A Cure for Wellness: Jason Isaacs on His Enigmatic Role

– by Edward Douglas

One would think having played Captain Hook in Peter Pan, Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies and voicing DC villains like Sinestro and Ra's Al Ghul in animated films--as well as a couple more authoritarian figures in Star Wars: Rebels--would have gotten any desire to be evil out of actor Jason Isaacs’ system.

And yet, he’s playing a more enigmatic character in director Gore Verbinski’s twisted new thriller A Cure for Wellness, which follows Dane DeHaan as a financial broker named Lockhard to Switzerland to retrieve the CEO of his company who is thought to have lost his marble in search of a cure at a spa located at an old castle in the Alps. Once there, Lockhard breaks his leg in a car accident, and he’s put under the care of Isaacs’ Dr. Vollmar, creator of the cure based around the area’s underground waters and their healing properties. Lockhard continues to be suspicious as he tries to fulfill his assignment and get back to New York, but as he gets deeper into Vollmar’s

Besides his role in Verbinski’s thriller, Isaacs could also be seen in Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s hit Netflix sci-fi show The OA, and he also appeared in an Australian family film that just premiered at Sundance called Red Dog: True Blue (the sequel to the 2011 film Red Dog).

LRM spoke with Isaacs about all of these things in our recent interview. For whatever reason, Isaacs doesn’t normally do a ton of press for the movies he’s in--partially because he’s so busy working--but we join this LRM interview in progress, as he is telling us how he’d rather be working than talking about his movies, but not for the reason you might think.

LRM: It must be the weirdest part of being an actor to talk about your work.

Jason Isaacs: Well, only because… my wife made documentaries for the BBC, and she has this theory that people have an infinite capacity to find themselves interesting, so we all can wank on forever, but the thing that makes me slightly reluctant—although I do whenever I’m asked, because you need to publicize things—is that most stories should be told without knowing anything about them. I was just at the Berlin Film Festival and Sundance before that (with Red Dog: True Blue) and when you get a ticket for a film, the lights go down, and you’re in a big room full of hundreds of people, and you have no idea, literally none, what you’re about to watch, who’s in it, what it’s about, it’s a f*cking great experience and it’s one we have so rarely nowadays. The bigger the film the more you will have seen—a bunch of interviews, read a bunch of articles, read the reviews, heard the opinions on it, and you’re just seeing something confirmed or not. It’s so great to have the surprises and twists and mystery revealed to you as they’re intended by the storyteller.

LRM: Which is exactly how I saw this movie, because I saw it without even knowing you were in the movie. I think I knew Gore directed it but from the title, I thought it was based on a Nicholas Sparks book…

Jason Isaacs:  (laughs) It’s really not a Nicholas Sparks book. It’s probably the most anti-Nicholas Sparks you can ever find.

LRM: So when you show up in the movie, it’s like “Oh, Jason Isaacs is in the movie” without realizing how far things go…

Jason Isaacs: And that’s the other thing. There are twists and turns in this thing that to talk about at all is to ruin the film for the filmgoer, but it limits the things we can talk about, which I apologize for in advance.

LRM: We can talk about politics…

Jason Isaacs: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about politics.

LRM: Well, let’s talk about some movie stuff first.  What was your reaction when you got the script? Did you just get the script?

Jason Isaacs: Yeah, a script and an offer which is nice and rare for me, and I thought this man, Gore Verbinski, I thought he told stories that were more broadly entertaining than this, but he’s obviously a very twisted f*ck… and he needs professional help, and I phoned him and he turned out to be every bit as dark and macabre as the story, and enormously entertaining, too. I wanted to understand from him what the tone was at first. Because it’s all about tone, what it’s about, and what became clear from the conversation was that this wasn’t going to be like other films. It wasn’t going to fit any genre category, really. It falls into the category of “Verbinski-esque.” He takes you on a very unique trip the way he wants to, and it happens at his pace, and the sense of dread, and the amount you’re disturbed emanates entirely from him. There’s no model for it. It’s not “this film crossed with this film” and it’s not a cross-genre piece. It’s what he wants to do, and I loved that.

LRM: Even when he did “The Ring,” he had a model with the Japanese movie, but he didn’t use it and everything in his movie including the visuals were original…

Jason Isaacs: True, he did that brilliantly, but that’s clearly horror, and Pirates of the Caribbean was clearly entertainment. Rango was very unique, but it’s an animated piece.  This is… I think we’re being asked to describe it as a psychological thriller, but frankly, I think to do is say, “If you like his other films, go and have a good time. Don’t ask too many questions, because I don’t want to tell you what it is.” I won’t tell you what kind of film it is. You won’t get cheap thriller jumps, so it isn’t that kind of a horror film, but you shouldn’t know what it is, so you won’t have any idea what’s coming.

