Much is made in Hollywood of chameleons – actors who have the ability to “disappear” into a role, appearing “unrecognisable” – while less is said about versatility. At rest, the faces of the best movie actors contain multitudes. Robert Mitchum had the broken-nosed face of a brute but the sleepy, languid eyes of an angel – “Bing Crosby on barbiturates”, in film critic James Agee’s phrase. Bette Davis could switch from glam to dowdy with the angle of her head and a couple of fill lights. And Robert De Niro’s ability to frown and smile simultaneously is legendary.
Oscar Isaac has that kind of face. His low-lidded eyes can smoulder, but there is also a quickness behind them, and a touch of disappointed calculation. It made him perfect for the hapless, couch-surfing folk musician soaking up disappointments like a wet sock in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, the 2013 film that put him on the map at the age of 35. He has been working since, playing the hotshot pilot Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the slinky, tactile, tech-era Mephistopheles in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. He is at his best playing ambitious, slightly myopic men whose own movement quickens their fall: a Queens oil importer struggling to stay the right side of the law in JC Chandor’s excellent A Most Violent Year, a doomed politician brutally felled by civic machination in HBO’s Show Me a Hero. He has made a career playing men for whom careerism doesn’t work.
“You know what it makes me think about,” asks Isaac when I put this to him. “I just read in the New York Times about how to throw a ball. There was a thing in it from JD Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction, about aiming. They’re playing marbles, and one of them goes: ‘Don’t aim.’ Isn’t that the point, that you want to aim? He’s like: ‘No, because if you hit him when you aim, it’ll just be luck.’ ‘How can it be luck if I aim?’ ‘If you’re glad when you hit somebody’s marble, then you secretly didn’t expect to hit it.’ You just do the thing, and so that when you get accolades and all this stuff, it feels good but it doesn’t make you glad because you’re like: ‘This just as easily could have not been.’ It’s that kind of thing.”
Isaac still lives in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, in the same one-bedroom apartment he had before he caught the Coen brothers’ attention – but meets me in a suite at the Crosby Street hotel in Manhattan to talk about his new movie The Promise, a first world war period drama in which he plays an apothecary swept up in the Armenian genocide. It is the first time in the modern period that Hollywood has approached the genocide on screen, and director Terry George, whose taste for geopolitical injustice was honed on In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda, invokes it through our memory of other onscreen cataclysms. There is a love triangle with the beautiful Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) and an American journalist (Christian Bale) that recalls Doctor Zhivago, the three of them struggling to make their hearts heard against a backdrop of trains and dead bodies straight out of Schindler’s List. The film is, to be frank, something of a clunker, but the role is a slam dunk for Isaac, who broods like Omar Sharif and vents impassioned, politically on-point heartbreak about the fate of refugees.
They are his favourite type of role: the ones where you get to see “a lot more of the beauty and cruelty of life … The emotional hook of it was reading the scene when he finds his family killed. This wasn’t just war as usual, this was a systematic execution of people of Armenian descent. It’s very clear – you go back, and it’s like the Turkish government was saying: ‘No, now it’s going to be Turkey for the Turks. Turkey first.’ Unfortunately, you hear a lot of the same kind of rhetoric again and again and again – about refugees, about immigrants, about silencing the press. None of it’s new.”
Isaac himself is chipper, energetic, charming – about as undoomed a man as you could imagine. He has the crisp lines of someone who knows himself well. He plays well with others. A recent clip reel at Vanity Fair invited readers to “Watch Oscar Isaac charm the pants off every single Star Wars: The Force Awakens cast member.” He completed shooting on the new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, last year, and can offer only the usual heavily redacted clues. “The characters that you know already: their specific character flaws or their weaknesses get tested. And out of that, I think, you get to see a bit more of who they are. The best way to learn about somebody is to see them in a crisis.”
One of the more interesting features of Isaac’s career is that, thus far, he has avoided the typecasting that can befall actors of Latino heritage. His Wikipedia page lists the nationalities he has played: European, Egyptian, Polish, English, French, Mexican, East Timorese, Welsh, Indonesian, Greek, Cuban, Israeli, and Armenian. X-Men: Apocalypse director Bryan Singer has called him a “global human” He is actually Guatemalan, born to a Guatemalan mother and Cuban father, who brought Isaac to the US when he was five months old.
