Rookie of the Year: Q&A with actor Oscar Isaac
Last summer, just weeks out of Juilliard, Isaac played Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona opposite movie star Rosario Dawson and musical-theater vet Norm Lewis. He'd already been cast as the Spanish writer/Civil War martyr Federico García Lorca in Beauty of the Father, playwright Nilo Cruz's follow-up to his 2003 Pulitzer winner Anna in the Tropics; Beauty began performances at the Manhattan Theatre Club in mid-December.
In between stage appearances, Isaac went to Romania to shoot a movie called PU-239, which its producers would like to enter in this spring's Cannes film festival. And he just filmed a part in the Steven Soderbergh-directed biopic Che, with Benicio Del Toro in the title role.
Isaac, 26, was born in Guatemala and grew up in the Miami area. His father's from Cuba and his mother Guatemala, and he's also "a mishmash of French, Israeli and a whole bunch of European places." His background as a performer is mixed too: In addition to acting, he's been the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for the rock group Blinking Underdogs and has produced and directed several short films. His versatility is on display in Beauty of the Father: He plays classical guitar, ballroom-dances with Priscilla Lopez and does a Señor Wences-like routine with a hand puppet. Which may not be the behavior one associates with García Lorca—the poet and author of the plays Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba, who was shot to death by Nationalists at age 38—but Isaac is portraying his ghost, who's the confidant of a painter in present-day Spain named Emiliano (played by Ritchie Coster). As Emiliano tries to repair his relationships with his American-raised daughter and his young male lover who's lost interest in him romantically, García Lorca gets involved in the action and relives his own passions and heartaches.
Between performances one recent Saturday, Isaac spoke with BWW about his many talents and his tremendous rookie year; the interview took place at City Center, where Beauty is running until Feb. 19.
Your string of success flies right in the face of what everyone thinks about acting as a stable career. Did your parents ever try to steer you into a more "reliable" field?
My father's a doctor, but they were always like: Cool, go for it, whatever you want to do. I was never pushed in one way or the other. They were incredibly supportive.
Is your performance in Beauty of the Father modeled closely on the real García Lorca, or did it come from your imagination?
I read his biography and looked at a lot of pictures and read different excerpts—a lot of his own work, mostly his poetry. I was familiar with some of his plays, but his poetry in particular helped energize me.
He's a ghost in the show, and that changes a lot of things. At the time he lived he was very closed off about being gay, his family didn't know, it was repressed. Now that he's dead and he can look back, how much he's able to live in that—it's something that is up to interpretation.
One thing about this play is he wants to die his own death. He wants to own that. He was killed, so he doesn't have that. A lot of this play, I feel, is about reclaiming life. Emiliano is trying to reclaim himself as a father and as an artist; Federico is there trying to reclaim his death in a way. There's one poem he wrote where he says, I just want to stand at the side of the lake and scream my name…"I'm neither a man, nor a poet…" It goes on from there. It's this intense feeling of: I want to say who I am, but not being able to. A lot of his other poetry would not literally connect to the play, but I found powerful. Usually I like to research a lot, kind of get intellectual about it. For some reason I found that difficult with this. So what I started to do was write my own poetry, which I'd never really been into. Just doing that on my own helped me the most getting into it, because that's exactly what he was—a writer—and I'm not. [I had to get] in tune with that kind of creative expression.
Ultimately what I want to do is make it into songs. I've never done that before. Usually when I write a song, I'll write the music and then kind of fit some words to it. This is the first time I've written a lot of lyrics and don't have the music for them.
Had you ever played a real person before?
That first play I did in New York, Rogelio Martinez's When It's Cocktail Time in Cuba, I played a young Fidel Castro. It was a farce, so we were able to take a lot of liberties. I read all about Fidel, I read about the revolution, and I watched video of him, and his mannerisms and his passion when he speaks, and also that double-sided thing where he's very opportunistic.
What is your movie PU-239 about?
It takes place in Russia at the fall of the Soviet bloc. Paddy Considine (In America) works at a nuclear facility in a secret city. He's a scientist, and he's exposed to radiation so he loses his job, but in order to get his family out, he steals plutonium from the factory and goes to Moscow to try and sell it on the black market. There's this small-time crook—that's me—who's trying to make it in the underworld, but he's very incompetent. He meets up with Paddy's character and tries to sell his plutonium for him. That's the plotline, but really it's about the fall of communism and how these people have to try to adapt to these new surroundings, which have been imposed by the United States in a way, and the whole capitalist structure, and how capitalism without bounds is just as lethal as plutonium—it's about sell, sell, sell! and privatization, and suddenly it's just as explosive to a society.