LRM: The funny thing is that in the first 30 or 40 minutes it isn’t horror. It’s just a guy going to a spa in Switzerland to retrieve someone and it just goes from there…

Jason Isaacs:  But it’s never horror. When you think about horror nowadays, you start thinking… there was a while when you started thinking about lots of college girls getting stabbed, and then you think about the Jason Blum films like The Purge, but it’s none of those things. It doesn’t fit into any of those worlds. It’s best to go.. “It’s a Gore Verbinski ride. It’s creepy, it’s twisted… You’ll have a big experience and you’ll have done the equivalent of a thousand sit-ups by the time you leave, because your stomach will be in knots and you’ll sweat it and you’ll have laughed, and you’ll really feel as If you’ve seen a movie.” 

LRM: I spoke to Gore a couple months ago and I was convinced this movie was catharsis for him doing all those big studio franchises, and this was his own equivalent of going to a spa to get it out his system.

Jason Isaacs: I don’t know that necessarily, but very often people look at other people’s work and discern patterns that are not clear to the person inside. I’m not sure that’s true. I think it was just the next film that was ready to go. I think he would have been doing other films if not. He’s a storyteller and he’s got a bunch of stories to tell. He’s already told stories across a whole bunch of genres, and I’m sure he can cross many others. Look at Curtis Hanson… a fabulous director who died so tragically. How many different genres did he span?

LRM: You mentioned that you got a script and an offer and you’ve played quite a few villains, so is it nice that directors know enough about your body of work that they don’t need you to audition?

Jason Isaacs: No, I quite like auditioning. I quite like meeting people, especially since I don’t like getting asked to do something I’ve done before, and the only way to convince people I can do something I haven’t done before, often is to meet them, because they don’t know me. But I don’t mind. It’s one of the things actually agents with clients of a certain status, they pride themselves on making it so that you don’t have to go to meetings and you get offered things, but I’m perfectly happy to submit myself to the process, because that’s how you can continue to change the parameters. What’s nice is to be offered parts that seem playable, that’s the truth. I turn a lot of things, most things, down, particularly parts where they’re written to make the audience go “Boo” or “Hiss,” the reason being that they never do. The only parts that really get under the audience’s skin are ones that they believe in. You can only believe in people who think they’re right, so if you think about some of the biggest people in the world, the current world’s bogeymen. If you sat in here and had an interview with them, they can utterly justify and rationalize every single thing they’ve done whether they’re the President of North Korea or America or anywhere else… the head of the Ku Klux Klan…whoever you want. They’ll tell you why they’re right and there’ll be a bunch of people who think they’re right, too, and those are the kinds of parts I’m drawn to, because then you can start an argument. At least, you can get an audience member to recognize you as a human being, and only then can you begin to bother them. 

LRM: Dr. Volmer, who is the director of this spa, for all intents and purposes, he is a very caring doctor who seems to be worried about his patients…

Jason Isaacs: Look, he’s a man providing very simple binary solutions to what is an increasingly complicated world. You don’t need to look too far, do you, to find people that are having enormous success providing simple solutions to people who find life too complicated, and it’s a dangerous path to go down.

LRM: This may be a spoiler and I might have to save it until after the movie comes out…

Jason Isaacs: Even after the movie comes out, people watch it on VOD. The problem is you spoil it… listen, it takes you on a big journey and there are layers and surprises and it ends in a big way. It’s a big movie in the sense it takes you on a big journey. To talk more about what happens later, I think would ruin it even if it’s after its release. 

LRM: Well, let’s give it a try. I feel like in this movie you’re channeling Vincent Price a little bit. I’ve seen a lot of his movies like “House of Wax” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” where he’s just a host at a castle but there’s more to him. I was curious if that was any sort of influence or inspiration for you at all?

Jason Isaacs: None, whatsoever. Noone’s influence. In fact, what happens to me as an actor is if any other actor comes into my head at all, I’ll turn 180 degrees and go in the opposite direction. If I think that I’m channeling someone or modeling myself on someone, I’ll deliberately do the opposite.  Cristoph Waltz being the obvious character in this, that would be one way to go with this and I thought, “There’s no point being Cristoph Waltz, you would have gotten him,” so let’s do something different. I built for myself a voice that was aristocratic German, the notion that he’s only mixing with the richest of the rich for however long he’s met them and spent with the Royal Family others, and that he probably spoke every single language in Europe. So no, there’s no Vincent Price, there’s no anyway in it, to my mind. You might look and see traces of him…

LRM: I meant it as a compliment actually.

Jason Isaacs:
Oh, no! I wasn’t insulted by it, but also, I’m tremendously badly educated in film, literature, music and everything. The things that I have watched I don’t remember and I haven’t watched that many things.

LRM: Because you’re too busy working all the time.

Jason Isaacs: No, because a.) I have a very poor memory and b.) I watched pulp telly growing up, that’s what I watched.

LRM: What I liked about Vincent Price in his movies is that he was always very friendly and affable, but he had a malevolent way of saying something so you were never sure what his intentions were. I think Dr. Vollmer is the same…

Jason Isaacs: No, no, that’s absolutely the gig in this was to be both charismatic and a kind of cult leader and be providing the certainty and the confidence that these patients wanted, while still maintaining some level of something that makes Dane’s character suspicious. Whether or not he’s right to be suspicious, you’ll have to buy a ticket and find out.

