Oscar Isaac shuts his eyes tight, guitar in hand, and the world goes away. Which is convenient, because the world keeps presenting him with unwelcome facts, here in his 37th year: Turns out that if you’re a dreamily handsome actor who delivers fierce, incandescent, once-in-a-generation performances worthy of Pacino and De Niro, and then takes big roles in Star Wars and X-Men movies, you will become famous, and people will start calling you a movie star. Who knew? “I’m an actor, not a star,” he’ll say, bristling politely, if probed too hard on the subject of his rise. “I don’t really know what you mean when you say ‘star,’ ‘movie star,’ that stuff.”
Isaac never planned for any of this – never planned for much of anything, really – and he’s trying to keep it all out of his head. He’s obsessed with craft, indifferent to celebrity, private by instinct. The money is nice, not that he’s spending much of it, but the only part of success he truly covets is having his pick of roles. He’s bemused by the fervent female fan base he’s acquired, with bloggers calling him “the Internet’s boyfriend.” “The Internet never struck me as being into monogamous relationships,” he says with a small laugh. “It’s very promiscuous, the Internet.” (The Internet almost dumped him last year when an old picture emerged of him wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the cover of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. “I liked the design,” he says. “I didn’t think wearing the shirt was saying I agreed with all her politics. I’m not a libertarian!”)
Isaac still lives in the same one-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he bought before his career’s recent uptick. He doesn’t own a car (“You know how much a garage is? It’s like paying rent!”). He did at least renovate his Brooklyn place, and purchased homes for his mom and sister. He’ll consider a larger apartment if he has kids, or, as he puts it, “if I duplicate or replicate.”
He doesn’t want his life to change, and certainly doesn’t want to be trapped in dull leading-man parts. He was unnerved when the director Paul Schrader told him, of one prospective role, “You’re going to be the lead, you’re going to have to show up and let day players twirl around you, doing all sorts of interesting stuff, and you’ve just got to listen and be present.” That’s not what De Niro did in “Taxi Driver,” he thought.
Now, on a Thursday afternoon in April, during a rare sojourn home from the London shoot of the follow-up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Isaac is doing exactly what he’d be doing if none of his success had happened: jamming with friends in a Brooklyn rehearsal space not far from his apartment. “We’re just fooling around,” he claims, but he’s blissed out, transported, as he plays. He’s wearing a thin white T-shirt, loose at the neck, which, combined with his ropy physique, dark good looks, and the sideburns he’s grown for his Star Wars part as Poe Dameron, gives him a distinct Springsteen-in-’78 vibe. (He doesn’t deny that he’d be good casting for a Bruce biopic, but adds, “Wouldn’t you rather just see Springsteen for real?”)
When Isaac enrolled in Juilliard in 2001, he left behind a promising, if already deeply out-of-fashion, Florida ska-punk band. He hadn’t decided between music and acting: His talents for the former were key to winning the most important role of his career, as an amusingly dolorous Sixties folk singer in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which took him, at age 35, from eternally promising second-stringer to one of the most in-demand actors in the world. (His essential lessons from the Coens: the unimportance of careerism and the virtues of “just getting on with it.”)
Isaac strums a D chord on an acoustic guitar, eyes still shut, losing himself in “Devotion,” a song he wrote six months ago. He was, at the time, in Montreal, filming his X-Men: Apocalypse role as nearly all-powerful mutant Apocalypse, a performance that director Bryan Singer calibrated by asking for “quarter Skeletor,” “half Skeletor” or “full Skeletor.” Needless to say, “You can fire your arrows from the Tower of Babel, but you can never strike God!” called for full Skeletor.
Every day, Isaac wore blue makeup, prosthetics, Kiss-worthy high-heeled boots to push him from five feet nine to more than six feet, and a 40-pound suit. (“It was a nightmare contraption,” says X-Men producer Simon Kinberg, “and he never complained.”) In order to stay conscious on humid outdoor shoots, Isaac had to visit a cooling tent between each scene. “I would do some acting,” he says, “and then go to my tent and try to breathe and not freak out that sweat was pouring into my ears and I couldn’t touch them. It was rough. But the challenge of basically doing Kabuki theater in a film was crazy.” At one point, Isaac and Michael Fassbender, who plays Magneto, walked back to their trailers together, and took a moment to assess the oddity of their jobs. “He was dressed up in blue and I had my cape and helmet on,” says Fassbender. “Two grown men. We had a little chuckle.” The pair had already bonded at a late-night dinner early in the shoot, arriving on set the next morning with twin hangovers.
