Whether you loved it or hated it, were endlessly confused by it or determined to dissect it, there is no denying that the most powerful tool in Awake's arsenal was the bravura performance star Jason Isaacs gave as a mourning man stuck between two realities.
That's why Isaacs is the first actor ETOnline has chosen to spotlight in our annual Emmy Preview.
Will he snag an Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series nomination on July 19? If there's any justice in the world (whether it be Red or Green), that answer will be yes! Here, Isaacs talks about the challenges Awake posed from a performance perspective, reveals his toughest on-screen moment and weighs in on that mindf*ck of a finale.
ETOnline: Initially, what was it about Awake that attracted you?
Jason Isaacs: I've been acting for 25 years and very often you find yourself in familiar territory – here, everything was brand new. Most acting is "What If?" and you dredge up your own experiences and memories to find a parallel. But here, I had no parallel. What would it feel like if I lost my wife and my son, but actually lost neither of them and had to keep it from my colleagues? I was flying blind and it felt like the biggest gift – there was no preparation. I just had to throw myself at this thing every day and see where it took me. I'm pretty selfish as an actor -- I like to have a good time at work, and rarely do I read a script that gives me so much to work with. This ended up being the most complicated and powerful stuff I've ever done in my career.
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ETOnline: This was very much a show that required the audience's steadfast attention -- as the star, did you find yourself needing cheat sheets to keep it all straight?
Isaacs: Oh God yes. We all tried to tell this story in as simple a way given how complex it was. I am the guide. I had to both lead you through it and feel my way through it – it could never be an exercise in something intellectual. It had to be an exercise in something emotional. I had two crime stories, various dead or alive relatives to juggle and I felt like I needed to be the tether for the audience. I felt like if there was ever a moment when the audience might be confused, then Michael had to be confused. Sometimes the hardest thing to do was step in front of the camera, because so much had to be done off-camera to make this complex story accessible. Never in my life have I been in so many scenes where I had no idea how to play them. And in the end, cleverness for the sake of being clever is pointless if you don't have a story with something human at the heart of it. My job was first and foremost to remember the heart and try to keep steering the audience towards it.
ETOnline: Which episode presented you with the biggest challenge?
Isaacs: Episode 11 -- that's where I was stuck in one world and it came home that I had killed my child, but it turned out there was a conspiracy. It was all about delayed grief. And although it was an amazingly unusual premise, it's not without grounding in reality. My brother is a psychologist, and this kind of cognitive dissonance – a fugue state – does exist. It's not as elaborate as we've portrayed it, but I still felt like there was a responsibility to tell these stories with some honor. If acting is imagining, which it mostly is, then that was when the imagining cut the deepest for me.
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ETOnline: From your perspective, what happened in the finale when Michael saw both his wife and son alive after the therapist froze?
Isaacs: As Michael, I’m going nuts [laughs]. There's no question that my very tenuous hold on sanity is gone. The edges of my world had begun to fray – which isn't surprising since one of them was a dream to begin with. It made sense to me that at some point I would lose the ability to distinguish what was real and what was fake since 50 percent of my life was dreamt up at that point anyway. So as Michael, I'm scrambling -- trying to rationalize and find my way back to my certainty. The realization that both Michael, and I, came to in the end was that both of those worlds still exist in his head. He hasn't lost anything, but rather can now dream within those worlds. So by the end, there was a third reality – in a second season The Green and Red Worlds would have still existed but a third reality would have invaded one or both of those worlds.
ETOnline: That said, are you sad it only lasted one season?
Isaacs: I have to say, I've never been so tired in all my life [laughs]. I was producing as well, so I was going to work at 5 a.m. and often coming home at midnight – but more importantly, I feel like we left nothing on the table. By the end, it was as big a journey as you could ever take. I remember saying to Kyle [Killen, creator] and Howard [Gordon, producer] "What the f*ck could we even do next year?" [laughs] I'm not sure what else we could have done. We turned this man inside out, upside down and the whole thing was an exercise in pain and denial and became this psychological Rubik's Cube. Of course it's disappointing not to continue telling this story that was so engaging, but on the other hand, we didn't repeat ourselves. I feel like we burned briefly but brightly. A little bit like with Harry Potter, we went out on a high note.
ETOnline: As someone who has worked in both film and television, do you prefer a movie script, that's closed ended, or a weekly series, where you don't know where things will go?
Isaacs: What I like is the sense of wonder I get as an actor. I love that I went from being a wizard to a homicide detective and as soon as we wrapped, I played a soldier in Palestine in 1947, a good old boy in Georgia and am about to head off to play a Scottish detective. On the one hand, it's lovely to know the beginning, middle and end of a story but it's also great to jump blindly into life. One of the great things about long form television, unlike movies, characters don't have to be oversimplified. They don't have to ask and answer the questions every episode. They can change and surprise themselves.
ETOnline: So you're open to doing more television then?
Isaacs: Absolutely. There is a point to storytelling beyond me having fun dressing up in silly clothes – it feels like it serves a purpose when you do it right. If you're lucky, you get to entertain and engage. But you can aim higher than that – to do those things as well as give people a prism through which to view their own life. I think you can do that in a more interesting more profound way when you're on a TV screen in their home every week. I think it's a privilege to talk to people like that.
Awake is now available on NBC.com and Hulu!