HIGH FLYER

From an ac­claimed Prince of Den­mark on stage in New York to Poe Dameron, X-wing pilot and hero of the Re­sis­tance in the new Star Wars movies, Os­car Isaac is fast (very, very fast) be­com­ing his gen­er­a­tion’s most ac­com­plished lead­ing man

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - In­ter­view by Mi­randa Collinge Pho­to­graphs by David Sli­jper Fash­ion by Al­lan Kennedy

Mi­randa Collinge meets Os­car Isaac: Gu­atemalan-Amer­i­can Shake­spearean X-wing pilot

On 21 Au­gust 2017, the Great Amer­i­can Eclipse caused a di­ag­o­nal swathe of dark­ness to fall across the United States from Charleston, South Carolina on the East Coast to Lin­coln City, Ore­gon on the West. In Man­hat­tan, which was sev­eral hun­dred miles out­side the path of to­tal­ity, a gen­tle gloom fell over the city. Yet still of­fice work­ers emp­tied out onto the pave­ments, wear­ing spe­cial pa­per glasses if they had been or­gan­ised; hold­ing up their phones and blink­ing ner­vously if they hadn’t. De­spite prom­ises that it was to be lit up for the oc­ca­sion, there was no dis­cernible twin­kle from the Em­pire State Build­ing; on Fifth Av­enue, the dark­ened glass façade of Trump Tower grew a lit­tle dimmer. In Cen­tral Park Zoo, where chil­dren and tourists bran­dished pin­hole cam­eras made from ce­real boxes, Betty, a griz­zly bear, seized the op­por­tu­nity to take an un­scru­ti­nised dip.

Across the East River in Wil­liams­burg, Brook­lyn, Os­car Isaac, a 38-year-old Gu­atemalan-Amer­i­can ac­tor and one of the pro­fes­sion’s most tal­ented, dy­namic and ver­sa­tile re­cent prospects, was, like Betty, feel­ing too much in the sun. It was his day off from play­ing Ham­let in an ac­claimed pro­duc­tion at the Pub­lic Theater in Man­hat­tan and he was at home on vo­cal rest. He kept a vague eye on the sky from the bal­cony of the one-bed­room apart­ment he shares — un­til their im­mi­nent move to a leafier part of Brook­lyn — with his wife, the Dan­ish doc­u­men­tary film-maker Elvira Lind, their Boston Ter­rier French Bull­dog-cross Moby (also called a “French­ton”, though not by him), and more re­cently, and to Moby’s ini­tial con­ster­na­tion, their four-month-old son, Eu­gene.

Plus, he’s seen this kind of thing be­fore. “I was in Gu­atemala in 1992 when there was a full so­lar eclipse,” he says the next day, sit­ting at a ta­ble in the res­tau­rant of a fashionably aus­tere ho­tel near his Wil­liams­burg apart­ment, dressed in dark T-shirt and jeans and look­ing — amaz­ingly, given his cur­rent the­atri­cal and parental com­mit­ments — de­cid­edly fresh. “The an­i­mals went crazy; across the whole city you could hear the dogs howl­ing.” Isaac hap­pened to be in Cen­tral Amer­ica, he’ll men­tion later, be­cause Hur­ri­cane An­drew had ripped the roof off the fam­ily home in Mi­ami, Florida, while he and his mother, un­cle, sib­lings and cousins hud­dled in­side un­der couches and cush­ions. So yes, within the spec­trum of Os­car Isaac’s ex­pe­ri­ences, the Great Amer­i­can Eclipse is no big­gie.

Yet there is another up­com­ing ce­les­tial event that will have a rea­son­ably sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on Isaac’s life. On 15 De­cem­ber, Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be re­leased in cin­e­mas, which, if you bought a ticket to Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens — and helped it gross more than $2bn world­wide — you’ll know is a pretty big deal. You’ll also know that Isaac plays Poe Dameron, a hunky, wise-crack­ing X-wing fighter pilot for the Re­sis­tance who be­came one of the most pop­u­lar char­ac­ters of writer-di­rec­tor JJ Abram’s re­boot of the fran­chise thanks to Isaac’s charis­matic per­for­mance and dead­pan de­liv­ery (see his “Who talks first?” ex­change with Vader-lite bad­die Kylo Ren: one of the film’s only comedic beats).

