Worlds Apart: Q & A with Awake's Jason Isaacs

By , Contributor

Jim Fiscus/NBC

Jason Isaacs as Michael Britten in Awake

Losing a person who you love is sad enough, but what if you lost two people who you hold dear at the same time? That is the tragedy Awake’s Michael Britten is trying to come to terms with. In the opening teaser of the show’s pilot episode, the police detective and his family are involved in an horrific car accident where both his wife Hannah and son Rex appear to have died. That is, however, not exactly true. In fact, Michael suddenly discovers that he is living in two realities, one where his wife survived, and the other where his son is still alive.

Not surprisingly, he is not in a rush to give up either scenario. While his work-appointed psychiatrists in both worlds attempt to help him resolve his mental conundrum, Michael returns to work. In doing so, the detective also finds that straddling both realities has given him a unique perspective on the various criminal cases he is investigating, much to the confusion of his partners. As much as Michael does not want to leave his wife or son behind, how long can he hold on to both realities before it starts to affect his sanity?

Liverpool-born stage and screen actor Jason Isaacs stars as Michael Britten in NBC’s Awake, airing Thursday nights at 10:00 p.m. EST/PST. He is, perhaps, best known for playing Colonel William Tavington in Roland Emmerich’s feature film The Patriot. The actor’s performance garnered him a nomination from the London Film Critics’ Circle. Two years later, Isaacs made his debut as Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and has since reprised his role in the four subsequent Potter films. On TV, he has appeared in several popular series including The West Wing, Entourage, The State Within, Brotherhood, and Case Histories.

The thoroughly engaging and affable Isaacs spent some time on the phone with me as well as other journalists earlier this week giving us a great deal of insight into his character of Michael Britten. The following is an edited version of our Q & A. Enjoy!

With your character of Michael Britten living in these two separate realities, does it ever feel like you’re simultaneously working on two different shows with different casts?

It does, actually. I have two different sets of people I work with. I work with Wilmer Valderrama, who plays Michael's rookie partner, as well as Laura Allan, who plays my character's wife, and whatever is going on in that side of the story. I also then work with Dylan Minnette, who plays my son, and Steve Harris is Michael’s partner. Laura Innes, who plays a police captain, is the only person that overlaps, although as the season goes on, the writers get slightly more “insane” and very imaginative things happen where characters cross over.

So I feel like I’m the hub. There’s a cast that normally feels like a family, but most of them only have scenes with me and I’m the only common thread. But it’s less really that my colleagues are split, and more that I have to really work to remember what has happened in what world in exactly the same way that Michael Britten does. Hopefully it’s entertaining watching me struggle through that.

When you shoot the episodes do you film all of one world’s scenes together and then the other world’s, or do you flip back and forth to add to that confusion?

Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing if they designed the [shooting] schedule around making it easy for me? No, we don’t shoot anything in any kind of order or any way that makes it simple. Very often I’m caught in the corner of the set in a fetal position, sucking my thumb and wishing to God I could understand what was going on [he jokes]. Luckily there are some smart people around me holding scripts with many markings on their pages.

So it’s like doing a cryptic crossword puzzle blind and with a hand tied behind your back, However, by the time we finish an episode and pull it all together, our top priority is to make sure that an audience has to work just hard enough to enjoy it and not hard enough to be put off by it.

How do you look at your struggle to play Britten effectively in contrast with what he’s trying to figure out as a character?

All the things that I love to watch are scenarios in which you try and imagine yourself. Nobody wants to watch you to go to the grocery store and buy bananas. We all want something more exciting and different, and Awake is incredibly engaging.

All acting is the same. What if I was a wizard, what if I was stuck behind the lines in Somalia, you know? What if I was a priest or drug dealer? I’ve played all those things, and now it’s what if I didn’t know which of my worlds was real? How would I cope?

I do my job because I find it fun and exciting and sometimes I think it’s useful as well, and that living a life through other people’s challenges can be illuminating and invigorating. So I just try and throw myself into his dilemma and not prepare too much and see what happens, you know, like most of us. Most of us don’t plan what we’re going to do. The day just happens for us. We try out best to roll with the blows, which is what I try and do as Michael.

Although there are two realities at play, how do you see Awake as being grounded in a universal reality that audiences will connect with?

Well, I think that the fear of losing a loved one is ever present, especially for anyone who has a family. That goes hand in hand with the opportunity to rebuild, to take a second run at making a marriage work or being a parent. To somehow step outside yourself and ask, ‘What if I had a chance to do this differently?” is a very universal thing.

I dream very vividly and I often wake up with a “hangover” from the dream that takes me into my life. I treat people differently during the day based on things they did in my dream, which is really not their problem. So again, those things I think are very universal. The other thing is I’m playing a man who is a fixer. Michael is a guy who sorts other people’s problems out. He doesn’t like to have problems.

That’s certainly true of a lot of men I know. They don’t like to think of themselves as ever needing help. So Michael is a guy whose job it is to fix the world. He sees himself on a mission to make things right everywhere and he’d like to make things right for his wife and son. But all of us in the audience can see that he’s probably the one who needs most help of all.

The first level of any storytelling needs to be that it takes you on a ride and Awake takes you on an extremely unusual ride that holds your imagination. Every week, the audience is constantly thinking, “Is this really a case or is it a dream? I can see so clearly how this could spring from stuff that’s going on in his life. This could so easily be his imagination creating this.” So there’s a puzzle and everybody loves puzzles; certainly I do.

