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Digging In with Jason Isaacs

The ubiquitous actor on filming in the Middle East, podcasts and Stockholm, Pennsylvania

Jason Isaacs is hard to pin down. Tune in to one channel and you’ll find him on Dig, the international conspiracy series on which he plays an FBI agent stationed in Israel. Turn the dial and he’s in Stockholm, Pennsylvania as Ben McKay, an inmate whose sentence stems from the abduction of a young girl and a subsequent dozen years keeping her hostage in his basement. The British-born Isaacs is nothing if not versatile. 

Here, the actor discusses his very different roles, how he spends his time off camera and why it’s easier than you might think to relate to a monster.  

Your new movie is called Stockholm, Pennsylvania. Where in the world are you today?

I’m in Los Angeles on one of those days where you spend 95 percent of your time in the car screaming at other people.

Well, at least you can scream at them and let it out. Not like on a crowded subway.

Well, maybe. I’m a huge podcast fan so I spend my time on subways listening to podcasts.

What’s your favorite?

Anything from NPR to BBC Radio 4 and a whole bunch of others. It all started with This American Life, but now there are thousands of them. I can never have enough time stuck on the subway.

Well, then hopefully you get out of L.A. soon. 

I’m in L.A. doing some meetings for some films, and seeing some friends because I lived here until very recently. I’m here also because I was in Washington, D.C. I was lobbying on Capital Hill last week for funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

How did that go?

It was interesting as an outsider having never done it before and there were some amazing people there. Some things should be way above and beyond politics.

Speaking of the political, your series Dig deals extensively with that world. How has filming the first season treated you?

I got to travel all over the world—we began filming in Jerusalem—and do extraordinary things and meet amazing people. I was able to run and have sex and cry and shoot people and do all the other fun stuff that actors get to do. I’m very rarely invested in the end result, because when it goes out on air, my job’s over. But with this one, people keep wanting to come up and engage with me in the streets. In Washington, I found out the people who should be running the government were also people watching Dig—even in the White House. 

There will probably be a very different crowd for Stockholm. How’d you get involved in that one?

I had heard about Nikole Bekwith, the woman who wrote the script. I heard she’d written a play and someone had read it and asked, Could you make it into film script? When it was finished, it catapulted to the top of the Black List [of best un-produced screenplays]. It didn’t fail to surprise me. She takes a premise that everybody with a rather heavy heart thinks might be interesting, which is someone who has been locked in a basement for 12 years and she turns it on its head.

It’s dark but, yes, totally compelling. Why do you think that is?

When you’re creating drama, you’re trying to find things that have high stakes in them, but if the story becomes only about that—only about who someone murdered and how the crime was solved—it has no resonance behind the immediate resolution of the story. As a father of young girls, the emotions behind the idea of if someone snatched them is such a horrific concept, but Nikole took that and used it as a springboard into the exploration of what is the self in some way.

What kind of preparation did you do for the role?

I didn’t, because I think I understood who Ben was and why he did what he did. I have daughters, and when they’re little, you feel you are everything to them. You’re completely responsible for every aspect of their lives, and as they grow, they grow away. My oldest is just about turning into a teenager. You have less influence over them, less responsibility, and it’s quite painful. So I understood that instinct.

With that role behind you, what’s on the horizon?

Well Dig is finishing, and I have a bunch of indie films that I hope will come out soon. They’ve all done well at festivals, but, you know, we’ll have to see if distributors put them out there. I’ve just moved back to London—I’ve been traveling the world for a year making Dig in a bunch of exotic locations—and that does mean I was away from my family, so I’m looking at some films and also doing a play, getting back on stage again.