Netflix’s upcoming The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a TV series based upon Jim Henson’s 1982 movie, will soon stream to the (hopeful) delight of fantasy epic fans. The visuals are breathtaking, the story is incredibly complex with warring species and power struggles, and the show might fill a good chunk of the gap for Game of Thrones fans who seek a new obsession. To provide even more of a draw, the show filled itself with incredible voice talent to help bring the cast of painstakingly-crafted puppets to life. Jason Isaacs, who has played more than several antagonists (including Harry Potter‘s slippery Lucius Malfoy, and more recently, The OA‘s Dr. Hunter Aloysius Percy) over his three-decade career, voices the biggest bad here, The Emperor of the Skeksis.
Isaacs was gracious enough to sit down with us and discuss the lush and layered, dark and dangerous realm of the series. Importantly, he recognizes that the world of Thra is a complicated one, given that there are many species and story threads and agendas to settle. There are also frightening elements as resistance leaders strive to halt a threat known as “The Darkening.” As one might imagine, this doesn’t sound like an easy, breezy watch on its face. However, Isaacs makes the case that The Dark Crystal could actually be a relaxing binge-watch if one settles into the series with the right outlook.
We’re here to talk about The Dark Crystal, but I want to start with your recent tweet about wanting to take home a gruesome Event Horizon prop, and your wife talked some sense into you. What was your logic there?
I just couldn’t understand what anyone was going to do with something that was so completely me down to every single broken vein and nose hair. I was gutted from the neck to the navel, and what possible function could it have in any other story? She was the one who talked me back down to earth and wondered where it would belong in our house. I hadn’t thought much beyond that — I’m a man, I don’t really think much beyond the next 20 seconds.
Yes, some men (and women) do have questionable taste in wall decor.
Well, I didn’t get to take home hardly any of the props from my films. People assume that’s so, but I’ve got virtually nothing. I’ve got my captain’s badge from Star Trek: Discovery, and that’s about it.
If you could take something home from The Dark Crystal home, what would it be?
Oh, I would take home a full-sized Skeksis or The Emperor. Nobody watches something for the craftsmanship, and it’s irrelevant here because it’s the story that sweeps you up, but while you’re watching it, you have a third eye and stand back and just marvel at the incredible craftsmanship on the show and designing every tiny square millimeter of the sets and the costumes and the puppets themselves, which are, no question, still Henson creatures and related to the original ones, but it’s just an example of the very best people working at the top of their game. They’re stunning to see.
Did you get to meet The Emperor puppet early on in your work?
I didn’t, but it was all shot for over a year. For the people who have watched this film, there’s no question that this is a nostalgia trip. This was done on a massive budget with the best setmakers, so it’s hundreds of light years further along in terms of the art of it, but it was already shot, so we were just doing the voices.
Voice acting is mostly done in isolation, but it seems difficult to do that with the Skeksis group. Did you guys come together for any scenes?
No, I never recorded with anybody else. The thing about it, logically, is that it screams out in group scenes that you should be together, but actually, you wouldn’t get clean sound that way. So I went in the first day, and [director] Louis [Leterrier] showed me The Emperor, and I said, “Let’s work out what kind of voice we’re going to do.” I looked at the creature, at his kind of amazing, long, alligator snout and the fact that he doesn’t have a real nose, and he’s got teeth that need some very advanced orthodontistry, and I thought, “What kind of sound would come out from that? I [don’t] want to copy the voices from the original, what kind of voices to people do?” And he went, “You’re the first.” I just came up with something that I thought might come out of that body, and that’s what we went with. He’s often very angry and loud, and you’re right, they’re a big crowd with lots of shouting, and I don’t think there was a single day of recording where I didn’t lose my voice by the end.
This world is complex, especially with the first episode setting up the structure of Thra. Can I challenge you to summarize it in a nutshell?
If I could describe the first episode … [laughs] … I would need an hour to do it. I will say this — it is a complicated world with a lot of different creatures, and some different plots going on. There’s romance and friendships and political games, and then the Dark Crystal and the secrets that the Skeksis have been hiding from everybody for a long time. I would say that you don’t have to understand it! All will become clear, and sometimes it’s great to lean into the screen and go, “Which ones are they, what’s happening?” Because you’re in very, very safe hands with the storytellers. They will bring all the story’s threads together. I would say, “Just relax and go and follow it with your heart. And don’t worry about having to stop and draw a picture of Thra and describe the seven different species. Just know that the people who are telling the story know exactly how to tell the story. And buckle up and enjoy the story.”
The subtitles help, too. I’m not ashamed of using them.
Right. I think that there are so many levels to enjoy here. The sheer beauty and craft of the construction of the creatures and the world, and then the unfettered imagination, in the end, goes back to Jim Henson and the original writers, who have created an entirely original and believable, layered universe.