And if you did see Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens you’ll know that, due to some ma­jor father-son con­flict, there’s now an opening for a love­able, rogueish, leather-jacket-wear­ing hero… “Heeeeeh!” says Isaac, Fonzie-style, when I say as much. “Well, there could be, but I think what [The Last Jedi di­rec­tor] Rian [John­son] did was make it less about fill­ing a slot and more about what the story needs. The fact is now that the Re­sis­tance has been whit­tled to just a hand­ful of peo­ple, they’re run­ning for their lives, and Leia is groom­ing me — him — to be a leader of the Re­sis­tance, as op­posed to a dash­ing, rogue hero.”

While he says he has “not that much more, but a lit­tle more to do” in this film, he can at least be as­sured he sur­vives it; he starts film­ing Episode IX early next year.

If Poe seems like one of the new Star Wars fir­ma­ment now — along­side John Boyega’s Finn, Daisy Ri­d­ley’s Rey and Poe’s spher­i­cal ro­bot side­kick BB-8 — it’s only be­cause Isaac willed it. Abrams had orig­i­nally planned to kill Poe off, but when he met Isaac to dis­cuss him tak­ing the part, Isaac ex­pressed some reser­va­tions. “I said that I wasn’t sure be­cause I had al­ready done that role in other movies where you kind of set it up for the main peo­ple and then you die spec­tac­u­larly,” he re­mem­bers. “What’s funny is that [pro­ducer] Kath­leen Kennedy was in the room and she was like, ‘Yeah, you did that for us in Bourne!’” (Sure enough, in 2012’s Bourne Le­gacy, Jeremy Ren­ner’s char­ac­ter, Aaron Cross, steps out of an Alaskan log cabin while Isaac’s char­ac­ter, Out­come Agent 3, stays in­side; a few sec­onds later the cabin is oblit­er­ated by a mis­sile fired from a pass­ing drone.)

This abil­ity to back him­self — ju­di­ciously and, one can imag­ine af­ter meet­ing him, with no small amount of steely charm — seems to have served Isaac well so far. It’s what also saw him through the cast­ing process for his break­through role in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2014 film In­side Llewyn Davis, about a strug­gling folk singer in Six­ties New York, partly based on the mem­oir of nearly-was mu­si­cian Dave Van Ronk. Isaac, an ac­com­plished mu­si­cian him­self, got wind that the Coens were cast­ing and pestered his agent and man­ager to send over a tape, even­tu­ally land­ing him­self an au­di­tion.

“I knew it was based on Dave Van Ronk and I looked noth­ing like him,” says Isaac. “He was a 6ft 5in, 300lb Swede and I was com­ing in there like… ‘Oh man.’” But then he no­ticed that the cast­ing ex­ecs had with them a pic­ture of the singer-song­writer Ray LaMon­tagne. “Sud­denly, I got some con­fi­dence be­cause he’s small and dark so I said to the cast­ing di­rec­tor, ‘Oh cool, is that a ref­er­ence?’ And they were like, ‘No, he just came in here and he killed it.’” Isaac throws his head back and laughs. “They lit­er­ally said, ‘He killed it.’ It was so good!”

In the end it was Isaac who killed it in In­side Llewyn Davis, with a per­for­mance that was funny, sad, can­tan­ker­ous and mov­ing. The film was nom­i­nated for two Os­cars and three Golden Globes, one of them for Isaac in the cat­e­gory of “Best Per­for­mance by an Ac­tor in a Mo­tion Pic­ture — com­edy or mu­si­cal” (he lost to Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street). No cigar that time, but in 2016 he won a Golden Globe for his turn as a doomed mayor in David Si­mon’s HBO drama, Show Me a Hero. This year, and with pe­cu­liar hill­billy af­fec­ta­tion, Van­ity Fair pro­claimed Isaac “the best dang ac­tor of his gen­er­a­tion”. It is not much of a stretch to imag­ine that, some day very soon, Isaac may be­come the first Os­car since Ham­mer­stein to win the award whose name he shares. Cer­tainly, the stars seem ready to align.