There seems to be a big trend these days towards paranormal and sort of alternate reality shows. Why do you think people are drawn to these kinds of shows?

Well, you know, first of all I don’t think anybody ever buys a ticket to go and watch the village of the happy people. We like to watch people who are struggling because struggles are great and challenging and have been at the heart of every great story since people have scratched cave paintings on the wall. Secondly, why tell stories about the mundane and naturalistic when we can live fantastical lives? So we can do things when we tell stories that don’t happen to us when we go out to buy a light bulb or a pint of milk.

I actually think it’s difficult, though, to classify our show. Before they saw it, some people were already comparing it to things that it really isn’t comparable to. We’re hoping that we defy classification. It’s not sci-fi; there are no aliens, although one of the show’s executive producers is Howard Gordon, who was one of the key writers on The X-Files as well as 24. But it’s not action, either. It’s a combination of everything. It’s kind of an emotional psychological thriller. If anything it’s a psychological mystery. I think these are troubled and difficult times and we all like to escape the routine of our daily lives through these types of TV shows.

How does being in the two worlds help your character when it comes to solving criminal cases?

Well, the really cheesy answer would be tune in and see (he jokes), because every single week it helps in different ways.

Here’s the thing. I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I have a dream, something in my dream when I wake up will make me think, “Why the hell was I dreaming that?” It’s because it lodged in my consciousness during the day without me realizing it.

Michael Britten is a great detective. He’s also a very instinctive human being, and because of what has happened to him with his wife and son, maybe his antennae are even more available to him, do you know what I mean? Or perhaps he’s more sensitive to what is going on around him. But there’s stuff going on in his world that doesn’t really register with him, but it does with his subconscious and those things get explored in his dreams. So at some point we said to ourselves this isn’t magical, so if something happens in one world that leads Michael to something in the other world, it’s because he might have noticed that thing in his first world without realizing it.

Sometimes, though, we do things that are even more controversial and, hopefully, will make people wonder if there is magic going on. But it’s in different ways. Sometimes it’s an instinct about human beings, other times it’s actually a clue, or it’s what something looks like, and sometimes it’s a name. There are rules to this universe, but they’re very flexible. Our brief to ourselves was that things should cross over and help Michael solve crimes in the most entertaining way possible and that’s what we try and do.

Did you do any research on any particular or similar reality-type cases that helped you get into your role?

Well, first of all I rode along with homicide cops in Chicago as well as Los Angeles this year and I have to say that it’s nothing like what you see on TV. I don’t mean necessarily on our show, I mean on shows generally. There are very few shows that reflect the reality of it.

I then tried to bring some of the most dynamic elements back into the show. Obviously there are many, many hours doing nothing at all and taking statements which we don’t want to have on TV. Because of that, I spoke with our advisor — we have a great advisor on Awake who was the advisor on The Shield for a long time — and we try and make things more accurate as far as how investigations are.

So that’s on the cop side of things. On the imaginative side of it, my brother is a psychiatrist who deals a lot with post-traumatic stress disorder. So I talked with him quite extensively about what might happen in these areas and what would and wouldn’t be realistic.

Can you give us a little bit of insight beyond the show’s pilot into how your character of Michael is going to cope with this never knowing which world is real and which is his fantasy?

I think it’s fair to say that it doesn’t go well for him. We like to see our protagonists in jeopardy and Michael is in both physical and psychological jeopardy. The walls close in on him in both the real and fantasy worlds and psychologically things get tougher and tougher. There are consequences for living in this kind of denial and for trying to chase down the people who are trying to kill you. We just ratchet things up tighter and tighter and the stakes get higher and higher. Along the way I think the frays begin to show. We meet Michael in the pilot when this [situation] is relatively fresh and seems to be working for him. Unfortunately, it doesn’t continue to work that well or that easily for him, and hopefully that makes for an enjoyable hour of TV watching.

Touching on the aesthetic of the show, in the reality with Michael’s wife we get kind of a sunnier, brighter filter, whereas with his son Rex it’s almost a cloudy aesthetic. Obviously that helps to distinguish the two, but what do you think it does sort of semantically and in a less direct way?

Well, funnily enough, that is true of the pilot but it’s not true of the other episodes. There is a different aesthetic. The director of our pilot, David Slade, who is a magnificent director and has real aesthetic vision, that’s what he did with the color palette and grading of the film. But then Jeffrey Rinehart, who is our supervising producer, came on board and we decided to do something else for the rest of the season.

What you’ll see is that in Rex’s world, which is the “green” world, there are very subtle hints of green everywhere. They are more in the set decoration than in a wash of color. And in Hannah’s world you’ll see red everywhere. It’s not so much that it will be nauseating, but if you look very carefully, the detail on peoples’ desks as well as the background will have red themes in them, for example.

What does it do? It does nothing — consciously. However, unconsciously or subconsciously it’s just a hint and hopefully adds texture to the scenes. But really the story should tell you where you are in the world. If at any point the viewer goes, “Wait a second, I’m not quite sure what’s going on,” that should be exactly the same point that Michael Britten goes. “Wait, I’m not sure what’s going on either.” And rather than being a drawback, it should be part of the fun of watching the show.

Please note, all photos above copyright of NBC.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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