Call me Cary
DQ says hello to Jason Isaacs on the set of his ITV drama Archie, where the actor reveals the lengths he has gone to transform himself into the man who would become Cary Grant, for a biopic about the British Hollywood star’s life on and off screen.
Jason Isaacs is about to stain the crisp white shirt and handmade suit he’s wearing, as he dives dramatically into a large trench of sand. A few minutes later, a short walk across the studio from where the previous scene was being shot and the smart, dark suit suffers further punishment.
This time, Isaacs is squatting, uncomfortably, in a miniature forest of scratchy, dried bushes and is about to be covered head to foot in a cloud of dust.
“Seems a shame to get such a beautiful item of clothing dirty,” he says, chatting between scenes. “It’s so well made, it even looks good on my grotesquely misshapen body!”
In a warehouse on the Huyton Business Park in Liverpool, Isaacs is portraying Cary Grant for four-part ITVX drama Archie, reproducing a scene from the classic 1959 Alfred Hitchcock spy thriller North By Northwest. The Hollywood legend’s character Roger Thornhill has to run from a biplane, across an Indiana crop field, avoiding a hail of bullets as he does so.
The actor playing Hitchcock, Doc Martin star Ian McNeice, is standing just off set, ready to step forward and film his own scene with Isaacs, although the one he’s watching from a distance could take a while to complete and certainly won’t be hurried.
This, after all, is among the most memorable sequences in Tinseltown history and is being lovingly and painstakingly recreated.
“It’s Cary Grant at the height of his fame, a Hollywood star in a movie that was to become hugely successful,” says Isaacs, who played Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. “We’re not hurrying it and I’m sure they didn’t either.”
Debuting on streamer ITVX this Friday, a miniseries about the suave, debonair Cary Grant would look a little odd without famous moments from some of his movies, although the essence of the four-part story lies elsewhere.
Its title, Archie – as opposed to Cary – is confirmation that this is about the man behind the superstar, the Bristol-born actor Archie Leach who overcame a difficult childhood to forge a new life for himself in America, eventually becoming one of Hollywood’s most successful performers as well as a very rich businessman.
Writer Jeff Pope, an executive producer on acclaimed if controversial drama The Reckoning, first became interested in a project on Leach and his famous alter ego after reading Good Stuff, a book by the actor’s daughter Jennifer about her father.
Intrigued by the notion that Grant had given up acting to look after Jennifer at the height of his Hollywood fame in the 1960s, Pope then read Dear Cary by Jennifer’s mother, the actress Dyan Cannon, before meeting her in person.
She told Pope about Archie’s life in Bristol, how his mother was committed to an asylum, how he joined the circus and went to New York to play vaudeville, fighting and scrapping to make some kind of living.
“The more I investigated, the more I thought it was a story that Charles Dickens might have come up with: the tale of a boy with a traumatic childhood who works hard, enjoys riches and fame only to make a devastating discovery in later life – that the mother whom he’d been told had died was actually still alive,” says Pope. “It’s an amazing tale that I was keen to dramatise.”
Away from the studio where the scene from North By Northwest was shot, in a room amid the labyrinth of corridors that lead to it, Isaacs sits and chats some more, revealing the full splendour of his transformation into Archie Leach/Cary Grant.
“I’m Jason Isaacs when I enter my trailer but, by the time I’ve listened to a bit of Archie talking, and the brown contact lenses have been inserted to cover my bright blue eyes and the tailored suit put on, I’m on the way to becoming him,” says the actor.
A previously unheard interview that Grant gave to a university student in the mid-1980s helped Isaacs get a handle on his character’s voice and character. Conversations with Dyan and Jennifer were also key.
“I’ve become absorbed by Archie/Cary. He even bleeds into my conversations with my wife and kids – ‘I don’t think so, darling,’ I’ll say to them as Cary, across the dinner table.
“I play his voice to myself in the mornings, and I feel like he’s talking to me. Then I start talking like him. I feel like I’ve connected with him, I feel like if he walked in now I would say, ‘I know you.’ I guess that’s a bit pretentious, but I’ve gathered a lot of information about him – minutes of board meetings from Fabergé and other companies by whom he was employed – from so many different sources that I feel like I might know and understand some of the things with which he was struggling and from which he was trying to escape.”
Produced and distributed by ITV Studios, with BritBox International as a coproduction partner, the series also features actors playing Hollywood leading ladies such as Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Doris Day and Grace Kelly. But it doesn’t shy away from the bleaker side of Grant’s life, including his frequent use of the hallucinogenic drug LSD and the bitter break-up of his marriage to Dyan, one of his five wives.
“Dyan had an acrimonious split from Cary and they weren’t close,” says Isaacs. “After the divorce, things turned really nasty between them.
“But Dyan was willing to talk about the divorce, and both she and her daughter Jennifer have been incredibly trusting with the things they have said to me and Laura Aikman, who plays Dyan.
“A couple of times they have told us things that we swore we wouldn’t tell anybody – and we won’t. They are right to trust us.”
The OA and Awake actor says it’s one of the most demanding yet enjoyable roles he has ever played, although he expresses a small amount of frustration at not being able to demonstrate the full-range of Grant’s many talents.
“When he was starting out in showbusiness, he used to juggle, and I can juggle too,” he reveals. “But tragically, you don’t see me doing it in Archie – that task falls to an actor playing Cary as a much younger man. My age range in the series is wide but it didn’t allow me to play the Hollywood superstar as a 16-year-old.”