And how'd that film lead you to Steven Soderbergh's movie about Che Guevara?
The plutonium film—Soderbergh produced it, and he's been helping with the editing of it. I just went in and anonymously auditioned [for the Che film]; I didn't tell the casting director that Steven had produced it. When he got the video, he's like: That's the Russian guy! He's doing a Cuban accent now!
Benicio Del Toro's playing Che. I play his translator when Che came up to the United Nations and did a speech here in 1964. It's not going to come out for another two years. We only shot for one week in New York. They wanted to get into the U.N. before they renovated. Now they're taking a year off—I think Steven's going to do Ocean's Thirteen—and then they're going to start back up and shoot in Mexico and Bolivia.
What was it like working with Soderbergh?
It was like guerrilla filmmaking—boom!, in and out. We shot in one week, over 40 pages, which is ridiculous. He shoots at 12 pages a day, and most films shoot about 3 to 4 pages a day. This one was particularly fast. I was talking to Benicio, and he was saying that nobody shoots like Steven does. It was kind of exhilarating because you never know where the cameras are. He's got three cameras going, he has no lights—he doesn't put any lights up—there's no tent with monitors, he doesn't rehearse. You just have to walk in and act. You just do it, and I think that's why he gets a lot of really natural performances.
Che, García Lorca, the Russian movie, the antiwar Two Gents—these all seem to have some political overtones, or undertones. Is that just a coincidence?
Yeah, it's coincidental. You just want to approach it as a human being. I don't think you can really play political ideas or ideals. The material itself as it comes together and the story's told will give you something. I feel like being an artist and being an activist are separate things; I know some people who feel very differently. These plays do have these messages, but for me it's more important to focus on the small, moment-to-moment details of how a human being interacts with another. It's just a human in that situation.
I'm not a very dogmatic person, and I'm still pretty young, so I'm trying to be open. And as an artist I want to be open to different ideas no matter if they rub me the wrong way or whatever. That being said, doing a show like Two Gentlemen and hearing that big applause every time he went into "Bring All the Boys Back Home," it piqued my curiosity more, and I saw the power of plays to really galvanize people. In that way it got me kind of excited, but it was less about the messages themselves.
In Two Gents you played a role that was originated by one of your idols, Raul Julia (though Isaac didn't know that until after auditioning). Was it helpful to listen to the original cast recording, or did that make it too tempting to "steal" from Julia?
I'm a big stealer. His humor, even some of his phrasing... I believe in stealing as much as possible! I think it's all been done—originality is just a lack of information. Ultimately, you really can't really steal because it's another person, so whatever I am is going to come through. It was helpful, especially with the singing because I had never done a musical before Two Gentlemen.
How else has Raul Julia inspired you?
I had always been a huge, huge, huge fan of his. First and foremost, he was just a really great actor, and that's what I aspire to. But also what he did for Hispanic actors. The fact that he premiered Betrayal [on Broadway]. It's a British character, and it's Raul Julia playing him.
I'm open to the idea of doing more musicals if it's one that I really enjoy. There's another Raul Julia one I like, Nine—obviously, that's 15 or 20 years down the road.
And on the PU-239 movie, there was a connection to another performance you love.
My favorite film is Dog Day Afternoon. I watch it, like, once a month. It's like school because I think Pacino in that is a perfect performance. This director calls me and says, "You ever seen the movie Dog Day Afternoon?" I'm like, "YES!" This character I played, he said, there are a lot of similarities with the character in Dog Day, as far as being innocent but put in a situation…
You've probably been jumping for joy over the past year, with all the great roles you've gotten. Did any one of them make you jump a little higher than the others?
All of them have had specific things. When I got Two Gentlemen—oh, my God, Shakespeare in the Park! This historic place, the Delacorte Theater… And doing a musical—that was scary! Then doing the [PU-239] film, which was also really riveting because for a while I was auditioning for films and I wasn't getting much, so I had thought maybe I'm not a film actor. And then I get a lead part in a film, and being able to do this character was great, but it was all unfamiliar. And then this [Beauty of the Father] was really exciting because it was something I know: black box theater, a straight drama, so I was excited to come back and do something like that, which I had been doing in school for four years. And also playing Lorca in a Nilo Cruz play, and working with [director] Michael Greif, who I feel sees things exactly like I do as far as irony and clarity.
