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THE PERFORMANCE: Jason Isaacs

Jason Isaacs is surprised by the places 'Good' has taken him

But one encounter tops all.

January 01, 2009|Michael Ordona

The story didn't start at last year's observance of National Holocaust Memorial Day in Liverpool, England, but it did provide a key moment. There was Jason Isaacs with, as he called them, "the great and the good; ministers, archbishops" and the like, a local hero taking part in the presentation.

Organizers apologized profusely that this famous actor should have to share a dressing room. Isaacs shrugged it off, hoping he'd "get someone fun to hang out with." He'd recently finished a years-long trek to bring C.P. Taylor's Nazi parable "Good" to the screen and could probably have stood some light socializing. He was in for a surprise, but first, the film.

"It's amazing the different reception this film has had when shown to different audiences," said Isaacs, months later, by phone from Israel, where "Good," starring Viggo Mortensen, had just played at the Jerusalem Film Festival. "For people like me, Western liberals, it takes imaginative effort to see themselves in Viggo's part because we all like to think we'd hide people in our attic, you know, join the partisans and protest these civil rights abuses right under our nose. They recognize the perils of not raising our voices when the Geneva Conventions are thrown aside.

"But when you show it to people who lived under Communist rule in Eastern Europe, they don't expect him for a second to do anything. They know what powerlessness feels like. So they're watching a different story, about lack of hope and about pragmatism."

It was nine months before the Liverpool event that Isaacs was in Hungary, working on the film, an exploration of how an average citizen in early '30s Germany could be slowly co-opted by the National Socialists.

Mortensen plays that man and Isaacs plays his best friend, Maurice, a fellow intellectual and war veteran who happens to be Jewish. Isaacs loved how different the cosmopolitan, carousing Maurice was from other Jewish characters in Holocaust films he'd seen: "Maurice is completely unapologetic in that he likes to [womanize] and eat and drink and laugh and swear; he eats life."

There were years of false launches that saw the project repeatedly founder, with Isaacs even putting in his own money to try to keep it afloat. Once the film was on course for, well, good, Isaacs found a way to make his character's world deeply personal.

"I have this recording of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the camp, in which a British Army rabbi called Leslie Hardman describes what he can see," he said. "There were tens of thousands of bodies all over the place and about 300 Jews came up to him and asked him to record a Friday night service. He didn't want to do it because these people were very, very near death and needed help, but they insisted. He recorded them singing 'Hatikvah,' which is now the Israeli national anthem.

"I listened to that over and over again. Each time I tried to pick out a different individual voice and imagine their relationship with Maurice. I would like to think of them as individuals who played the piano and didn't like broccoli and had likes and dislikes and partners and loves; it became much more real to me."

So there was Isaacs, months after the making of "Good," at National Holocaust Memorial Day, waiting for his dressing room mate, hoping for some lively company.

"In walks this 95-year-old man," he said with a bit of a chuckle. "My heart sinks slightly and I go, 'Hi, I'm Jason Isaacs.' He goes, 'Hello, I'm Rabbi Leslie Hardman.'

"I can't even tell the story without choking up, it's ridiculous. . . . He started telling me about that day. He told me a number of people died from the effort of making the recording; they were still on their feet when they died.

"I felt, whatever the film does or doesn't achieve, my participation allowed me to have an extraordinary encounter like that. And to be challenged into thinking about who I am and what I do in my life. Just that meeting has to mean the whole experience is worthwhile."

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Where you've seen him

Jason Isaacs is recognizable to millions of filmgoers as the villainous Lucius Malfoy ("Paris Hilton wig" and all) of the magically delicious "Harry Potter" series. He can be seen regularly on Showtime's Peabody-winning Irish American mob show, "Brotherhood." In 2000, he joined the ranks of those who have tortured Mel Gibson and/or killed his family (this time in "The Patriot"). Other memorable appearances include the films "Friends With Money" (2006), "Black Hawk Down" (2001) and "Peter Pan" (2003), as well as a run on TV's "The West Wing." He was nominated for a Golden Globe for "The State Within" (2006) and a London Film Critics Award for "The Patriot."

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