Manifest is known for its shady characters with unclear motivations, and that couldn't be truer for Isaiah, played by Olli Haaskivi.
On Manifest Season 2 Episode 7, Olli's character was revealed as an obsessive believer who wanted to transcend death and be re-born as a "returned," just like the passengers of the "miracle" Flight 828.
Olli's character did quite a lot of damage as he lured all the passengers to a makeshift nightclub, spiked the bottles of champagne, attempted to blow them all up, held Olive at knifepoint, and died while wrestling TJ, who sacrificed his life to save his girlfriend.
TV Fanatic had a chance to talk to Olli about his involvement in the series, bringing such an intense character to life, and what was going on in Isaiah's mind this whole time.
I didn't expect Isaiah to go that far. Let's start there!
One thing I'll say is that it's been fun to watch this season and anytime someone says, "Save the passengers," my thought is always, "From me!" It's been fun to have that up my sleeve, hearing the phrase "Save the passengers" so much for the last many weeks and be like, "That's only about me, guys."
Well, when we met Isaiah in one of the first episodes, I think it was Manifest Season 1 Episode 3.
I think so yeah so.
So, was this his plan the whole time or was it kind of building up as he kept attending the Church of the Believers? What's your theory?
Yeah, my feeling is, I'm always sort of looking for one sort of new, big idea to hang your character on.
I remember I did a bunch of episodes of The Sinner in its second season playing a public defender, and I was speaking to a friend of mine who is a public defender, and I remember he said that all a public defender is is just a burnt-out idealist. I remember thinking, "Okay, I can base my entire character on that phrase."
That gives me everything I need. And Isaiah, when we meet him in Manifest Season 1 Episode 3, and he has a big jail scene with Michaela, he says a line that I think is, "I'm not afraid of prison; I've been here before."
It's something along those lines, and so what that says to me is it's easy to take that thought and track it down, like track the implications of that. So, my instinct is that if someone who has led a really rough life, who was potentially in and out of foster homes, maybe, I think he's definitely seen things and been a part of things that are, well...
That led to this explosive moment?
Yeah! And I think that he comes from a sort of unstable and harrowing background, whatever it is.
I have some ideas, but whatever it is, we almost don't need to know, but we know that he certainly has a past, and he has capabilities. And I think the miracle of 828 really is, I treated it as the first time that he has a really has any hope, or any optimism, or anything beautiful.
I think he leans into that really hard. I think he feels really safe in that community. I think he feels like he has a purpose. I think he feels excited to be with Olive and welcome her into this community. And I think it really is maybe the first time in his entire life that he feels those warm and positive feelings.
And then I think when that gets threatened when the Church gets attacked. And I think he has some sense that Olive's family is not approving of this.
And then he gets that confirmation when Ben comes and confronts Adrian in this episode.
Yeah, and it also wouldn't surprise me if Adrian and Isaiah had a conversation about Ben attacking Adrian, or Isaiah maybe just has a sense that something happened there.
I think that when Isaiah's emotional safety -- which has been such a comfort to him and such a source of safety and beauty in his life that has not had a lot of safety in beauty -- I think a lot of things that he's been pressing down and trying to compartmentalize, a lot of angst, a lot of rage, a lot of frustration, all these things, I think really has no choice but to show up in the way that it does in 207.
What I think is interesting though is that when we started getting suspicious of Isaiah a few episodes back, a lot of people kind of assumed that maybe he was an X'er disguised as a believer.
But from what you're saying and this whole scene, he was always a believer.
I really do think so, especially on 103, right off the bat, we see how much he cared for Kelly, who got murdered. We see the stars in his eyes when Michaela comes to speak with him at the prison. I always treated his beliefs as unbelievably genuine.
Yeah, that explains everything he did.
Yeah, I'm so glad. And like I said, when that safety gets threatened, he feels that he has to do something, and unfortunately, what he decides to do is drastic.
