Emma Freud meets Jason Isaacs
Our columnist chats to the actor about making movies, his Jewish heritage and the ‘mutant’ spaghetti bolognese he’s famed for among his family.
Jason Isaacs is one of the UK’s busiest movie stars. His films include Green Zone, Peter Pan and the Harry Potter series. He’s less well known for his cooking – but as our columnist found out, there’s an Italian chef inside him that longs to be acknowledged... by his children.
Emma: Tell me about this bolognese. It’s brilliantly eccentric – how did it evolve?
Jason: It started when I was a student living in a shared house in Bristol and the only one who cooked. I could entirely indulge my twin desires: first, that every bite must be a sensory overload of riches – sweet, savoury and spicy – and, secondly, that everyone must be left undoing buttons and groaning with equal parts regret and delight. This recipe wins on both those accounts.
E: Do your children enjoy your food?
J: An interesting thing happened in lockdown – my kids won’t let me cook. Anything. They want their mum’s dishes and nothing else. I’m hoping it’s less a vote of no-confidence in me, and more a reflection of their hunger for the familiar during this strange time. It’s been great to have this feature as an excuse to cook this over-garlicky version of bolognese that’s usually eaten for weeks afterwards on toast in our house.
E: What role did food have in your home growing up?
J: I grew up in Liverpool, one of four argumentative brothers. Mealtimes were a deafening battle zone and the anchor points for family life. We lived in a tight- knit Jewish community, but in our house there was never a mention of God. As far as I could tell, the Jewish rituals and festivals were a way to remind ourselves of the many times we survived, and to eat spectacularly unhealthy food to excess. My cooking owes so much to my late mum who made the greasiest, tastiest, heart-attack food in the western world – my dad’s two quadruple bypasses were evidence of that.
E: What were her signature dishes?
J: Her food fell into two categories: meals I couldn’t get enough of, such as roast potatoes that squirted hot oil across the room when pierced, and the rarely seen Jewish truffle known as the ‘grivener’ (a hardened lump of ultra-concentrated, chewy chicken fat). Then there were those I’d pull teeth to avoid: calf’s foot jelly, anything to do with tongue and the innards of animals – all of it food she’d learned from her grandparents.
E: What happened when you left Liverpool for London?
J: We moved when I was 11 and I spent my teen years learning to juggle multiple identities. There was the version of me who stayed tribal, hanging with local Jewish friends and encountering the anti-semitic thuggery of the growing National Front. There was the ‘school me’, trying and failing to mix with people whose secular, suburban worlds – though almost identical to mine – seemed utterly alien. And there was the skateboarding-obsessed version, who would sneak down to the South Bank every available second, change uniform and accent, and ride for hours with a rough crowd, trying not to let my Ali-G persona slip.
E: Why did you feel you had to be different people?
J: I’d been raised to see the world through an us-and-them, under-siege prism, and despite the rise of the fascist party in Britain, it was increasingly clear that the world was not quite as I’d been told. I had a clear sense I’d be leaving a lot behind and felt guilty about abandoning the battleground, but I knew I was going.
E: You ended up studying law at university, but then ditched it for acting – why?
J: I studied law because I loved an argument – still do – and had no idea what to do when I grew up - still don’t. For the first few weeks I did what everybody else did: drank subsidised alcohol in industrial quantities so I could talk to strangers. I also tried to sound and seem like whoever I was talking to, which, in this case, was a lot of people with double- barrelled names and voices that sounded like the royal family. Luckily, one night I stumbled into an audition for a play thanks to a sign asking, ‘Can you do a northern accent?’ By that point, speaking as a northerner felt like the only thing I knew to be true about me. So I auditioned, got given a part, went to my first rehearsal and was instantly and forever smitten.
E: And did it help?
J: More than that. Instead of spending my time feeling uncomfortable in my own skin and worrying what people thought of me, I got to spend my time exploring other people’s minds and not giving a monkey what anyone thought of me. I neglected law completely and did extra-curricular drama full time, acting, directing and producing for all three years. When it was time to graduate, a future loomed involving a choice between expensive suits, mortgage discussions and weekend escapes as a lawyer or, as I saw it then, eating beans, wearing sweatpants and complete creative fulfilment as an actor. The sweatpants bit was true, at least.
E: How do you decide which parts to accept?
J: I do what I fancy, the rest is post-rationalisation. If someone’s written something that I’m interested in, if I keep turning the page, if I can’t tell you what the characters are going to say before they say it, if I think I’m going to be able to do something I’ve not done before – I’m in. I’d like to say I’ve never taken a job just for money, but it’s not true. I’ve done it three times in 32 years. One didn’t even happen. One didn’t turn out too badly, but the other one’s an absolute stinker.
E: Do you go through a different process acting in a Hollywood movie, compared to a small indie film?
J: Apart from salary, there really isn’t any difference between acting in a blockbuster or a film shot on an iPhone. My job is the same, whether the catering is noodles in a cup or sushi. The satisfaction is to live in my imagination, creating the 99.9 per cent of a person that doesn’t come out in the script. But the embarrassing truth is it’s really nothing to do with the actors. Great three-dimensional writing creates great three-dimensional performances. If you just get out of the way of the writer, you get all the praise that doesn’t belong to you. So that’s what I do – follow the talent.
E: How did Harry Potter change your career?
J: I was often unavailable for jobs because of filming Potter, and was ruled out of others as being a clichéd casting choice. It’s impossible to know what doors parts opened and which they closed. Did playing the captain in Star Trek prevent me from spinning a light sabre? The truth is, I don’t care! I’m incredibly grateful to be in some of the most beloved films of all time, as the bullying, cowardly, racist Lucius Malfoy. The hardest and most important challenge for all of us, particularly during these surreal times, is to work on waking up and feeling grateful for what we have each day. I’m just so grateful to have been in things that matter to people.
E: What’s your career plan from here?
J: Career plan? Hilarious! When it’s safe for everyone to work in our industry again, I’ll start to think about it. Right now, there are more important things. There’s a plague to beat and many ways to try and mitigate the worst effects on the most vulnerable. There’s the incredible power of the anti-racism movement sweeping the world and the need to turn that into concrete change. And then, selfishly, I want to help my kids to stay sane and have things to look forward to. I’m not dusting off my tap shoes quite yet.
One ingredient you couldn’t live without?
One ingredient you hate?
Five ingredients you always have and need?
Salt, pepper, oil, garlic and Aretha Franklin.
What would your last meal on earth be?
What’s the meal you make most often?
Roast chicken with honey and mustard, roast new potatoes caked in paprika, garlic, sea salt and rosemary, and seared broccoli with chilli and garlic.