Actor Jason Isaacs, star of the NBC drama "Awake." (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
On NBC's psychological procedural "Awake," Jason Isaacs plays a man moving between two realities. In one: His son is alive, but his wife is dead. In the other: His wife is alive, but his son is dead. Which reality is a dream is up for debate. Not up for debate, however, are Isaacs' own dreams.
"I would never share that," he said gently on a recent weekday over the ambient noise at a crowded Venice restaurant. "I learned years ago that you have to rope some things off."
Then again, the 48-year-old actor claims to be an insomniac. "Much like my character in some ways, I don't get much sleep. I'm up reading probably everything written — both professionally and by amateurs — about the show since it premiered: comments, blogs, feedback … I read it all."
Probably best known for his roles in "Harry Potter" (where he sports a long, blond mane as Lucius Malfoy) and "The Patriot," or on TV where he played lifelong criminal Michael Caffee in the 2006-08 Showtime series "Brotherhood," Isaacs is a British actor who speaks in a Liverpool accent in real life. Seated in a booth, his face framed by facial hair, Isaacs appears more rugged than Michael Britten, the emotionally intense police detective he plays on "Awake."
"I thought it was such a simple and powerful hook: a man who doesn't know whether he's dreaming or not — and has no earthly desire to find out." He was also tempted by "this idea of a procedural show as a prism through which we could explore everything to do with the family: what it means to be a husband. What it means to be a father. What it would be like if you could repeat your marriage and or your role as a father. There just aren't that many unusual 'what ifs' in the story business."
"Awake" creator Kyle Killen, whose last series (Fox's short-lived drama "Lone Star") also dealt with duality, said he's fascinated with "forks in the road" storytelling, in which a character realizes how things could have turned out differently depending on a decision. The Britten character allows him to push that narrative even further: "He's kind of a guy that's been given a horrific version of everybody's dream second chance. He gets the opportunity to repair relationships — it's sort of a look at the good that can come from horrible things."
Isaacs speaks reverently about the series, on which he is an executive producer alongside Killen and "Homeland's" Howard Gordon. But Isaacs is also aware of the show's shaky position: "Awake" had a soft opening last month, with its premiere watched by just 6.2 million viewers and earning a 1.9 rating in the adult demo. Though that was a significant boost — 58% — from the average rating for NBC's short-lived series "The Firm" and "Prime Suspect" (predecessors in the 10 p.m. Thursday slot), it is marginal compared with rival dramas on CBS and ABC, leaving a second-season renewal a big question mark.
"This is going to sound very unprofessional but I honestly didn't give a … about how many people watched it and whether it ran for 10 years or one year and what time slot we had," he said, his hooded eyelids pulsating. "I've done theater to 200 people and I've done movies that make millions of dollars — and I hold them in the same regard. I wanted to play this guy and I wanted to see what stories we could come up with."
He gives the network credit for taking a leap with such an unconventional show, noting, "There are many safer choices that NBC could have made. Bob Greenblatt [NBC Entertainment chairman] and Jen Salke [president of NBC Entertainment] have to make choices to satisfy the people who buy spots — in the end, advertising sort of dictates television." That partially explains why he was averse to appearing on a network TV series.
In fact, he had sold a series idea to FX, which is in development, and had met with Gordon in hopes that he would consider writing for it; Gordon was working on a show with similar themes ("Homeland") and passed. But when Greenblatt approached Isaacs about doing an NBC show, he didn't give it much thought until he knew Gordon was on board. And it wasn't until Isaacs was offered a producer credit that he eventually gave in.
"[Isaacs] is tireless — with a capital T," Gordon said. "He has two switches: on and off. And I've never seen them off. He's just always doing something, he's always got suggestions and ideas. He's very involved with all the details."
Apparently that attention to minutiae carries over to his personal life. After finishing off his Chinese chicken salad, Isaacs scrubbed a napkin across his beard, then revealed his next adventure:
"I've got to run off and pick up my daughter. We have to prepare for a tea party she's having. There are so many details that need to get done, you'd be amazed."