Actor Profile: Oscar Isaac
Though only really breaking out as a star with 2013's Inside Llewyn Davis, Oscar Isaac has quickly made a name for himself, starring in prominent sci-fi franchises, award-worthy dramas, and lesser-known indies.
After his role in a little known franchise called Star Wars, Oscar Isaac has been propelled into the conscious of the mainstream cinema audience; however, he has already garnered a legion of film fans due to a variety of supporting and leading roles.
Though he carries an air of an old school Latino matinee idol, it is Isaac’s ability to seamlessly adapt to different characters and various nationalities that makes him one of the most versatile actors of the moment. He traverses genres and periods with a naturalistic ease and infuses many of his characters with a charismatic aura, regardless of whether they are virtuous or not.
It is this that makes Isaac an intensely and engaging screen presence, with a career that has been littered with interesting and diverse performances.
Written in the Stars
Born Óscar Isaac Hernández Estrada on March 9, 1979 in Guatemala, his family moved to the US when Isaac was five months old. Various moves during his upbringing lead Isaac to tell tales as a child about where he was from, something that eluded to his acting future, his ability to ‘perform’ for children in the playground. For a time during his teens, though, it appeared that music might have been his career when he joined a ska punk band and gained some success, most notably acting as support on a Green Day tour.
However, when Isaac was accepted into the prestigious Julliard School in New York City he made acting his priority, and it wasn’t long before he gained his first major acting role. In The Nativity Story (2006), Isaac played Joseph in a film about the relationship between him and Mary and their eventual journey to Bethlehem. His sensitive and honest portrayal brought him attention and a steady stream of bit parts to begin his ascent to Hollywood.
False Starts and Small Parts
After parts in films such as Che (2008) and Balibo (2009) for which he won an Australian Film Institute award for Best Supporting Actor, Oscar Isaac got his first taste of a meaty role in a blockbuster film by a directing legend. In Robin Hood (2010), he played the newly crowned power-hungry King John alongside acting heavyweights Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett in Ridley Scott’s retelling of the Hood legend.
Isaac’s take on the King was full of privileged venom; however, the film itself was largely ignored by audiences and did not live up to Scott’s back catalogue, fading into the cinematic shadows. After roles in Madonna’s ill fated directorial project W.E (2011) and a part in high school reunion comedy 10 Years (2011), where Isaac got to flex his musical chops, his next significant role was another supporting part but a pivotal one.
Director provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn’s pulsating neo noir Drive (2011) focuses on Ryan Gosling’s Hollywood stunt driver and getaway hired hand whose affection for his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) sets him on a collision course of destructive action. The audience invest in Gosling’s (unnamed) driver and Irene’s relationship; she is the path to redemption and a new life for him, so when her husband is released from prison it presents a stumbling block and a chain of irreversible events.
Oscar Isaac plays the husband Standard (a name which allows for a well placed joke), who is already on the wrong side of both the characters and the audience, an immoral man who has been absent from his wife and young son’s lives. Despite this, Isaac infuses just the right amount of charm to his character so that we can understand why Irene would have fallen for him in the first place.
He is not just a typical bad guy but a proud man who has made wrong decisions in his life, caught in a web of catalytic consequences, and Isaac makes him a wholly drawn, tragic character with somewhat limited screen time. He showed the magnetism that he can command within a few scenes, but in doing so would lead him to bigger parts.
Hitting the Right Notes
Oscar Isaac would next go on to a role that would play to his musical background and give him the leading man status that he deserved in the Coen Brothers’ minor masterpiece Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Isaac plays the title character, a folk singer working the Greenwich Village circuit in 1960s New York, who, regardless of the world conspiring to tell him to quit, continues with his passion for music despite being penniless without (at times literally) a coat on his back.
Llewyn does not fit the mould of the lovable loser that we would usually root for; he is stubborn to the point of foolishness, giving away performance royalties in favour of a quick buck, he has alienated his friends and his one time lover Jean (Carey Mulligan reuniting with her Drive co-star) is frustrated with his self-destructive nature. However, Isaac permeates Davis with a bittersweet anti-hero quality that you can connect with, his unfaltering commitment to non-conformity will resonate with anyone who has had a passion that they simply cannot give up on.
It is a beautifully melancholy performance by Isaac; his hooded eyes convey a world weary demeanour of a reality that simply does not want him. This is realised with casual devastation in a scene where Llewyn auditions for folk scene manager Bud Grossman (F Murray Abraham), giving a heartfelt performance of The Death of Queen Jane, only to be told by Bud that ‘he does not see any money in it’.
The Coen’s film received high acclaim and Isaac himself was nominated for best actor for many awards including the Golden Globes and Independent Spirit awards, but although named Oscar himself, he was not included in that Best Actor category. There is a somewhat bittersweet irony in this, that Isaac’s finest performance to date as an underappreciated artist ignored by his folk scene was not recognised in acting’s biggest prize.
