Exclusive Video Interview: Archie’s Jason Isaacs on Becoming Cary Grant & the Freedom of Playing Someone So Different from Himself

Jason IsaacsFrom executive producer Jeff Pope, Archie, now on Britbox, tells the story of Archie Leach, who grew up to become Hollywood superstar Cary Grant, but few know the story behind the man. Starring Jason Isaacs (Star Trek: Discovery, Harry Potter franchise) in the title role, the series reveals the performers’s formative years and how he overcame his troubled past to rise to stardom. 

One of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century, Isaacs revealed earlier in the week during an interview with SciFi Vision that he did not originally want to take on the role. “I thought it was a terrible idea,” he told the site, going on to explain how the view the public have of Cary Grant is a far cry from who Archie really was. “Off screen, he really wasn't [the same] at all, emotionally,” said the actor. 

Isaacs talked about how that gave him the license to explore who Grant was, and how he approached becoming the character, getting the voice down being the most difficult, since he only had a single interview on which to base it, wanting him to sound as he did in real life rather than just on film.

The actor also discussed the physical transformation into the icon, which took upwards of four to five hours in the makeup chair with the additional prosthetics to portray him later in life. 

During the interview, Isaacs also talked about working with Laura Aikman, who played his love interest, Dyan Cannon, his acting process and keeping the spontaneity in scenes, how much he loved getting to play someone so different from himself, how he’d like to be a tennis commentator, what he wanted to be as a teenager, what other roles fans can look forward to seeing him in, and much, much more. 

Watch the interview or read the transcript below. The final episodes of Archie are now available to stream on Britbox. 

SCIFI VISION:   What was it about this project that made you want to do it, either about the character or the script? 

Jason IsaacsJASON ISAACS:   
Nothing. I didn't want to do it. I thought it was a terrible idea. What kind of moron would play Cary Grant on screen other than Cary Grant? Even he struggled to play Cary Grant. But then I read the script, and I thought, “Oh, it's not about Cary Grant. It's about a guy called Archie, who had a really screwed up childhood, was incredibly damaged and abandoned, neglected, felt completely unlovable, because no one had ever loved him, and how those scars really never healed, or certainly not for many decades, whilst the world fell in love with him, and he felt even worse about himself.” And I thought, “Oh, that seems like something as an actor I'd like to play.” To try to play the world's most desired man is a poison chalice, and you'd be a moron to take that on. 

I was about to ask, was it daunting playing such a big character. Were you worried…how people would react to it? 

Well, at first, yeah. But I thought, “I'm given a bit of a license here,” because he wasn't Cary Grant. Off screen, he really wasn't him at all, emotionally. Personally, if he was unflappable on screen, he was extremely flappable in life. He was very fragile and given to fits of rage and self hatred and alcoholism and such control freakery that he drove everyone away in his personal relationships. He became obsessive about people and stalked them, essentially, and was haunted by these terrible scars, these wounds that were still open from his childhood. And I thought, “Well, nobody knows that.” The people watching it, if they think they're going to watch Cary Grant from North by Northwestor something else, they should go watch the movie. This is who he was when he stepped off the screen and through his front door and shut the front door and was with the person that he thought he loved. But he didn't really know how to love until Jennifer came along, his daughter came along. So, I was daunted by people's expectations, and then I when I thought I was going to take the job, when I decided to take the job, I went, “Fuck it.” I mean, you know, they're already sharpening the knives. People go, “He's no Cary Grant.” I know I’m not Cary Grant, and that's absolutely fine. Meet me halfway with your imagination, your suspension of disbelief. I'll show you what a decent team have done, a lot of work and research, and Dyan Cannon [wrote] what he was like when he got home, at a very tumultuous period of his life. 

Did you did you approach it differently, though, at all, knowing that it was a real person? Or does it really not matter to you either way? 

