"Harry Potter" star Jason Isaacs gives voice to villain Ra's al Ghul in "Batman: Under the Red Hood"
By The Editor
July 2, 2010 - 10:23
Isaacs, who portrays Malfoy in five Harry Potter films, is well known for his lead role on the Showtime series Brotherhood, as well as starring opposite Mel Gibson in the revolutionary war adventure, The Patriot. The British actor has also racked up credits in films like Armageddon, Black Hawk Down, Peter Pan, Grindhouse, DragonHeart and Green Zone; TV series including The West Wing, Entourage and The State Within (for which he received a Golden Globe nomination); and in the voiceover realm in everything from documentary narration and commercial advertisements to video games and the popular animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender.
In Batman: Under the Red Hood, Isaacs gives Batman’s nemesis Ra’s al Ghul a sympathetic twist as the villain attempts to right his own
wrongs and help Batman in his efforts against both Red Hood and the
Joker. Isaacs is an integral part of an all-star cast that includes
Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek), Jensen Ackles (Supernatural), Neil
Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) and John DiMaggio (Futurama).
Produced by Warner Premiere, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros.
Animation, Batman: Under the Red Hood will be distributed by Warner
Home Video as a Special Edition version on Blu-Ray™ and 2-disc DVD, as
well as being available on single disc DVD, On Demand and for
Isaacs splits his time between the UK and the US, but still found a
few moments to chat about his latest animation voiceover role, his
yearning for an actual super power, and his childhood addiction to
comic books. Read on …
QUESTION: This isn’t really the Ra’s al Ghul we’re accustomed to
seeing – what’s the nutshell synopsis of his part in Batman: Under the
This role is a bit unusual for Ra's al Ghul as he’s been Batman's
nemesis a lot in the past. But this time he is actually full of
regret for a mistake that he has made, and his inability to control
the Joker. A lot of what happens for Ra’s in this story is him
explaining to Batman how things went so badly awry, and how Robin
ended up quite so dead.
QUESTION: Liam Neeson set a standard for Ra’s in Batman Begins. How
did you decide to approach the voice for this film?
Well, I didn’t think there was much point to doing an impression of
Liam, mostly because he does it far better than me (he laughs). So I
read the script and I looked at the pictures. He looked like a man
with a lot of dignity and authority – there's a kind of stateliness
about him. He's been alive for six centuries, which would give him a
certain classiness, I thought. Obviously he's been powerful all that
time, and certainly possessed tons of wealth and influence. So I
tried to put all of that into the tone to his voice.
You were very participatory in crafting some of the dialogue as you
recorded the film. How important is it for the actor to be able to
contribute to the character?
This is one of the things that happens when a script has been written
and rewritten and rewritten again, and considered by so many people so
often, and they all have different agendas. They all know what story
blocks they're putting together, and what the visual sequences look
like. And then the actor comes in. Sometimes just the very last set
of eyes laid on the script, by the person who's meant to bring it to
life, can point out an inconsistency or a logical flaw where the
meaning isn't clear. It's happened a few times in my life that you see
a room full of people surprised because they thought the meaning was
crystal clear. But if I don't really understand what I'm saying or
why, I'm not sure the audience will, either. So I offer up my thoughts
to the director or whoever and, if they agree with me, then we change
it. And if they don't, then I do whatever I'm asked because, in the
end, I'm just a hired larynx.
Do you believe there is a certain elegant villainy to a British
accent? Or is that a purely American concept?
I think one of the reasons British people play so many villains in
Hollywood stories is that there's a tradition of theatre acting and a
kind of chameleon-like change that comes from Europe. Well, that and
all the good leading parts are already snapped up by the Americans
over here (he laughs). I think we have a theatre tradition, and are
slightly more prepared to chew the scenery and relish things a bit
more. It has more to do with reaching the back row. Besides, very
often the juiciest role is the villain. The hero is difficult to play
anyway. They're mostly homegrown and very good at it.
Is villainy fun to play?
The thing that’s fun to play are well written parts. It's absolutely
torturous to play something that is written purely for its effect on
the audience, and doesn't seem believable to you. Or, even worse,
somebody that just has no reason to be or speak. Very often there are
chunks of exposition that just would not be said between people. So
evil is fun to play when it's written sensibly and well. There's
nothing worse than playing a villain who is outsmarted by the hero
from the beginning, and doing things that are purely sadistic in a way
that nobody will ever do. I think the most monstrous things an
audience reacts to are when they understand that that character has to
do it, needs to do it, must do it – and if the audience was in the
same situation, they would do it, also. Nobody ever thinks they're
doing the wrong thing. So when the part is well enough written, the
actor responds to the character, because he thinks that he’s doing the
right thing. That's much more disturbing to watch because you
recognize the inevitability of it. You can’t escape that. The best
written villain roles are the ones that feel real and understandable –
because those are the ones that haunt your nightmares.
