Jason Isaacs is admittedly a bit caught off guard that people are now actually watching NBC’s Awake (Thursdays at 10/9c). After all, the pilot was filmed about a year ago, and production on the 13-episode first season had wrapped before the premiere hit the airwaves earlier this month.
“We were making it behind closed doors for so long… it’s an odd thing, the topic of watching it now,” the actor tells TVLine. “It’s this strange experience of slowly opening the doors to the sunlight and pushing a baby out. We’re feeling very vulnerable, but it’s nice that people are talking about it.”
And how. TVLine welcomed the opportunity to explore Awake‘s nuances, strengths and aspirations in this conversation with Isaacs, in which he also previews this week’s riveting hour and weighs in on the doubly dynamic drama’s big mysteries.
TVLINE | The Awake pilot was so tight, so well written, I was concerned that it’d be a very tough act to follow throughout a season. Were you of the same thought?
Yeah. Yeah. I’ve said it a few times, but the honest truth is I partly took the job because I wanted to see what the f–k they could do next. [Series creator Kyle Killen and executive producer Howard Gordon] are very brave, smart, creative people, but what do they think could happen? And sure enough, they were smart enough to give enough time and space for the writers to come up with a world that justified making a series out of it. And then we did that extraordinary thing of stopping production halfway through [Season 1] to make sure the second half was as good as if not better than the first.
TVLINE | This week’s episode, in which Britten’s son (played by Lost‘s Dylan Minnette) is abducted, is perhaps my favorite out of the first four I screened.
Well, you can tell that the man [Gordon] who wrote most of 24 had his hands on it, that’s for sure. When I first read it, I thought, “Wait, my son gets kidnapped? Isn’t that a bit much?” And then I realized we have license, because one of these worlds is a dream, to do extraordinary things and really push the envelope.
TVLINE | Right — the “kidnapped son” is an obvious card to play, especially this early, but the way it’s executed delivers such a nail-biter. It also raises the question: If Britten needs to go to sleep [and switch worlds], does he have the means?
Oh, I’m glad you picked that up! That was my idea — “Please let me take a fistful of pills” — and Howard Gordon went, “Great idea.” And there it was on the page next day. There are not that many stories in the world, so it’s always about execution, and taste, and tone. And you very smartly put your finger on one of the hats that’s in the ring – how many interesting and different ways can we think of to make him pass out and go to sleep? There’s a bunch of people in that writers building that you’d like to be on a desert island with, because they continue to get more and more creative as the series goes on. They spread their wings until they’re just flying.
TVLINE | So for example, if someone takes a swing at Britten and knocks him out cold….
That’ll do it. Any drop in consciousness. There’s an episode coming up where we play with every permutation of what you can do with this guy. You know that old showbiz maxim, “Nobody buys a ticket to watch the village of the happy people”? We send this guy to hell and back, and one way we play with him is to make him unconscious as often as possible, and we do it in every way you can dream of. Knocked out, getting medicated, being drugged against his will….
TVLINE | Maybe dozing off during a boring movie…
[Laughs] I’m not sure that would make gripping television, but we might put that in Season 2.
TVLINE | Where did this week’s episode rank with you?
I like the stuff that we did as we found our feet. But I think when people get to the end of the season, you’ll realize you’ve been holding your breath for a few weeks. The last few are just firing on all cylinders. I’m a big crossword guy, and there’s something in there for people who love puzzles, but there’s also something for those who like a visceral, physical ride. And hopefully there’s also something emotional in there — none of it should be unanchored. And as the actor at the heart of it, it’s such a gift. So many friends of mine go to work and their biggest creative decision is “with or without sunglasses,” and I get to be a guy who’s having a major experience every week.
TVLINE | Last week dropped on us a morsel of mythology. Will the pacing on that be slow and steady, or does it become a dominant theme?
One of the top priorities for us, and for Kyle having his history with [Fox's ambitious, short-lived] Lone Star, was to make sure that people could watch any episode without having seen the week before. My 5-year-old got the plot when I was doing the pilot; I even made this little iPhone video of him telling the plot to me, to make Kyle and Howard worry less about whether people would get it. That’s the power of a simple premise. That said, we wanted to make sure also that if you did watch everything, it was even more satisfying. So there is this season-long arc, and I’m not giving anything away to say that my [car] accident was not an accident. And it well may be that many of the cases I’m dreaming are pointing me towards remembering or putting together the pieces of what happened.
TVLINE | So, the “little guy” isn’t a standalone clue….
Maybe he isn’t? [Laughs]
TVLINE | What can you say about next week’s episode, in which Britten encounters Rex’s former babysitter in both worlds?
That’s a fabulous episode. She made some different choices that took her down different paths [in each reality], and it’s a very sobering thing to come up against somebody and be reminded that your choices can have those consequences. I haven’t seen her for years, and she’s spiraled off in one world, while in the other she’s a high-powered businesswoman. It’s all very freaky for [Michael]; he can’t quite stop staring at her to see the differences.
TVLINE | What do you say to the viewers who are fixated on the why of Britten’s dual-reality existence?
Kyle and Howard have been very clear that it’s psychological — this guy doesn’t want to lose either his wife (Terriers‘ Laura Allen) or his son, so one of these worlds he’s filling in. Michael Britten is a homicide detective, a control freak who wants to find solutions to things; he’s not a guy who is going to make himself vulnerable, so I think it unquestionably springs from something psychological. But it is like a Rorschach test, because people are constantly coming up to me to share what they think is going on. “You’re dead, right?” Or, “I get it, the wife is in a coma!” Everybody has a different theory, and part of the fun of telling stories is to provoke people. So what do I think about it? I love that people are talking about it.
TVLINE | So it’s strictly psychological? It won’t turn out to be some far-out instance of, like, a covert organization injecting him with an experimental mind-altering serum…?
You’re asking the wrong person because I know what the answer is, and I know where we’d like to take it, ultimately. So I’m not going to give you any clues. [Laughs]