You’re adept at keying into characters’ humanity and said that you don’t think of them as villains while playing them. Can one find humanity in the Skeksis?
Nobody thinks they’re ever doing the wrong thing in life. The people that I’m most annoyed by or upset by or fear in the world all look in the mirror in the morning and think they have it right, and other people have it wrong. I try and take parts where that’s true of the character, and that way, they’re believable. Not necessarily human but as a believable Skeksis, but when people watch it, they’ll see that they’re in a particular predicament, the Skeksis. They’ve been dominant for a long time. They run the planet, and Thra is enthralled with them, and yet, [The Emperor’s] position is very threatened, so there’s this fabulous thing working in conflict with itself. One is that they’re supreme beings, and they dominate everyone, and the other is that their supremacy is challenged and possibly under threat. So the Skeksis’ collective ego is running counter to the terror that others think of them, and that gives me something to play as an actor. You know, anything that is just lip-curling, I think is transparent to the audience, and you need the audience to be fearful and wary of the Skeksis, and see the real peril and threat to Gelflings and the other creatures, so it’s not so much finding the humanity, just finding the truth. And the truth is that most bullies are scared, and most people that rule have a combination of insecurity and arrogance, so there’s many colors to play in The Emperor.
Kids were terrified of the 1982 Skeksis, and I think that this Netflix effort also has scenes that are genuinely frightening.
It’s strange calling this a series because, in my mind, it’s a 10-hour movie, but it’s interesting because I think people of all ages are going to watch it. I first saw the original movie when I was twenty, so I’m not sure it’s a kids’ film or kids’ show, although kids will watch it and get something entirely different. They may not get all the contemporary resonance and the ecological message and the politics of it, but they’ll get swept up in this extraordinary world. You’re absolutely right in that there are some very dark episodes and a very dark underbelly to a lot of it. There’s a real threat, and you’re watching creatures being tortured, but then I’m reminded that Grimm’s fairy tales are some of the darkest stories ever told, and the Disney films have Bambi’s mother being shot, and Dumbo and Nemo separated from their parents. Kids love a thrill and like someone to hate and someone to cheer for and to go on a giant emotional journey. They also feel like they’re immortal, whereas adults feel their own vulnerability, so it will affect them in different ways.
With Harry Potter, you originally didn’t want to play Lucius Malfoy. Did you go into The Dark Crystal wanting to play The Emperor?
I was offered The Emperor, and I did a little reading into who The Emperor was, and I thought, “Blimey, that’s a tough act to follow.” I knew it was a 10-part series and looked at who was directing, Louis, who I was a huge fan of, and Lisa Henson was in charge of it, and I knew that she would honor her father’s legacy. I remember the movies being a shockingly sophisticated tale. When I went to the cinema, I expected to see some of The Muppets, and he used his currency, Jim Henson, in the world — the universal admiration for his skill and storytelling and the puppets to draw everyone into a much more complex and provocative story. I thought that [with Lisa] in charge, they won’t be doing anything less than that, and then when I actually started doing it, my jaw just hit the ground every time I saw what they’d come up with.
I’m really trying hard not to ask why you so frequently play “villain” roles because I know that you hear that a lot.
Well, that’s fine! I try to play interesting characters that are in interesting stories; whether they’re the antagonist or the hero or best man doesn’t really matter to me. I guess, the better the writing is, the better I look as an actor. I’m vain enough to want to look good, and this is a phenomenal story. It’s a gigantic fantasy epic with an entirely original world, and there really aren’t that many of those around these days, so I jumped at it.
Before we go, let’s touch on The OA, which recently got the ax from Netflix. The fandom reaction to that decision is pretty intense.
Oh, there are people doing flash mobs now outside the Netflix headquarters with someone on hunger strike. They had a parade the other day and stood outside all day with placards. The fans are extraordinary, and also, they’re incredibly supportive to each other with a lot of people reporting how The OA helped them through trauma. One man wrote a long letter about how [the series helped him deal] with the death of his son, and there are all sorts of people learning the movements because they find them to be therapeutic with something magical in them. What’s really magical is the community it builds, I think. It’s been one of the most beautiful episodes of my working life.
With Netflix, I wouldn’t want their job. I don’t know what their priorities are or how or why they do it, and I wouldn’t dare think to question them, but I’m just so grateful that we told the story that we got to tell. I’m personally gutted that we’re not making anymore just because I was in line with the fans to see the next three [seasons] because I know that they’d got the next three planned out. And if they don’t get the three realized, which it looks like they won’t, I’m still so grateful that we got to make the first two.
Netflix’s ‘The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance’ streams on August 30.