Of course, life sto­ries do not run as neatly as all that and Isaac’s could have gone quite dif­fer­ently. He was born Ós­car Isaac Hernán­dez Estrada in Gu­atemala City, to which his father, Ós­car, now a pul­mo­nolo­gist, had moved from Washington DC in or­der to at­tend med­i­cal school (hav­ing es­caped to the States from Cuba just be­fore the rev­o­lu­tion) and where he met Isaac’s mother, Eugenia. Five months af­ter Isaac was born, the fam­ily

— also in­clud­ing an older sis­ter, Nicole, and later joined by a younger brother, Michael — moved to Amer­ica in or­der for Ós­car Se­nior to com­plete his res­i­den­cies: first to Bal­ti­more, then New Or­leans, even­tu­ally set­tling in Mi­ami when Isaac was six.

Mi­ami didn’t sit en­tirely right with him. “The Latin cul­ture is so strong which was re­ally nice,” he says, “but you had to drive ev­ery­where, and it’s also strangely quite con­ser­va­tive. Money is val­ued, and nice cars and clothes, and what you look like, and that can get sort of te­dious.” Still it was there, aged 11, that he took to the stage for the first time. The Chris­tian mid­dle school he at­tended put on per­for­mances in which the kids would mime to songs telling loosely bib­li­cal sto­ries, in­clud­ing one in which Je­sus and the Devil take part in a box­ing match in heaven (note the word “loosely”). For that one, Isaac played the Devil. In another, he played Je­sus call­ing Lazarus from the grave. “So yeah,” he laughs, “I’ve got the full range!”

He en­joyed the mix­ture of the at­ten­tion and the “ex­treme na­ture of putting your­self out there in front of a bunch of peo­ple”, plus it gave him some re­lease from stresses at home: his par­ents were sep­a­rat­ing and his mother be­came ill. His school failed to see th­ese as suf­fi­ciently mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors for Isaac’s sub­se­quent way­ward be­hav­iour and, fol­low­ing an in­ci­dent with a fire ex­tin­guisher, he was ex­pelled. “It wasn’t that bad. They wanted me out of there. I was very happy to go.”

Fol­low­ing his par­ents’ di­vorce, he moved with his mother to Palm Beach, Florida, where he en­rolled at a pub­lic high school. “It was glo­ri­ous, I loved it,” says Isaac. “I loved it so much. I could walk to the beach ev­ery day, and go to this wild school where I be­came friends with so many dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple. I met th­ese guys who lived in the trailer parks in Boynton Beach and started a band, and my mom and my lit­tle brother would come and spy on me to see if I was do­ing drugs or any­thing, and I never was.”

Never?

“No, be­cause I didn’t drink till I was, like, 24. Even though I stopped be­ing re­li­gious, I liked the in­di­vid­u­al­ity of be­ing the guy who didn’t do that stuff. Maybe it was the ob­server part of me… I liked be­ing a lit­tle bit de­tached, and I wasn’t in­ter­ested in do­ing some­thing that was go­ing to make me lose con­trol.”

When he was 14, Isaac and his band-mates played at a tal­ent show. They chose to per­form “Rape Me” by Nir­vana. “I re­mem­ber singing to the par­ents, ‘Rape meeee!’” Isaac laughs so hard he gives a lit­tle snort. “Yeah,” he says, com­pos­ing him­self again, “we didn’t win.” But some­thing stuck and Isaac ended up be­ing in a series of ska-punk out­fits, first Paper­face, then The Worms and later The Blink­ing Un­der­dogs who, le­gend has it, would go on to sup­port Green Day. “Sup­ported… Ha! It was a fes­ti­val…” says Isaac. “But hey, we played the same day, at the same fes­ti­val, within a few hours of each other.” (On YouTube you can find a clip from 2001 of The Blink­ing Un­der­dogs per­form­ing in a bat­tle of the bands con­test at some­where called Spanky’s. Isaac is wear­ing a “New York City” T-shirt and bran­dish­ing a wine-coloured Fly­ing V elec­tric gui­tar.)