Adrian told Isaiah that a "bigger miracle" was coming on Manifest Season 2 Episode 6. Did Adrian know anything about this, was he referring to something else, or was it just a blanket statement to make Isaiah feel more comfortable?
I took it as a blanket statement. I took it as maybe the very first time, or not even maybe, I took it is the first time that something Adrian says doesn't ring true to Isaiah. I think it was something Adrian said to sort of calm Isaiah down kind like saying like, "Don't worry about it; we'll just figure it out later."
The thought that I had in that moment was, "I don't know if I fully believe you right now," or "Maybe I have to take matters into my own hands here."
So, in a way, it triggered Isaiah.
Yeah, totally. I think it is a little bit of a fracture in that relationship in that moment. And I think Isaiah's mind, obviously, has been thinking through a lot of different possibilities for a while. I mean, there's the end of [Manifest Season 2 Episode 5] when everyone is praying, and Isaiah's head comes up.
Yeah! That's when people start to think that maybe he's an X'er.
Right. And I think as soon as the attack happened, Isaiah starts questioning everything.
I think he's sort of feeling like, "I don't know who to trust anymore." And think it would be interesting to hear what Jared [Grimes], who plays Adrian says, or what Jeff [Rake], the showrunner says, but as Isaiah, I heard Adrian saying, "A miracle is coming," and didn't fully believe it.
The whole plan Isaiah orchestrated was a massive undertaking for one person. Do you think he was working with anyone else?
I did not, in my imagining and my constructing the story for myself, imagine that there is anybody else. Isaiah having been to jail before, as we said before, probably has certain contacts and certain resources, but I don't believe that he directly enlisted anybody.
Adrian kind of seemed defeated at the end as he realized he's the one who created this mess and is, in a way, responsible for everything. Do you think he's going to shut down the church or question his beliefs a little bit?
That's such a good question because I can see it going either way, can't you?
I can see Adrian doubling down and pushing even harder that he's been doing the right thing all along, and this is just a situation that we have to incorporate into our beliefs now and into our experience and that we can make this into something beautiful.
Or I can picture him having what I think is the appropriate response, which would be genuine remorse, and hopefully, looking at his place in that.
But I truly don't know, and I think that that's a testament to how good Jared is. What I get out of his performance is you can't fully pin down exactly what the motivation is.
He has incredibly genuine moments, but he can also feel a little slick and a little like a salesman, and I think he does such a good job of walking that line. And so, yeah, I don't know the answer to that. I'm excited to find out.
I almost feel silly for asking this but, did Isaiah's plan work? Cause I kind of just have this feeling that we haven't seen the last of him and TJ.
Yeah, I think that, unfortunately, I'm gonna have to say one of those "you'll just have to tune in and see" kind of answers, but, yeah I mean, because Isaiah has, to put it mildly, a very different point of view from most people, and his mind works in different ways. I think he has a unique perspective at all times.
And it would be really interesting to hear his account of, "How did that night go for you?" "Was that how you wanted that to unfold?"
Yeah, but I think you can see a world where he's able to spin it as having been a positive, beautiful thing that awakens everybody. Or he could come to his senses and be devastated by it.
Do you think there are others that still pose a threat? I don't think Isaiah is the only one who has these extreme beliefs in the Church.
Sure. There are plenty of people in this church scenes, right? I think, in my head as the actor playing Isaiah, I felt he was isolated. But I also think that his personality is something of a loner, and I think he's also probably very shy and very introverted. And so I didn't really imagine that he had people that he shared a point of view with.
But, you know, anything is possible, and I do think that Jeff, the showrunner, and the writers are really good at giving you the feeling that there's potential danger all around or potential duplicity all around.
They're obviously a lot of characters with a lot of surprising agendas on the show.
That's for sure.
To put it mildly, and yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if there were people that were aligned with Isaiah. But I didn't. It wasn't helpful for me as the actor to imagine that there were. It helped me tell the story feeling like I was acting alone.
