In the new TV drama Awake, actor Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy of the Harry Potter franchise) plays Michael Britten, a police detective who finds himself caught between two parallel universes after being involved in a terrible car accident. In one world, Britten wakes up to learn his wife died in the accident and his son survived. In the other, it’s his son who has died and his wife who has survived. Britten must decide which world is real and which world is only a figment of his imagination.
During an interview with me last week, Isaacs talked about what kind of stories he likes creating as an actor, and why he doesn’t think Awake is as confusing as people are making it out to be.
Awake premieres Thursday, March 1 at 9 p.m. on NBC.
With the amount of reality TV there is today, not much these days on the small screen is very thought-provoking. Do you think Awake is going to fill a void in the overall TV landscape?
God knows. Luckily, the stuff that I love and enjoy doing is creating stories in interesting ways so you recognize the humanity of them. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past six months from dawn to midnight every day. I’m learning about other stuff like how [the show] collects an audience, what network it’s on, what its lead-in [show] is and what its demographic is, but it’s completely out of my control. Hopefully it is successful because I’m working with really talented people who are doing good work.
Do you think audiences are ready to open their minds and think about something with a little more depth?
There’s been an odd thing that has happened in the making of [Awake]. First of all, the creator of the show (Kyle Killen) was nervous about whether or not they had to make it clearer which world we’re in. Is it too complicated? I have two daughters. One of them was five years old when I was making the pilot. She was explaining the story to her friend in the park and I shot it on my iPhone. I came back and showed [executive producer] Howard [Gordon] and Kyle that my five year old could explain the story in two sentences. I told them, “I don’t know who is going to be watching out there that you’re worried about, but you’re wrong.” The story is incredibly simple.
Awake is not only a thought-provoking drama, but it is also a police procedural. Are the police storylines going to take a backseat to the things Britten is experiencing in his mind?
In some weeks it’s very procedural. In other weeks it’s incredibly domestic. In some weeks it goes absolutely wacko. Some crazy stuff happens in [Britten’s] mind that manifests itself in his world. It’s like we’re making an indie movie every week. This season will have 13 episodes. It’s like you’re giving 13 different writers the same brief and seeing what each of them comes up with. I want people to be able to watch an episode without having to watch the others. The studio wanted to give some closure to every narrative every week so people wouldn’t think just because they missed last week’s episode they couldn't tune in to the next.
So, you’re not worried about audiences tuning out if the narrative ends up being too much for them?
American audiences are very sophisticated. They made The West Wing one of the most popular TV shows in the country for almost a decade. They made the issues of global politics interesting through character. Again, this is a really simple concept. Which of these worlds are real and what would you do if you didn’t know which world was real? Will [audiences] get it? Yeah, I think so. There’s no way we’d make any story too complicated. Is it unlike anything else on TV? Yes. Hopefully it’s original enough to have people come on board. I’m not interested in getting an audience for the sake of getting an audience. I want to make something really good and engaging that’s fun to watch and talk about. If people find it and like it, great; if they don’t, that will be a shame.