very hot.” I say, “That’s fine.” You have to earn their trust.
How do you earn their trust?
You just go there enough times and ask for enough chili and they see you dumping it on your food. Then they decide to run with it, just once, to see if you die. If you don’t, you get to do it again.
So when you’re shooting a movie, you’re spending your off time scouting for restaurants?
What I do when I go to a new town is I seek out the food reviews. Then I go to the best places. They’re never the posh places that are hard to get into. I shot in Paris a while ago, and the concierges sent me to this very upmarket, hideous, Frenchified Chinese place. So I looked up this place, which was a hole-in-the-wall with awful fluorescent lighting. The food was magnificent. That’s always the case that somewhere that looks unlikely to have great food has great food.
Do you sometimes pick jobs because of places that might have great food?
I’d like to pick jobs for things like money and location, and I get very close to it and at the last second balk. Even if all the rest of the stuff is great, there is that moment when they say “action.” You’ve got to have something to do that you want to do, because otherwise the whole thing turns into purgatory.
This is a nice contrast to some of the roles you’ve played, which are sometimes, but not always, people out to do no good. As an American, the first time I remember noticing you is in “The Patriot,” where you played a murderous British officer during the American Revolutionary War.
You know what that was? That was a fantastic part and incredibly well-written. He had a backstory I completely believed in. I believe in any solider who goes out to war and loses his sense of morals, because you’ve got to dehumanize the enemy enough to kill them.
We decided he came from a family who had lost all their money. We made up a story in which his father had gambled away his inheritance. So only if he won in this new territory, this new land, was he going to have an estate and any name to speak of? So he’s massively motivated. We erect statues in Britain, in America, to people who had won wars for us. We don’t want to look too closely at what they did to win.
Most actors who tend to play villains say they never look at them as villainous.
Sometimes, I’m asked the question — it doesn’t bother me, but I think it’s reductive — which is, “Do you like playing good guys or bad guys?” It’s true that sometimes there are characters written one way or the other, but I steer hundreds of miles away from them. If I don’t believe the person thinks they’re absolutely right, then I’ll look terrible as an actor.
So you have Lucius Malfoy, who is just a dyed-in-the-wool racist and eugenicist, or the guy in “A Cure for Wellness,” who has complete self-belief that the project he’s on is worthwhile. Those characters, they’re not easy to play, but they’re easier than characters who are two-dimensional and written so the audience goes “Boo!” Because the audience does go “Boo!” The audience sees through a transparent attempt to make you dislike them.
There’s a great, famous sketch by Mitchell and Webb in which Nazi soldiers are sitting around one night and one of them asks, “Are we the baddies?” It’s a great reminder that everyone thinks they’re right.
There’s some terrible people in the world. Depending on your politics, you might think there’s a terrible man sitting the White House now. But anybody you pick, any of your boogeymen, if you sat them down and interviewed them, they could absolutely rationalize and justify what they’re doing, morally and ethically or strategically. Those are the the kinds of parts I want to play, simply because then I don’t look crap.
It’s really fascinating to get into those kinds of head spaces.
I think that’s why … I’ve no idea why I started doing this, but I think there’s a real curiosity about what people think, what motivates them, all the things they’re not saying. I always felt as a kid, and I still often feel as an adult, that I somehow missed the memo where everyone had life explained to them. That’s why they sit so comfortable in their own skin. Because I don’t. I’m on a quest to find what makes other people so sure of themselves.
Apart from the role, one draw of “A Cure for Wellness” must have been shooting in that strange place in Europe. The actor’s life must always feel surreal, but especially with this one.
The odd thing I didn’t expect was that I would be so creeped out — not by the scenes, but where we shot. We shot in maybe the worst, most disturbing place I’ve ever been in my life. It was this place called Beelitz-Heilstatten, which is a compound of buildings where Hitler rehabbed after the first World War, after his injury. All Nazi soldiers went there to recuperate from injuries. Then the Russians took over, and they used the place to give people lobotomies and shock treatments, basically turn them into zombies. Subsequently there were loads of terrible things that happened there, like mass murders. There was a murder there just a few years before; they blamed the building. It’s the most haunted building in Germany, maybe in Europe.
And you were there for months.
It was a creepy place to be. I was terrified all the time. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. At night, very often you had to walk from the set to food by yourself, in the dark. I would keep my head firmly staring at the ground, because I didn’t want to look at the dilapidated buildings and see a silhouette in a window. I did see and hear some things I don’t want to think about, even now while I’m talking to you.
OK, that should do it! Hope you get to another great restaurant while you’re here!
No, I’m going back to the same place. Are you kidding me?