His full name is Óscar Isaac Hernández Estrada but he changed his name to Isaac in his teens as his acting career took shape – “for any number of reasons but also because the marquee, you know, it’s a little easier,” he says, simplifying what must have been a complicated renegotiation of his identity. I ask if he has ever felt under any pressure to “represent” either his Guatemalan or Cuban background.
“No, I don’t want to represent,” he says. “I don’t represent anybody except this organism that I happen to be. I have a love for Guatemala, a love for my family there, a love for a place that I was born, a place where my mother was born. For Cuba, as well. But, yeah, I’m always wary of people that say they speak for a large group of people because I’m always like: ‘Really? How do you know?’ To speak for a group of people is not something I’ve ever felt comfortable doing.”
His upbringing was so peripatetic that it practically screams “actor”. As his father completed his medical training, the family moved from Baltimore to New Orleans, where in kindergarten in Louisiana, he got it into his head that his family had come from the Soviet Union. “I don’t know why. This was in the 1980s. I remember going to the playground and being like: ‘Hey, guys, I’m Russian! Let’s play, you guys are the Americans and I’ll be the Russian.’ I remember I went home and I was like, ‘So Dad, we’re Russian, right?’ and he was like: ‘What?’ ‘We’re Russian.’ ‘We’re rushin’ in the morning.’ Such a dad joke. ‘But that’s about it.’ And I was: ‘Aww!’ It was a weird kind of Dylan-esque thing that I just kept changing the story of where I was from or what we were. It was a form of storytelling, or a form of excitement, or a form of fun, mixed with this sense of something missing, which is a sense of place. We were never in one place for more than, I would say, three to four years.”
After their house in New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew – “I remember having dreams about that house,” he says – they resettled again in Miami, where Isaac funnelled his Dylan-esque longings into music, joined a Florida ska-punk band, and acted. “It just hit in a very specific way that when I found play-acting – mimesis, imitation – suddenly, that felt like a way of understanding the world. Even now, the play’s the thing, always. As soon as things get really confusing emotionally, or personally, when I look at a play, it suddenly makes sense. I don’t know if it’s right, I don’t know if it’s healthy, but I know myself enough to know it’s definitely a necessity. That’s what I do. I go to that stuff to help me understand. Or for solace. And maybe it is a form of hiding. Music can have that a little bit, but lately it hasn’t as much.”
Last October, his mother became ill, and he took time off work to be with her for what turned out to be the final six months of her life. “I was really fortunate to be able to just be with her the entire time and not be off on some set somewhere. At first, we didn’t know how ill she was, and she didn’t either, but as things progressed, it was much easier to say no to things. At a certain point, it was like, clearly: ‘I’m not going to be doing anything.’”
She died in February, although not before he had taken her to the Golden Globes as his date, flying her to Madrid to see The Promise being shot and showing her a cut of the movie. “It’s like a great movie for moms. I have to say when I first watched it, I said: ‘I think moms are really going to like the movie. I showed it to her, and sure enough, she’s like: ‘I love it, Oscar. I love it.’”
He has since returned to work, appearing in Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself, a multigenerational love story, spanning decades and continents, in which Isaac’s character deals with the loss of his wife. “It was just a two-and-a-half-week shoot,” he says. “It was my first thing back, and we shot here in New York. I was very nervous about it because I was like: ‘I don’t know if I can get it up for anybody.’ You know? Or if I want to, and it ended up being so necessary in much the way that I said to you – the mirroring my own life. It’s very dark and yet I found joy in it.”
Which of his roles does he feel closest to? “They’re all pretty close to me,” he says. What would his friends say? “Maybe Nathan in Ex Machina,” he says, but quickly retracts it. “I think they would say none of these were actually like me. Maybe this last one.” He pauses. “Possibly.”
The Promise is released in the UK on 28 April.