DON’T recognise the handsome actor on the left? Don’t worry. Soon everyone will know Oscar Isaac and the star of Ex_Machina and A Most Violent Year will be a household name, much to this modest man’s dismay
If an actor told you that they’d be a fan of the movie they happen to be in even if they weren’t in it, would you believe them? I’m not sure that I would. But when Oscar Isaac says it of Ex_Machina, the stunning new sci-fi film in which he stars, I do. Partly it’s because novelist Alex Garland’s debut is so fine and thought-provoking that if you love science-fiction movies, as Isaac does, you’d have no choice but to be a fan. And the other reason I believe him is that Isaac has cultivated a career in which he disappears behind his characters and it seems to suit him very well. What pleases Isaac about a movie is not whether it increases his profile or recognisability, or whether his name is written in ever-larger type. The irony, of course, is that this year, Isaac’s name is set to become very big indeed.
Not only is he Nathan, the reclusive genius and boss of the world’s biggest internet search engine in Ex_Machina, a role which requires him to be simultaneously sinister and a little pathetic, as well as doing a disco dance routine that is both cringingly embarrassing and kind of cool, Isaac is also in majestic form as Abel Morales in JC Chandor’s lauded tale of New York in the 1980s, A Most Violent Year. There’s no disco dancing in that one; it is a finely honed, complex tale of the corrupting power of capitalism, but Morales also has a kind of moral ambiguity as well as his hunger for money and power. As the New Yorker, no less, put it, Isaac gives not just a starring performance, alongside Jessica Chastain as his wife, Anna, but “a movie-star performance”.
“I’m drawn to characters who don’t show all their cards right off the bat,” Isaac says. “It takes time to understand who they are and where they’re coming from. And also, you know, there’s a tragic element to them.” What Isaac brings to both his performances as Nathan, padding barefoot around his billionaire’s hideaway, full of hubris and too much booze and to Abel, cruising around the decrepit streets of Brooklyn in his Mercedes is a sense of subtlety and depth. Both men are compelling and somehow unknowable and in that way they’re closer to real people than you often see on screen. “You’re not sure if you’re watching someone who is possibly amoral or whether they are striving after an ideal or just being self-serving,” Isaac says. And he’s right. But there’s more to it than that, there’s a sureness to his performances in both these roles, a way he fills up the screen that hints at an actor reaching the height of his powers.
“I just really try to think like that person,” he says, “to really put myself in their place. I want to be in the position where I’ve done enough reading and research so that I’m really in the track of the character so that I’m able to think their thoughts and the dialogue becomes secondary. And the other thing for me is that contradictions are not only one of the most interesting things to play, they tend to be one of the most interesting things dramatically to watch. Whatever the script says, I look for the opposite of that – if I’m saying that I love someone then I’m also acknowledging that I could hate them or they might not love me back. The possibility of that negative flipside creates a sense of conflict.”
Isaac speaks like a classically trained actor because that’s exactly what he is. The story of how he got to where he is without most people knowing his name or even recognising his fine, handsome face is one that upends the popular idea that to be a movie star you simply emerge seemingly from nowhere. Isaac was already performing before he got into the prestigious Juilliard School. He was 21 and appearing in a play in New York when he passed the famous performing arts school and on a whim decided to apply. The application deadline had passed for that year’s intake but he took a form and returned the next day, begging them to let him at least apply. He started in the next intake.
The decision to apply to drama school might have been impulsive, but Isaac had long known that he wanted to be an actor. Born in Guatemala, where his mother is from, Oscar Isaac Hernández was the middle child of three. His father was a Cuban-born doctor who moved posts around various southern US states before the family settled in Miami when Oscar was a child. In high school Isaac played in punk bands and made home movies. For him, becoming a performer was never even a question, let alone a gamble.
“It wasn’t even a consideration – should I do this? Or should I not do this?” he says. “I know it’s like that for some people but it wasn’t for me. From a very young age it’s what I liked doing and what I spent most of my time doing. I put many hours into it whether that was at school or with my video camera or with friends.” The only moment there was a hesitation, he says, was whether he would focus on being an actor or a director. He did toy with the notion of going to film school, but his dad quoted the Bible (‘do what is before you with all of your might’) and given that he had landed his place at Juilliard, that was enough. “I decided I would go to Juilliard and give it everything that I had,” is how he puts it. Straight after graduation in 2005, Isaac worked on stage and in film and really, he’s never stopped. So I wonder how it feels to suddenly read all of these breathless interviews about him suddenly making it big nearly a decade after he began his career?
“Hey, whatever,” he says, “I’ll take it, if they’re being complimentary about me.” He laughs. “I’ve never felt like I’ve been trying to claw my way in. I’ve been very fortunate. Right out of school I was getting some pretty great opportunities and getting to create great characters. In a way, I’m glad it’s happened this way. I couldn’t imagine landing something that hit really big straight out of school and then having to deal with all that pressure. I’ve been able to learn how to act for the camera, learn how to create a character on film, learn how to support a story, to craft a life even when you’ve only got two scenes. I’ve got to develop by doing it rather than having to mitigate my choices for fear of what people might think.”