Still, Isaac’s path was un­cer­tain. At one point he thought about join­ing the Marines. “The sax player in my band had grown up in a mil­i­tary fam­ily so we were like, ‘Hey, let’s work out and get all ripped and be badasses!’” he says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do com­bat photography!’ My dad was re­ally against it. He said, ‘Clin­ton’s just go­ing to make up a war for you guys to go to,’ so I had to have the re­cruiters come all the way down to Mi­ami where my dad was living and they con­vinced him to let me join. I did the exam, I took the oath, but then we had got­ten the money to­gether to record an al­bum with The Worms. I de­cided I’d join the Re­serves in­stead. I said I wanted to do com­bat photography. They said, ‘We don’t do that in the Re­serves, but we can give you anti-tank?’ Ha! I was like, ‘It’s a li­i­i­i­i­it­tle dif­fer­ent to what I was think­ing…’”

Even when he started do­ing a few pro­fes­sional theatre gigs in Mi­ami he was still toy­ing with the idea of a mu­sic ca­reer, un­til one day, while in New York play­ing a young Fidel Cas­tro in an off-Broad­way pro­duc­tion of Ro­ge­lio Martinez’s play, When it’s Cock­tail Time in Cuba, he hap­pened to pass by renowned per­form­ing arts school Juil­liard. On a whim, he asked for an au­di­tion. He was told the dead­line had passed. He in­sisted. They gave him a form. He filled it in and brought it back the next day. They post-dated it. He got in. And the rest is his­tory. Only it wasn’t.

“In the sec­ond year they would do cuts,” Isaac says. “If you don’t do bet­ter they kick you out. All the act­ing teach­ers wanted me on pro­ba­tion, be­cause they didn’t think I was try­ing hard enough.” Not for the first or last time, he held his ground. “It was just to spur me to do bet­ter I think, but I def­i­nitely ar­gued.”

He stayed for the full course at Juil­liard, though it was a chal­lenge, not only be­cause he’d re­laxed his own non-drink­ing rule but also be­cause he was main­tain­ing a long-dis­tance re­la­tion­ship with a girl­friend back in Florida. “For me, the twen­ties were the more dif­fi­cult part of life. Four years is just… masochis­tic. We were a par­tic­u­larly close group but still, it’s re­ally in­tense.” (Among his fel­low stu­dents at the time were the ac­tress Jes­sica Chas­tain, with whom he starred in the 2014 mob drama A Most Vi­o­lent Year, and Sam Gold, his di­rec­tor in Ham­let.) He says he broadly kept it to­gether: “I was never a mess, I just had a lot of con­fu­sion.” He got him­self an agent in the grad­u­a­tion scrum, and soon started pick­ing up work: a Law & Or­der here, a Shake­speare in the Park there; even, in 2006, a bib­li­cal story to ri­val his early ef­forts, play­ing Joseph in The Na­tiv­ity Story (the first film to hold its pre­miere at the Vatican, no less).

By the time he en­rolled at Juil­liard he had al­ready dropped “Hernán­dez” and started go­ing by Os­car Isaac, his two first given names. And for good rea­son. “When I was in Mi­ami, there were a cou­ple of other Os­car Hernán­dezes I would see at au­di­tions. All [cast­ing di­rec­tors] would see me for was ‘the gang­ster’ or what­ever, so I was like, ‘Well, let me see if this helps.’ I re­mem­ber there was a cast­ing di­rec­tor down there be­cause [Men in Black di­rec­tor] Barry Son­nen­feld was do­ing a movie; she said, ‘Let’s bring in this Os­car Isaac,’ and he was like, ‘No no no! I just want Cubans!’ I saw Barry Son­nen­feld a cou­ple of years ago and I told him that story — ‘I don’t want a Jew, I want a Cuban!’”

Per­haps it’s a sad in­dict­ment of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try that a Latino ac­tor can’t ex­pect a fair run at parts with­out eras­ing some of the eth­nic sig­ni­fiers in his own name, but on a per­sonal ba­sis at least, Isaac’s di­verse role ros­ter speaks to the can­ni­ness of his de­ci­sion. He has played an English king in Ri­d­ley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010), a Rus­sian se­cu­rity guard in Madonna’s Ed­ward-and-Mrs-Simp­son drama W.E. (2011), an Ar­me­nian med­i­cal stu­dent in Terry Ge­orge’s The Prom­ise (2017) and — yes, Barry — a small, dark Amer­i­can Jew chan­nelling a large blond Swede.

