But in a career chock full of diverse and eclectic choices, which has included everything from comedies (The Death of Stalin), respected stage roles (Angels in America with Daniel Craig), sci-fi series (The OA, Star Trek: Discovery) to indie films (Mass), it was a logical leap for Isaacs to star in Streamline, the debut film by Aussie director Tyson Wade Johnston.
Sporting an Aussie accent, Isaacs acts alongside Levi Miller (Jasper Jones) in the film, which follows a 15-year-old would-be swimming champion (Miller), whose strict training regimen and life is thrown into chaos when his troubled and abusive father Rob (Isaacs) is released from prison.
The movie was a challenge that the Liverpool-born Isaacs relished, with Streamline making it his fourth time shooting in Australia, following previous stints on Hook, Red Dog: True Blue and Hotel Mumbai.
We spoke with the actor to find out what made him take the plunge.
What was it about this story that pulled you into this film?
“I read it and I was interested in the world. I was intrigued by it and by Boy (Levi Miller’s character). I thought it was visual. I thought it’d be engaging. I knew Rob (Morgan), we’d done The OA together and he was the first person that got in touch and sent the script. I spoke with Tyson, and I just thought, parents and children… I’ve got kids, how much do we fuck them up, how much are we helping them?
“Very few of us can compete on an Olympic level, very few of us experience the extraordinary situations that characters go through, yet the best stories reflect things that we all go through all the time and Boy is trying to work out who he is and what are the forces that have forged him for worse and for better.
“How do you shed that baggage that’s holding you back or poisoning your life, and how do you take inspiration from the things that created great hunger and forge inspiration and a mission? That’s incredibly universal. How much have your parents fucked you up and how much have your parents propelled you out to the world and how unhealthy the residual effects of blame and guilt are. Boy’s dad has influenced him and damaged him but has created so much of what also drives and propels him.
“Another film I did, which couldn’t be more different, Mass, similarly is about a situation that most people will never be in. It’s about parents of a child who was killed in a school shooting, trying to deal with it years later. But it has a huge overlap with Streamline because it’s about them trying to move forward in life, trying not to be paralysed by things that have calcified inside their hearts.
“With Streamline, I wanted to know what it felt like to be Boy and how or if he was going to get through this, because we’re all looking for a rope.”
You’ve worked with several experienced directors, including Neil Jordan, Ridley Scott, Phillip Noyce. How did those experiences compare to working with a first-time director on Streamline?
“Tyson knew exactly what he was doing. The best directors are the ones who are prepared to say, ‘I don’t know’. The best directors I’ve ever worked with are people that come up and say, ‘what should we do now?’ So, there’s no difference. Ridley’s slightly different because he has this aesthetic vision which is slightly otherworldly. But apart from that, the best directors are the ones who explore with you, they jump in the sandpit with you. Tyson knew the world and then just wanted to see what happened organically and was confident enough to see, even though he’d written it, what unfolded, what his collaborators brought to the table and see where things went, and for us all to surprise each other.
“There was no sense in which he was the first-time director.
“Very similarly, in some ways, Mass director Fran (Kranz) wrote this extraordinarily dense and beautifully moving and poetic and shocking script. Full of – oddly, you would think for the subject matter – hope. And people reaching for the best of themselves. And although it’s something that obsessed him for years, and it cost him physically, financially, to bring it to the screen, he then let it go, because he’s a very good actor also, and understood what acting was, and let us fly with it.
“It reminded me of a director I worked with called Rodrigo Garcia on a film called Nine Lives , which had nine separate stories about women in it. The one I was in with Robin Wright, was two people in the supermarket who clearly were a couple for many years. And we said to Rodrigo, ‘just tell us when they were together, why they broke up? And what does this mean about public radio? And what’s the reference to the Balkans?’ All these things that were in the script. And he said, maybe the best direction I’ve ever had, he said ‘oh I don’t know, no idea. You and Robin need to work it out.’ Of course, he knew all the answers, he wouldn’t have written it otherwise. And the same was true on Mass. And the same must have been true with Tyson. And, like all the best directors, they gave it away completely, feigned ignorance, so that the actors found it for themselves and made it true to ourselves.”
You’ve worked on numerous big-budget films (Armageddon, Green Zone). Streamline is a much smaller in size and crew. Are there differences in working on the sets of smaller films vs the blockbusters?
