Born to a Guatemalan mother and a Cuban father, the thespian, whose full name is Oscar Isaac Hernandez Estrada, has been hailed as the “best dang actor of his generation” by Vanity Fair.
Oscar Isaac has worked nonstop since he played the title role in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), which earned him acclaim and his first Golden Globe nomination. His latest coup is landing the part of Duke Leto Atreides in Denis Villeneuve’s eagerly anticipated reboot of the science-fiction epic Dune, due out in 2020, even as he returns later this year as rebel pilot Poe Dameron in Star Wars: Episode IX. He also voices Poe in the animated series Star Wars Resistance, as well as Gomez Addams in the upcoming animated feature The Addams Family.
Whether playing the villainous titular character in X-Men: Apocalypse, an ex-Special Forces operative leading a heist in the recent Triple Frontier, a disturbed billionaire scientist in Ex Machina or an immigrant businessman trying to make it in A Most Violent Year, Oscar can be relied on to turn in interesting, nuanced performances. His looks enable him to tackle diverse parts, from Joseph in The Nativity Story to Paul Gauguin in At Eternity’s Gate.
Oscar’s singing and guitar playing talents, on full display in Inside Llewyn Davis, should be tapped in more musical projects. In Miami, where he was raised, Oscar sang with the ska-punk band The Blinking Underdogs — which once opened for Green Day — and an alternative/indie rock duo called NightLab.
Oscar beams when he shares that his two-year-old son, Eugene, speaks Spanish and Danish (his wife, filmmaker Elvira Lind, is from Denmark). The proud dad says, “He says ‘ocho’ a lot and that means he wants me to bounce him up and down and say, ‘Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho!’”
Is it good to be Oscar Isaac these days?
Oscar: Yes, it’s good to be Oscar Isaac right now (laughs). It’s been an interesting time. Being a part of Star Wars has been an incredible experience, and it’s also been a long one. I have to find windows to do other work. And now with things opening up in a very big way, there are more opportunities to do very diverse things as well.
But I am never purposely trying to do something completely different. It’s kind of like falling in love right away with a project. I have never had a type. It’s just that you know it when you see it.
What was it like when you were trying to establish yourself as an actor?
Oscar: I remember when I graduated from Juilliard, that’s when I was really looking for work. There was a good two-year period where I couldn’t land anything while I was living in New Jersey. That was a little bit tricky because you get tempted to do things to make ends meet that could easily lead you away from the things you love doing. Fortunately, I booked some jobs, and that led to some other ones and [those] led to more. So I didn’t end up a becoming a massage therapist, which was a very real possibility.
Are you still hankering for anything?
Oscar: I’m most greedy for time. I feel like the most valuable commodity is just time, especially when I am trying to build a family and what takes you away from that costs so much more. So it becomes much more difficult to make decisions about [my] career, even about fun and wonderful things you get invited to.
It’s just like my time is so limited. I want to be able to be with my family about — that’s everything for me, much more than any monetary thing. And sacrifice. I think those two things are hand in hand, because it is a sacrifice to say no to things and even things that I would have done anything to be a part of a few years ago. But now, there are more important things. I don’t think anyone is on their deathbed thinking, “I wish I could have worked more.” I wish I had more time with the people I love, my family.
How does your love for music help you in acting?
Oscar: This is how I approach everything — I feel the music of a scene and the pauses, where there is a rest, where there is a beat and where it has to go quickly. That is a very important thing for me. That is also how I learn lines. That is why I am so particularly drawn to Shakespeare, because it feels like music. There is information in the rhythm and the character.
So yeah, how the acting affects music — it’s trying to approach it with the same kind of honesty of not thinking when you are playing or singing a song, but really trying to find an honest emotion.
How does acting help you in real life?
Oscar: The one thing that I have always known about my life is that whenever I didn’t understand something or whenever I had questions about anything, or when I was full of doubt or fear, the only thing I ever knew was to work, particularly acting or drama. That would always answer the questions for me. In a way, it is very Hamlet-like — when Hamlet doesn’t know what to do, he puts on a play.
So it is a similar thing, trying to understand the world around you by digesting it through art. That is what I would always do. In a very critical time for me, which was last year, it felt natural to just pour myself into drama.
By the end of last year, and going into this year, I realized that’s an element. But it’s not the only way for me to understand the world. Now that I have a context also of having a child and a family, that is actually a wonderful way of understanding the world too. And so I am looking forward to some time off (laughs).
This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of Smile magazine.