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Passion for reinvention

Jason Isaacs savors the rich variety of characters he's been playing in film roles, including a key part in the current 'Passionada.'

August 18, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Jason Isaacs probably became an actor "because I like not being me. I guess I come from that European tradition of acting. It's a theatrical tradition of wanting, at least aspiring, to be a chameleon," he says. "I don't even really want to recognize myself."

At least in his Hollywood movies, the British actor, 40, has managed to reinvent himself for each role. As Mel Gibson's coolly malevolent nemesis William Tavington in "The Patriot," Isaacs created a vain, arrogant character who wore his long locks in a tight, rigid ponytail. As the no-nonsense Capt. Mike Steele in Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down," he shaved his black hair to give his character a grizzled, world-weary quality. In "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," he captured the pomposity and prejudice of wizard Lucius Malfoy with his long blond hair, velvet suits and ornate walking stick.

In his latest film, the old-fashioned romantic comedy "Passionada," which opened Friday, he disappears into the character of Charlie Beck, a charming loser who finds love and redemption with a beautiful Portuguese widow (Sofia Milos) living in the fishing community of New Bedford, Mass. As the card shark rogue, Charlie wears loud, large sport shirts and a hairdo that might be described as Ringo Starr's gone to seed.

"I am very involved in the look of a character generally," says Isaacs, who in person comes across as charming and funny, with deep blue eyes and a warm smile. Sipping on bottled water in an alcove at his publicist's office, Isaacs is dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, his black hair close-cropped.

Charlie, Isaacs says, is taste-challenged. "He has always had pretty bad taste in women and in his lifestyle. The thing about Charlie is that he's a terrible loser. He's always smiling and perky but inside he's a walking tragedy. Living from motel to motel. Living in permanent denial. Wearing cheap shirts and bad hair. He's just a disaster except that he's witty and charming and he puts on a reasonable show. But if you ever held him still for two seconds and looked in his eyes or if you spent more than a half-hour with him, you'd have to get away because it will make you feel sad. He's a sad guy."

"Passionada" director Dan Ireland ("The Whole Wide World") says Isaacs was a great collaborator. "He added so much to Charlie," says Ireland. "He became much more of a guy who was looking for redemption and that added a complexity. Jason is just a master of underplaying yet getting it spot on. There is just a level of emotions he hits."

Isaacs was in the middle of what he describes as "World War IV" doing "Black Hawk Down" in Morocco for Ridley Scott when he was offered "Passionada." The day after he completed "Black Hawk," he was in Massachusetts in front of the cameras for "Passionada."

After the high-testosterone Scott adventure, the experience came as a bit of a culture shock.

"It was so lovely having been in this very, very aggressive and deafening environment in Morocco for five months and then to be in this film which was about charm and wit and silence and trying to be subtle. 'Black Hawk' was very difficult to do. Physically it was a very hostile environment and it really wasn't about acting. It was about story. It was all you could do to make yourself heard."

For Ireland, says Isaacs, "The script was a blueprint, a starting point.... He wanted us to improvise all the time while we were doing it. It was nice after being such a small cog in a such a huge thing in Morocco to feel very, very creative. I don't mean to be disrespectful to the writers because they came up with the story and the characters, but I don't think I said a single word that was written in the script."

The day before this interview, Isaacs completed work on the big new Christmas release "Peter Pan," directed by P.J. Hogan ("My Best Friend's Wedding"), in which he plays the dual role of the bumbling Mr. Darling and the villainous Captain Hook. Isaacs spent 13 months working on "Peter Pan" in Australia and in Los Angeles.

"The movie's really in two parts," says Isaacs. "There is Victorian London and Never Land."

This version, he says, is far closer to the original James M. Barrie story than the musical version, Disney's animated adaptation and Steven Spielberg's "Hook," all of which depict Hook as a buffoon.

"Barrie's Hook is a very dangerous man," Isaacs says. "He's kind of a wounded animal." And Barrie describes him as cadaverous, with eyes as blue as "forget-me-nots except when they glow red when he is about to kill someone," says Isaacs. Trailers for the film have been playing in theaters for several months and Isaacs looks both terrifying and alluring as Hook with his long, black, curly hair.

"We experimented [with his look] for weeks and weeks," says Isaacs. "My wig at one point had dreadlocks and looked a little too much like I was in living on the beach in Venice. His hair is described as looking like melted black candles, so you know you have to have ringlets."

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