“Devotion” fails to reflect the circumstances of its composition, though it does sound like something you’d write while missing your girlfriend. The melody is strong, with a Jeff Buckley-like feel. “I have released myself from fear,” Isaac sings in the chorus, in his supple, sweet-toned voice, stretching out the pronoun. “But I go crazy when you’re not here.”
He’s bemused by bloggers calling him the Internet’s boyfriend. “The Internet never struck me as being into monogamous relationships,” he says. “It’s very promiscuous.”
It is, pretty clearly, a love song: “Anything worth doing is worth doing in bed,” he growls in the verse. “The life that I see is a life I’m ready to begin/It took me a while, but now I welcome you in… With a word, I’ll put my devotion to the test/I’ll strap your love around me like a suicide vest.” In the bridge, he murmurs something about having a baby – maybe he’s seriously considering replication and/or duplication.
These lyrics are as open as Isaac will ever get about his romantic life, which he guards in a manner that’s as much a throwback as the Seventies intensity of his screen presence. By all accounts except his own, he does have a girlfriend: a blond documentary filmmaker named Elvira Lind who’s a quarter-head taller than him. Signs of her are everywhere – he is, for example, wearing a blue baseball cap with the letters NV on the front, a nod to the hip Nord Vest neighborhood in Lind’s native Copenhagen.
On a corner couch, Isaac’s childhood friend and longtime musical collaborator Bruce Ferguson is following his chord changes on electric guitar. He and Isaac are an amusingly incongruous pair: lanky and bespectacled, with a scraggly beard, Ferguson looks like the astrophysics Ph.D. candidate he once was (he’s now a private tutor for Manhattan kids). In their own school days in Florida, the pair collected X-Men comics together, even played a Marvel role-playing game, so Isaac had his friend help him formulate ideas about playing Apocalypse – a part he embraced out of pure fandom. “I was really into the character,” Isaac says. “I’m not a huge comic-book-movie fan. I like them and I appreciate them, but it’s started to feel a little bit repetitive. I did really like Deadpool, and the last X-Men.”
The studio space belongs to a musician named Rene Lopez, a friend of more recent vintage. Lopez, who was once in a band with former members of Blind Melon and Spacehog, met Isaac three years ago when the actor showed up at a popular open mic Lopez ran. “I didn’t know he was an actor,” Lopez recalls. “I had seen him in movies before, but I didn’t put it together. When he came onstage, I didn’t think of him as anything but a musician, because he’s as good as anyone doing it for real.”
Without a character to hide behind, Isaac is prone to stage fright when he plays music to an audience. But in private, he’s positively hammy. A mention of Kendrick Lamar leads him into a medley of “Girl From the North Country” and Lamar’s “Money Trees,” with its “Halle Berry or hallelujah” refrain. “I been hustling all day,” Isaac sings. “This-a-way, that-a-way.”
In the current leading-man sea of buff, WASP-y dudes named Ryan and Chris, Isaac stands out. He’s good-looking in a slightly imperfect manner that hearkens back to a pre-Ken-doll era of moviemaking: His nose is prominent, with a small dent at the tip. (“A butt nose,” he says with pride. “I have a schnozz.”) “He has an interesting face,” says Singer. “Like the great movie stars, like Harrison Ford, like Tom Cruise.” One reason Singer wanted Isaac for the ancient menace of Apocalypse is “the global architecture of his face. There’s something about Oscar that could be Egyptian, Asiatic, Latino or Caucasian. His facial structure embodies a global human.”
Isaac’s father is Cuban; his mother is Guatemalan. His father left Cuba for the U.S. right before the revolution, then attended medical school in Guatemala, where he met Isaac’s mom. They brought Oscar to the U.S. when he was five months old. He has complex feelings about his background and its relationship with his work and his public persona. He dropped his actual last name, Hernandez, in favor of his middle name, Isaac, early in his career, and was immediately offered a much wider variety of auditions – though, ironically, the change meant he also almost lost a part meant for “a Cuban guy.” “They define you – ‘Latino actor, we’ll just bring him in for Spanish commercials,’ ” Isaac says. “I’m interested in telling stories about the human experience that are not necessarily just about my personal circumstances. So how do I navigate that? I feel like I’ve been able to.”
