- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2000

Bristol, England, is suddenly a hotbed of filmmaking talent especially for summer movies that involve Mel Gibson.

The delightful "Chicken Run" was shot at the Aardman Animation studio in Bristol. The actor cast as Mr. Gibson's nemesis in the Revolutionary War spectacle "The Patriot," Jason Isaacs, graduated from Bristol University about 15 years ago.

Mr. Isaacs was born in Liverpool and now lives in London between far-flung acting opportunities. He described during a recent telephone conversation how the avocation led to a profession and an enjoyable six-month sojourn in South Carolina in 1999 while he was portraying the Redcoat villain, Col. William Tavington, to Mr. Gibson's heroic founding father, Benjamin Martin, in "The Patriot."

Mr. Isaacs just dabbled in theater while at Bristol University; his major was law. What would have prompted him to abandon his pre-law studies?

"Do you know any lawyers?" the actor quips.

He was one of four brothers, one of whom practices law.

"I made what I thought an extremely difficult decision at the time: to be poor but happy. I imagined I'd eke out a living as an actor, getting by on dog food but feeling creatively fulfilled every so often. Quite the opposite happened. I've been able to make a very good living while feeling creatively parched most of the time."

He hastens to exempt "The Patriot" from the "parched" area of his experience. On the contrary, he found it edifying and enjoyable, enhanced by the feeling that Mr. Gibson, director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin ran a set free of petty tyranny or vanity.

"Some movies impose a very clear hierarchy, almost a sense of royalty," Mr. Isaacs says. "On 'The Patriot,' there wasn't any of that. It was a tribute to the people at the top, who define the atmosphere. Everyone had a seat at the table. Everyone felt free to collaborate and speak up. I never heard anyone in authority raise his voice or make anyone feel less than useful. No one had to walk on eggshells around Mel, and that happens around big stars a lot of the time."

The actor prefers not to single out the productions that rubbed him the wrong way, but because he also has appeared in "The End of the Affair," "Armageddon," "Event Horizon," "Soldier" and "Dragonheart" in recent years, feel free to speculate.

He made his film debut in 1988, playing a bit part in "The Tall Guy" shortly after completing studies at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He can be seen in the brief nightmare sequence in which Jeff Goldblum imagines himself undergoing a spinal examination.

"I wore a surgical hat and mask," Mr. Isaacs says. "A small strip of my eyes is visible. Another doctor and I discuss Jeff's spine. He wakes up and ruefully admits, 'Yes, I'm spineless.' "

At Bristol University, Mr. Isaacs thought he would "do a play."

"You had a go at everything," he says of the way he understood university protocol. "Signed up for hang-gliding club. Or to go skiing. Took advantage of every subsidized activity you could find.

"In that spirit, I wandered into an audition at a rehearsal room. I just suddenly felt completely at home. There were a million things I liked about it. A ready-made set of friends. A family unit, as it were. An outlet for sides of myself that didn't have an outlet elsewhere and might have manifested themselves in all sorts of anti-social ways. I met girls who would sleep with me. It fulfilled so many things on so many levels. I can pretend to live out lives I could not otherwise experience.

"One of my frustrations is that I can't do everything all the time. I try and tell my nephews, who are about to go off to college, 'Follow your heart. You've no idea what will happen. At least try to enjoy yourself.' "

Reflecting on "The Patriot," Mr. Isaacs says, "Just occasionally, a job comes along where you have a fabulous time. Get a crackingly good, three-dimensional part. How much more fun can you have than getting on an enormous horse and commanding an army? Having a whole village quake at your every gesture or dirty look? Having one of the world's biggest superstars tremble with fear as you thunder up to his house at the head of your fearsome dragoons? It doesn't get much more fun."

Even when the mighty horse proves balky enough to throw you. Mr. Isaacs took one header while preparing to lead his troops against the rebels at the Battle of Camden.

"I was doing incredibly well," he says. "I couldn't pretend to be any kind of horseman, but they sent us to boot camp to learn how to ride and shoot, load and fire muskets, throw tomahawks and all that kind of nonsense. I was doing quite well, if I say so myself.

"Never came off during the riding lessons," he says. "They had given me an enormous horse, a Mack truck with a tail. It seemed unflappable. Never flinched during all the commotion during rehearsals. I accidentally hit it on the side of the head with my sword. Poked it in the eye. No sign of resentment."

Mr. Isaacs was being set up for a fall, literally.

"On the first day of shooting an actual battle," he recalls, "which we were trying to do in one continuous sweep of action, covered by about 10 cameras, I came charging in and got in the center of things, waited for our musket fire and then yelled 'Charge.' The horse decided to stop in its tracks. On the video, you can see me flying off in slow motion, bouncing on my arms, bouncing on my head. I landed, very unsafely, on every part of my body, but someone managed to keep the sword away from me.

"My dragoons were all such fabulous riders that they reined in their horses before I could be trampled. You can see all these stunt people running in slow motion toward me, mouthing 'Are … you … O … K … ?' But really all that was hurt was my pride."

The mishap persuaded Mr. Emmerich to reorganize the battle shoot, taking it in smaller segments with two or three cameras covering the action.

"In the long run, it was more sensible and better artistically," Mr. Isaacs says, "and saved a lot of lawsuits. There was no sense in printing any of my disaster footage, but they did print stuff from one camera for the traditional gag reel. But in the end, it looked too painful, so they cut it. From that angle, you can barely see a puff of smoke from the muskets, and none of the riders were in camera range. Everyone else is way off to the right. That upset me. It looks as if I got thrown while showboating."

Mr. Isaacs was very much aware of the re-enactors who doubled for Tavington's dreaded Green Dragoons.

"My dragoons very quickly came to regard themselves as that force, and no other," he says. "They refused to impersonate American regulars or militiamen when they were asked to. 'No, we are Dragoons.' They also called me 'Colonel' all the way through the shoot.

"Combine that with the fact that we were shooting in the actual places where a lot of the conflicts took place, and your imagination should be properly stimulated."

Mr. Isaacs also familiarized himself with some of the lore of the notorious English colonel named Tarleton who inspired his character.

"He was a fascinating model," the actor says. "We changed some of the script to take advantage of certain biographical details. Not for the sake of historical accuracy, and I'm not playing the historical figure at all, but his own life was more dramatic than some elements in the original script. When history helps you, why not take advantage?"

Mr. Isaacs found it appealing to discover "spooky parallels to me." Specifically, Tarleton was one of four sons and had studied law.

"His professional incentive was keener, which perhaps made him more ruthless," he says. "The guy's father died young and left enormous debts. He was packed off to the Colonies, and his mother bought him a commission in the army. He really had to succeed on merit. It was important for him to win this one, to take full advantage of the war at his disposal. Well, that's true of all officers, isn't it?"

Mr. Isaacs agrees that he probably took ambition to bloodthirsty excess.

"He was known as the scourge of the Carolinas, the most despised soldier of the conflict. It was a reputation he relished, and it made him a bit of a hero back home," he says.

"He served seven terms as a member of Parliament. He wrote war memoirs that became a best seller. At some point, somebody wrote another set that called him a liar. Said he took credit for winning battles that he'd lost or that hadn't been decisive. They reissued his book with rejoinders and addenda. I think he died in his bed, in his seventies, attended by his most celebrated mistress. She also wrote her memoirs.

"It would take a very long movie to do him justice."

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