USA Network’s “Dig,” a 10-part mystery thriller created by “Homeland’s” Gideon Raff and “Heroes'” Tim Kring, premieres at 10 p.m. on March 5. The event series stars Jason Isaacs as Peter Connelly, an FBI agent recently stationed in Jerusalem who begins investigating the murder of a young American and inadvertently uncovers an ancient international conspiracy that threatens to change the course of human history. The cast also includes Anne Heche, Alison Sudol, Ori Pfeffer, David Costabile, Lauren Ambrose, Angela Bettis, Richard E. Grant, Regina Taylor and Omar Metwally.
Variety spoke to Isaacs ahead of the show’s premiere to discover the pros and cons of shooting in Jerusalem versus New Mexico, Peter’s “dark and murky” journey down the rabbit hole, and those pesky comparisons to “The Da Vinci Code.”
What most appealed to you about playing Peter?
Isaacs: Well, the fact is, if somebody says to you that the creator of “Homeland” and the creator of “Heroes” are going to tell a story together, it doesn’t really matter. I mean, if they were dramatizing the lifecycle of a hedgehog, I’d be in. So that’s a no brainer. Then, I knew what the canvas of it was, which was people trying to bring about the end of the world in Jerusalem, which is a place that Gideon knew well, and was and is obviously the most controversial, contested piece of land in the history of mankind. So the story’s good, but even given all that, you do want to know, “who am I playing? What’s the humanity at the heart of it?” because big themes aren’t really enough.
And this guy’s complicated. He’s interesting. He was obviously very good at his job as an FBI agent, but he f—ed up royally back at home. Something went wrong in his private life, a tragedy that he’s running from. He phones his old protégé (Heche) who is now his boss and says, “Get me out of here.” And he goes to Jerusalem, and is fine at his job, but is throwing himself into his work and is completely paralyzed and in stasis in his private life. Although he’s sleeping with her, there’s no real romantic connection. So all of that as a starting point was interesting. You’re having sex with someone, but you’re not romantically involved. You were in charge of them and they’re in charge of you. How much do you engage with that as an alpha male?
So all of those things are great place to start and then because they’re such sophisticated storytellers, you get that for about a nanosecond before he’s thrown into something that breaks all that certainty up and pulls the rug out from under him and he has to reinvent himself and find out who he’s meant to be.
So although it’s easy to and very tempting to talk about this giant canvas of it, the conspiracy thriller of it all the religious and political implications of it, the fact is, there is a guy who’s really struggling and does some very perverse things in the show. He’s quite tricky. If he was more communicative and tried to go it alone less, then he might be thought of less as a lunatic.
And then they put Peter in some situations where he’s driven by forces of lust and grief and ego to go to some very dark and murky areas, even within half an hour of the episode [starting]. And it’s creepy to watch and it’s exactly what I think all entertainment should be about, which is primarily, you have to want to know what happens next. That’s the primary thing, but beyond that, there’s plenty to talk about, when it’s over or during while you’re watching and going “he shouldn’t be doing that” or “he should be doing that” or “what’s the matter with him” or “why is he thinking that?” And television that answers all the questions, as far as I’m concerned, is lobotomizing television and they are too smart, Gideon and Tim, to do that — and USA were smart enough to stand back and let them do their thing.
Your last television experience was with “Awake,” which was critically beloved but didn’t seem to catch on when it was on NBC…
It didn’t catch on… well, it did. Because I’m English, so I have a different perspective — I thought “Awake” was a triumph. It was 12 hours of really interesting, challenging, rewarding television. In American television terms, it’s regarded as a failure, because it’s not still on television, but 12 hours of stuff that some millions of people loved then and more millions of people love now on Netflix, as far as I’m concerned is a piece of work that I’m really glad I did. It doesn’t feel like a failure to me. It might feel like a failure to someone who was doing it so that they could get much more money or sign more autographs. But that’s not really why I do it.
“Awake” was set in the police office, in people’s houses; this is a big action adventure. The canvas is giant. We’re in Jerusalem, on top of Jerusalem, under Jerusalem. We’re in the desert. We shot in Roman cities all over the world. We’re in Croatia. We’re in Albuquerque. And I’ve been running, basically, for over a year now. I’m not kidding, I wake up to a gigantic handful of painkillers every morning now. I’m carrying injuries by which I will remember the show forever. And there’s a lot of different story elements: there’s adventure and sex and romance and politics and religion. So it’s I think a much bigger canvas, but at the heart of it is what I always look for, which is an interesting guy in a very challenging situation.
