Jason Isaacs Fights For The Best Show On TV That You’re Not Watching

Nearly an hour into my chat with Brotherhood star Jason Isaacs, I’ve learned this much about Season 3 of the Peabody Award-winning Showtime series: There will be a scene in which his character, Michael Caffee, drives his car down the road at a ferocious rate of speed.

I know this because the actor has sequestered himself inside said vehicle between takes to do our interview. And as our allotted 15 minutes has long since come and gone, I also learn that the crew is peering impatiently at him through the windshield.

And so, until the new season premieres Nov. 2, the rest will remain as vexing a mystery as the reason the drama, so beloved by critics and a loyal coterie of viewers, has not garnered the same enormous audiences and slobbery media attention as its Showtime brethren — putting the existence of one of television’s most thoughtfully-crafted hours in serious jeopardy.

“We have reviews that our mothers couldn’t write,” Isaacs says. “But on the other hand, it’s not getting huge numbers, so every year it’s a tough call for [Showtime] to spend all the money. In truth, it’s hard talking about it sometimes because it’s easy to get into imagining that it’s a very unsuccessful show [when] it just doesn’t make the splashy impact.”

That it isn’t splashy is part of the show’s considerable appeal, especially for viewers weary of lowbrow reality fare, laugh tracks and rubberstamp lawyer/doctor/detective dramas. As dark, rich and potent as a sea of Irish coffee, Brotherhood offers a complex tale of family and fidelity, anchored by a pair of working-class brothers struggling for control of their Rhode Island hometown — the younger, Tommy (Jason Clarke), as a local politico, and the elder, Michael, as head of the Irish crime racket.

Its summer 2006 debut — just after a certain other crime/family drama made its celebrated return from a tense 21-month sabbatical — invited dismissive comparisons. But make no mistake: With its pungent intermingling of the backroom dealings of city hall and the pool hall, the show is not The O’Sopranos.

Unfortunately, neither is it fodder for much of Isaacs’ most devoted fan base — the legions of little ones who love and fear him as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series.

“Everybody in New England, or certainly in Rhode Island, watches the show, it seems to me [when I’m] walking down the street,” he says. “And sometimes I meet kids and they go, ‘Oh God, I love you in –‘ and then they say in Brotherhood! And I’m completely horrified that parents are letting their kids watch it. Not ideal for infants I would say.”

Ideal for you? It’s not too late to find out.

Being a Brotherhood fan — and, I would imagine, a Brotherhood cast member — can be an exhausting enterprise. The show is beloved by critics and a rabid audience, but there was some question as to whether the show would survive the writers strike. And now your costar Ethan Embry has worried aloud that this could be the final season. Has there been any sense of storylines shifting in case you do need to tie things up?

There’s been a question every season. We’re an interesting TV phenomenon because we’re a show that makes every critic’s “Top Ten of the Year” list, but doesn’t make anyone’s “Top Ten audience of the Year.” So we wonder that we’ve got to do to find the audience, because we keep getting these fabulous reviews and we won a very prestigious award (the Peabody) and we do what we think of as great, high quality, very watchable drama … but season to season, we wonder if we’re coming back.

I’m sure if it doesn’t gather an audience this time … . You know, it’s way over my play grade. Somebody at Showtime makes the decision of prestige over ratings, and I wouldn’t want to have to make that decision. And it’s not even necessarily to do with numbers if you look at the things that won all the Emmys — we have better numbers than some of those. We may not generate the same amount of media buzz — we’re what they call a quiet show. We don’t have a very high concept. It’s gritty. And it’s very human. And it’s very realistic. I wouldn’t want to be the person who had to make that decision.

All we can do — all I can do anyway — is turn up and try to seem like a human being when they say action and turn it off when they say cut. Because if I try to carry any of the character home with me, I’d be in a straight jacket.

I know a number of people who have read the reviews and realize the show is worthwhile, but they think it’s too late to get onboard — that they wouldn’t understand what’s going on. Talk them out of that notion.

My experience has been that if I switch on the television and something is going on that seems real to me, truthful and dramatic, it doesn’t matter what season it is. I defy you to switch on The Wire in Season 5 and not be absolutely hooked.

When drama is specific and honest and compelling, it’s like looking through a keyhole. You may not know what just happened before or who these people are, but you know something enigmatic, something magnetic is going on. So I don’t think you need to watch Season 1 and Season 2 to watch our show and understand what is going on. In fact, it’s very cleverly written so I think you could drop in on any episode — even though it’s clearly an evolving story and cumulatively even more powerful.

Why would people watch The Fully Monty, for instance? Why is it a hit all over the world? Why would people watch Cinema Paradiso? Surely these things are too local, too parochial. It’s not true if you happen on something that’s completely compelling and completely dramatic and engaging. It will hold your attention.

