There are celebrity dads and then there’s Jason Isaacs. If you’re even vaguely aware of Harry Potter, you remember Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, Draco’s dry-witted and bewigged wizard supremacist pop. Isaacs made of meal of the role then went back for villainous seconds. From the animated series Star Wars Rebels to the recent Dark Crystal reboot, Isaacs has made antagonizing children — and the forces of good generally — into an art form.
And yet, Isaacs is the most pleasant professional meanie you could ever have the pleasure to meet. He’s smart, funny, and refreshingly unguarded. Give him shit about playing evil characters and he’ll give it right back while exuding warmth. He doesn’t have to play a decent human on screen (though he’s great in Death of Stalin) or in real life because he is one.
This week, the newest Scooby-Doo movie — elegantly titled Scoob! — arrives on video-on-demand and Isaacs, playing Dick Dastardly, is pitted against the gang: Shaggy, Velma, Fred, Daphne, and Scoob himself. If the name doesn’t ring a giant cartoon bell, Dastardly is the most extra bad guy ever; he’s most infamous for laughing maniacally while popping people’s tires in the old Wacky Races cartoons. Naturally, the character steals the show, which feels very much like the reboot you didn’t know you needed.
Fatherly recently caught-up with Isaacs to talk about Dastardly, how parenthood has affected his acting career, and just exactly how much Lucius Malfoy reminds him of Donald Trump.
SkekSo in Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. Gabriel Lorca Star Trek: Discovery. The Inquisitor in Star Wars: Rebels. And now, Dick Dastardly in Scoob! Why do you — one of the nicest guys I’ve ever interviewed — always play such bad dudes?
Well, you’re picking three or four parts out of hundreds of parts I’ve played over 30-odd years. It’s a straw man argument…. I do think that if people are delightful to you and open doors and praise you and then one person comes up and pokes you in the eye with a toothpick, that’s the person you think about when you’re fall asleep. Bad guys make an impression on people. I’ve been lucky to have a few high profile villains. .
If you want to get real, I think I’m thought of as a bad guy because of the Potter films, which had such a huge profile and exposure, but, also because I played that guy in The Patriot. A generations of Americans have been shown that film by appallingly lax history teachers and not told afterward how much of it is fantasy. For a huge group of people, that film is their version of American history — that independence was won from me. So… you’re all welcome.
There’s a Harry Potter joke, very early in the movie — young Shaggy confuses Velma’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg Halloween costume with a member of House Slytherin. Were you, the ultimate Slytherin, consulted on this joke?
They did not check with me! There’s an extraordinary thing that happens with animation, there’s often an assumption on the part of the journalist that we all met each other. What is so odd is that with comedy scenes, you’re essentially playing them and recording them alone. I didn’t meet any of the actors for Scoob! I had the script, but I wasn’t really familiar with what anyone was doing in their scenes. I also wasn’t really sure what people were doing in my scenes, either. The only direction I had was our director Tony [Cervone], who did all the voices with me.
I overlapped with Zac Efron once as he came on the mic after me.
The comedy scenes in Scoob! are memorable because it feels like you really go for it. I mean, I’ll be honest, the part I liked the most is when you as Dick Dastardly just say “I’m a Dick” and then you just yell “DICK, DICK, DICK” over and over again.
I mean… I got to tell you, we went way further than that. The joy of recording for animation is to figure out later, which bits if any of it, will end up in the film. When we recorded that sequence, I had no belief that any of that would make it into the final film. I was thrilled to see that it did. I think it worked because Tony has a fantastic sense of taste and knows how you can make something funny on several levels — on pop culture levels or whatever — to grown-ups, without ever really letting the kids figure out what’s going on. That’s one of the great skills in animation.
It was very odd to record.
As a parent yourself, do you have a criterion in your mind for why you would say yes or no to acting in a kids’ project?
When my kids were still little, it was interesting to see how powerful an impression the things they saw on screen made on them. Those things translated into things they wanted to do and impacted how they dealt with us and their friends. As an actor, I realized that when I did things, at some point, my children would watch it. And I realized I didn’t want to be part of certain things. There were a number of times I turned down things that were just you know, chasing around serial killers, terrorizing young women, and all that.
But I’m aware of more than just my kids watching. Having been an actor for this long, you engage with the people who watch your stuff, especially with really high-profile stuff like Star Trek or Harry Potter. I’ve met lots of people who watch things I’m in. As an actor, the reason you do it is to indulge yourself by walking in other people’s shoes. It’s a very childlike sense of play. And for a long time, that’s what drove me. But there comes a point in time where you’re aware that you’re putting stories out in the world and wonder, ‘What stories do I want to be a part of?’ It doesn’t mean those stories have to jolly or happy or redemptive. But, are you adding to the world? Or are you just amplifying people’s unjustified fears or are you just playing into cliches?
I’m very happy to play deeply unpleasant people in deeply unpleasant situations. I just need to understand why we’re doing something. It can’t just be to get people to buy cars or to fill the gap between commercials.
Do you meet kids who think you are Lucius Malfoy?
You’d think that, but no. Kids don’t see me and recognize me as Lucius Malfoy. Their parents tell them I’m Lucius Malfoy and then you see these puzzled faces trying to compute it because, to them, Lucius Malfoy is a blonde guy with an elf who lives at Hogwarts, not the guy next to them is buying toilet paper. I am quite sure I ruined the magic for kids by meeting them. And by bringing them to the set. I brought hundreds and hundreds of kids to that set: my friends’ kids, strangers’ kids. These kids would love Harry Potter, they’d know every single punctuation mark, and then suddenly there would be Hagrid having a cigarette and a bunch of wizards with their fucking noses off. I’m not really sure it enhanced the magic for them.
How do you feel about Lucius Malfoy these days?
He’s not too different from the current incumbent of the White House, you know? He thinks he is the answer. He’s part of an elite. He thinks people like him should rule. He wants to make Hogwarts great again. He’s a bully. He’s frightened of being left behind. He’s very three-dimensional. J.K. Rowling is far too good of a writer to make those characters one-dimensional.
What do movies do for families right now? How do families approach these kinds of things — like the new Scooby-Doo movie — during the lockdown?
I think there is something magical about watching stories together. Family yes. But also in big dark rooms full of hundreds of people; though that’s not likely to happen for a long time. My family fractures differently, I’ve got a wife who wants to watch Grey’s Anatomy and I’ve got a daughter who wants to watch Vampire Diaries, but when we do manage to find a point we all agree on and we’re in a room together, something indefinably wonderful happens. We’re all having the same experience at the same time. We’re feeling less alone.
Scoob! — starring Jason Isaacs as Dick Dastardly — is available for digital download now.