Was the show’s limited “event series” format a major draw?
Oh, God. That’s everything. I’m a viewer like everyone else. Given that I understand the business, because I’ve been in it for a while now, it took me a while to adjust to the difference in American and British television. American television has some enormously talented people who write the beginnings of stories, and if the public seems to like them, they then write the middle of the story for as long as possible until the audience is bored, and if they’re lucky they get to write the end. And that’s not what I understand a story to be about.
A story is a narrative structure that has a beginning, middle and end. For Tim and Gideon, I think, that was the big appeal for them. And audiences like it too. They sense now that when a television series starts and promises they’re going to reveal to you a big tapestry and it goes down well, they can sense this thing being milked and stretched out forever. Those people inside the industry who read about the change of showrunners two or three times know perfectly well that there was never an end in mind. There couldn’t have been, because the inventor’s gone. And it’s like playing with a Rubik’s Cube forever that doesn’t actually have a solution. You’re never going to get all one side orange.
And in this, when I first met them and when they first thought of it, they knew what the end was, so everything is in service of a complete and great story. And it’s that rare, completely brilliant and anomalous beast like “Breaking Bad” that manages to tie everything together after years and make it seem like the entire thing was inside the creator’s head from the beginning. This thing really is and was inside Gideon’s and Tim’s heads from the beginning. And so consequently, there are some twists in it that, I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but, really shocked me when I was reading it. And I had to check the pages again and put it down and walk around the room shouting and swearing like a character in Richard Curtis film. I just couldn’t believe some of the things. And those things only work and work brilliantly when they’re built into the DNA from the beginning.
If the show is a hit, can you see yourself returning for another season with a different mystery?
Well, one of the joys for the audience of being told stories by these master storytellers is that you don’t know what’s going to happen and who’s going to die. So I can say this, the body count is quite high by the end, and there are increasingly grisly and numerous deaths in it. So were I to be left alive at the end, were anyone to be left alive at the end, there is the potential for US Embassies and Consulates to be fonts for stories around the world, because that’s what they do. That’s what they’re there for. But I don’t think anybody is thinking beyond that right now. We’re just telling a story to try and tell it, and to try and make it as gripping as possible.
But I’d work with them again in a heartbeat. It’s probably the most enjoyable collaboration of my life. Gideon, who ended up directing most of the episodes, has a microphone on set and a speaker called The Voice of God — ironic that we were in Jerusalem most of the time. And he the most scabrously filthy and politically incorrect standup commentator on the events of the day, and he just makes everything go a lot quicker and a lot easier, apart from being a great director.
Tim and Gideon have teased that the show is based on actual mysteries and prophecies — did you do any digging of your own as a result of the script?
I did. The first time I met them, I go, “God, this is a f—ing great story. Where did you get all this stuff?” And they looked at each other and they went, “Well, the newspapers and the Bible.” And I went, “Well, yeah, but not this bit.” And I went to the through various elements and they went “that’s real and that’s real and that’s real.” Obviously they’ve exaggerated and rearranged and conflated and they’ve turned it into a great story, because that’s what great storytellers do, but all of the main and basic elements are absolutely real.
So for instance, there’s a red heifer — this whole show starts with a red cow being born in Norway. And when I was shooting “Rosemary’s Baby” last year and I knew I was going to do this next, the taxi driver asked me, “What are doing next?” And I said, “Oh, I’m doing a thriller in Jerusalem about the end of days.” And he said, “Does it have a red heifer in it?” And I went, “What?” And I was little bit thrown. I kind of looked over my shoulder. I go, “Have you read the script?” He went, “No. I’ve read the Bible.” And I went, “Oh, s—.” But more spookily than that, the people who are trying to bring about the end of days and the end of the world are not… we bandy around this word conspiracy. Conspiracy, I think, as far as I’m aware, one of the ways of defining it is something that can’t be proved. And then so you go well, it was a secret organization of people who are trying to achieve X and whatever it is, the very fact that you can’t find any evidence of it, is proof of its existence to conspiracy theorists.
But you don’t have to look very far or dig very deep to find people who are trying to bring about the end of days. And they’re not lunatics with colanders on their head, living in trailers in the woods. They are sitting in elected office. Often they’re sitting in positions of some status in the hierarchy of various different religions. They’re sitting on major resources and they are working even as we speak now to make sure that this is the last day on the planet.
