Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Nick Clark

Jason Isaacs on playing Cary Grant in ITV's Archie: 'I had no idea what a mess he was'

When he was first approached to play Cary Grant, once the biggest movie star in the world, Jason Isaacs wanted to turn it down. “I thought it was stupid and it scared the shit out me because I knew people would come with their knives,” he says.

“I just knew how many people were going to go, ‘Well that’s a f***ing joke.’ He was a staggeringly beautiful, charismatic man and I’m just me. He was the world’s biggest film star and I’m just a working actor.”

In fact, Isaacs is one of the hardest-working actors around, with more than 150 credits to his name on IMDB (he later notes that the number should actually be closer to 200) over a career spanning some 35 years. But after wrestling with the idea, he decided to take the lead role in Archie, the four-part series about Grant’s life, which lands on ITVX this week. “Not taking a job because you’re scared felt like a red rag.”

We meet in the Soho Hotel, with Isaacs in jeans and a blue hoodie and looking about as far away from the dapper Grant – rarely sporting anything but a Savile Row suit – as possible. He talks with great insight about the extraordinary true story covered in the show – one that goes from young Archibald Leach (hence the series name) in abject poverty in Bristol at the turn of the 20th century, to his reinvention as Cary Grant and his rise to the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom.

The series looks at the man behind the icon, and the shocking family story that shaped his life; later on it focuses on his three-year marriage to Dyan Cannon, wife number four, in the Sixties, which produced his only daughter Jennifer Grant.

Jason Isaacs

To prepare, Isaacs read all the biographies he could get his hands on – “I had no idea what a mess he was” – and spent a great deal of time talking to Cannon and Jennifer Grant, upon whose memoirs the show is based. He even stumbled upon a recording made by a student some 40 years earlier that had never been played publicly, and which gave him valuable insight to Grant’s personality away from the bright lights (the actor didn’t realise he was being recorded).

Despite the star's death aged 82 almost four decades ago, his iconic status endures as the epitome of elegance and class, so looking behind the facade can be a perilous business. So much so that Isaacs has stayed away from reading comments online. “Already people want to destroy the show,” he says. “They see it as attacking a man they worshipped. He was adored for decades and it’s still going on. But it’s revealing he wasn’t anything like the man they thought.”

So how do you go about recreating Grant, an iconic figure with an unmistakeable look and an even more unmistakeable voice? “I’m not an impressionist, and I know people watching it will be thinking, ‘He doesn’t look or sound exactly like Cary Grant'," Isaacs says with a sigh.

"Well don’t worry, in a couple of years, AI means all your favourite dead stars will be revived. But for now nobody should try and look and behave exactly like Cary Grant, I’m trying to be a character called Cary Grant. This is a story about a damaged man seeking some kind of peace through every means necessary.”

To hide that damage, the star created a screen persona of everything he wished he could be. “Cary Grant was a character he created, who was eminently lovable, admirable and intimidating,” Isaacs says.

And Grant's story has some salutary lessons for today, he says. “It’s a reminder that the biggest celebrities in the world, who come through our phones at us at a rate of knots, are not living the lives they tell us they’re living.”

Why did Cary Grant command so much attention as an actor? “I’ve got a theory that broken people are fascinating. Something is going on behind the eyes, far beyond the character they create. You just want to lean in. And what made him extraordinary was all the extraordinary things that had happened to him. Many of them terrible and damaging."

This damage goes back to his childhood, growing up with an alcoholic, abusive father and a disturbed, distant mother. Then everything changed when the young Archie was told his mother had died and was then abandoned by his father, who went to live with his mistress, leaving Archie to the care of a reluctant relative. Not to be too spoilery for those who don't know the story, the ITV series looks at these events and shocking revelations that came out much later.

“Has there ever been a performer who [in their personal life] was less loved, more abandoned and more abused in every way?” Isaacs asks. “He got absolutely no love, and it made sense to me that he found his community in acting. There’s a real intimacy among performers.”

Through his research, and thinking deeply about all aspects of Grant, it's clear, at times, his opinion of events differs from the show's creator and writer Jeff Pope. More than once in our chat, Isaacs says, "That’s Jeff’s take, I have a different one.”