Yeah, it's great. I mean, there's a ton of research to do, because, although he wasn't that unflappable, debonair epitome of masculinity in his life at all, he was very emotionally fragile and volcanic. He looked a certain way. So, that's a bit of a challenge to try. I mean, I don't do most of the work. The makeup and hair department do a lot of it, and the costume department do the other half. I was never gonna look like Cary Grant. I’m just gonna look a bit less like me and a slight indication in his direction. It's not going to be a lookalike contest. You know, the AI will be able to do that very soon. Then, it was the voice which was a scary thing, because people think they know his voice. Actually, they really know Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot doing a very exaggerated parody of his voice. And he didn't have a consistent voice. So, I broke it down with a dialect coach. His accent changed from film to film, and more importantly, he didn't talk like that in life. Not just the vowel sounds, which he did have consistently, [laughs] but if anybody was ever bored enough to analyze [it], take it from me, I'll save you the time. He delivered almost every line in exactly the same intonation pattern: it lifts and it comes down, and it sounds very short. It conveys absolute certainty. But there's no way he would talk like that when he was screaming at his wife or when he was crying because of his nightmares or when he dropped acid hundreds of times with his therapist [or] spilled hot coffee in his lap. That's not what he sounded like. So, the challenge was to get something recognizably the same voice as the man on the screen, but what he was like at home. And I did luckily enough find one - There's only one elicit recording of an interview with him, because he didn't do talk shows. He didn't do podcasting. He didn't want the public to see who was behind the mask, but I found a tape, and that's what I used as a model. 

In away though that probably made it easier. I mean, obviously that was hard enough to not have it to pull from, but at the same time, then you don't have to worry about [people comparing it as much]. 

Sure. I mean, there are a couple of bits of recreations of the films, and at that point, it's a bit of a challenge, a kind of craft challenge. You go, “How close to exactly what he sounded like and how he moves can I be?” I can't control what I look like, but, you know, I've got the chin, and I've got the eyes and the hair, and the audience will just have to forgive me the rest. But, yeah, that was fun doing the little bits of the films. It was like an exercise of drama school. Can you sound as much like him as possible? Hopefully I did. 

How long did the makeup take? I mean, especially towards later in his life? It seemed like there was a lot more makeup. 

When he was in his eighties, because he was a very, you might say vain, or you might say clever man, in terms of he kept his image, he curated his image so perfectly. Oddly and interestingly, he let his hair go white when he continued to keep a dark brown tan his whole life and was very concerned to make sure his body - if his belt was ever one extra notch, he would go on a extreme diet very quickly and drop it down. But when he stopped acting, he got little bit wider. So, yeah, the prosthetic makeup for my eighties was many, many hours, and hours to take it off as well. But when he was younger, it's a series different wigs, and the chin went on quickly. I had a fake tan painted the entire time; it was a little bit embarrassing. I was kind of dark brown like like outdoor furniture varnish, as he was. So, there was the chin, there was a lady employed to stick brown contact lenses in my eyes and take them out every couple of hours, put drops in, and the wig. So, that would be about an hour and a half or something. But when he was old, it was like four hours or five hours. 

Wow. Yeah, I know when I was watching it, I kept thinking something [was different]. I mean, obviously, I could tell the chin and the tan, but I knew something was so different. It took me forever to realize it was your eyes. I'm like, that's why it looks so different. Because I don't think I've ever seen you with darker eyes in anything. 

Not only was it - so, I looked different, because it really changed the color of my eyes, but [laughs] I couldn’t really see very much, because it was dark brown. I had a kind of sepia hint over everything. So, I was trying to play this elegant man, you know, with a acrobat’s body, but I was constantly tripping over everything. 

[laughs] That's funny. Now when I talked to you…for Good Sam, you had told me how, for you, acting is more about not so much what you're saying, but what you're not saying and trying to figure that out.

Sure, I mean it's for all actors, I think. 

With something like this, did you have to make some of that up, because you can't talk to him? Or was it more just taken from talking to his family members and things like that? 

