Jason Isaacs Proudly Jewish

                                  July 2000  By Philip Berk

An encounter with two different Jasons.

Columbia Pictures scheduled Jason Isaacs to follow Jason Biggs at the junket for their new movies, The Patriot and Loser.

Biggs is the young man who played the quintessential Jewish kid in American Pie

Perfunctorily I asked him, is he or is he not?

Knowing precisely what I meant, he turned the question around.

“What do you think?”

So guess what, Jason Biggs is not Jewish. He comes from Italian stock (the Biggs is English) and he’s Catholic all the way.

So much for assumptions.

On the other hand I didn’t expect Jason Isaacs to be Jewish, but even before I had a chance to ask him, he proudly acknowledged it.

Isaacs,  plays the callous English officer in The Patriot, a character so despicable that the British press are calling for a boycott of the film.

Isaacs disagrees.

“I think we have long histories of empires and colonialism that make us none too proud, but on the other hand the other British soldiers are portrayed sympathetically. You have to a decent villain otherwise you don’t have a decent film. Personally I don’t think anyone will mind in the slightest.”

He might be wrong on that, but there’s no denying he’s one of England’s busiest actors, having played the priest in End of the Affairs and the guy who saves the world in Armageddon.

However it was his role in an American play that had Hollywood take notice.

In fact it was in reference to this play (the London production of Angels in America) that he invoked his Jewishness.

“I went in to read for the part of Prior, and I asked if I could read for Louis. ‘Isn’t Prior a slightly bigger part?’ they said, and I said, ‘I always get to play those very strong characters, and I’m really a cringing neurotic Jew, and I’d love to play one on stage.’ So they wrote me for Louis, and I ended up crying my eyes out for seven hours. And that character is closer to me than any of the parts I’ve played.”

Surprisingly he studied to become a lawyer, not  an actor. How did that come about?

“The two professions are not really that dissimilar. I was just lucky. My elder brother was a lawyer, and he was practicing when I went to university, and he was really unhappy. He was miserable taking orders from people. When I got to the university I did a play and became completely addicted and obsessed with acting. It seemed to be the only place I felt at home. At the time I was very uncomfortable socially; I was out of my class at the university, but in the rehearsal room I felt  completely at home.

“When I left university most of my fellow actors were applying for drama school. That struck me as ridiculous, but it was only ten pounds to apply, and I thought if I applied I’d get a letter that I could keep on the wall of my barrister’s chambers. I could show it to my grandchildren. But instead of getting a letter, a lady came out of the room and said ‘We’d love for you to come in September.’  And because I’m very middle class, I couldn’t say no. And she said, ‘You do want to come, don’t you? and of course I said yes. I vividly remember thinking I’m going to be an actor now  because she was so sweet and asked me so nicely and that  my whole life had changed because I didn’t want  to be embarrassed.”

How did his Jewish parents greet that decision? 

They must have been disappointed. 

“I have three brothers, one’s a doctor, one’s a lawyer, and one’s an accountant, so they’ve got everything covered.They actually were very pleased, especially when my first big job was in a big TV series in which I played a very nice guy in an Armani suit. In fact they were thrilled because they thought I was doing a proper job. But they’re never anything less than completely supportive. I on the other hand was scared they would disapprove, but they respected the fact that I have a mind of my own, and ironically although I thought I was going to be poor but happy — artistically fulfilled  — I’ve ended up making a really good living, which just goes to show,  if you follow your dreams you get more than you bargained for.”

Has he ever been denied a role because he was Jewish?

“How would I know because when people give me work they don’t talk to me about it.”

Does he have to hide his Jewishness in England?

“Stum I think is the word.”

So he knows something about  antisemitism there?

“I guess I do,  but not more than anywhere else. Most of the people I know are not antisemitic. Certainly not my friends. If they were they wouldn’t be my friends. Have I experienced antisemitism, yes definitely, all kinds. When I was a teenager there was a political party in Britain called the National Front, which was openly xenophobic, racist, and anti semitic, and it was very strange to be a teenage Jewish boy knowing a political party was campaigning against you. That was very scary.  For a brief time it was fashionable for the tougher elements in my school to tout those leaflets around. There were physical encounters. Certainly places I’ve gone to, where synagogues have been desecrated, But now that I move in the arty community, the liberal arts community, where nobody’s background is important. You could be Jewish, black, rich, poor, it matters nought. The rehearsal room is the complete leveler.” 

Are the English in particular antisemitic?

“I wouldn’t characterize the English as being  particularly antisemitic. Some individuals are, but Jews participate at every level. The picture of England as a place of village greens and warm beer is a poor reflection of the really vibrant multi cultural England that I know. It’s a country of all colors, The class system today is pretty much like America, it’s income based. Money defines where you are.”

Privately he had other answers, fearful that what he might say to the foreign press would end up in the English tabloid.

For example, he volunteered:

His parents no longer live in England. They emigrated to Israel in l988, and live there as does one brother.

Jason had an orthodox upbringing and as a boy attended cheder twice a week, but he’s not a religious person.

“But I’m very Jewish, and I feel a great weight off my shoulders being a Jew in Hollywood.”

But with no plans to move to Los Angeles.

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