Whether it’s politics or crime, the Caff ee brothers aren’t afraid to play dirty. Guy Davis spoke with Jason Isaacs, the star of Brotherhood.
The gritty pay-TV drama Brotherhood has never really been what you’d call feelgood television. Over two seasons, the story of career criminal Michael Caff ee and his younger brother Tommy, a politician on the rise, has been marked by betrayal and bloody violence, disillusionment and double-crosses.
The two men are ruthless and uncompromising in their chosen fi elds, with both men bending and breaking the law to achieve what they want professionally while struggling and often failing to maintain some sense of personal integrity and honour.
Add to this a rich gallery of threedimensional supporting characters, such as Michael and Tommy’s shrewd, feisty mother Rose, Tommy’s strong but unfulfi lled wife Eileen and Michael’s criminal cohorts, and you get an ensemble piece that’s driven by compelling plotlines and fascinating personalities.
So even if it doesn’t leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling, Brotherhood does off er the kind of bracing sensation that the best serialised television provides.
As it begins its third – and probably fi nal – season, the show isn’t lightening up.
Everyone is facing a challenge or a crisis, whether it’s Tommy ( played by Australian actor Jason Clarke) trying to negotiate a lucrative real-estate deal that’ll lift him out of the political rat race, the pregnant Eileen ( Annabeth Gish) struggling to balance family life with her career ambitions, or Rose ( Fionnula Flanagan) angrily dealing with the eff ects of old age.
But Michael may be doing it hardest of all. A savage beating at the end of the fi rst season left him with a brain injury that aff ected his mental faculties, his short-term memory and his personality, and he’s been fi ghting to keep control of his illegal enterprise ever since.
“ He’s on a terribly self-destructive path,” said Jason Isaacs, the British actor who plays this very American hoodlum. “ He’s lost his sense of self, really. He’s someone who arrived so cool and collected and in control of his ambition and his violence, and he’s just lost it. The walls are closing in on him.”
And as for Isaacs, perhaps best known to audiences as the wicked Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter fi lms, that’s a terrifi c set of circumstances to portray.
“ It’s a fantastic journey,” he said. “ Most of my peers who have done TV series complain all the time – they’re in cop shows where they wake up in the morning and ask themselves ‘ OK, am I wearing the blue suit or the black suit today?’ With Michael, though, there’s this great, epic, Shakespearean-tragedy arc.”
The brain injury that has made his character both more helpless and more dangerous created an acting challenge for Isaacs. “ Because of the injury, Michael has no idea about the direction of his life – everything is an exercise in improvisation for him,” he said. “ I could only play the moment.”
It also had an unforeseen eff ect among the residents of Providence, Rhode Island, the town where Brotherhood is both set and shot.
“ It’s almost exactly as you see it on the screen,” said Isaacs. “ Everyone knows each other – the politicians, the gangsters, the priests, the cops, the real-estate moguls. They all went to school together, their kids go to school together, they live on top of one another and their histories are all entwined.
“ And after a while, everyone wanted to come and talk to us. I had gangsters coming up to me, wanting a high-fi ve! Or the big criminals would be sitting in the back of restaurants, and they’d send someone out to say they’d love to meet me. So during the fi rst season, people wanted to take me out on bank jobs – not something I was keen to do, by the way.
“ But once Michael suff ered this brain injury and became a bit of a loser, I became less attractive to them.”
Isaacs has nothing but fond memories of his time in Rhode Island but his recollections of fi lming three seasons of Brotherhood are less pleasant. Not because of the cast, crew, scripts or storylines, but because Michael was such a dark character to play for such a prolonged period. “ He was a frustrated, paranoid man. So it was very bleak. I’ll miss it, though. But it reaches a natural ending at the end of the third season. If there were never to be any more Brotherhood, you would still feel utterly satisfi ed.”
Playing happy families: Michael Caff ee ( Jason Isaacs) enjoys some time away from his usual criminal antics with brother Tommy ( Jason Clarke inset, right).