Note: Portions of this interview were previously published on Rotten Tomatoes.
When Jason Isaacs spoke to us for a story about CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery back in October, he told something less than the truth. He led us down a garden path in which his character, Captain Gabriel Lorca, was simply as presented as on screen: a brash new captain on the warmongering end of the Starfleet officer personality spectrum.
To quote a former president: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again!
Actually, you can, but you can’t really be mad at actors for lying to you about their characters. Actors are in the business of lying, and the best ones are given trophies for it.
Turns out, Lorca is a wolf who cried wolf — he is really the renegade Terran Lorca, the former right-hand to Emperor Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) of a mirror universe — and we, like the Discovery crew, went looking for the enemy without. A reaction Isaacs clearly relishes.
Another saying goes that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Lorca is no freedom fighter, however, despite Isaacs’ protestations.
“He’s not a mustache-twirling villain; he’s just a guy that thinks, I want to get home, and I’m born to lead,” Isaacs told Rotten Tomatoes this past week about the character’s fate in Sunday’s episode “What’s Past Is Prologue.”
It’s a matter of perspective. (He hates poetry!)
Isaacs specializes in portraying a sort of wounded villainy: Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise, Dr. Hap Percy in The OA, and Dr. Heinrich Volmer in A Cure For Wellness, for instance — men who would rather be adamantly wrong than confront their own failings, weaknesses, or perversions. But if you’ve seen Isaacs’ heroic turns or, at least, sympathetic roles — Case Histories comes to mind — you’d be forgiven for wanting to think the best of his Lorca and believing the “wartime captain” yarns Isaacs has spun since the series premiere.
Lorca’s duplicity and relationship with Terran Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) were revealed in “Vaulting Ambition,” and this latest episode saw him attempt to negotiate Burnham-Prime into staying at his side. Burnham would accept no less than the lives of the Discovery crew in exchange, all the while plotting with her trusted colleagues to destroy the imperial ship ISS Charon and escape back to the prime universe.
— Star Trek: Discovery (@startrekcbs) January 29, 2018
In an impressive spectacle of fight choreography, Burnham and her new frienemy, Terran Georgiou, gain the advantage over Lorca and his co-conspirators. Distracted by his obsession with Burnham, Lorca leaves himself open and gets a sword through the back courtesy of Georgiou, who then kicks him into the ship’s drive core, which sears him into oblivion.
Point taken: There’s no coming back from that.
We spoke on Thursday about Isaacs’ interpretation of his characters, Lorca’s particular point of view, and the prospects of a future appearance by Lorca-Prime, whose whereabouts are currently unknown. In a world with parallel universes, the mycelial network could spit Lorca-Prime out on the other side of forever, and he could hitch a ride back to Starfleet with a group of space hippies on their way to an intergalactic Bonnarroo Festival. Or something.
Isaacs also apologized for his earlier misdirection — though, in truth, it was the sin of omission, rather than an outright lie. But perhaps that’s being generous — we’ll see how fans respond to the episode.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: So for our talk today, did you go back to the script and just have a look at it?
Jason Isaacs: No, I remember I die — because that’s the kind of thing you don’t forget. I remember a long fight. I remember it was nice to see Rekha [Sharma] again because we hadn’t seen her for a long time. And this was the bit where finally, the veil comes off, and I got to be the man that I knew that I’d been for six months and wasn’t able to tell anyone about.
It was a chance to get politics in. Although we’d seen the mirror world so far and we’d seen their different costumes, we’d heard stories about their fascistic tendencies, actually this was a time to find out what the mirror world’s all about, and it was one of the things that always interested me, which is making the mirror world not too far from our own world — just one in which Lorca is thinking that he wants to make the empire great again, and turn the clocks back to a time when his race was above all other races; the mingling of the races has been a disaster for everyone concerned, and people are happier when they know the social order. And I just wanted to try and get that across in more than a one-dimensional way, so that people recognize the rather worrying echo from current politics.
