If you have been waiting to revisit the world of Thra, then you will get the chance soon enough. This week will mark the return of Jim Henson's Dark Crystal at last as Netflix's prequel title goes live. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance plans to explore an all-new story as a wandering Gelfling learns more than he bargained about the Skeksis, and the Emperor SkekSo will be at the head of the plot. And according to actor Jason Isaacs, it has been an honor bringing the despotic ruler back to life.
Recently, ComicBook.com had the chance to speak with Isaacs about Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. It was there the British actor explained his long-time love of the Henson series as well as the challenges he faced in the booth recording his work as SkekSo.
I wanted to ask, how specifically did you get acquainted with this project, Age of Resistance, and Dark Crystal the film beforehand? How did you go about creating your performance of The Emperor versus what Jerry Nelson did originally?
Jason Isaacs: I was 20. I was at college. We went to the movie center, and we went for laughs as people did, and we were expecting to go and see a kind of silly puppet film. We all had residual affection for the Muppets, and Sesame Street, and the rest of it. It was a late night, fun thing for us, and we were all blown away. I just remember sitting there, stunned, and thinking even then ... I was a law student. I wasn't thinking about being in entertainment industry but admiring Jim Henson [instead] not just for the craft of making the thing. That's something entirely separate.
I'm thinking how smart he was to use this currency in the world, to use his popularity, to sucker people in to the cinema to deliver this extraordinary gut-punch of a story, and that he could take these beloved creatures with the craft and skill he had in shaping them to make something that was so different, and deal with themes that are so complex and dark and resolute. Almost nobody buying a ticket knew what they were getting into, and they all left having had a much richer experience than they'd planned. I remember thinking, god, that was smart of him.
When I [learned they were] doing it again, I thought, well, why would you redo that movie? It doesn't make any sense. It turns out they weren't redoing the movie. They were doing ten hours of it at Netflix, and they'd already shot with [director Louis Leterrier], who I was a huge fan of .... And then how do I go about creating it? Well, the first thing was to go with just the voice. What are we going to sound like? I often start with the voice anyway, but what I'm going to sound like. There's no point trying to do an impression of the original, and so I went in.
I looked at the artwork with Louis because the first session, he was in the room. After that, he was on Skype from Los Angeles, and I just looked at the sketches of the big, alligator, dragon, reptilian face [of Skekso] and what sound might be coming out of that. Plus, he's got a fake nose that he takes off occasionally and he's got the particularly some teeth badly in need of orthodontistry, which might make things come out weirdly. He progressively has some health issues, so those things will affect how he speaks. Actually, on the very first day, I said to him, "Louis, while we're trying to come up with this voice, maybe you can play me what some of the other people have done," to work out what sort of vocal universe we live in and just see how we're talking. He went, "No, I can't do that." And I went, "Well, I won't tell anyone." He went, "No, I can't do that because you're the first person to record." I went, "Oh, damn."
We came up with something that seemed to fit the body language. You asked me how I went about creating. This is probably the most collaborative thing I've ever done in the sense that the performance is already shot. Somebody else, the puppeteer, has already been The Emperor, and ... they've done the voice, and the mouth flaps have moved. They're not CGI. This is real puppetry, so I have to match. I have to ADR as it's called; I have to match the mouth flaps while I'm speaking, so you're creative within very tight parameters. And then Louis is a fabulously charming but very exacting task master, so he'd be on Skype from L.A., and it'd be 1:00 in the morning in L.A.
We'd do sessions until five in the morning for him, and then he'd go on and do other people after me. Although he would slip down out of shot, [he had] hugely bloodshot eyes rimmed in red. Even when he was out of shot and you could see the top of his head, he'd just go, "Yeah, do it again," "No, do it again," "No, he cares more," or "He's angry," or whatever. It was extremely collaborative and it was a fun, new challenge since I'd never done that before. I'd never given a performance where 90% of it is already given and is recorded on film.
As somebody who is now very familiar with Skekso, in the original film, fans knew him as this elderly emperor that everyone just kept waiting on to die. In Age of Resistance, he's more so in his prime. I wanted to ask you what do you think is something surprising in this series about Skekso that longtime fans of the franchise won't necessarily expect to see from him?
Isaacs: Well, I think lots of fans won't expect to see the story as much as they understand some of the origins. They've done something very smart. I think it ticks all the boxes for anyone who wants a nostalgia trip. The characters you know, the world you know, but it's been so enormously expanded and so fully realized with using the best 21st century craftsmanship. It's the entire world would have been expanded in a very satisfying way.
It's a little bit like sometimes I run into Harry Potter fans and ask them what do they favor, the books or the films. Once in a blue moon, very occasionally, they go, "Oh, I haven't read the books. I've just seen the films." I beg them or bully them or something to read the books. ... It's the same way, I think, if you love Dark Crystal. This is the Dark Crystal on steroids to the power of 10.