One of your last roles at Juilliard was Macbeth. What did you try to do differently from the many Macbeths who had gone before?
Humor. Finding the dark humor in it. It's a very ironic play—like one of the most ironic plays, the way Shakespeare put it all together. I think the character shares the irony. The two things that I really focused on with the director was finding the humor—a lot of times it's not there, it doesn't have to be—and the nihilism. Connecting with hollowness, as opposed to anger, fear, rage. As it goes on, just the feeling of being empty. When she dies, it's not like: [startled and upset] "Oh, my God!" It's just like: "Of course she's gone."
So, where did you find the humor in Macbeth?
For instance, the banquet scene I think is incredibly funny. You've got Macbeth seeing a ghost and he's freaking out, and all the guests, they don't know what's going on, and the queen's like, "He's just crazy," and you see this ghost… These lines that he says. This is a really funny line: After he kills the king, and you've got the blood and all these dramatic monologues, and he's waiting for Macduff to come out from the king's chamber, and some young guy standing next to him is going on and on about how horrible the night was—there were crows and the earth was shaking and blah blah blah—and Macbeth just looks at him and says, "'Twas a rough night." You can almost hear the [makes rimshot sound]. There's a lot of little moments like that. And for me it's important to find the irony, because I think people tend to be ironic, even in the worse situations. It's just a natural response to ease—it's an awareness of your own existence.
How did Juilliard change you as an actor?
Completely. It was the most amazing thing I could have done. It gave me this fantastic technique to rely on. For instance, when a play has been running for a while, sometimes you don't feel it. It gives you tools to carry on and find your way back and center yourself when you don't feel it. If I don't feel it emotionally, it's okay—it teaches me to breathe and stay on the words, stay moving through your thoughts, focus on the text and what you're saying.
They taught me how to sing. I would not have been able to do Two Gentlemen if I had not gone to Juilliard. I had really bad habits from being in a punk band.
Also, verse and Shakespeare, and working on Chekhov, relaxation techniques, the voice and articulation—the words that you hit. I use that for everything: how you say a phrase, what words you emphasize, what words you don't, how you go to the end of a line. All these technical things that help paint a picture for the audience.
You stayed in South Florida for a few years after high school, performing with your band, attending community college and doing some regional theater. How'd you end up at Juilliard?
I got into music for a long time, and then in kind of a roundabout way I came upon the acting thing. I knew that I wanted to be either an actor or a filmmaker or a musician—or all three at the same time. The confusion was, do I need to go to school or not. At the time I was leaning towards, I don't. It's funny. The very first job I did was in Coconut Grove Playhouse, like a children's theater thing. We were all sitting there the first day, and we had to go around and say what we had done before. One guy, a stage manager, was like: "I went to Juilliard…ha, yeah, right!" Like any of us could ever go to Juilliard! That kind of stuck in my head, and when I came up here to do a play [Cocktail Time in Cuba in 2000] and I passed by Lincoln Center, I was like: Maybe I'll try to get into here. I'd heard about it, and at first I didn't think I wanted to do the school thing, but it was kind of serendipitous that way. I applied, like, out of a reaction to something somebody had said three years ago.
Tell us about your band, the Blinking Underdogs.
We started off as basically a punk band. As we kept going, we've tried to experiment with different types and styles. Right now it's in a transitional phase because the guys live in different states, so we haven't been able to play as much. The stuff I've been writing has been different—a little more folkie. Stylistically it's going all over the place. In high school I had a couple of different bands, but this particular one started in Miami after I graduated. We toured the East Coast, and in May we played at the Viper Room in L.A. That was the last time we played. We have a six-song EP and a full-length album. We've opened for a lot of big bands, like Green Day.
Photos of Oscar, from top: as the ghost of Federico García Lorca in Beauty of the Father; with Ritchie Coster in Beauty; with Norm Lewis in Two Gentlemen of Verona; with Jessica Collins in Macbeth. [Photo credits: Joan Marcus (2); Michal Daniel; Jessica Katz]