1 of 5 | Jason Isaacs plays screen legend Cary Grant in the new limited series "Archie," premiering Thursday. Photo courtesy of BritBox
NEW YORK, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- The OA, Brotherhood, Harry Potter, Peter Pan and The Patriot alum Jason Isaacs says he was more interested in playing the man, not the myth, in Archie, a new limited series about Cary Grant.
The four-part drama -- about the screen legend born Archie Leach -- premieres Thursday in the United States on BritBox.
It chronicles Grant's secret traumatic childhood in Bristol, England; early days as a circus and vaudeville performer; meteoric rise as a charismatic film star; mental health issues; five marriages, most notably to actress Dyan Cannon, mother of his only child, Jennifer; and eventual death from a stroke in 1986 at age 82.
Cannon, who eventually divorced Grant, and her daughter are producers on the series, alongside Jeff Pope, who also penned the project.
The cast includes Laura Aikman, Harriet Walter, Dainton Anderson, Calam Lynch, Oaklee Pendergast and Kara Tointon.
"When we were looking for who was going to play Archie, Jason said the smartest thing, which was, 'If I do this, I'm not going to play Cary Grant, I'm going to play Archie Leach.' That approach underpinned everything," Pope told UPI in a Zoom interview Tuesday.
"The story we're telling is of a man called Archie Leach, who had this horrific childhood with the worst lie any adult could tell a child, that their mother had died, and how this affected him throughout his life. How he had this mania to control, how he had trouble forming relationships with women."
Isaacs insisted it would have been impossible to faithfully reproduce Grant's carefully cultivated public image or the magic he created on screen, so he focused on who the man was in his private life.
"You'd have to be an idiot to want to play Cary Grant. He was the most beloved, lusted after man in the world for three decades," Isaacs said.
"When I first heard it was happening at all, I thought: 'What are these idiots doing? They must be in the business of losing money. It must be a laundering scheme,'" he laughed.
But, then, Isaacs saw Pope's name on the script and reconsidered, knowing how deftly he has handled complex, real-life stories for films likes The Lost King, Stan & Ollie and Philomena.
"He's telling the story of the man off-screen, who shut the front door and became almost the polar opposite of the mask he was showing to the world and that felt playable," Isaacs said.
Pope had a lot of rich material -- including memoirs by Cannon and her daughter -- on which to base his screenplay.
Isaacs relied heavily on that and conversations with the women when he was crafting his performance.
"Jennifer saw a man who was a devoted, loving dad, which was one small piece of the pie," the actor said.
"But Dyan's book -- and also talking to Dyan -- paints a really incredibly vivid and psychologically accurate picture of a man desperate for the world to love him and the more strangers loved him, the more empty he felt because he knew they didn't know him at all."
Isaacs gave as an example how Grant doggedly pursued Cannon, sweeping her off her feet, then becoming insufferable once they were married.
"He had self-hatred. He had rage. Today, he would be labeled with lots of acronyms -- OCD, ADHD, PTSD," Isaacs said.
"What he was was incredibly complicated and complex. He drove everyone away from him in the end for fear that they would leave him anyway," he added. "That stuff felt like a very important contemporary story."
Pope said it was sometimes difficult having Grant's family so involved in the project because he wanted to tell an honest, compelling story, while Jennifer Grant, in particular, wanted to protect her memories of her father and his legacy.
"There was a lot of creative tension, but I started out my career as a journalist and I thrive on that," he said.
"What I said to Jennifer and Dyan right from the beginning is that, in the end, 'I will be the arbiter. It has to be independent of either of you.' And, to their credit, they took that on the chin. We argued about lots of parts of the script," Pope said. "But we got there. We seemed to fit together as a team."
Isaacs, who arrived after most of those issues had been ironed out, said he brought a "brutal irreverence" to the project and didn't worry about keeping the family happy.
"At that point, you've got to tell the story honestly," he said.
Isaacs praised Aikman for her beautiful portrayal of Cannon in the series.
"She hasn't, so far, gotten the credit she deserves because she looks so much like Dyan," he said, suggesting people think the character was easy for her to play.
"We're lucky she walked in because she is a brilliant actress," he added. "She's so nimble. She's like a great dance partner. She can go anywhere or do anything."
Isaacs also gets to recreate scenes from some of Grant's most famous movies and act alongside actors playing famous figures from the time such as Alfred Hitchock, George Burns, Mae West, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Doris Day.
"On some very small level, it was fun. Mostly, it was like squatting over a blender and I couldn't wait for it to be over because I was aware I couldn't go, 'Hey, I'm playing Archie, don't judge me,'" he said.
"You go, 'This is a bit from North By Northwest. If it doesn't look or sound like North By Northwest, it's my fault."
Hollywood stardom has changed a lot since Grant started working in the studio system -- with his polish and largely fake biography -- in the 1930s.
Actors kept up their glamorous appearances at red carpet events, restaurants and in friendly interviews, where they charmed viewers or listeners.
There was no social media, where celebrities become ubiquitous and are pressured to constantly share their opinions and moments from their personal lives to seem "just like us."
"Everything [now] is about seeming authenticity," Isaacs said.
He described Archie as a "great piece of entertainment" that imparts a crucial message: "Don't believe ANYTHING you see coming through your phone or your screen or your magazine.
"People who seem to be leading perfect, shiny, happy lives almost invariably are not and the more people want or get or seek fame, the more likely it is there is something very cracked and wrong going on in their heart."
Grant's films include Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, Penny Serenade, Suspicion, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, The Bishop's Wife, To Catch a Thief and An Affair to Remember.