Interview: Green Zone star Jason Isaacs — "There I was jumping out of a helicopter and beating up Matt Damon…it's messy…"
Sun, 07 Mar 2010 11:33:41
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"I'm in New York, and I'm looking out the window at the spectacularly beautiful Central Park. It's absolutely fantastic covered in snow. It'd be fun if I brought the proper clothes," laughs Green Zone star Jason Isaacs. "My sneakers and shorts aren't going to make it!"
Or Jason could've just suited up as his Green Zone special forces grunt Briggs and taken Central Park by storm…for now, he's just chilling at his hotel.
Jason deserves the downtime. For most of Green Zone, he's chasing Matt Damon, leaping out of helicopters and kicking all kinds of ass. In the film, Damon's Miller is attempting to uncover the truth about the WMDs in Iraq, and Isaacs' Briggs is on his trail to make sure he's not falling out of protocol. There are a few different cat-and-mouse games going on in the middle of this military thriller, but the battle between Briggs and Miller remains the most explosive.
Jason Isaacs sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino for this exclusive interview about "kicking the shit out of Matt Damon," Green Zone's message, director Paul Greengrass's genius and so much more…
Do you feel like Green Zone's going to make viewers think a bit?
I hope so! I think Green Zone is a synthesis of all the things that Paul Greengrass does brilliantly. This is the man who makes all-out adventure popcorn flicks with the Bourne movies, but he also made Bloody Sunday. Here, he's gone, "I think I can do both." It's a hell of a big call, and he's more than pulled it off. I watched Green Zone for the first time, and I felt like I'd done 2000 sit-ups afterwards; I was so tense from it! My stomach was worn out! At the same time, I was feeling like I'd had an absolutely traditional genre experience. I also felt the weight of what Paul was saying when he was showing me the film. That's so rare in the movies. I'm not even sure that anyone's trying to make films like that these days— let alone pulling it off.
Your character Briggs is very intricate, because he's essentially mired in the war's ambiguity.
It's not even ambiguous. He's a Special Forces guy who's trying to get the war won quickly. We ask guys like him to go into inhospitable places where people are trying to kill them. In order to shoot or be shot, you need to bring a level of aggression and testosterone to the fore that's completely alien to anybody who hasn't had to lift a truck off a baby [Laughs]. That's what we ask of these men, it's what we train them to do and it's what they have to do. We need them at the front line! A couple of people have said to me, "You play the bad guy in the movie." He's not the bad guy. He's a man who's all-out to do the thing that needs to be done—that's what you need in war time. It's a different skill set than what you need during peace time. The film is addressing a different question as well: why are they there? Within the constraints of Briggs's orders, he's the man for the job, and he's a very noble individual.
You imbue a sense of humor into the performance, adding levity to the character. As a result, he comes off relatable and real.
In Paul's world, he shoots stuff that doesn't end up in the movie and that helps make the characters three-dimensional. I know things about Briggs that you'll never know [Laughs]. They won't even make it to the deleted scenes. For me, he was a real guy with a real background. One of the things that helps that enormously and the reason that there's authenticity in every frame, is 99 percent of the people on screen are doing the job they did in real life. There are a lot of real soldiers, people from the administration and translators in the movie. These are all people who were freshly back from Afghanistan, on leave or recently left the Armed Forces. For every single thing that we did, we would turn to them and ask, "Is this how you do it?" Paul would find the most dramatic, kinetic and exciting way of presenting what would happen. As opposed to my experience with a lot of movies, where someone would find what he thinks is the most "cinematic" thing to do and if that clashes with real life, then forget it. Paul starts with what really happens and asks, "How can I make that exciting and cinematic?" It's a 180-degree approach to filmmaking.
The movie does bring up a lot of questions but, at the same time, it's entertaining.
Definitely, it's the highest ambition of moviemaking. Cinema is the great mass media art form of our lifetime. It's because it gets to do all of those things when it works well. Everyone's got these big screen TV's now, and soon 3D will be in everyone's home. There are many films that are just as good on your sofa as they are sitting in a dark room. Sometimes, there's a reason to be sitting in a room with hundreds of other people in the dark. This film is a justification of cinema. When it works well and brilliantly, it does something special to you as a human being. It makes you feel a part of the world. This is literally engaging with the story of our world, and maybe, one of the most momentous things that will happen in our lifetime. It dresses it all up inside a genre that makes you want to know, which is the primary directive of any form of entertainment. It makes you want to know what's going to happen next, every second. If you can't do that, you might as well forget it—release a brochure or make a documentary. If you make a movie, people have to be so strongly invested in what's going to happen to the main character and how everything is going to be resolved. That's Paul's primary concern, and all the rest of it comes in subliminally.
Do you tend to listen to music in order to get into character?
For this, I was actually listening to the other boys. You don't get a better resource than six Special Forces guys to hang around with all morning and all night. Obviously, they forgot I was there. I was just listening to them—the way they spoke, the way they dealt with each other, their memories and the stories they told, which were endless. Soldiers, when they're put in these situations, do nothing but try to amuse each other [Laughs]. They are constantly bantering! Then when it comes to business, they get down to business. There's no messing around then, because their business is life or death. They're very serious about that. I've yet to meet a soldier without a really robust sense of humor. In fact, even if they're not funny, they're still cracking terrible jokes all the time [Laughs].
If you could compare this movie to a record what would you compare it to?
Holy shit! [Laughs] I have an answer for almost every question…Certainly, it's something of today. Its' a record that hasn't been written yet. It's so completely contemporary. You know what? In many ways, it's a two-hour chase movie. Matt's chasing the truth. When they get to the Republican Palace, they're all of these gorgeous young women in bikinis sitting around the pool. All of a sudden, the pace changes. When they shot that scene, the real soldiers said, "If I had known this shit was going on, it would've all gone off! I was sitting in a hole trying to duck bullets 15 minutes away and these people were sitting around with burgers!" The film's rhythm changes so much. I listen to Frank Sinatra all the time! I listen to Bob Marley and Motown too.
Did you have a favorite action scene?
The day they started shooting Paul called me. He said, "Hey man, what are you doing tomorrow morning?" I said, "I was going to play tennis." He goes, "You want to jump out of a helicopter and beat the shit out of Matt Damon?" The next morning, there I was jumping out of a helicopter and beating the shit out of Matt Damon [Laughs]. It was like batting from the fire. I'd actually gone to the set to show him my costume and the mustache I dreamt up in the trailer thinking he'd say, "Don't be ridiculous, take it off!" And, instead he said, "Get in the helicopter, let's have a go!" Literally, 15 minutes after walking up to him, I was jumping out of a helicopter with no instructions blocking or choreography and scant knowledge of what I might say. I didn't know what might do either. I'd only shaken hands with Matt before I was rubbing his face in all the donkey shit. I remember that day particularly [Laughs]. Matt ended the day black and blue because he's a proper actor. It's messy. Paul's films have the messiness of real life.
Check out Rick Florino's new novel Dolor available now for FREE here…