Far from clawing his way in, there’s a neat bit of symmetry going on in Isaac’s career because back in 2005 the first film audition he landed was for an adaptation of Alex Garland’s Sunshine. He didn’t get the part (Cillian Murphy did) but it was, he says, “a pretty big deal”. “I read that script and to this day it’s still one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. I became so obsessed with that movie I had a whole soundtrack that I put together for it. I tried to get at least one of the songs to the production because I just felt they really needed it, they could really use it.” He laughs at his youthful enthusiasm but says that when he found out Alex Garland wanted to meet him for Ex_Machina, he couldn’t have been more excited. “We hit it off right away because I’m very much like him in the way that we approach work,” he says. “He doesn’t begin shooting until he can pick it up and from every single angle it fits together. Sometimes that doesn’t happen – the film gets made many times as they say, in the script, when you put it together and in the editing room, that’s why it’s so hard to make a great movie – but I will say he’s just such a great mind, an incredibly impressive thinker and the way he put this puzzle together is amazing. I was a fan of him and this film without my participation in it, but the fact that I got to be a participant in it is pretty great.”
In A Most Violent Year, the subject matter couldn’t be more different, but the way Isaac inhabits Abel’s life – and his immaculate camel coat – suggests that Javier Bardem’s (he was originally planned to play the part) shoes are more easily filled than you might have expected. And that seems to be what Jessica Chastain believed since it was she who championed Isaac for the role of her husband having known him since they trained at Juilliard. Working with Chastain was, Isaac says, one of the best experiences of his career. “Whenever you work on a new film or project you meet different actors and they have their own process which you have to be respectful of,” he says. “With Jessica, we didn’t have to be respectful of each other. We’ve known each other for such a long time, we went to school together, we trained in the same way and we work in the same way. We had a shorthand and we were very upfront and honest with each other about ideas for her character and my character. She’d give me a note and I’d give her a note. There was never a sense that either one of us was trying to get one up on the other person, it was just completely constructive. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had.”
Isaac sounds genuinely at ease with how his career is unfolding – happy to take each part as it comes, not in the slightest bit interested in seeing it as a climb towards success. “People like to think they’ve got a lot more control over their careers than they do,” he says. “To a certain extent you get what you get. You never know how it’s going to come out. Generally when you try to calculate something happens that you could never have calculated for. That’s definitely something that I’ve learned – not to overly predict what your next move will be. That’s why I did this, it has to be an emotional thing. If it was the other thing, I would have gone to Wall Street. Even that is more predictable than show business.”
In a sense, Isaac is a consummate character actor who is stepping into the role of being a leading man. And that makes sense because really, he’s too good-looking to be a character actor. Have you seen those brown eyes? That smile? It may sound both shallow and perhaps a bit like a back-handed compliment, but it’s as though his ability to build a career beyond his good looks is part of his talent. Isaac disappears into his characters. As Abel Morales he is the suited and booted American Dream, with all of its complexity, come to life. He is all about aspiration and the cost of getting what you want. In Ex_Machina as billionaire Nathan, the aim isn’t to make money, he’s done that already – he couldn’t care what anyone thinks of him, at least at the level of looks which is presumably why he wears the tech mogul’s uniform of anonymous sportswear and a thick beard – it’s about creating consciousness, about playing god. Both men are fascinating. The fact that as I write this I can think only of them rather than Isaac speaks volumes about how he acts. And maybe that’s why after playing the lead in the Coen brothers’ well received Inside Llewyn Davies last year, with appearances in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood before that, still Isaac has managed to fly beneath the radar.
But surely this may be the year that finally puts paid to his treasured anonymity. After all, not only will he be seen flying an X-Wing fighter in JJ Abrams’ hysterically hyped Star Wars movie which comes out in December, he will also be the arch-villain, Apocalypse, in the next instalment of The X-Men franchise, pitted against the usual cast of mutants including Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. He is, he says, thrilled to be involved with Star Wars and he sounds genuinely excited for what will finally be seen on screens. “It’s pretty thrilling to add to what I would call the culture of Star Wars,” he says. “That’s what it was, they created a culture, that’s what George Lucas did with all those characters and those actors. So for us to continue it, I’m really on the edge of my seat for when it does come out and I think it’s going to surprise and delight people.” As for Apocalypse, that role has a personal dimension since the only comic books Isaac ever collected was the series in which Apocalypse was first introduced. “I loved them,” he says. “Me and my friend would cast the movie – imagine if they ever made a movie of this, I mean it’s crazy but imagine. Cyclops was to be Tom Cruise, Wolverine none other than Jack Nicholson, Magneto would be Rutger Hauer. We had the whole thing cast.” He laughs. “So 20 years later to actually be in the movie is pretty cool.”
Isaac doesn’t approach blockbusters any differently to indie flicks, or roles where he has only a couple of scenes. It is, he says, about bringing a character to life, about getting under their skin. There may be a difference though, if not on screen, then off. Perhaps Isaac will finally become better known than his characters. If that happens, will it be a positive or a negative?
“It’s a cliché, but it’s a negative,” he says. “Anonymity is something I do hold pretty dear. That’s why living in New York is great because there’s such a crush of people here and people are so busy they don’t have much time to care. But I think there’s also something about the roles that I choose and the way that I go about creating them that I feel they’re very much part of the fabric of the film and they don’t stick out so much in terms of being about me. Even people who have seen me in lots of things don’t recognise me from one to the other. Hopefully I can keep it that way for a long time to come.” Yet again, I believe him when he says this. But I’m just not sure if it can be true.
• Ex_Machina and A Most Violent Year are on general release