What’s it like to be the ultimate nice guy, and yet most recognized
for the villains you’ve portrayed?
I've played priests and I've played transvestites, wizards and
pirates, and everything in between. But there are certain roles
people remember best. I think that if I spend a day going around town
and everybody opens doors for me and says “hi” and “have a nice day,”
but one guy pokes me in the eye with a toothpick, he's the guy I
remember at the end of the day. So, if people remember me as playing
villains – and I've played two or three of them – that's because those
parts have kind of hit a consciousness. I've been lucky enough to have
a couple of very juicy, very well written parts in stories where the
people telling the story were smart enough to give the villain power.
That's very often not the case in Hollywood movies.
Maybe one of the reasons I've done well when I have played villains is
because I spend most of my life like most people – trying to make sure
that I do the right thing, and make sure that the people like me, and
I'm not behaving (badly). So when I do play a villain once in awhile,
it's nice to be let off the leash and allowed to be deeply unpleasant
with no consequences.
Was your childhood affected at all by comic books, or is the
omnipresence of the super hero in Hollywood just making its mark on
I was slightly suspicious of the whole comic and graphic novel
rebirth, because I wasn't any part of it and hadn't read any comics in
so long. But I remember when I was a kid how addicted I had been to
all the DC and Marvel comics. I had mountains of them in my room – you
couldn't open the door. I wondered why everyone was suddenly (making
comics into films). Then when my friend Paul Greengrass was getting
involved in preparing the Watchman a few years ago to direct, which
then fell apart and it was directed by someone else, I had a look at
it. I wondered why somebody I respected and like so much would be
involved, and I picked it up and suddenly realized the things I had
been missing for all these years.
I mean, as a kid, I was addicted to comics. I couldn't wait for every
Sunday when my family and I would go and get fish and chips – that’s
an English kind of junk food tradition (he laughs). There was a little
shop next door that sold candy and had boxes of used comics. My dad
would give me money, and all week I would look forward to rummaging
through the boxes and seeing if I could find something that I loved.
All those wonderful characters – I was addicted to it all. I would be
dismissive of some new character – anybody relatively new I would
dimiss as some pretender, but then I would get one of their comics …
and then I would have to go get the rest of the series. My bed was
propped with them by the end.
QUESTION: Do you understand what was at the core of that love affair
I just know that I did. In some ways, it's like asking why somebody
likes chocolate and somebody else likes strawberry. There's something
that works about it there. It's a combination of the art and the
amount that your imagination fills in between the gaps. And the fact
that the restraints and controls are taken off. When you make a
movie, it's a very literal medium -- you watch the story, and it's as
if you're looking through a keyhole. It's very hard to take people on
a fantastical journey, but in these beautiful and bright frames you
can take them to any universe you create. And 90 percent of it the
reader does by himself. It's amazing in this generation that somebody
has married all that stuff to actually very adult themes.
Maybe one of the reasons that I loved them so much is that, at that
age, when you're a kid, you're not quite sure what the physical
realities of the world are. It wasn't inconceivable to me that I might
get one of these super powers soon. I might be bitten by a
radioactive spider, or that I could someday fly, or be bulletproof, or
whatever. I fancied that those powers were somehow accessible and
within my reach. And sadly, as you get older, it seems less and less
Does acting in a Batman film have any added significance for you?
Well, this is probably the closest I'm going to get to work with Chris
Nolan (he laughs). Batman is such an iconic figure – he’s rather dark,
mysterious, and a disturbed damaged guy. But there was always
something very, very attractive about Batman that kind of pulls you
in. He didn't have any super powers, and I think that was one of the
things that makes him very accessible and relatable. It always made it
seem that if you really worked hard, you might just get to be Batman –
in the same way that, when I played tennis as a kid, I used to think
that if I hit a ball against the wall all day every day, I could
eventually be beat Bjorn Borg. For me, that's always a remarkable
thing. I remember thinking as a kid that if I just practiced martial
arts all day, and I got really good at the science stuff, and maybe
made a few billion dollars, I could be Batman. So here I am … the
closest I'm gonna get.
For more information, images and updates, please visit the film’s
official website at www.BatmanRedHood.com.
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