RT: Speaking of recognizing an echo, I came away from watching this episode thinking of Khan, the classic Star Trek villain. He is also not just fighting for vengeance, but because he believes himself to be a superior being.
Isaacs: People say I really play a lot of bad guys or antagonists. I try — because in real life, the people I find repulsive and unforgivable, all think they’re doing the right thing, and people you get into arguments with always think they’re right. Nobody thinks they’re doing the wrong thing. I try and take parts that allow me to do that. And I thought this guy — all the way through the whole season, where he’s manipulating people; he was trying to make Burnham like him, trying to make sure she had some extra faith in him, and trying to make himself her confessor, and stuff; in pushing the crew of the Discovery, and Stamets particularly, to make all these jumps so he could get home — but [his actions] all felt justified to him. He’s not a sadist, he’s not a mustache-twirling villain; he’s just a guy that thinks, I want to get home, and I’m born to lead. I should lead, and I should lead because I know a better way for my people to be.
That gave me enormously fun layers, and so I don’t know if that makes him like Khan or not, but I do know that it makes him human, and some part of that selfish drive echoes with a lot of people. It’s easy to point the finger at other people who you think are doing the wrong thing or representing the worst types of humanity, but it’s when you recognize your own failings and prejudices in someone else, that I feel like I’m doing the job right.
RT: There’s a level of duplicity that, for fans who are watching the show, this may feel like a huge betrayal. I felt it.
Isaacs: On the one hand, I’m thrilled we managed to pull the wool over so many people’s eyes for so long, and that they’ve somehow grown loyal to Lorca and thought that he was a — because that means that you, or the fans, had the reaction to him that he wanted from the crew. He had a plan to get home, it involved the spore drive, hopefully. It definitely involved finding, locating, Prime-world Michael Burnham, recruiting her, and engendering trust in her. But the actual mechanics of how it was all going to play out, he didn’t have a crystal ball; he was doing his best.
One of the things that he had to do was make the crew as loyal as possible, so they could go off piste. There were times he was going to have to get them to trust him to do things that seemed entirely counterintuitive and definitely counter to the prime directive and other things in the Federation. And the best way to do that was by making himself seem like an absolute hero without taking too many risks. Without risking his survival.
So there were lots of times where we’d have discussions, me and the writers, we’d look at the scene and go, “Does this serve Mirror Lorca’s interest?” Because if it just serves Prime Lorca’s interest, if it’s what Prime Lorca would do, then let’s not do it unless it serves Mirror Lorca’s interest, because he’s pretty single-focused on getting home.
On the one hand, I feel thrilled that we managed to fool everybody. On the other hand, I felt so sh—y about lying, right from the word go, right from September, when we started. I lied to everybody. In fact, half the cast didn’t know. The crew definitely didn’t know, and we became very close, and at some point I mentioned it in front of the cast — not Sonequa, she knew, but maybe the Marys [Wiseman and Chieffo], and I can’t remember who else — and they had no idea: a) that I was Mirror Lorca, and b) that meant I was leaving.
We all became the way actors do — but much more so in this, in fact, because it’s a single set, and we saw each other all the time — we all became a family, and we all — certainly, I speak for myself, I adore all of them, and I think we all like each other a lot. I was really enjoying, particularly the younger, less experienced actors, just flowering beautifully and doing great work, and I knew I was going to have to say goodbye to them, and I wasn’t going to be a part of this family much longer. Anyway, I mentioned it, and I probably should have mentioned it earlier because some people were very upset and disappointed.
But, yeah, so all I can do is apologize to you and all the fans, and anybody who reads anything you write, I’m sorry for lying, but had I not lied, I would have ruined the story. It always felt uncomfortable.
I couldn’t even hint. I couldn’t even hint that there was a big secret. If you hint there is a big secret, that would do the same thing. So I just had to talk about being a great wartime warrior and a captain and all this. And everything I’ve said since September is bullsh–, I take it all back.