“It’s always freeing when you’re not moving with 300 people. But it’s always about the material and what the people are like. Playing scenes in Harry Potter is no different from doing scenes in a church in Idaho for Mass, it’s just trying to be another person, in an extraordinary situation, trying to bring that to life. How extensive the catering is makes not one slight bit of difference. The job is exactly the same if it’s four of you working out of a van and it’s pizza for lunch, or if it’s 2000 people and you take over town and it’s all helicopters. Whether it’s aliens or prison or domestic abuse or invisibility cloaks, the world of work for me is always situations I’ve not been in, and paths not taken.
“When you’re working with creative people, the set can feel like almost a place of complete freedom to imagine, to play, to experiment. That’s what I’ve learned from the best. Make it feel like a sand pit and make it look like you’re a bunch of children clowning around because tears are close to laughter and the looser you are, the less you’ve planned anything and the less tense you are outside or inside, the more open to other things suddenly sideswiping, flowing through you, popping up.”
Sport is a huge part of culture both in Australia and the UK. Did you realise at the time you embarked on making this film, how much of an obsession that sport is in Australia, and how ingrained in the consciousness of Australian identity and society it is?
“Subsequent to making the film, not that I understood this while making it, I read other people’s analysis of it. And I think it’s as much an examination of the Australian male psyche as well as the more universal story which I’m aware of. I think it has something very particular to say to Australians about Australian manhood and how Australian men are expected to behave and the expectations that weigh them down or hold them back or push them forward. I can’t pretend that I could talk in any authoritative way about Australian culture and Australian machismo and Australian sporting fanaticism. But I’m told by many people, and I see now in the reviews coming up, that the film reflects a certain kind of Australian fanaticism and the status given to sporting people. It’s certainly something I’ve witnessed.”
You’ve said that Mass is not a film about shootings. Do you see Streamline as about more than, or not only about swimming?
“Mass isn’t at all about shootings. It’s an easy mistake to make for anyone to categorise films as being this or that or to mention school shootings at all. What happens in Mass takes place many years after, it’s about people who are completely paralysed and crippled by an event in the past, unable to see beyond hate and blame and unable to be in the world, to be present in the world.
“On one level, some of the plot is driven by something that happened years ago in Mass, but on another level, it’s really not about that at all. It’s about who are we? How do we see each other. How do you get in a room with someone you’re never going to agree with that prevents you from living your life with love or any light? I don’t think Streamline is about swimming at all. It rests on a narrative bed of a would-be swimming champion, but it’s about a whole bunch of other things. Swimming is just the way in.”
You play a character who has had a very disturbed past and has just been released from prison when we first meet him. What were some of the challenges of taking on the role?
“Clearly, Rob has had a very troubled past. He was a corrupt cop. He was an abusive father; all kinds of things are going on. So much of what happens is about who he’s been in the past, and what he’s trying to get over. How he’s at least making effort to change. I had to work out for myself how long ago this change came, what mechanisms he used. Like most characters, 99.9% of it is nothing to do with what they say on the screen. It’s all to do with what they’re really thinking and feeling. And then to just try as much as possible to kind of imagine that for yourself and then let it go and just hope it sits there just under the surface for a while.”
This is your fourth time shooting in Australia, following PJ Hogan’s Peter Pan (2002), Red Dog: True Blue (2015) and Hotel Mumbai (2016). What do you enjoy about coming to Australia and what keeps you coming back?
“I enjoyed every second working on the films I’ve made there. It felt to me like the best kept secret in the English-speaking world. People’s work life balance is very different. The set was the least hierarchal place I’ve seen. Everyone had the same sense of humour as me. Everyone was happy to take the piss out of each other which goes down very badly in America. I’m from Liverpool. It’s my national discourse. I liked everything about the way the workplace felt and out of the workplace too. I love the tall poppy thing. That no one was allowed to be a twat. Particularly, film sets can be so rigidly hierarchical. There was none of that. And people take the air out of anyone who’s inflating their own sense of self-worth all the time. And you’ve got a really, buoyant filmmaking community. Great, creative stories told not with giant budgets, but with giant imaginations.”
Streamline is in cinemas now and will be available on Stan from September 16, 2021