At the same time, Isaac wants to embrace his identity, and he knows there are people in the U.S. and Guatemala who “want me to kind of carry the torch.” The rise of Donald Trump is “definitely irritating. The problem is it’s less about the guy that’s saying it, and more that he’s being the mouthpiece for a large part of the population. Because that’s me, that’s my family. We’re immigrants. What could be positive about it is that Trump could help to rally a lot of disparate parts of Latin America together. Because Latino is not a race – it’s a culture. There’s Chinese Latinos, there’s very white Latinos, there’s very dark Latinos, there’s black Latinos. There’s all sorts of variants – it’s not one thing.”
As Isaac’s dad completed his medical training, the family moved from Baltimore to New Orleans, then settled down in Miami when Oscar was six. In kindergarten in Louisiana, he somehow went around believing that his family came from the Soviet Union. “I don’t know where I came up with that,” he says. “I’d tell all the kids I was Russian and we’d play war.”
He started getting in trouble as early as first grade, when his class-clownish urge to perform led a teacher to put up a barricade around his desk to prevent him from distracting the class. He turned it into a venue for puppet shows. Soon, he started learning guitar and making ever-more-elaborate home movies with his father’s camera. (In high school, he began writing an invitation to Claire Danes, then the teen star of My So-Called Life, to appear in one of his productions, but he reconsidered.)
His parents were fervent evangelical Christians; Isaac systematically questioned and then abandoned the faith. “The social-conservative culture wasn’t lining up with what I was understanding Jesus was saying,” he says. His father enjoyed engaging in debate on these points: “He would argue all the time,” Isaac says. “It’s part of being Cuban – there was joy in argument. My friends would come over, oh, my God. At one point we all would be yelling at each other and then pretend nothing happened. I’m sure in some ways it wasn’t healthy.”
Things got turbulent around middle school. His parents divorced when he was at “prime trauma age”; Isaac began acting out. He and a friend tried to break into a movie theater, and a week later they vandalized their school, writing a lot of “fucks and shits and ass” on a mural, spraying a fire extinguisher in the gym. Isaac was promptly expelled. He would have gone to an even stricter Christian school were it not for an actual act of God: Hurricane Andrew destroyed his house while his family was huddled inside, and obliterated what would have been his new school. He instead ended up in a public high school, where he fell into the local punk scene: “Bruce [Ferguson] showed up one day with a mohawk and was like, ‘Ska, man! Fucking ska!'”
Isaac was straight-edge through high school, avoiding drugs and alcohol, which imparted a sense of apartness and control he enjoyed. He didn’t break those rules until his mid-twenties, around the time a friend at Juilliard was senselessly murdered. “I remember I said, ‘I fucking need a drink,’ and I had a drink,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘What am I afraid this is going to do?’ ” For good measure, he started smoking weed with his pothead roommate. “I was like, ‘Whaddya got there? This is a bong? Is that what they call this? Give it over here. Oh, this is nice. Wow. I should’ve been doing this a long time ago!'”
After high school, he attended community college, worked at a hospital – moving bodies both living and dead (“You see so much extreme human emotion”) – and continued with his bands. He also started auditioning for local theater, where he became an instant star, despite having close to zero training. “There was a natural energy I had that worked,” says Isaac, who had done theater on and off since grade school. A playwright he met in Florida cast him as a young Fidel Castro in an off-Broadway production. Wandering through Manhattan during the play’s run, Isaac passed by Juilliard, and with characteristic insouciance he decided to apply on the spot.
His urge to act was fueled in large part by “a lot of existential despair.” “For me there’s always been an element of feeling displaced,” he says. “We’re little islands into ourselves. I had that feeling in kindergarten!” Because of his background? “No,” he says, unsmiling. “Just because of the despair of existence.” I remind him of the Annie Hall scene where the title character’s therapist tells her to come in five times a week, and Isaac laughs.
“It’s not depression,” he clarifies. “It doesn’t actually make me depressed. It’s more like a cosmic sense of maybe a little dread. And there’s a desire, maybe a need, to express that. And when you get someone else to feel that, too, that’s a good sensation. I don’t know why that is!”
Isaac’s favorite movies straddle the line between comedy and tragedy – it’s something he tries to capture even in a role as dark as his Golden Globe-winning turn as a doomed politician in David Simon’s Show Me a Hero. Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is Isaac’s most-watched film of all time, in part because of its mastery of that tone – not to mention Al Pacino’s performance. When Isaac met him, he told the older man that his work in that movie had the purity of a child actor. Isaac himself chases that feeling: “I like when you watch something and you get the sense it’s something you’re not supposed to be seeing.”
