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More Thana Villain

With "The Patriot," Jason Isaacs, a British Jew, cements his reputation as one of Hollywood's hottest heavies

by Naomi Pfefferman

June 29, 2000 | 8:00 pm

In "The Patriot," Jason Isaacs plays the villainous British Col. Tavington, one in a long string of  heavies the London-based actor has portrayed  - but the hard roles belie  his soft center.

In "The Patriot," Jason Isaacs plays the villainous British Col. Tavington, one in a long string of heavies the London-based actor has portrayed - but the hard roles belie his soft center.

When Jason Isaacs went in to audition for the Royal National Theatre's production of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," he knew exactly what role he wanted. He insisted upon portraying the anxiety-ridden character of Louis, who is somewhat based on the life of the gay Jewish playwright.

The London producers raised their eyebrows. They had a slightly larger role in mind for Isaacs, the rising British stage and screen actor. But the thespian was not interested. "Look, I play all these tough guys and thugs and strong, complex characters," he told the producers. "In real life, I am a cringing, neurotic Jewish mess. Can't I for once play that onstage?"

Isaacs earned stellar reviews as Louis, but he remains best known, at least in the press, as an elegant brand of villain. He was Kurt Russell's futuristic foil in "Soldier," Dennis Quaid's nemesis in "Dragonheart," a sadistic ex-IRA terrorist in "Divorcing Jack" and a psychopathic soldier in the controversial BBC miniseries, "Civvies."

Of late, he is all over the screen in the Revolutionary War epic, "The Patriot," killing children in front of their parents, burning villagers alive in their churches and bludgeoning Mel Gibson in scenes of gruesome hand-to-hand combat.

His redcoated Col. Tavington is so nasty, in fact, that the British press saw red: An irate June 14 article in London's Express, headlined "Hollywood's Racist Lies About Britain," railed against Tavington and other English characters as "cowardly, evil [and] sadistic," according to Entertainment Weekly.The New York Times put it differently. "Screen evil may not have reached quite such well-spoken proportions since Ralph Fiennes delivered his career-making performance in the 1993 film "Schindler's List," the Times suggested of Isaacs.

During a Journal interview, the actor, who is in his late 30's, was hardly villainous. He was witty, chatty and self-deprecating as he regaled a reporter with stories illustrating how he is not a "tough guy" but a "total wimp."

There was the time he was flying home from visiting his parents, who now live in Israel, when the soldier in the next seat recognized him as "that bloke from 'Civvies.'" "Oi, you were great, you were so bloody 'ard," the man gushed. "He was horrified, however, when I cried all the way through the in-flight film, " 'Mr. Holland's Opus,' " the actor reveals.

Then there was Isaacs' audition for "The Patriot," when the producers asked him, point blank, if he knew how to ride a horse. "I said, 'Oh, Olympic standard!' but I lied," he admits. "I was terrified." And when Isaacs sobbed all the way through his first screening of "The Patriot," his girlfriend reminded him to dry his eyes, because the lights were coming up and he was the bad guy.

"I'm a terrible coward; I've been hit all the time, but I've never hit anyone," he says, his chatty tone turning serious. "So I think these extreme parts that I play offer some kind of therapy, some catharsis for me. Maybe one of the reasons I do them well-ish is because I was always the bullied, never the bully." The actor pauses, then laughs. "They are my revenge."

Watching Isaacs in "The Patriot," swashbuckling and dapper in his red uniform, his blue eyes glittering as he slashes his saber, it's hard to believe he became an actor, in a way, because of the residual fear of anti-Semitism he felt as a Jew in Britain.

The fear, he says, was handed down to him by his parents and by others in the closely-knit Jewish community of Liverpool, of which his Eastern European great-grandparents were founding members. The community was insular, Isaacs recalls, and young Jason attended a Jewish school and cheder twice a week. Then the family moved to London, and the anti-Semitism Isaacs had learned about in theory became a reality. There were attacks on his local synagogue and, in the late 1970s, the National Front's racist rhetoric spurred a rash of skinhead violence in his neighborhood. "Battles ensued," Isaacs says, "and I was occasionally involved in things that were unsavory."

