“You’ve come a very long way in a very short time.” So says another character to Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales in A Most Violent Year. The same could well be said about the actor himself. As recently as 2012 you may not have heard of him, but since his breakout turn in the following year’s Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac’s become one of Hollywood’s most bankable, yet eclectic, stars.
Now 2018 is proving to be one of his most prolific years yet. With the spectacular Annihilation already out, and At Eternity’s Gate and Life Itself to come, Isaac next tackles the hunt for a Nazi lieutenant in this week’s Operation Finale. These four wildly different films typify the 39-year-old’s range and work rate, so what better time to look more closely at the key roles that have got him where he is today.
Llewyn Davis, Inside Llewyn Davis
Despite supporting roles for high-profile directors like Steven Soderbergh (Che), Ridley Scott (Robin Hood), Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch), and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), and the fact he’s undoubtedly a handsome chap as well as a talented one, Isaac was already into his thirties by the time his big leading man break came along. And it came courtesy of the Coen brothers. They’d written their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, before realising they’d given themselves a headache casting the eponymous lead role of a 1960s New York folk singer. They needed not only a great actor but an accomplished vocalist and guitarist.
Eventually they found Isaac, who’d been playing guitar since he was 12 and been the frontman of a band during his college years. For his part, Isaac, not arrogant enough to think that was enough to bag him the role, spent weeks studying folk singing and guitar styles from the ’60s. His performance, which anchors the whole movie, is not only fantastic musically but perfectly conveys the soulful, tragi-comic character of Llewyn that the Coens had created. Dozens of award wins and nominations duly followed, and Oscar Isaac was suddenly hot property.
Abel Morales, A Most Violent Year
A pair of thrillers followed in the form of In Secret and The Two Faces of January, before Isaac got a first shot at headlining a major drama. In J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year he switches it up to portray an ’80s New York businessman, desperately trying to keep his moral compass facing true north while pulling off the biggest deal of his career and keeping his delivery drivers safe from a spate of hijackings. It’s a performance of incredible presence and control, as his Abel Morales struggles to keep his company afloat and his family out of harm’s way during The Big Apple’s most dangerous year on record.
Isaac never fails to make him engaging. He’s quiet, packs an intense stare that will hold anyone’s gaze, and he’s also a hell of a salesman (see below). He aims to be a straight arrow in a corrupt world but he’s still flawed, prone to anger and fear. Isaac also has excellent chemistry in a strained relationship with screen wife Jessica Chastain (a classmate at the Juilliard School). It’s a powerhouse role and within the space of a year or so Isaac had shown he can handle quirky comedy and gripping drama with equal expertise.
Nathan Bateman, Ex Machina
A change in direction followed as a morally dubious, drink-addled tech genius in Alex Garland’s claustrophobic, cerebral AI thriller Ex Machina. Almost unrecognisable with shaved head, thick beard and glasses, Isaac plays the reclusive Nathan, who brings Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb to his high-tech, high-security pad in the mountains to carry out a Turing test on Alicia Vikander’s robotic Ava. In this taut three-hander, Isaac starts out as an eccentric, hard partying tech bro before revealing a darker side with an all-consuming ambition way surpassing Abel Morales’.
The brilliance of Isaac here is in selling the multi-faceted, mood-swinging nature of Nathan’s personality. He is at various times funny, effortlessly cool, scary and cruel, all without becoming an out and out villain. He also knocks a brilliantly deranged dance scene out of the park.
Poe Dameron, Star Wars
A first foray into genuine blockbuster territory as the dashing, cocky Resistance pilot Poe Dameron saw Isaac propelled yet further into the Hollywood stratosphere. Just one member of the new Star Wars class for 2015’s The Force Awakens, Poe may not have had the saga-influencing arcs of Rey and Finn (as yet, anyway) but he’s proved a fine support player in the ever-building Skywalker story.
The Last Jedi, Isaac’s first time reprising a role, may have seen him grapple with a controversial mutiny plot line that some fans didn’t love, but he certainly succeeded in adding depth to his character through his clashes with the great Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo. He’s said himself that he sees it as Poe learning to be not just the heroic pilot, but a general. And of course, joining a franchise with as devoted a fanbase as Star Wars opens one up to far more scrutiny than most roles: people have been (star)shipping Poe and John Boyega’s Finn for three years now, and while it’s unlikely we’ll see them as a couple, Isaac says he wants to keep Poe’s love life ‘fluid’. Watch this space.
Oscar Isaac has shown himself to be a tremendously adaptable actor capable of taking on comedic roles (see also Suburbicon), carrying dramas, and exploring intelligent sci-fi like Annihilation as well as mega-budget tentpoles like Star Wars. His outing in X-Men: Apocalypse may have proven a disappointment, caked beneath purple prosthetics and saddled with a poor script as the titular big bad, but it at least showed a desire to play something different once again. Wanting to be an ancient mutant villain in a comic book movie displayed a willingness to enjoy his work and just have some over-the-top fun. Voicing patriarch Gomez in next year’s animated Addams Family reboot should give him another chance to do just that, and add another string to his already impressive bow.
A second project with J.C. Chandor is also due in 2019, before a return to the Star Wars universe with Episode IX. Whatever comes after that, you can bet that this multi-talented Oscar is going to be in the running for one of his namesake statuettes sooner rather than later.