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.