December 10, 2019

“Harry Potter’s” Jason Isaacs on Playing “Racist” Lucius Malfoy

“Lucius Malfoy espouses the language of racism and eugenics,” said Jason Isaacs, the British actor who has portrayed the Muggle-loathing wizard supremacist in seven of the eight “Harry Potter” films, concluding with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:  Part II,” opening July 15. 

With his long, blond hair, and imperious blue eyes, Lucius Malfoy – a henchman of the genocidal Lord Voldemort—has a Nazi-like obsession with the preservation of blood purity, disapproving of marriages between Muggles (mortals) and magic folk.

“But you don’t need to look to the Second World War for the concept that blood shouldn’t be mixed,” he said of his inspiration for the character.  “You can look around the world today and see many politicians standing on that kind of anti-immigration, separatist, backwards-looking platform. There’s no shortage of right-wing politicians trying to make people feel more comfortable and superior in these times of great uncertainty and fear.

“It’s not like I don’t understand racism, fear, bigotry and ignorance,” he added.  “Being Jewish, I think, has brought me a more nuanced perspective on it than most.”

“Potter” novelist J.K. Rowling has deliberately woven parallels to fascism into her magical tale; the affable, witty Isaacs, who began a Friday morning interview with a hearty “Good Shabbos,” had an up close and personal experience with fascist thugs as a boy.  They were members of the National Front, back when he was a teenager in the 1970s and 80s:  “I remember being chased with pickaxe handles and chains; windows being broken in youth clubs; and cowering inside a restaurant while people “Sieg Heiled” by the front door throwing bricks,” he said from his London home.  “I remember running, often, when we gathered in groups, when people just would race up and try to beat up as many of us as possible.  And this growing horror that even at my school, people were passing literature around appropriating the language of that kind of fascism, which was becoming mainstream [for a time].”

Lucius Malfoy may wield a wand rather than a pickaxe, but Isaac doesn’t regard him as evil.  “He’s very vain, very entitled, arrogant; he comes from old money and old wizardry and thinks the world was a better place when things were simpler and more homogenous,” Isaacs said.  “Much of his motivation comes from fear.”

The character’s flowing platinum locks, recalling Hitler’s blond Aryan ideal, was Isaacs’ idea.  “Lucius wasn’t blond when I first turned up; sketches showed him with short, salt-and-pepper hair and a pinstriped suit,” he said.  “But I thought, if I’m going to play a wizard once in my life, then let me dress up with all the toys in the dressing-up box.”

I spoke to Isaacs this morning as he was preparing to move on – literally – from the “Potter” films.  First he will visit Comic-Con 2011 (July 21-24 in San Diego) to unveil his NBC series, “Awake,” in which he’ll star as a detective living in parallel universes. After that, he’ll spend a week visiting his parents, who now live in Israel, at their home near Tel Aviv.  Then it’s back to England to pack up his wife and two young daughters in order to move to Los Angeles for “Awake.”

Here are further excerpts from my conversation with Isaacs, whose character receives his share of comeuppance in “Deathly Hallows:  Part II” – including a slap on his face from a testy Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

NPM:  You didn’t initially want to play Lucius Malfoy when filmmakers approached you about “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002).

JI:  I was offered the role of Captain Hook in P.J. Hogan’s “Peter Pan” the same week, so I thought I shouldn’t play two children’s baddies.  But then the phone just melted off the hook with people telling me I was being an idiot—particularly children who wanted to visit the Harry Potter set.

NPM: How would you describe the arc of your character, Malfoy, over the years?

JI:  I’ve been lucky because Lucius has an actual journey throughout the films.  Initially he’s so arrogant and he’s also a terrible father, which is why his son, Draco (Tom Felton) is such a bully.  The most important thing to me when I first came along was to find a way, in the shortest possible period, to grate on everyone’s nerves.  So I tried to come up with a voice that was like fingernails on a blackboard. 

I was hoping Lucius would get his comeuppance at some point, and Jo [J.K.] Rowling is such a brilliant writer that she had Voldemort see right through him as the narcissistic, status-obsessed fool that he is.  The ultimate insult is, Voldemort can’t even be bothered to kill Lucius; he takes my wand and snaps it, which is, basically, castration in front of my family and peers. 

NPM:  You’re played so many wonderful baddies, from Captain Hook to Col. William Tavington in “The Patriot,” opposite Mel Gibson.  What’s the draw?

JI:  Like most people I like to be liked, so every now and then to be able to let loose [on camera], to be utterly immoral and unethical and unconcerned about your effect on other people, is a great escape route.  It allows you to alleviate any kind of resentment or rage that you may be bottling up.

NPM:  Speaking of Mel Gibson, what’s been your take on his anti-Semitic remarks?

JI:  When he had that anti-Semitic outburst against a police officer, he was drunk, and I don’t think it’s fair to judge people from when they’re drunk.  He was, I think, embarrassed and horrified that he was A) drunk and B) anti-Semitic.  He had come from the house of a Jewish friend of his, ironically, which doesn’t excuse what he did, but he apologized for it.  And when I saw him some time afterwards, he apologized to me.  I think you have to allow people to apologize and mean it and change their behavior, which I hope he had and did.  The more recent stuff, I can’t be a judge off those tapes and the things that happened between him and his partner. My experience of him is that he was a lovely guy, and very complicated…Obviously he’s had terrible trouble recently and caused a lot of trouble and grief; I hope that he and all these people can get through it.  I wish him well.

NPM:  When I interviewed you back in 2000, you said you were low-key about being Jewish in the British press because “There is this sense that England can be a very xenophobic country; it’s not directed just at Jews but at anybody who isn’t the perceived version of what ‘Englishness’ is.”  How do you feel about this today?

JI:  America is a country that’s made up of its various different ethnic immigrant groups, and that’s its great glory.  But that isn’t true of what it is to be English—and it isn’t even what I celebrate and love about being English, either. What we do here is, we all aim for the middle ground; that’s our attempt to bring peace to the land and get on with each other.  So it’s partly that; I think I was also trying to express something that I understand better now 11 years on, which is: I hate reading stuff about actors…I like watching stories unfold knowing nothing about what’s going to happen or the people who are telling them. No one should be watching Lucius Malfoy going, “How interesting and ironic there’s a Jewish actor playing the part.”

NPM:  You once did an episode of “Entourage,” which I find to be a very “Jewish” show.

JI:  Many things set in Hollywood are going to have some Jewish content, because there’s a lot of Jews in Hollywood. I can’t pretend I don’t like that; it’s very comfortable for me. I live and move in a world here where there are very few Jews and I do very little Jewishly in my life [in England].  I’m a member of the artistic community, and we are deliberately rootless and tribeless; that’s what allows us to be who we are.  But when I come to America, I suddenly feel, certainly in Los Angeles, infinitely more Jewish because it’s everywhere.

NPM: What’s it been like saying goodbye to Harry Potter this week?

JI?  Absolutely awful.

At the premiere, they had to shut down Trafalgar Square [in London] probably for the first time since the victory in Europe [after World War II]; there was this enormous crowd of people both grieving and celebrating. But it’s been lovely—as one of the actors—to be able to give that much pleasure to people, and to be part of this film series that I think families will watch forever.  It’s also nice that it’s over, because I’m not sure I could live quite in the glare of that white heat much longer.