But then, of course, there are roles he’s played where eth­nic­ity was all but ir­rel­e­vant and tal­ent was ev­ery­thing. Carey Mul­li­gan’s

ex-con hus­band Stan­dard in Ni­co­las Wind­ing Refn’s Drive in 2011 (another con­tender for his “spec­tac­u­lar deaths” series); mys­te­ri­ous tech­no­crat Nathan Bate­man in the beau­ti­fully poised sci-fi Ex Machina (2014) writ­ten and di­rected by Alex Gar­land (with whom he has also shot An­ni­hi­la­tion — dash­ing be­tween dif­fer­ent sound stages at Pinewood while shoot­ing The Last Jedi — which is due out next year). Or this month’s Subur­bicon, a neat black com­edy di­rected by Ge­orge Clooney from an an­cient Coen broth­ers script, in which Isaac cameos as a claims in­ves­ti­ga­tor look­ing into some dodgy pa­per­work filed by Ju­lianne Moore and Matt Da­mon, and lights up ev­ery one of his brief scenes.

Isaac is a very mod­ern kind of ac­tor: one who shows range and ver­sa­til­ity with­out be­ing bland; who is hand­some with his dark, in­tense eyes, heavy brows and thick curls, but not so freak­ishly hand­some that it is dis­tract­ing; who shows a ca­sual dis­re­gard for the sig­nif­i­cance of celebrity and keeps his fam­ily, in­clud­ing his father, who re­mar­ried and had another son and daugh­ter, close. It’s a tes­ta­ment to his skill that when he takes on a char­ac­ter, be it English royal or Green­wich Vil­lage pau­per, it feels like — with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Ray LaMon­tagne — it could never have been any­one else.

To­day, though, he’s a Dan­ish prince. To say that Isaac’s turn in Ham­let has caused a frenzy in New York would be some­thing of an un­der­state­ment. Cer­tainly, it’s a sell-out. The Sun­day be­fore we meet, Al Pa­cino had been in. So scarce are tick­ets that Isaac’s own pub­li­cist says she’s un­likely to be able to get me one, and as soon as our in­ter­view is over I high­tail it to the Pub­lic Theater to queue up to be put on the wait­ing list for re­turns for tonight’s per­for­mance. (I am sev­enth in line, and in my shame­less des­per­a­tion I tell the woman in front of me that I’ve flown over from London just to in­ter­view Isaac in the hope that she might let me jump the queue. She pon­ders it for a nanosec­ond, be­fore another woman be­hind me starts talk­ing about how her day job in­volves paint­ing pic­tures of chim­panzees, and I lose the crowd.)

Clearly, Ham­let is oc­cu­py­ing a great deal of Isaac’s avail­able brain space right now, and not just the fact that he’s had to mem­o­rise ap­prox­i­mately 1,500 lines. “Even tonight it’s dif­fer­ent, what the play means to me,” he says. “It’s al­most like a re­li­gious text, be­cause it has the am­bi­gu­ity of the Bi­ble where you can look at one line and it can mean so many dif­fer­ent things de­pend­ing on how you med­i­tate on it. Even when I have a night where I feel not par­tic­u­larly con­nected emo­tion­ally, it can still teach me. I’ll say a line and I’ll say, ‘Ah, that’s good advice, Shake­speare, thank you.’”

Ham­let res­onates with Isaac for rea­sons that he would never have fore­seen or have wished for. While play­ing a young man mourn­ing the un­timely death of his father, Isaac was him­self a young man mourn­ing the un­timely death of his mother, who died in Fe­bru­ary af­ter an ill­ness. Do­ing the play be­came a way to process his loss.

“It’s al­most like this is the only frame­work where you can give ex­pres­sion to such in­tense emo­tions. Other­wise any­where else is pretty in­ap­pro­pri­ate, un­less you’re just in a room scream­ing to your­self,” he says. “This play is a beau­ti­ful moral­ity tale about how to get through grief; to ex­pe­ri­ence it ev­ery night for the last four months has def­i­nitely been cathar­tic but also ed­u­ca­tional; it has given struc­ture to some­thing that felt so over­whelm­ing.”

