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Original caricature of Oscar Isaac in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. (copyright 2015)

There are many amazing and versatile actors on the scene these days that are absolutely crushing it. Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Tom Hiddleston…even a few Americans, like the incredible Jake Gyllenhaal or the underrated, but invaluable to any project, Corey Stoll. I anxiously await anything that these formidable gentlemen appear in. One actor who should be mentioned in the same breath is Oscar Isaac. He’s not only scoring in role after role, but the way he approaches them is always amazing to watch. He’s hard to pin down and he never does the same thing twice.

He’s been getting a lot of attention the past few years, and in 2015 he got a lot of kudos for playing the inventor with a god complex in the big sci-fi hit EX MACHINA (My rave is here). Now he’s about to be seen in the high-profile HBO miniseries SHOW ME A HERO, as well as a little something at Christmas called STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS. In other words, Oscar Isaac is about to become a household name. But before that happens, let me catalog why he’s such a formidable and exciting actor, and for my money, the most intriguing one to watch onscreen these days.


He was born Oscar Isaac Hernandez in Guatemala to a Guatemalan mother and a Cuban father. His maternal grandmother was French. And yet, he was raised in Miami, Florida. Because of his dark, brooding looks, he’s able to suggest almost any nationality. He could be Greek or Italian just to look at him. In fact, films have capitalized on his universality and cast him as a Hebrew in THE NATIVITY STORY, an Englishman in ROBIN HOOD, a Roman in AGORA, a Hispanic in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, and an American with no clear ethnicity in many films like THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY. He’s one of the most handsome and distinct-looking actors to come down the pike in some time, yet he’s really a character actor inside a leading man’s body. And he’s played leads and supporting roles, choosing good parts, and not relying on his looks to be a mere matinee idol. He can also play period and contemporary, so he’s a casting director’s dream.


Isaac has played incredibly smart characters (EX MACHINA, obviously) as well as dim losers (DRIVE). He can play the white hat (W.E.) and the black hat (THE BOURNE LEGACY) and somewhere in the middle (A MOST VIOLENT YEAR). What’s particularly fascinating about his screen presence is how he often instills his good guys with subtle menace, obstinacy, and even selfishness. In 2014’s A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, he played businessman Abel Morales with a stoic dignity that behooved his character’s attempts to stay above the fray of dirty money and corruption in 1981 New York, yet as Morales sunk into debt with shady business partners, Isaac’s eyes became darker and more dangerous. Could Morales stay incorruptible? Isaac kept us guessing by playing so close to both sides.

Isaac does it via subtleties in the way he holds his face. Sometimes he gazes at another character a touch longer than expected and the tension becomes terrifying. Other times his jaw and mouth become slightly tighter as if they are literally chewing over the possibility of violent options. And when Morales chases after a hijacker down the streets of Brooklyn in the film, you’re more worried about the driver than Morales because Isaac brought such intrepid intensity to the foot race. It’s the same kind of danger that Brando and Pacino had in their younger days. And now, Isaac picks up that mantle.


His big breakthrough, of course, was 2013’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the movie that most people know him from. Any Coen Brothers movie gets a lot of attention, but Isaac’s first big lead was one of the more complex protagonists for the filmmakers and the actor. The character of Llewyn Davis is a talented yet unsuccessful New York City folk singer in the early 1960s, and he’s awfully hard to like because he’s arrogant and self-sabotaging. Yet while Isaac aced the cold inside the character (sometimes he was as icy as the wintry landscape he trudged around in), he managed to still imbue him with sympathy and even likability. It was a performance that required droll comic timing and Isaac was great at just staring with a “Can you believe this is happening to me?” look that was as hilarious as it was poignant. Really, how many actors can be that funny while being morose?

He managed to keep the audience on his side too even when Davis does the most unforgivable. In the early part of the film, he blithely lets a friend’s cat escape the apartment where he’s crashed for the night. Luckily, Davis finds an orange tabby on the street and thinks it’s his friend’s pet, so he starts carrying it around with him until he can return it. It turns out not to be the right cat, yet Davis won’t part with it. (The cat is a metaphor for the lost soul that Davis himself is.) Then when he gets the chance at a big audition in Chicago, Davis packs up and takes the cat with him. But the driver runs off and leaves the car with no keys. Thus, Davis abandons the car and the cat in it in the middle of a sub-zero night. It’s a horrible moment, and Davis’ actions make the audience gasp at his cruel decision. True, John Goodman’s bellicose music man is still in the auto napping, but the cat is doomed because of Davis’s selfishness. Nonetheless, Isaac managed to make the audience (and cat owners and lovers like me) understand the desperation of his singer’s situation.


Isaac did all of his own singing and guitar playing as Llewyn Davis. And he’s truly terrific at it. Could he do musicals on Broadway if he wanted to? You bet. And he can even dance. Did you see him “tear up the f**kin’ floor” in EX MACHINA?


Isaac hasn’t become a superstar yet, though it’s likely going to happen sooner than later. And hopefully, he’ll remain as down-to-earth and accessible as he is now. When he’s interviewed, Isaac talks mostly about the film and others in it. He strikes me as the most modern of actors in that he not only can pontificate about his craft, but he’s a fan of other actors and the business itself, willing to talk them up while doing his due diligence on the promotion tour.

The man can talk the talk about what’s going on in entertainment like someone who makes a point to get out to the Cineplex for more than just his own premieres. And if you’ve ever seen him on THE TODAY SHOW or GOOD MORNING AMERICA, he’s always very present at those early hours, and exceedingly cordial too. He knows how to keep a good conversation going.

Isaac doesn’t consider himself too big for TV, and that’s why he’s doing HBO. (I know, I know…it’s not TV, it’s HBO.) He’s also not too big to be an active participant in things like ComicCon, where he appeared just last week as part of the STAR WARS panel, as well as the X-MEN APOCALYPSE panel. Isaac isn’t one of those angry, suffering actors who recoil from fans or press. He’s enjoying the ride.

His character is the new STAR WARS movie is apparently that of an accomplished pilot for the Jedi forces. Of course, it remains to be seen just how black, white or gray his character is. No matter though, Oscar Isaac will add nuance and complexity to the part. He’s committed, clever and always surprising to watch. Such qualities make him, for my money, the most interesting actor working today.

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