— Star Trek: Discovery (@startrekcbs) January 29, 2018
RT: Well, in retaliation, I will, at this point, note we don’t know for sure that Prime Lorca is dead.
Isaacs: But, you know, when you’ve met Mirror Lorca, do you really want to hang out with Prime-beef Lorca? What’s he going to do? My suspicion is you wouldn’t be that different.
I don’t think that the mirror version of any of us is that different from ourself. If we’re not very careful, if we listen to the wrong influences, we give in to the more venal instincts within ourselves, we can all be the mirror version of ourself. That’s the point I was trying to make.
I don’t know if they’re that different, but yeah. Prime Lorca — let’s see what the writers come up with and see if they fancy it. They came up with a very juicy five-course banquet for me this season. Prime Lorca would have to be highly entertaining for me to come back and inhabit him. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a pale shadow of Mirror Lorca.
RT: Mirror Lorca had a very robust life as a very strong-minded man, who we didn’t know was actually doing things entirely for his own benefit —
Isaacs: And pleasure. Because let’s not forget how he treated [Admiral] Cornwell.
RT: About the revelation that Terran Lorca had a thing with Terran Michael Burnham, you know, if Prime Burnham ever meets Prime Lorca, it’s going to be an uncomfortable situation for her.
Isaacs: Well, maybe. I mean, it was always uncomfortable for me. For me, as Mirror Lorca, hanging out with Burnham, and watching her fall in love with this other dude, was an odd experience because I knew, in my head, I envisioned a future where we were together, so at some point, I was just going to have to get rid of this other guy. That wasn’t going to be a problem. But when he turns out to be a Klingon, I couldn’t have been more thrilled, so that my sympathy is double layers of fake. I’m both consoling her, and want to jump up and down and clap my hands.
RT: With the reappearance of Michelle Yeoh’s character, you’re playing this sort of tag-team TV with her. She disappears and you come into the picture, and now she’s back and you’re out.
Isaacs: That’s another thing, so Michelle came and died, and there was a huge outcry online, some of which was political, you know, “Why are you killing of women of color?,” some bits were Star Trek fans saying, “We liked her. Why is she being replaced by this guy?” But, of course, at no point could we say to the people who were complaining that I was acting in an un-Federation-like way or that Michelle had died, “Don’t worry, watch, it’s all going to change, and they’re coming back.” Maybe people will trust the writers slightly more next season, because they know what they’re doing.
RT: You know, even while watching the episode, I still held out some hope that Lorca was going to turn out to be a sort of freedom fighter in the heroic sense.
Isaacs: Well, he is. He is. He thinks that Michelle Yeoh is a terrible emperor. He is, he’s forming a mutiny. It’s just that he believes in a slightly more Darwinian, unsentimental view of the world, and he thinks that certain races are superior, and he’s unshakable in those beliefs. But it doesn’t mean, for him, with his attitude, that he thinks that they should be treated badly, they should just understand that some races were born to rule. That kind of hideous, repulsive view is — you know, switch on an unnamed cable news station I could mention, you know, or listen to various talk radio stations. That view is prevalent both here and across Europe, in many places. This is what’s interesting, complicated, and disturbing about human beings; within those views that I find repulsive and medieval, you can also be a good friend and a lover and have a sense of humor and all those things. Nobody is one-dimensional.
While you were watching that, hoping that he would turn out to have a sense of ethics, he does have a sense of ethics. He apologizes immediately, to Michael Burnham, for lying, or that he had to lie to get home. There’s a moral universe he inhabits. It’s just a different moral universe from the one you and I inhabit.
RT: The majority of people don’t actually believe that —
Isaacs: Well, I don’t know that it’s majority. Since this administration’s come in, there’s an awful lot of people who are saying things out loud in the town squares, that used to be whispering them in the shadows, and there are views that are becoming prevalent, and the norm, that once would have been shameful to us. So I don’t know.