I feel like that way it's a little bit more powerful, too, because it's his vision, his mission, his desire.
Yeah, and deciding what's best for everybody without consulting anybody else.
Where did you draw inspiration for this character?
Yeah, I have a couple of things. I have to say, a lot of it is in the script. I remember having an acting teacher when I was younger that said your script is your treasure map, and I try to start from there, always.
And my goal is always to bring the scripts to life in a way that is clear and honest, and hopefully also inventive and surprising, but that's just a bonus; clarity and honesty are the first priority. And so I was aware that there was a big reveal and a big surprise with Isaiah in 207, and I wanted it to be as surprising as humanly possible.
So, to try to stack the deck earlier on with, hopefully, a performance that has the effect of, "Oh, what a sweet and genuine character; he has a very sweet relationship with Olive. He's happy to be in the church." It's like, if we have to end up in a place that is dark and frightening, let's start as far away from that as humanly possible.
And that's exactly what you achieved, which is why it was such a "whoa" for fans.
Oh, thank you!
I was like, "Isaiah was a good guy, what happened?!"
One of our sound guys on the very last day said, "The way you played those first couple episodes, I never would have guessed that this is where this was going to end up," and that made me feel like that's all I need to hear, like I did my job here.
But I also think that Jeff and the writers constructed something that was really cool because I think there's a sort of push-and-pull feeling where Isaiah has a couple of episodes where he's very important, and maybe you start to suspect something, and then you have a couple of episodes where he sort of recedes into the background a little bit.
There's a sort of constant questioning like, "Am I worried about this guy? Should I be concerned about this guy?" I think they do a really good job of building that kind of tug-of-war feeling, and I wanted to serve that as much as I could.
That's a really good way to approach it.
Thank you. And especially on a show that has such a big mystery component and so many exciting reveals. I think it's helpful to think, "Okay, what is the reveal and how do we sort of reverse engineer that so that it's exciting as possible?"
I will say, on a different point, when I was growing up, I was obsessed with The Practice, the David E. Kely show, and Michael Emerson did five or six episodes of that show playing an absolutely terrifying serial killer named Bill Hanks.
And I remember it so vividly because it was so unbelievably scary, but it was that similar -- and now we know Michael as being incredibly skilled at this -- but I think this is sort of one of his first big moments that put him on the map.
And it was incredibly mild-mannered, incredibly intelligent character who was this absolutely horrifying monster.
I didn't go back and watch any of that or anything like that, but Michael Emerson sort of loomed large in my mind. The function he played on The Practice is very similar to the function Isaiah plays on Manifest. So, that was a sort of indirect inspiration that I kept in mind.
And I think Michael Emerson is extraordinary everywhere, so I'm happy to give my best Michael Emerson impression.
What was your favorite part of being on Manifest?
I have multiple answers. I mean one sort of exactly what we were just saying that that really getting to sink my teeth into something that has a lot of layers, and a lot of complexity, and a lot of surprising elements is incredibly fun. That's exactly what you want as an actor to really feel like you have something to chew on.
I've had a lot of wonderful jobs that I've loved so much, but a lot of those jobs have the feeling of sort of pitching a ball so someone else can hit a home run. I'm often in a lab coat delivering exposition or something like that!
And I've been able to pitch the ball to some extraordinary people, and that's its own wonderful and satisfying job, but Isaiah had the feeling where I'm in a position where I get to hit the home run.
Whether or not I did that successfully is up to each individual viewer, but it was a different kind of opportunity and a really exciting opportunity, and so, I'm incredibly thankful to Jeff Rake for not only bringing me back to the show but bringing me back in such a huge way.
And I also really loved that crew. It's a group of people that I found to be really supportive and really smart and really hilarious. Over the course of these four episodes, I was probably with them for five or six weeks all totaled.
And it was really a joy to come in. It's a real luxury when you get to feel like you can get to know the camera crew, get to know the sound crew, get to know all the PA's and the set feels more comfortable, and it feels more like home.