The thing about the Skeksis is when you meet them in our film and you meet The Emperor, yes, they're on top of him. Yes, they're dominating. Yes, they're strong and all powerful, but that power is threatened, and there's a dark secret to it. For The Emperor, in particular, the Skeksis are about holding onto power over the entire universe and over the seven species in Thra. The Emperor is about holding onto power over the other Skeksis as well, so he's got even deeper needs. His range, and his dominance, and all of his swagger are sitting on top of a bed of absolute terror and insecurity, and that's something. Those are colors, I think, that you didn't see in the original film.
I want to ask you as an actor taking on this character who is so beloved in the franchise that Jim Henson created that is just such an iconic property in entertainment, how do you feel as the public release date nears of the reception of this series? Are you nervous, given how many fans are so deeply attached to it? Are you just excited for them to see what Thra has?
Isaacs: I'm not at metrics. I'm not an executive, and I love all the people that make loads of [nostalgia] trips. I can't imagine that anybody wants to make this show just to satisfy people on a nostalgia trip. It's about creating new generations of fans from this story afresh, even if they've never seen the original and know nothing about it. It was a tricky challenge. I think they pulled off to do both those things.
It felt very similar to being in Star Trek. When I was in Star Trek, I thought, well, people asked me was I worried about the previous captures and previous iterations, and that's where madness lies. Why would you ever take anything up? I'm an English actor, and English actors traditionally, though I haven't yet, professionally, do Shakespeare. Well, there have been thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of iconic production of every one of the Shakespeare plays. You wouldn't turn up for rehearsals if you started comparing yourself to any of the great actors that have done them before.
Acting is a tremendously childish business. What we do is not that different from five-year-olds sitting in sand pit in the backyard and playing pirates. We just have to be completely present. In order to be completely present, you have to not think about the past or the future, which is a luxury we have that maybe the executives and other people don't have. It's not that I don't care about it. It's just that that's no part of my job to think about it, and it would be paralyzing if I do, so I don't bother.
This is a voice acting role for you with Skekso, and you've done voice acting roles before with Star Wars: Rebels and other projects. I wanted to ask, what was the main difference? I know earlier you spoke to the collaboration that was part of Age of Resistance, but what was something that kind of separated the production of this kind of vocal project for you?
Isaacs: It was completely different. This is already done. It's already shot. The mouth already moves a certain number of flaps, and the lines on set. You can sometimes change the lines to match the number of flaps if the write doesn't seem right, but the performance is given, and you're listening to the puppeteers' guide track in your ears. When you do animation as I've done many times before on lots of different series, and I'm currently doing the new Scooby Doo films and stuff, you're getting to improvise. You do a million things and they animate to your voice. That is the thing that is completely different.
One of the challenges of doing that and coming up with a voice that matched this incredibly grotesque and extraordinary looking creature on screen, that you thought this sound might come out of that body, so that was one of the challenges was matching it .... When you ADR yourself, as I've done ... Most of the Harry Potters were ADRed. You can have Oscar-winning sound recorders, but you still put the voice on [again and again] because there was a creak on audio, or birds that crowed outsides, or your jacket creaks, or something [else].
It's such a challenge to technically get it right, but Louis, as all good directors are, is an absolute perfectionist. Although he was on Skype with me often from one until five, I'd go from nine until one in the morning in London, 1:00 in the morning until 5:00 in the morning Los Angeles. But still, even when he'd slip completely out of shot, and all I could see was an ear sticking up, and when he did lift up, he looked like the walking dead, but he still never settled. Never settled for anything less than what he thought was perfect.
Clearly, you mentioned earlier that a lot of people do recognize you from the Harry Potter franchise, so I wanted to ask in your opinion, what Harry Potter spell or enchantment do you think would be most helpful to Skekso that's not "Avada Kedavra?"
Isaacs: You can't ask me about spells because I was always so ignorant about spells. The only one I liked was "Avada Kedavra," though I'm not sure that would do Skekso much good.
You're actually right to identify that he's desperate to hold onto power, and that desperation is something that gave me something to play with, because he also has to seem like he's in charge, and inspire allegiance from the others and be a leader whilst he's actually terrified. Those complications are what makes it fun to play his magic.
What questions do you have about this long-awaited Netflix original? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on Twitter @MeganPetersCB to talk all things comics and anime!
Want to know more about this magical prequel? You can read the synopsis of Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance here: "Based on The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson’s groundbreaking 1982 feature film, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance tells a new story, set many years before the events of the movie, and realized using classic puppetry with cutting edge visual effects. The world of Thra is dying. The Crystal of Truth is at the heart of Thra, a source of untold power. But it is damaged, corrupted by the evil Skeksis, and a sickness spreads across the land. When three Gelfling uncover the horrific truth behind the power of the Skeksis, an adventure unfolds as the fires of rebellion are lit and an epic battle for the planet begins."