A week or so after his New York jam session, on the first pleasant day of the year in London, with actual sunshine in sight, Isaac is sitting at a wood table outside a high-end ramen place in SoHo. It’s another day off from Star Wars, which is shooting a few miles away. Today’s T-shirt is gray, and he’s wearing what look like the same grayish-black jeans from the week before, well-worn Italian boots and a newsboy hat. Isaac engages intensely in conversation, with a quick laugh, and the body-language equivalent of a poker face: He’ll cross his legs once, and they stay there. It’s as if he saves his mannerisms for his characters, stripping himself of idiosyncrasies in the process.
In Brooklyn, no fans bugged Isaac, but here he gets a stream of constant, if low-key, attention. “Thank you for fixing Star Wars,” a young guy says to him.
Isaac wrinkles his brow. “Fixing it?”
“It’s fun again!” the guy replies. Isaac’s role as Poe Dameron – hotshot pilot, owner of spherical droid BB-8 – is small in The Force Awakens, and it was almost smaller: The original plan was to shock the audience by introducing the character and then rapidly killing him off; Isaac resisted the idea, then agreed, only to be told by director J.J. Abrams that Poe would live after all.
Isaac is in the movie’s opening scenes, and his loose, jazzy dialogue was the first, highly welcome clue that these new films would be more human in tone than George Lucas’ prequels. All of the funny lines – including one about Poe being unable to hear Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren through his helmet, and the “who talks first” exchange – were added in reshoots, and Isaac improvised some of them. He’s always pushing to complicate and deepen Poe, who started as little more than a charming archetype. “We’re making shit up as we go,” he says.
It’s clear that Poe Dameron is a far bigger deal in Episode VIII. Rumors suggested that the filmmakers enlarged the role because of the response to Isaac’s performance, but he suggests it’s simply because the character is no longer marked for death. “In the new film, there’s a lot more to do,” Isaac says. “What happens now is the heroes get tested. All three of them” – Poe, Daisy Ridley’s Rey and John Boyega’s Finn – “get tested immensely.” And how’s BB-8 doing? “BB-8’s doing all right. BB-8 gets tested too! Everybody gets tested! It’s the dark second chapter, but not really dark.”
Isaac made a substantial, even life-altering career commitment to the Star Wars franchise: “It’s the first time in my life when things have been mapped out for quite some time,” he says. “I’m basically Star War-ring until 2020.” He did so with startlingly little deliberation, making the decision on almost pure instinct. “It wasn’t an overly mapped-out move,” he says. (So far, it hasn’t kept him from weightier fare: He’s starring alongside Christian Bale in The Promise, a film set against the Armenian genocide, and signed on to A Foreigner, a knotty thriller set in his native Guatemala.)
“In the new [Star Wars] film, there’s a lot more to do … the heroes get tested immensely. BB-8 gets tested too! It’s the dark second chapter, but not really dark.”
Then again, joining the fictional galactic Resistance is a less consequential decision than another one Isaac almost made even more impulsively: After high school, he nearly joined the Marines. “The recruiter was really cool,” recalls Isaac, who thought he’d become a combat photographer. He went as far as taking an initial oath and passing a physical – “They check your balls, they check everything” – before deciding he would rather be in the Reserve. That’s fine, he was told, but reservists couldn’t do photography. Instead, he’d train for an anti-tank division: “So I’m the guy against the tanks?” he asked himself, before rapidly losing interest. Had he joined, he would have almost certainly gone to Afghanistan or Iraq. “Sometimes I do wonder what that version of things could have been,” he says.
It can be a little exhausting, all this work, all this throwing yourself into the role and the moment, so Isaac tries to live by a quote from art photographer Saul Leiter: “I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera.” But it would be a lot easier to have a philosophy. Then Isaac might be able to figure out when he’s actually succeeding in the face of all his success. “I’m getting a lot of what I would have hoped for in this line of work,” Isaac says. “But you realize happiness and fulfillment is not going to be an external thing. And that’s a little scary… Having gone this long – two years, basically, without stopping – some fatigue can set in.”
Next year, he’ll take his idea of a vacation, playing Hamlet in New York. Maybe that will help him feel like he’s gotten somewhere, or at least recharge him. “A part of me is excited about what’s out there, what else there is,” he says. “But there’s also the dread that there isn’t anything.”
Sitting in the back of a dark, noisy London coffeehouse, Isaac smiles a little, and finally comes up with his definition of success. “If the day ends,” he says, “and I haven’t fucked something up, then I feel OK.”