But it’s true we’re not a precinct drama — what they call a precinct drama on TV, where it’s set in lawyer’s office or a hospital, or a cop station. And thank God for that. Thank God they aren’t the only stories that get told on television because I think that would be deathly dull.

What about the folks who read reviews that said the show has violence even The Sopranos didn’t attempt and shied away because of that? I’ll admit that I was one of them — until I actually watched and found I see worse things in broadcast primetime on a nightly basis.

Oh no! I think it’s a show with enormous value and integrity. There’s a reason it won the Peabody Award — for authenticity they said. And it’s because this isn’t The A-Team. When people get hurt, they really get hurt. If people die, they die. If people are emotionally injured they carry that for a long time. They don’t wipe the board clean at the end of every episode.

They take a lot more care, I think, with the intricate web that they’re creating than elsewhere on television. And that quality, certainly for the people who tune in, is why they watch us and love us.

In my life, I see people naked — myself, my wife, my kids, whatever. I swear. A lot. If somebody drops something incredibly heavy on my foot, my foot is going to break — and there’s real crime. There’s crime in my neighborhood; I read it in the local papers. There are violent people who live near me.

This is a television series in which nothing has changed just because it’s on television. And that’s rare. Normally when people start dreaming up stories, they go, “Well you can’t put that on television!” There are limits that network and broadcast television have. We don’t have those limits. And Showtime won’t put those limits on us.

What we don’t have to do is edit out the stuff that you normally have to edit out or else you get fined — thankfully. Janet Jackson can show her nipples all she likes on our show.

And so there’s nudity, there’s swearing, there’s violence, there’s emotional violence, there’s corruption — and it’s all things that we all know goes on, all things that the papers are full of all the time. But most shows on television will resolve things in a way that allows you to still feel that the world is an OK place. And that everyone is looking out for you, that things will ultimately work out in a way that makes us feel safer in our beds. Feel safe! Sleep tight! And buy more things!

Showtime doesn’t make us do that. [Writers] Blake {Winters] and Henry {Bromell] have no intention of doing that. And as an actor it’s a welcome relief, but you have to adjust your mind when you first arrive here and realize that most of the story we’re telling, we’re doing as realistically as we can.

And I think people need to realize that that sort of compelling drama can be just as entertaining and just as diverting and just as escapist as reality TV or slapstick humor …

I love junk TV same as anybody else. I could watch hours and hours and switch my brain off. But there’s something about watching human beings interact in ways that show us something about our own lives. And it might just — if the story is well-told enough — resonate past the end credits so you can have a discussion or even an argument about it. And maybe even talk about it at work the next day and it throws a bunch of questions in the air but it doesn’t give you all the answers.

One of the things I liked about Brotherhood is that [the characters] live in this land of gray morality, where you can’t really condemn anyone wholeheartedly, nor can you say they’re doing the right thing. All of the characters are trying, struggling, to do the right thing in difficult circumstances. And that’s something that everyone can identify with.

You’ve said there’s no such thing as a “bad guy,” because everyone — Michael included — believes that they are ultimately doing the right thing. And while Michael commits horrifying violence like the rest of us punch a time clock, he’s just rife with such moments of heartbreaking humanity — working the child’s puzzle after he gets out of the hospital, being appalled by Colin’s theft of Thanksgiving dinner from a homeless shelter, worrying about having his child baptized. Is there unending work in playing someone like that or do you feel like you get Michael now and can intuitively go where the writers take you?

Michael Caffee doesn’t walk down the street and mug strangers. Michael’s very respectful — he actually has a strict sense of morality. One of the things he was struggling with last year — which is such a gift to an actor — is that he was this very confident, very strong figure for the first season who was taking over the local crime syndicate for what end we were never quite sure — and then he got his head caved in. So now he’s got brain damage and I get to go off and research brain injuries, traumatic brain injuries. So now while it actually looks like he’s trying to do the same thing for a job, inside he’s now incredibly insecure. He can’t quite process his thoughts in the same way — he has fits and has memory lapses and has trouble remembering and processing things. The writers just pulled the rug out from under the character completely.

So far from being a bad guy, to me he’s a baby. He’s a man reborn inside this hard shell, as this struggling and terrified child. All actors are desperate to play different layers of characters. You don’t want to play the same color all the way through and I got to play every color of the rainbow.

There are people around us who’ve grown up in very violent circumstances who use tools — mine are to reach for my debating skills. Other people’s are to reach for the nearest, sharpest implement. This is a guy who’s been around violent crime all his life and that’s what he saw growing up and that’s what he’s used in his life to enforce his sense of what the world ought to be and what is right and wrong.