Although I talked [to them] and, you know, the research, I did - You throw all of it away. When you're in the moment with a person and someone as brilliant [and as nimble] as Laura Aikman, who plays Dyan Cannon in this, you forget all any research. You don't plan anything. You don’t plan what you're thinking or what you're saying. It so happens someone's written - but you clear your mind of that. Those words come to you spontaneously, but all the other things you're not saying, all the things you want the other person to say, what you want them to feel - So, I'm talking to you now, and you're nodding, but… [if] I saw this bit in the script, it's not about what I'm saying. It's not about, “Oh, this is the bit where he waxes lyrical.” This is the bit where I want you to nod and think I'm clever, insightful. So, acting is always about what you want from the other person. So, whether they're alive or not, they can't tell you what they were thinking and feeling. They can't tell you what feelings came up they were suppressing, what memories came into their head…The older I get, I guess, the more I do this with abandon, to completely clear yourself and be free for something to happen spontaneously. Sometimes I've done scenes with young actors, and it's clear that to me that they have rehearsed this to death at home in front of the bathroom mirror, and if I was to spontaneously combust or drop my pants, they wouldn't come out any different. What they're doing is already fixed, and that's dead acting. All acting is the 99% of things you're not doing and not saying that drive you to say or do the things you’re doing. And that's always every actor's job to fill up. Nobody gives you that. 

You've done a lot of different things, but do you still like learn things about yourself, as an actor, as you do something like this? 

Jason IsaacsNo. [laughs] I mean, it reminded me that very, very rarely, as an actor, as a male actor, do I get to do full chameleon dress up stuff. You know, I didn't look like me. I didn't walk like me and talk like me. Sometimes that's really freeing, because there's no overlap with me. The Italians have a thing called commercial dell’arte, and they work with masks. They put a mask on, they look at it for a second in the mirror, they turn around, and a completely new fully formed character emerges, and they just go with it. It's like improv. So, it just reminded how much fun it is to do let's pretend, because normally I get cast to look like this and play someone who looks a bit like this, and then I kind of behave within the parameters of this. So, that's why I do a lot of voice work, which I love, video games and stuff, because I can be anything and imagine myself as anything. Actually, it's only about tricking your imagination. Did I learn anything new? I learn new things in life all the time from the people that I work with, and young people particularly, but as an actor, no. I just learned that it's sometimes fun, and that sometimes you can tell stories that have value. This is a story about a guy born in 1904, who died in 1986, and many people watching it will never have seen him and don't know who he is, but we all know people that we think are fabulous and great today, because they come through our phones. We all know who today's global icons are, because social media tells us they have three hundred million followers, and we don't know anything about them. We don't know who they are, but we should never fool ourselves. And we should never feel less than anyone that seems to have what we want, because we have no idea what's going on inside their heads. And this was just another reminder of that truism. 

Well, now, I gotta ask you, since people don't obviously know [the real] you, what's something about you that people would be surprised to know, that you haven't talked about before? 

I mean, if it's something I've kept private, I’ve probably kept it private for a reason. 

[laughs] Not something private, just something people would be surprised about. 

I was a pro skateboarder…and that's what I thought I wanted to do for a living when I was fourteen and fifteen. 

Oh, wow. Well, I definitely did not know that, so that works. Can you talk about working with Laura? 