The Many Faces of Oscar Isaac
In 2014 Oscar Isaac took on a role that would play to the strengths of his charismatic nature and his ability to weave into any nationality. In the stylish Patricia Highsmith adaptation The Two Faces of January, he plays Rydal, an American posing as a Greek tourist guide in the 1960s, while also scamming the tourists on the side.
When the equally duplicitous Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Collette (Kirsten Dunst) realise he is American they invite him to dinner, and Rydal, attracted to Collette, soon becomes embroiled in Chester’s web of deceit. Holding his own onscreen with Mortensen and Dunst, they create a delectable ménage-a-trios of slippery characters, with Isaac imbuing a seductive charm to Rydal, one that has gotten him in and out of many tricky situations.
But this time he is in over his head, meeting his match in Chester, and Isaac embodies a man whose conning ways have spiralled out of control. His cool façade is stifled under the Greek sun and he begins to wilt under the strain of a frantic, moral dilemma.
For his next leading role, Isaac changed tact in J.C. Chandor’s crime thriller A Most Violent Year (2014), where he plays Abel Morales, an immigrant businessman trying to keep his business afloat during New York in 1981, the city’s most lethal and violent 12 months in history. Trying to keep abreast in his double breasted suit, Isaac’s Abel endeavours to maintain his moral compass while there is nefarious activity all around him.
He is a brooding, determined character, with Isaac adding a dash of Corleone to proceedings; his dark features and steely gaze draws the audience in, complicit in his actions, to a man on the crumbling precipice of a self made empire. Aided with icy support by Jessica Chastain’s Brooklyn mafia wife, Isaac carries the film with the ease of the magnetic movie star he has become.
Utilising his charm to immoral effect, in Ex Machina (2014) Isaac plays Nathan, the CEO of the world’s largest internet company who invites one of his lucky employees Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to his mountain retreat by way of a company competition. Nathan dazzles Caleb with his suave wisdom and the chance to partake in a study with the world’s first Artificial Intelligence that is in the body of a beautiful robot.
However, Nathan’s manner and motives are treacherous; he is a man of fierce intelligence but one who is drunk on a godlike power, and it is one of Oscar Isaac’s darkest performances to date. He also has one of the film’s most memorable scenes as his beardy bullish Nathan dodges Caleb’s questions and instead breaks out into dance, a display that borders from intriguing to unsettling and encapsulates the duality of his contradictory character.
Oscar Isaac made the leap to sci-fi blockbuster terrain with his role in the new Star Wars trilogy, and with his debut as Poe Dameron in The Force Awakens (2015). The closest successor to the Solo character, cock sure with his actions and effortlessly charismatic, Dameron was the perfect fit for Isaac, though he was underused in the first instalment of the newly invigorated franchise, much to the dismay of many.
In the second chapter The Last Jedi (2017), fans were treated to more screen-time for Isaac’s strong willed X Wing ace, dashing in his pilot suit and displaying the old school pizzazz of a character the galaxy can believe in. His role in Star Wars also brought him a new notoriety with bloggers and he briefly became ‘the internet’s new boyfriend’, with his dark looks launching a thousand memes.
There have been missteps along the way to his ascent, most notably his other foray into a sci-fi franchise with X Men-Apocalypse (2016). Though in keeping with the character of Apocalypse, Isaac, shrouded by blue makeup and prosthetics, was left with little to do than chew on the scenery.
His charismatic features hidden, it was a part that gave him limited opportunity to showcase his usual onscreen magic. In the same year Oscar Isaac starred in The Promise, a film about the Armenian Genocide which, though well intentioned and with strong performances by Isaac and Christian Bale, failed to reach a wide audience. The film was considered a box office failure, grossing just $10 million back from a $90 million budget; however, the studio declared the film was intended less for profit and more to raise awareness of the story.
One person who did love the film was Isaac’s mother who had become ill, and which led to Isaac taking time off and turning down projects to be with her in her final months. Her seal of approval would have meant more to him than any critical or commercial success, and it is something Oscar Isaac himself appears to live by, that the money and the fame are not what motivate him.
Despite his face adorning the sides of many Star Wars merchandise, he still lives in the same modest one bedroom Brooklyn apartment he had before he starred in Inside Llewyn Davis, and he still picks projects on the ones that excite him, not the ones that will be big at the box office. And the exciting thing for us is, that despite playing a raft of characters of different heritages (check out his IMDb page for the full list if you want to be amazed), it feels like we have only started to see what he is capable of, that there is more to come from this golden Oscar.
What are your favourite performances by Oscar Isaac? Are you eager to see what he does next?
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.