To see and try and do that while struggling with wondering who he is and what he ought to be — his personality is having to be rebuilt brick by brick. In between seasons he had to learn to walk again and to do his pants up and to do his alphabet. That’s a very odd place to start from for an actor. But it’s great — because one of the dull things about doing long seasons of television is that you have to play the same thing essentially week after week. I didn’t. I got to play a whole new character in a sense.

In Season 3, do we get any more of the backstory as to what Michael was doing during his exile — and, in the meantime, have you just made up your own backstory? Are viewers supposed to make up our own … ?

Oh yeah — I have an entire backstory for myself, which I had before we started the pilot. You have to have something in your head. Acting is a very simple job that’s hard to do, if that makes sense. All you really have to do is imagine that you are that person in those circumstances. The trick is how you get to do that. Well, one way is to make sure that you have a full history in your head of all the stuff that doesn’t happen onscreen. That you’ve worked through that in your head. So yeah, I know exactly where he’s been and exactly what happened to him. I’m not sure it’s the exactly same place the writers think he’s been [laughs] — and I’m not sure it’s where the audience will find out he’s been. But I need to have something in my head at the start.

Viewers are welcome to decide if he’s the scum of the Earth that should be locked up, or if he’s a victim of a violent upbringing and circumstances that don’t allow him to change, or that he’s a vigilante, the kind of person they’d like on their side.

And they can judge the politician too. I know Michael judges his brother. He loves his baby brother who’s a politician. But he thinks the entire system is corrupt — the entire political system is morally bankrupt. And there’s a very strong argument to be made that he’s right.

At the outset, the show was frequently described as a sort of modern day Irish “Cain and Abel” tale. But there’s a scene early in the last season in which — I can’t remember who — says to Tommy, “You and your brother, you’re the same frickin’ guy.” And that really got me because though you might be starting from different spots on the moral compass, you and Tommy ultimately are sailing parallel routes toward the same port — which is power — aren’t you?

Jason Clarke and Jason Isaacs star in Brotherhood
Nooooo! To call it Cain and Abel is very reductive, because in Cain and Abel there’s very clearly a good guy and a bad guy. That somebody clearly did something wrong. And there’s a very strong argument here that anybody who works within the system is perpetuating the system and is in the pockets of big business — and again this is NOT me speaking — but there is an argument to say that it’s a morally bankrupt system. That it’s a country that’s lost its way, where there’s tens of millions of people don’t have healthcare, but are thinking they have local representation when actually what you have is people who are jostling and manipulating things for their own end. It’s what stops people from changing their circumstances. And that maybe it’s better to be outside the system. Michael can actually get things done in the neighborhood.

There’s a question to be asked always of anybody who wants to lead. You have to ask, what is it about John McCain or Barack Obama that makes them think they ought to be in charge of other people? Is it ego … or is it selflessness? Is it about power — is the reason that Tommy wants to be a representative and that Michael wants to run the local crime syndicate because they want to be in charge of everyone else? Or is it because they think they can do it best and bring more benefits to everyone else? It’s a very gray area.

One of the things that makes our television program so watchable and have such an impact is that there are many shows on the air that you can watch every episode in any order and it doesn’t really matter. But we change. Michael arrived in town with an agenda. And it changed. And it changes in each episode, never mind episode to episode. And the same is true of Tommy the politician. And the same is true for life. We have plans and we alter our plans.

So why either of them wanted to be in charge of the city — and why they still want to be in charge of the city — it reminds me of what Arianna Huffington said of John McCain, which is that he is absolutely determined to be president, he just doesn’t remember why (chuckles).

…so you’re following the U.S. election?

Anybody who becomes president has a poisoned chalice for the moment. But I’m glad we’re shooting here now so I can stay for the election because it affects the entire world and I feel that as Americans or as the English or anyone, we’re citizens of the world and we’re all influenced by America. It’s very interesting times.

On the subject of very interesting times, there are fans of the show here in the office who have been champing at the bit for Michael’s uprising over Tommy on the power and familial food chain — he downfall of family loyalty to Michael’s sense of personal integrity. Given the highly entertaining final scene in the Season 2 finale, I’m guessing this might be the season?

[Laughs] Henry and Blake, the writers, have no desire to write the scenes that anybody expects them to write. And that includes the actors also. Whenever somebody writes them, or they see something on the message boards online — and we have very, very devoted fans — whenever anybody is angling for something to happen, that’s the very opposite thing that they’ll do. Whenever there is an obvious scene to have onscreen, that’s the scene they’ll have offscreen. And they write the thing that happens next door.

Isaacs will next be seen on the big screen in December, costarring with Viggo Mortensen in the controversial indie, “Good.” In 2009, he appears with Matt Damon in “Green Zone,” director Paul Greengrass’s screen adaptation of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Iraq war chronicle, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.”

About Lori Acken 1195 Articles
Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.