In March, a month af­ter Eugenia died, Isaac and Lind mar­ried, and then in April Eu­gene, named in re­mem­brance of his late grand­mother, was born. I ask Isaac about the shift in per­spec­tive that hap­pens when you be­come a par­ent; whether he felt his own fo­cus switch from be­ing a son to be­ing a father.

“It hap­pened in a very dra­matic way,” he says. “In a mat­ter of three months my mother passed and my son was born, so that tran­si­tion was very alive, to the point where I was telling my mom, ‘I think you’re go­ing to see him on the way out, tell him to lis­ten to me as much as he can…’” He gives another laugh, but flat this time. “It was re­ally tough be­cause for me she was the only true ex­am­ple of un­con­di­tional love. It’s painful to know that that won’t ex­ist for me any­more, other than me giv­ing it to him. So now this isn’t hap­pen­ing” — he raises his arms to­wards the ceil­ing, ges­tur­ing a flow com­ing down to­wards him — “but now it goes this way” — he brings his arms down, mak­ing the same ges­ture, but flow­ing from him to the floor.

Does per­form­ing Ham­let, how­ever per­ti­nent its themes, ever feel like a way of re­fract­ing his own ex­pe­ri­ences, rather than feel­ing them in their rawest form?

“Yeah it is,” he says, “I’m sure when it’s over I don’t know how those things will live.” He pauses. “I’m a lit­tle bit… I don’t know if ‘con­cerned’ is the right word, but as there’s only two weeks left of do­ing it, I’m cu­ri­ous to see what’s on the other end, when there’s no place to put it all.”

It’s a thought­ful, hon­est answer; one that doesn’t shy away from the emo­tional com­plex­i­ties of what he’s ex­pe­ri­enc­ing and is still to face, but ad­mits to his own ig­no­rance of what comes next. Be­cause, al­though Isaac is clearly ded­i­cated to his cur­rent lot, he has also suf­fered enough slings and ar­rows to know where self-de­ter­mi­na­tion has its lim­its.

What he does know is hap­pen­ing on the other end of Ham­let is “dis­con­nec­tion”, also known as a hol­i­day, and he plans to travel with Lind to Maine where her doc­u­men­tary, Bobbi Jene, is screen­ing at a film fes­ti­val. Then he will fly to Buenos Aires for a cou­ple of months film­ing Op­er­a­tion Fi­nale, a drama about the 1960 Is­raeli cap­ture of Adolf Eich­mann which Isaac is pro­duc­ing and in which he also stars as Mos­sad agent Peter Malkin, with Eich­mann played by Sir Ben Kings­ley. At some point af­ter that he will get sucked into the vor­tex of pro­mo­tion for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, of which to­day’s in­ter­view is an early glim­mer.

But be­fore that, he will un­lock the im­mac­u­late black bi­cy­cle that he had chained up out­side the ho­tel and dis­ap­pear back into Brook­lyn. Later, he will take the sub­way to Man­hat­tan an hour-and-a-half or so be­fore cur­tain. To get him­self ready, and if the mood takes him, he will lis­ten to Venezue­lan mu­si­cian Arca’s self-ti­tled al­bum or Suf­jan Stevens’ Car­rie and Low­ell, light a can­dle, and look at a pic­ture of his mother that he keeps in his dress­ing room.

Then, just be­fore seven o’clock, he will make his way to the stage where, for the next four hours, he will make the packed house be­lieve he is think­ing Ham­let’s thoughts for the very first time, and strut around in his un­der­pants feign­ing mad­ness, and — for rea­sons that make a lot more sense if you’re there which, thanks to a last-minute phonecall from the of­fice of some­one whose name I never did catch, I was — stab a lasagna. And then at the end of Act V, when Ham­let lies dead, and as light­ning stag­gers across the night sky out­side the theatre, fi­nally bring­ing the promised drama to the Man­hat­tan sky­line, the au­di­ence, as one, will rise. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is out on 15 De­cem­ber

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