And where Pope did not want to deal with questions of Grant’s sexuality, Isaacs did. “That was at my insistence. Jeff rightly said Cary Grant never said he was gay. Dyan says he wasn’t, and there’s no proof, there’s just people saying he was. I said, ‘But Jeff he was.’ He said, ‘You might be right, but I’m only putting things in my script that I know to be true, so what do we do?’ I said, ‘If we don’t acknowledge it I can’t possibly do the show.“I think the reported speech from other people had said he was gay when he was younger and straight when he was older. He wasn’t hiding being gay, he wasn’t actually gay, he was just pansexual,” Isaacs adds. A lot of it, he thinks, was making himself sexually available to a lot of people, especially when he was younger, because it was a way of getting love and affection.That yearning for love also drove him to be the biggest film star in the world, with a string of hits including Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, Notorious, North by Northwest and many more. “Maybe he thought that would fill a hole,” Isaacs says. “But I don’t think it ever did. He thought it might, but it’s pretty clear that he was still in every way broken.”

Cary Grant

Despite 30 years at the top, Isaacs thinks success brought the Hollywood idol no peace of mind. When I express surprise, he turns his piercing blue eyes on me (blue eyes that the camera loves, incidentally). “You’ve interviewed big stars. Do you think being famous looks like it has given them comfort? The person who is managing the local Sainsburys probably feels more secure than Will Smith. They may not fly on a private plane, or get a table in every restaurant but that stuff matters for a nanosecond.”

He continues, “If you get your personal validation, your sense of self from whether your career is going well and whether or not your latest film made money, you’re doomed to failure. It always goes wrong. If you’re at the very top of showbiz Everest, someone’s coming for you… those people, I’ve met them, are thinking about how to stay at the peak all the time. The more famous, the more people worry about that... To be a working actor is a lovely thing.”

Isaacs has an extraordinarily varied career, from Event Horizon to Death of Stalin, Sex Education to Mass (a devastating 2021 film about the aftermath of a school shooting) and the Harry Potter series and I ask which ones stayed with him. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years, but it’s still only about what I’m doing next. Things I did 15 or 20 years ago are gone. They’re not even mist in the mirror. It’s what I’m doing now, and what I’m doing next.”

Though he then qualifies his answer to say how important the Harry Potter series, in which he played baddie Lucius Malfoy, is for him. "I meet people all the time who tell me not just that they liked it, but that it saved their life. That they were suicidal or depressed or in a community where they felt like outsiders, so I’m continually confronted with the power of the best stories."

Laura Aikman as Dyan Cannon and Jason Isaacs as Cary Grant in Archie (ITV)

He continues, “For many years I was embarrassed to put 'actor' on forms or tell people at immigration control what I did for a living. It felt so trivial. People in my family do things of substance, friends make a real contribution to the world, I just put on funny voices. But once in a while I get to do something that makes me feel stories have real value and can do something to help people’s lives. The Potter films and Mass did it, Angels in America [on stage at the National Theatre in the 1990s] – there are sprinklings across the decades which allow me not to feel just like a travelling minstrel.”

Archie feels like a special project too on a special subject who kept his personal life under wraps. In the course of his research, Isaacs learnt some shock things about this matinee idol, saying the control Grant lacked growing up had terrible knock-on effects later in life – especially in his marriage to Cannon, who was more than 30 years his junior. “He was psychologically abusive. Today he would be guilty of coercive control. He destroyed Dyan, if you read her autobiography, she had to go to an institution more than once. And he told the doctors what to tell her there.”In total, Grant was married five times and had many more relationships – which couldn't be more different to Isaacs, who has been with his wife Emma Hewitt since 1987 but he could still understand some of the patterns. "I recognise plenty of marital problems or unhealthy instincts in relationships even though my marriage has lasted all that time; but the one thing I recognise without any adjustments is what having children does. Not for everyone, but for me it did all the things it did for him and more.”

With the birth of Jennifer it seems that Grant stumbled upon happiness, giving up his film career to look after her if not at the top, certainly before it had waned noticeably. “What happened to him – where he had been looking for love, thinking that the adoration of the whole world would fix him and stop him having these nightmares, and fits of rage or shame, paranoia and anxiety – what happened was he started to love someone else. It was giving love, not receiving love, that brought him peace."

This year Isaacs – who grew up in Liverpool before his family moved to London when he was 11 – turned 60 and I wonder if it was a moment to take stock of his life and career. “I always think it’s all over after every job. It’s always odd when people talk to me as if I’m at a place where I’m batting scripts off every day. I just want my kids to be happy, and the four horseman of the apocalypse are galloping very fast at the moment. There’s wars everywhere, AI’s coming for us, nuclear war, climate change it’s pretty hard to stay optimistic in life. I just want my kids to be happy, to be grateful and feel I’ve been of service.”

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.