Sure. So, I just I feel bad for Laura, because she looks a lot like Dyan Cannon, and so I don't think she gets enough credit for how brilliantly she transformed into Dyan Cannon and how she studied, because unlike Cary Grant, who didn't give interviews, because didn't want to be known, Dyan Cannon was a very public figure once she shed the baggage of this marriage. So, Laura got her laugh so perfectly, and her character, and she very wisely - because she became very close to Dyan and spoke to her all the time, everyday, really. She wanted to enter this marriage, initially, with real cynicism, like, why is this guy older than my dad hitting on me? But then wide eyed and full of just romance and love and kind of starry-eyed, with such optimism. So, when it starts going wrong for her on screen, it was something she was going to get over, get through…Dyan was going to marry one time only in life and whatever. You know, she was committed, she was quite a religious person. And Laura created in herself such optimism and joy, so that when that was squashed out of her, it's heartbreaking to behold, and as she slowly took strength. But also I can be a bit, I don't know, loose, naughty, whatever the word is. I'm an EP on it, and I was given license to play. So, sometimes [I would] zig, and she would always zag. Then, she realized she could do that too. So, you know, you were asking before about preparing, well we didn't quite know what the scenes were going to be. Will we be shouting at each other? Will we suddenly start kissing? Will we get physically close to each other? Will we throw the furniture? Just she’s able to be completely in the moment. And I'd only ever seen her work doing comedy, in which she's brilliant. She does many many voices as well. Brilliant. Dyan said [she had] her accent down. She had no idea Laura was English when Laura spoke to her in an American accent the first time. Yeah, I think she's remarkable. I think she's really something, and one of the reasons why this series is getting the response it does is because of how great [she is]. It's as much Dyan’s story as Cary’s story, the period that we cover, and she inhabits it with such complexity and love, I think. 

Looking at the Internet Movie Database, you have a lot of other stuff coming up. You're quite busy. What's something that you can promote? Talk a little bit about what you have coming out for people to look for. 

Oh, my God. I mean, if Ipick any one of them, and the people on the others would be really upset I didn’t mention them. [laughs] I just wrapped on a film called The Salt Path with Gillian Anderson, which is based on the most beautiful book, on real life people. One of the nicest, the loveliest man I've ever met in my life, Moth Winn, and his wife, Ray Winn, who wrote it, so that will be coming up. What's coming up next? I did a film with Maxine Peake, the great British actress, called Anna, about the first journalist to stand up to Putin, who exposed his lies in Chechnya, the same lies he told in Ukraine. Nazis were going as terrorists when he was orchestrating mass rape and mass murder. And she plays Anna Politkovskaya, who, for her pains, was shot on Putin's birthday, and her murderer just got released. What else am I in? I'm in a musical called Verona, which is an original musical with the music written by people who write for Beyonce and other big pop stars, based on the source material for Romeo and Juliet, not Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare's one, but what he used as source material. So, it's a different story, which is kind of star-studded. I mean, they're all phenomenal singers singing these great pop songs. I heard them on set all day, so I couldn't stop singing them for months. When you hear a song, you want to hear it more than once to be able to - before it catches you. These songs got me straightaway in the first chorus. So, I don't know what's going on with that, when that's coming out. What else did I do? Oh! I did a fabulous little horror film. I mean, this is over the course of years; sometimes these take years. I got a little micro budget horror film in Canada called Honeybunch, directed by Mada and Dusty, a young couple, who are a couple who make films, starring also another young couple of indie filmmakers in Canada, which I just came back from. That was grand. 

So, quite a lot! 

It makes it sound like I work all the time. I don't, but sometimes, like buses, they pile up, and then they come out. 

Yeah, they can take a long time. Is there something you still want to do? Like if you could create your own role that you've thought about? 

Commentate on tennis. That's my only professional ambition left is to commentate on tennis. Sit in the booth with McEnroe or whoever it is, and grill them, because tennis is - Apart from acting, there're two things in life that make me present. The world is a complicated, dark and terrifying place at the moment. There're wars going on, and horror and inhumanity everywhere I look, and I find it very hard to get that out of my head. I try and do some things to make it better, so that I don't feel crippled with guilt as well as horror and fear for my children. But there are moments when my head is not in all these other horrible places. One is when I'm acting, because I've got someone else's thoughts in my head, and the other is when I'm playing tennis. Because you have to be right there where the ball is, where the strings are. If you’re thinking about anything else, you're done. So, my only professional ambition is to commentate on tennis, and that's it. Apart from that, I just try and find talented people who are telling interesting, worthwhile stories, and I latch on to them like a parasite, and I don't let go.

For more, you can also check out the interviews I did for TVMEG.com last week with Isaacs, Dyan Cannon, Jeff Pope, and Jennifer Grant.

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