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TELEVISION & RADIO

Diplomatic recognition

Jason Isaacs, best known for his bad guys, gets to play a morally decent ambassador caught up in an international crisis in `The State Within.'

February 19, 2007|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

At last, Jason Isaacs gets to wear a suit.

Best known to U.S. audiences in various villainous, frightening and brutal roles ("The Patriot," "Harry Potter," "Brotherhood"), the actor leads a multinational cast in "The State Within," a complex political thriller on BBC America.

His character, the British ambassador to the U.S., who is caught up in an all-too-believable international crisis, is almost as complicated as the plot of the three-part miniseries. An attractive bachelor, he juggles his fundamental moral decency, professionalism and secret political ambitions after a terrorist bomb, planted by English Muslims, explodes on an airplane over Washington, D.C. (Parts 1 and 2 of "The State Within" rerun on Saturday afternoon, and Part 3 airs at 9 p.m.)

"The idea is to make the stakes as high as they can possibly be, put as much pressure on your leading character as you possibly can and make him flawed and see what happens," said Isaacs brightly.

After a decade of globe-trotting for one-note roles, Isaacs, who has a law degree, recently resettled in London with his wife and two young daughters to pursue more adult and complex parts. His goal was to recapture the joy he felt a dozen years ago when he appeared in the stage version of "Angels in America." He felt then that his artistic career had peaked, he said. "For all of us in it, it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, not for the playing of it but for the effect it had on audiences. It felt like something magical was happening," he said.

"The last few years, I've come back into enjoying acting, really, enjoying using my chops again, seeking out and being lucky enough to find complicated parts, three-dimensional parts," he said. As on "Brotherhood," in which he plays the loyal son and gangster Michael Caffey, and "Scars," a British show in which he stars as a psychopathic criminal, "The State Within" is a chance to challenge himself.

"It's nice to be able to use my brain and guile and to end up with the girls as opposed to killing them," he said.

As smooth and friendly as his characters are often dark and troubled, Isaacs spoke in Los Angeles recently about his life and career in a cheerful streaming audio, editing as he went. He offered self-deprecating stories of being tongue-tied in front of actors like Sharon Gless (the secretary of Defense in "The State Within"), embarrassing himself by telling inappropriate underpants jokes and gushingly begging J.K. Rowling to include his character (Lucius Malfoy) in her next book and film. "Acting is a very precarious thing," he said. "When I get a job to do a television series, a play [Pinter's 'The Dumb Waiter'], come back and do an American show ['Brotherhood's' second season], it's a ridiculous embarrassment of riches. Considering I'm no better and no worse, no taller and no more handsome than other people who do the same job, the challenge is to remain grateful and not take it for granted."

Isaacs was so excited about "The State Within," he said, he didn't even realize it would be shot abroad until he met with producers. Though he had to travel to Toronto for shooting, Isaacs said he was thrilled to be part of a show that asks pertinent contemporary questions.

"Do you trust what your politicians are saying to you? And who inside the White House, Downing Street, Whitehall and the Pentagon is acting out of self-interest, and what do you do when the commercial interest of the country and your own moral universe come in direct conflict with each other?" Though the BBC denies the series portrays any real people, Gless has said she modeled her role in part on former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. And Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, has said the role of James Sinclair (Alex Jennings) -- an outspoken critic of human rights abuses in "Tyrgyzstan," who was ultimately fired -- could be no one else but him.

To play his role, Isaacs read memoirs of various Washington ambassadors and also obtained BBC footage about the British embassy in D.C. in the midst of preparation for the changeover in administration between presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Isaacs said he saw the staff "argue over the fact they couldn't provide biscuits -- cookies -- for people who came."

"The ambassador had to buy food from his own budget because inspectors were checking that everyone was spending the right amounts of money and questioning why they needed a bottle of water" -- a bit that made it into the series.

Though Murray, the former ambassador, quibbled with some details in the show (the official residence wasn't nearly ponderous enough), he said it hit many profound themes of our times: persecution of Muslims, attacks on civil rights, U.S. support of dictatorships, out-of-control private military companies, distorted intelligence and even the death penalty.

Entertainment programs like "The State Within" at least raise public awareness of "what's done in our name and the things we should engage with" and may contribute to "moving in the right direction," Isaacs said.

"When I think about the future of the world that my kids are inheriting, I get pretty bleak," he said. Some days, Isaacs said, he thinks maybe he ought to do something else. "I meet people and think, 'Now, you do a real job -- policemen, doctors -- now, that's responsible, that's actually making a contribution.' "

But other than finding steady work in a continuing variety of roles, he said he has no real ambitions. "I can pay my bills, and there's a bit left over for Chinese food," Isaacs said. "And I get to read my kids stories in bed at night, which is pretty good."

lynn.smith@latimes.com

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