Oscar Isaac owes it all to the Coen brothers.
True, before Inside Llewyn Davis there was Julliard and Broadway (a revival of Two Gentlemen Of Verona), The Nativity Story and the lead role in Madonna’s E.W.
But Inside Llewyn Davis made everyone take notice of Isaac.
Not just his singing voice but his acting chops, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination and Best Actor awards from the National Society of Film Critics, and other critics circles.
Since then he’s been cast in pivotal roles in Star Wars and most recently as Apocalypse in the X-Men film.
At a press conference for X-Men: Apocalypse in London, Isaac is as amiable as ever.
And it’s hard to believe he’s 38.
So talk about the difficult years. Did you ever feel like throwing in the towel?
Struggle is important for me; struggle can mean so many things on so many different levels. So, not taking the easy, most comfortable route was very important for me. A money job might afford you a little comfort, but finding my voice was what really interest me.
Is that something that comes from your upbringing?
Well, my father was always a bit of a frustrated artist. He’s a doctor, all three brothers are doctors. They came from Cuba right before the revolution, but they grew up in (Washington) DC.
They were hippies so we grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix and Dylan. He always played music, he recorded music, he made movies with his little camera.
I would pick up his guitar and play it, so that’s really where I got a lot of it from. It was very natural for me to become an actor, and in fact, at one point when I wanted to go to film school to become a director, he was like, “You are an actor, go do what’s before you right now.”
So my parents have always been incredibly supportive. But the truth is, I was never really good at anything else. So, it was a very natural progression that when I got accepted at Julliard, that was right thing to do.
Can you recall some really bad auditions?
Oh yes, but I always knew when I was crashing, I can always feel when I am bombing.
I auditioned for Betrayal on Broadway with (playwright) Tom Stoppard. Clearly I was not English. He was like, “Hmm, is that from all that Flamenco that you can’t do an English accent?”
Your given name is Oscar Isaac Hernandez Estrada. How come you dropped Hernandez?
On the marquee, it seemed a little bit too much. And Oscar Hernandez in Miami is basically like John Smith in America.
In fact, when I became a citizen, I got stopped at airports and was taken to the back because of all of the Oscar Hernandezes that are on that list. In Miami you open the phone book and everybody is Oscar Hernandez.
And starting out as an actor, you don’t want to be typecast; I don’t want to just go up for the gangster, the bandero, whatever, I didn’t want to be defined by what someone else thought Oscar Hernandez should be playing.
So, I shortened my name, and I have held onto that.
Was it a difficult transition going from art house movies to big studio franchises?
Not at all. Because I have done a variety of different projects and different characters over the years, my only interest is engaging my imagination. Will I fall in love with it regardless of the scope or the size or even the style?
With X-Men, even though it’s a big studio franchise, for me it was more akin to Greek theatre, or even Kabuki theatre, where you’re playing big emotions, embodying mythic ideas. How do I convey that physically?
It’s tough when you’re covered completely in prosthetics, even my face. I was in a huge suit that weighed about 50lbs (23kg), and it was taxing. I had to be connected to a cooling mechanism otherwise I could die. But the challenge was fun for me.
And at the same time I was filming (the miniseries) Show Me A Hero, which was hyper realistic. So it’s been a dream for me to be able to do these different things. How it pans out in the future, we’ll see.
Because of Star Wars, you’re now recognised wherever you go. Are you comfortable with that?
I’m OK with it, but basically I’m a pretty low key guy, and living in New York – I live in Brooklyn – there is still a sense of anonymity there.
Occasionally, I see people that I recognise in films or TV, but they kind of blend into the energy and the current of the city.
So, yeah, it’s a little embarrassing getting stopped at the airport, people asking autograph, because by nature I am a little shy in those situations, but I appreciate what it’s done for me.
How important is it for you to play Poe Dameron in the Star Wars series?
Taking on that character means taking on the legacy not only of Han (Solo) but of Luke (Skywalker), and of these heroic pilots, because if you think about it, these characters lived those stories that we all grew up with.
I mean Poe was watching the medal ceremony at Yavin and thinking, “I want to be that, I want to be a hero, I want to take up that mantle.” Which is what he’s doing, at times recklessly. But yeah, connecting to that old world has been very special.
Who are your heroes?
My biggest hero is my mother who has overcome so much. She is made of leather and nails. She’s had a kidney transplant, bladder cancer. She’s lost her father, her husband, so many things, yet she is still the most positive and genuine, warm person that I know. So, she is a huge hero of mine.
Professionally, I guess the Coens are my heroes. They are people who are continually pushing themselves, finding a way to maintain their sense of tone no matter what, and that is a huge inspiration for me.
Do you have a career plan?
No, I definitely do not, which is is evident by the variety of things I’ve chosen to do. It’s like falling in love, you can’t plan it.
Speaking of falling in love, are you planning to get married soon?
My girlfriend is Danish from Copenhagen. They don’t believe in marriage … so I’m off the hook there.
How did the two of you meet?
This is kind of a funny story. I was actually dressed as Llewyn Davis when we met.
I had been forced by my manager to go to this party. I didn’t feel like going, so I decided to go as Llewyn.
I just sat in a corner and was eating with my gloves on. She is a documentary filmmaker and she saw this weirdo in the corner and she wanted to talk to him. So, we just started talking.
Her name is Vera Lind. She is great. I spent Christmas in Copenhagen, which is the land of Christmas. We held hands and danced around the tree. It’s been about a year that we are together.
What have you learned about Scandinavian culture that surprised you?
The amount of alcohol they can drink. Whoo! I have tried to keep up, but my Indian blood cannot handle it.
Now I understand why their home furnishings are so beautiful, they have to spend so much time indoors, that’s why they make beautiful furniture and lamps. But man, I love it there and really enjoy the country.
I particularly like the bikes. it’s like a city of bikes … it feels like the systems really work.
Ex-Machina was shot in Norway and I found that to be one of the most remarkable places I have ever been to. So beautiful, clean and wealthy. There’s almost a prehistoric beauty there. So it’s been really great to get to learn about Scandinavia.
Do you ever hear from Madonna?
Every once in a while we connect. She is great and I am eager to see what she does next. I heard she is working on a new film.