One such "battle" took place when Isaacs' older friends decided to confront the skinheads who were harassing the Jewish children at their hangout near the local Underground station. Isaacs, then 15, was reluctant to participate but agreed to tag along. "We grabbed sticks and bricks and ... suddenly these cars came screeching around the corner, and skinheads with pickaxes and chains jumped out. They chased us off, but they followed us, and when we stopped at a red light, they all ran out of this big old Jaguar with more chains. We were all yelling, 'Drive, for f--'s sake.' And the boy who was driving kept saying, 'But it's my mother's car!' "

Most of the time, however, Isaacs was low-key about being Jewish. "I feel very vulnerable telling you this, because I'm an English actor and I don't really want to see this in the English press, because it's damaging," he confides. "But there is the sense that Britain can be a very xenophobic country; it's not just directed at Jews but at anybody who isn't the perceived version of what 'Englishness' is.

"Of course, England is an extraordinarily multicultural society, and the notion of what's perceived as English is a relic, a fossil," he continues. "The result is that people are not 'loud' about being Jewish. They don't stick their heads above the parapet."

Neither did Isaacs, as he pursued his acting career. "I don't talk about being Jewish," he admits. On the one hand, he believes it's important for any actor to be "as neutral a being as possible." In "The End of the Affair," for example, he plays a priest, and he doesn't want viewers to be watching and thinking, "How ironic, this actor is Jewish." Of his "Patriot" role, he says, "There were not too many Jewish officers in the British army, I suspect, in the late 1700s."

He points out that "everyone is a 'hyphenate' in America, whether Jewish-American or Italian-American. ... I'm not a religious person, but I'm very Jewish, and I feel a great weight off my shoulders being a Jew in Hollywood."

While Isaacs' parents reacted to the feelings of unwelcome by making aliyah in 1988, along with his three brothers (two subsequently returned), the actor responded in another manner.When he entered Bristol University, he says, "There were lots of very upper and upper-middle-class people with accents I had never heard before, and I felt very strange being a Jew from North London, completely out of sorts."

Then he attended his first play rehearsal, and "I suddenly felt that my background was irrelevant, and income was irrelevant and accent was irrelevant, because there was just this ready-made family of rehearsal group. I took to it and I became totally addicted to it, and I did plays and plays and plays every term." Onstage, Isaacs wasn't an outsider. He felt that he belonged.

After graduating from the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama in London, Isaacs began working in British television and, over the years, the roles kept coming.

Yet, he insists, he was shocked when he was actually hired after submitting a two-minute audition tape to "Patriot" director Roland Emmerich.

To prepare for his role, he immersed himself in research ("British schools don't teach the Revolutionary War," he says), and learned that the real Tavington, actually a lieutenant colonel named Banastre Tarleton, was, like himself, the third of four sons from Liverpool.

Tarleton, known as "The Butcher" or "Bloody Ban" was apparently quite a piece of work: He carried a map of the Carolinas with him, and after every victory he slightly enlarged the area he intended to claim as his property once the war was over. He also carried a tract on polygamy, having selected several of many wives he hoped to keep in the New World. Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin were receptive to Isaacs' research and incorporated some of the information into his character.

Today, Isaacs' Hollywood career appears to be kicking up a notch; recently he was in San Francisco to film "Sweet November," in which he plays the drag-queen best friend of actress Charlize Theron. He dieted a bit for the role, he confides: "It's hard enough walking in high heels up and down those San Francisco hills without bursting out of your sequined frock," he explains.

Yet despite the steady work and the comfort level of being Jewish in Hollywood, Isaacs has no plans to move to Los Angeles. The environment is just too unstable, he suggests. "When I was here doing 'Armageddon,' I had the key to the kingdom, but when 'Soldier' came out, I felt like I had professional and social leprosy," he recalls. "And so I continue to live in London. I just need to look in people's eyes who've known me for 20 years."

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