LRM: Exactly. Boom. That’s how the interview should end. Moving onto other things. You’ve been appearing on “The OA” recently. As someone who saw “Another Earth” at Sundance and was already familiar with Brit’s work, but it’s really amazing the reaction to the show…

Jason Isaacs: Stunning.

LRM: And the fact that it’s been renewed is great, too. What was it like working with Brit, because she’s such an interesting and creative filmmaker. The first time I interviewed her, her very voice made my recorder stop working…

Jason Isaacs: She has powers. She does. Well, Brit and Zal (Batmanglij) are a pair. They wrote it together, and they’re best friends, and they spent two years writing it. On set, Brit stayed very quiet. Not in character, obviously, but very focused, so really, I engaged with Zal all the time because he directed all eight and he co-wrote it obviously. I was aware that Brit was this massive creative force, but because she’s the other actor in the scene, I think she didn’t want to step forward and be the writer and then step back into character. So really, I’m aware of her, conceptually, of being this greater force, but my experience with her was mostly of her being Prairie and being the OA, and I’m looking forward to getting to know her off-camera, too. I replaced someone on very short notice. I came in after a phone call. Got on a plane and got off and did the opening scene at Grand Central Station. I met her pretty much as Prairie, and I pretty much knew her are Prairie throughout the show.

LRM: Did you get the impression while working on it that it could be continued on?

Jason Isaacs: Well, there’s a Season 2 so we’ll find out. I tell you what does happen to me is that people come up all the time. It’s on Netflix, so I have no idea how many people saw it and what level of success it is or isn’t, but I do know that I get stopped every five years in the street in every country I’ve been in since it’s been on, so I have a feeling that it has a huge reach, but I don’t know. But they don’t come up and say “I like The OA.” They come up and ask me questions about it. “I loved The OA, I absolutely loved, so can you tell me, please…” and then fill in the blank for yourself. What’s ironic is that of course, they don’t really want the answers to the questions. I do know some of the answers to questions but I would ruin it for them if I told them, and hopefully some of the questions will be answered by Season 2 but some more will be posed, too. We’ll see. I think the writing is magnificent in its boldness and its humanity. I’m not sure I’ve come across anything as inventive as what they wrote for the first season, and I can’t wait to see what they do for the second season. Unlike me, who would feel terrible pressure to match up to it, they feel completely empowered to go even further, so it will be great.

LRM: I missed “Red Dog” at Sundance…

Jason Isaacs: The whole audience was crying! It was amazing to be there. I was there with Stockholm, Pennsylvania two years ago, where I abducted Saoirse Ronan as a child and looked after her for her whole life. A year before that I was there with Sweetwater, which was sort of this cult leader, married his own children, murderer, so to suddenly be there in a kids’ film was very odd for me. I had never seen a child at Sundance my whole life. I don’t know where they hide them, but the lights came up and there were these whole families with kids, everybody sniffling at the end and reaching for the tissues. You could hear in the sad family moments. It’s like an Australian Old Yeller. You could hear the audience massively affected by it, laughing when they laugh. Kids, of course, can’t fake anything, so you know that it’s affecting them. I just came from Berlin where it played great to German kids, with what they call “audio subtitles” so it plays and they have someone talking the dialogue afterwards, and the same thing. The audience were blown away by it. It’s a very, very sweet family film that clearly plays very well internationally, so it’s an odd thing. I went to do it because I thought it was a sweet little Australian film that maybe would be seen in Australia, but if we’re lucky, people will see it all over the world.

LRM: I assume you don’t play anyone evil or malevolent in that…

Jason Isaacs: No, I’m a nice suburban dad who is maybe not present in his life, maybe not paying enough attention to his kids and his wife as he should do, because he’s busy with work. The whole story is a flashback about him growing up with this dog in the Australian mining country, and it brings him back to whom he ought to be and how he ought to be loving the people he’s spending his life with. It’s incredibly moving, lovely and sweet, and not what people expect from me.

LRM: It sounds really nice but I also have never seen a kid at Sundance, mainly because most of the movies I see are R-rated…

Jason Isaacs: But I’ve never seen a kid in the street! They’re all there; they must be hiding.

LRM: I remember talking to you for the movie “Good” a few years back, and I was just thinking about how that movie and play seem so relevant right now with what’s going on in the world. It’s really very scary.

Jason Isaacs: If you look the other way and you ignore it and don’t get involved, you’re as culpable as anybody else when human rights are being eradicated around you. It’s absolutely right.

LRM: I hope someone revives the play or even the movie because it now feels like maybe it was ahead of its time because no one expected it to possibly happen again.

Jason Isaacs: No one expects it, but that’s what happens. All it takes for the rise of evil is for good men to do nothing.

A Cure for Wellness opens nationwide on Friday, February 10 with previews Thursday night.

LRM Exclusives, Interviews, Film, Featured A Cure for Wellness, Jason Isaacs, The OA, Red Dog: True Blue, Gore Verbinski