I like to think the majority of people are more tolerant than that, but since Star Trek came on, there was a massive online movement, at some point, with the surreal hashtag #whitegenocide, to claim that the fact that there was a woman of color leading the show was somehow a retrograde, was forcing political correctness down people’s throats, and that it was a sign of a diminished role, and the marginalizing of white people. Actually, of course, anybody who is a real Star Trek fan, would know perfectly well that accusing it of being a social [justice warrior], an SJW vehicle, is a badge that we would all wear proudly, because that’s exactly what Star Trek was designed for from the beginning.
It was there to change and confront social barriers and prejudice. But, nonetheless, there were a whole lot of white supremacists that came out from the woodwork and started attacking me and the show for what it stood for, which is what it has always stood for.
I’d like to think you’re right, that the majority of people are tolerant and inclusive and loving and optimistic, but certainly the social media world is then very misrepresentative, if that’s the case.
I don’t really think most people are like that, and most people I meet are not like that, and most people have far more in common than they have that divides them. But nonetheless, there are those voices, and they’re louder and more prominent now than they’ve been in my lifetime.
RT: Right, and that is the embarrassing thing.
Jason Isaacs: Yeah. Well, it’s scary and disturbing.
RT: On that theme, Mirror Lorca has spent how much time in the prime universe in total?
Isaacs: I think it’s a couple of years. I’m not quite sure. I’m not 100 percent sure. It’s something more than six months and less than a couple of years.
RT: In all that time, the exposure and, essentially, the role-playing that he was doing did not shake his beliefs at all.
Isaacs: No. It didn’t. It didn’t, he was pretty focused in what he wanted to do. I think he’s looked at people all around him, he appreciated and understood they have a different point of view, and that they have different, more inclusive attitudes. He appreciated they had all prioritized different things, that they had different attitudes, and social mores, and he thought that they were sentimental and wrong and weak, and that this wouldn’t last — this is my opinion — that those things wouldn’t last, and were the imposition of political correctness, and would lead to chaos and anarchy.
The reason I think he thought those things, is that those are views I see pronounced daily by people I have no respect for, but who are either political leaders or would-be political leaders. And so that made sense to me. That you can be amongst people, you can listen to them, you can tolerate, you can understand perfectly well, you can just think they’re all misguided, because the world doesn’t really work like that; the world is that the strongest survive, and might is right, and the winners take all, and anything else is … in fact, you look at the scope of history, anything else, in terms of our progression of civil rights and human rights, is incredibly recent, because we were still hanging people in the streets at the beginning of the 20th century. And they still do in parts of the world.
RT: That brings up another thought: Discovery is supposed to be forging a path to the Federation that Star Trek fans know and love —
Isaacs: This is 10 years before the Federation becomes the Federation that we knew from TOS, and they’re still working some of the kinks out, but they’re at war and, as we all know, you can have the greatest set of civil rights in place in the history of mankind, and when war comes along, quite a lot of that stuff gets kicked into touch. We had, in England, we did away with the right to silence; in America, you have the Patriot Act. We had extraordinary rendition, we had Abu Ghraib, we had a whole bunch of stuff. So, at times of war, … an awful lot of the ways that we choose to treat each other, we think we should civilly treat each other, certainly become either irrelevant or very hastily amended.
But even, within that, I think you saw last week, when Saru talked about what it means to be a part of the Federation, what it means to be Starfleet. You saw the emergence of what was always there, in members of the crew, but was being suppressed by having Lorca in charge of them. They were all a bit taken aback, and that’s what happens with a cult of personality. That’s what happens when you get a bunch of people who might erstwhile be reasonable, and some very forceful, powerful, frightening liar comes along — and, again, the modern parallels are almost too obvious and too uncanny to draw — but what happens is other people cower in that person’s wake, and end up behaving in ways that are not consistent with who they think they are. Or who they can be. And so I think you’ll find that, as the season goes on, and as the other seasons go on, you’ll see all those things emerge.