And the way that they will do that, or according to Gideon and Tim, one of the ways that they might do that is by setting off a spark in Jerusalem and when you’re there, it seems more than conceivable. Jerusalem — the city, but particularly the Temple Mount — is probably the most conquered and controversial square 300 meters in the history of mankind. Even now, the world’s great monotheistic religions are jostling for control of it. And were anything to happen there, the ramifications would be felt in every corner of the planet. And that sounds so melodramatic until you are there. When you are there and if you dig down, we shot over the city, under the city, around the city. We were in tunnels and caves and places where, not just cameras, but the public had never been, and you see evidence of the many, many thousands of years and civilizations that have slaughtered to take control of it. It suddenly seems a lot more tangible and real than it does when you’re reading a script in the Chateau Marmont.
You shot the pilot in Jerusalem, but then the conflict between Israel and Gaza necessitated a move to Croatia and New Mexico; how was that transition? I imagine it must’ve been a disappointment after just getting your bearings.
It was very disappointing. First of all, obviously, any kind of selfish disappointment is entirely trumped by the human tragedy of this gigantic conflict breaking out and the carnage and death that was evident. So first, it’s embarrassing to be thinking, “I wonder if my TV show’s going to continue” in the light of several things going on. But [several] things happened. I think one is just, in light of this, although we’re making this fantastical adventure — more akin to “The Da Vinci Code” or “Indiana Jones” or something than a documentary about some ongoing military conflict — it did remind us that the stakes are real and there are real groups and there is real death and there is really a potential for terrible things to happen. But secondly, once they said “we have to move” and I arrived in the places they already scouted, I suddenly felt a huge relief, because of course, the Romans conquered half the world and they built identical looking cities everywhere. And when we were shooting in Jerusalem — as much as they gave us the keys to the city, it was a chaotic environment, often. Those places are not used to having crews in. There’s a reason it looks so great on screen. We couldn’t really control the streets or the markets or those places, but what we could do in Croatia is actually shoot something a little better, because we could control the streets, because we could control the traffic, because we can go over, up and around, because there are not ancient monuments that you weren’t allowed to walk on or touch. So you’ll never know watching it that weren’t in Israel, and what it did for us was allow us to tell, in some ways, stories visually on a slightly bigger canvas. So in many ways, moving was to the benefit of the show, and the shame was that we had to say goodbye to the Israel crew. But one element is set in America, because obviously there are groups in America who are trying to do these nefarious things. And trying to find American diners in Jerusalem and American highways and police cars was a tough gig. So moving to Albuquerque meant that one side of the story was suddenly able to expand its scope enormously.
The series has already drawn a lot of comparisons to “The Da Vinci Code” — you even name-checked it just now, so how would you say “Dig” differentiates itself?
I was just at Sundance with a film this year. And I went to see some things — I knew nothing about them, just that it was lunchtime and I had a ticket and I loved having stories unfold. It’s the best way to see anything at all. And I wish I could just get all of America to sit down at 10 o’clock on Thursday night and watch “Dig” without knowing anything about it. And the difficulty is, you have to talk about how you made it, where you made it, what’s going to happen, what’s coming up, which utterly ruins the story. And then in order for people to have some idea of what it’s like, you have to make comparisons, and it’s a well-worn path where you go, “Well, it’s a cross between ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Schindler’s List'” or whatever the hell it is. And all you can really hope is that people next year go, “Well, it’s kind of like ‘Dig’ meets something or other.” It’s not “Da Vinci Code.” It’s not “Indiana Jones.” It’s not “Homeland.” It’s not “Heroes.” It’s “Dig.” And it’s told at the pace “Dig” is told at and the way “Dig’s” told. And you just want to give people some rough idea of the kind of genre and then hopefully it becomes a thing in and of itself. If people had said about “The Sopranos,” “Well, it’s like ‘Analyze This,'” which is a film I think that had just come out before, it might have given them an idea that it was about a mafia boss and a psychiatrist. But now people talk about something being like “The Sopranos.” So I can only hope that people watch it and like it and… yes, there’s some archaeology in it; yes, there’s lots of action; there’s some mystery; there’s some puzzles. But it’s not “The Da Vinci Code.” It’s not any of those things. It’s just a great story, well-told by some great storytellers.
“Dig” premieres Thursday, March 5 at 10 p.m. on USA Network.