I've done a lot of jobs where I show up for two or three days and just hope for the best. And to really feel like I have this stretch of time where I get to get really comfortable with these people all was a pleasure because they're wonderful people.
Well, this kind of leads me into my last question. You interacted a lot with Adrian, Mic, Olive, and Ben on occasion. Who was your favorite scene partner?
That's a really good question, and it's a hard question. I wonder if I should just say great things about all of them because I can.
I mean, there will always be a special place in my heart for Melissa [Roxbaugh] because she was my first scene partner on the show back in the first season. And she and I were fast friends immediately. What's really funny, actually, is when I auditioned to play Isaiah, it was just for that one episode.
It's a new show, so no one knows how long it's going to last, no one knows exactly what's going to happen, and it was just that one episode, but that one episode did feel like an introduction of a significant character. That episode does sort of lead up to Isaiah in a certain way.
And so Melissa and I were always texting back and forth about when are they going to bring Isaiah back, how are they going to bring Isaiah back, and one of our jokes for a long time was that Michaela and Isaiah would run a book club together and a candle shop in Brooklyn. And it's so funny to think about that now.
So, it's a little different than what we imagined, um, but Melissa is wonderful and really fun and smart, and we clicked immediately, so I was always really excited when I got to be with her. And she and Josh [Dallas] together lead that set in a way that is really warm and really graceful and really fun.
And I'm sure you've seen and heard this before, but it all starts at the top. And if the lead of your show or two leads are grouchy and unpleasant, it's a really rough place to come to work. And Melissa and Josh are the opposite of that.
And on a show this dark, I feel like you need those people that will just lighten the mood and make it a fun set.
Totally. Yeah, because you're spending so much time and energy in some really dark places. And also, on certain days, having to execute things that are really challenging.
This episode had some significant stunt work, fire, and explosions, and you already have a lot of stress, pressure, and focus, so to have people at the head that don't take it lightly, they're not having fun at the expense of the work that needs to be done, but the two of them together strike a really nice balance that is really wonderful.
With this season, most of everything I did was with Jared, who played Adrian, who is wonderful. He and I both do theater in New York, so we both have a lot of friends in common and just a sort of similar common ground. We had that feeling that we're already friends, and we already know each other. I really love all of them.
I was sad I never got to do anything with Matt Long, who plays Zeke. We spent a lot of time passing each other in the hallways and saying "hi," but I was bummed because it was always so nice to see him, and he's so sweet and supportive, I was sad I never got to act with him. Like you said, anything can happen on Manifest.
If Isaiah's miracle works, then maybe.
Right. Season 7 is very focused on Isaiah and Zeke!
You know I could go on and talk about the writing staff and producers. It really is a group of people I was glad to spend significant time with.
I should add that one of the writers of the episode is Ezra Nachman. He was on set on that episode, and I leaned really hard on him because he's extraordinary.
Jean [de Segonzac], who directed the episode, is phenomenal, and I respect him so much. But the episode was huge, and he had his hands full with a lot of complicated action sequences and these giant set pieces, so I leaned heavily on Ezra because he's the person here who knows the Isaiah storyline as well as I do.
So, I would go to him between takes or starting a scene to see if this is what I kind of had in mind. Do we think that tracks with the story we're trying to tell here? I feel like he was a co-architect for that performance.
Also, Sydney Morton who plays Alex in the episode is my friend from college! We don't share any scenes, which is such a bummer, but it was so exciting to get the script for 207, see Sydney's name on the cast list, and call her to welcome her and tell her all about the set.
We've been friends for 15 years -- we had a habit of singing dramatic 80s power ballads together in college -- and I love that we both get to be integral parts of this season. Showbiz can be such a small and wonderful world.
Manifest airs Monday nights on NBC at 10/9c.
Lizzy Buczak was a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She retired in June 2021..