But, you know, one of the dangers of doing Star Trek, would have been to do another Star Trek, so it was a bit like some of the other Star Treks. What I think they’ve done, rather brilliantly, is gone, “Here’s some of the elements that you know from later on down the line, but we’re taking it back. We’re rewinding. You don’t know any of these people, you don’t know how they behave, you don’t know what the Federation was, and we’re going to take you on a journey with some of those elements.” And for those people who wanted a retread, guess what, the box sets are out. They can just watch the old shows again.
RT: I’m agreeing with you. These are the building blocks, and it’s always kind of messy when you’re going through change. And I will say, too, that on the flip side of what you were saying about war coming along and pushing back any progress that you’ve made, a lot can happen in 10 years, too.
Isaacs: Oh, an enormous amount. A lot can happen by next week. When Lorca’s gone, all kinds of things are changing all the time in Star Trek, and Lorca was a very pervasive influence on all the people around, who behaved in ways that mostly, I think, they could still be proud of. Very nobly, but sometimes not, and were pushed to do things they didn’t want to do. And they’re finding out who they are. Saru, who is normally prey on another planet, is learning what it means to take charge and take responsibility for that. Burnham, I think, has always acted nobly, though she has been battered left, right and center, in her heart and her head, but emerge, and there are other characters around, I think, who you’ll see them step up, Tilly amongst them, but many others, too.
There have been people who have mentioned, who have focused on that exclusively, that these people aren’t behaving like a Federation fleet, but it’s 10 years away from that — 10 years is a lifetime.
RT: From what we know, you’re off the show now. American audiences are next going to see you in The Death of Stalin, right?
Isaacs: Not if they go to Russia. Did you see that it was banned yesterday? The Kremlin banned it yesterday. They not only banned it and called it, I can’t remember, “A disgusting abomination,” but obviously [Russian President Vladimir] Putin — it was the Politburo and it was politicians and the culture ministry who are trying to revive Stalin’s name. They called it all sorts of names under the sun.
The weirdest thing is, it’s obviously a comedy — it’s a very scathing, brilliant, satirical comedy — but they’re saying it’s “wholly inaccurate.” The weird thing about it is: all these things that happen in the film actually happened. You could say that you shouldn’t make fun of things, but you can’t say it’s inaccurate, because many of the stories actually happened.
But it was odd to be singled out, by name, by the Kremlin, possibly by Putin himself, when they said, “The portrayal of Georgy Zhukov by Jason Isaacs is” — I can’t remember, look it up, but something like, “He makes him a buffoon. It’s a disgrace.” And I’m thinking, Holy sh–, am I on somebody’s list now? Am I going to need a spore drive to get out of this? I don’t know. I hope it’s a — I hope — I don’t know what I hope. I hope they develop a sense of humor very quickly, before the irradiated teabags arrive at my house.
RT: Judging by some of your social media interactions, I’d say you’ve been on a list for some time now.
Isaacs: Yes, that’s probably true. But they will see that next, that’s March the 9th, and then Hotel Mumbai will come out some time soon, which is a film with Nazanin [Boniadi] and Armie Hammer, and Dev Patel about the siege in Mumbai, and there’s another film called Look Away, from the brilliant Assaf Bernstein, who is the guy who directed Fauda. If you haven’t watched Fauda, watch it now. It’s a series on Netflix — utterly brilliant. Anyway, that’s a young adult thriller he wrote.
And then I’m shooting the second season of The OA now, so — I don’t know when that’s out. I suspect it will come out in December, like the first season did two years ago. And then who the hell knows what other things that are in the can will come back to haunt me.
RT: Great. I think that’s all the questions I have — I’m probably going to regret saying that, but yeah.
Isaacs: The main thing is: I apologize to everybody that I’ve lied to for the last six months. I had to do it. I was just following orders.
RT: We appreciate the apology. Not sure forgiveness is going to come easily, but —
Isaacs: That’s fair enough.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays at 8:30/5:30 p.m. ET/PT on CBS All-Access.