On NBC’s psychological procedural “Awake,” Jason Isaacs plays a man moving between two realities. In one: His son is alive, but his wife is dead. In the other: His wife is alive, but his son is dead. Which reality is a dream is up for debate. Not up for debate, however, are Isaacs’ own dreams.
“I would never share that,” he said gently on a recent weekday over the ambient noise at a Venice restaurant. “I learned years ago that you have to rope some things off.”
Then again, the 48-year-old actor claims to be an insomniac. “Much like my character in some ways, I don’t get much sleep. I’m up reading probably everything written — both professionally and by amateurs — about the show since it premiered: comments, blogs, feedback ... I read it all.”
Probably best known for his roles in “Harry Potter” (where he sports a long, blond mane as Lucius Malfoy) and “The Patriot,” or on TV, where he played lifelong criminal Michael Caffee in the 2006-08 Showtime series “Brotherhood,” Isaacs is a British actor who speaks in a Liverpool accent in real life.
Seated in a booth, his face framed by facial hair, Isaacs appears more rugged than Michael Britten, the emotionally intense police detective he plays on “Awake.”
“I thought it was such a simple and powerful hook: A man who doesn’t know whether he’s dreaming or not — and has no earthly desire to find out.” He was also tempted by “this idea of a procedural show as a prism through which we could explore everything to do with the family: What it means to be a husband. What it means to be a father. What it would be like if you could repeat your marriage and/or your role as a father. There just aren’t that many unusual ‘what ifs’ in the story business.”
“Awake” creator Kyle Killen, whose last series (Fox’s short-lived drama “Lone Star”) also dealt with duality, said he’s fascinated with “forks in the road” storytelling, in which a character realizes how things could have turned out differently depending on a decision. The Britten character allows him to push that narrative even further: “He’s kind of a guy that’s been given a horrific version of everybody’s dream second chance. He gets the opportunity to repair relationships — it’s sort of a look at the good that can come from horrible things.”
Isaacs speaks reverently about the series, on which he is an executive producer alongside Killen and “Homeland’s” Howard Gordon. But Isaacs is also aware of the show’s shaky position: “Awake” had a soft opening last month, with its premiere watched by just 6.2 million viewers and earning a 1.9 rating in the adult demo. Though that was a significant boost — 58 percent — from the average rating for NBC’s short-lived series “The Firm” and “Prime Suspect” (predecessors in the 10 p.m. Thursday slot), it is marginal compared with rival dramas on CBS and ABC, leaving a second-season renewal a big question mark.