Miami’s Oscar Isaac brings stagecraft to the big screen.
Turns out Steven Soderbergh and Madonna have very different styles of telling people what to do, but you wouldn’t know that unless you’re Oscar Isaac. Isaac, currently enjoying “rising star” status in Hollywood, has acted for both directors, first in Soderbergh’s guerrilla-style Che: Part One, and more recently as a Russian Sotheby’s security guard in Madonna’s meticulously micro-managed W.E., due out this December.
“She’s definitely a formidable person, and was very determined to get things right—a really detail-oriented director,” Isaac says, taking a break from rehearsals for Zoe Kazan’s play, We Live Here, at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. “She was calling every day, always asking for updates, and making sure I was working out and getting prepared for the love scene [with Abbie Cornish]. I mean, this is Madonna directing me to make love better.” He adds, laughing, “But I had an ‘in,’ because I knew she likes Latin boys.”
Madonna, rigorous as she was, would consistently check in on Isaac to confirm he was practicing the piano, since he’d be called upon to perform two complex pieces. “I actually had to spend months learning how to play the piano since I’d never played before,” he says. “Sometimes you have to invest a lot of time into a certain craft that’s not just acting, whether it’s the piano or a physical endeavor—and that’s one of the pleasures of doing what I do: acquiring new skills.”
Growing up in Miami with Cuban and Guatemalan parents, Isaac—now 32 and living in New York— originally leaned toward music, singing in punk and ska bands. But when he was accepted to The Juilliard School, he focused on acting and began making quite an impression on the stage, scoring leading roles in two productions for New York’s Public Theater’s famed Shakespeare in the Park program.
His classical training has served him well, allowing for a mélange of charisma and nonchalance, and believable emotional fireworks. This acting athleticism was helpful in roles as the megalomaniacal King John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, as the rather demented Blue Jones in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, and as an ex-con husband in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.
Next month, Isaac heads to Canada to begin filming The Bourne Legacy, directed by Tony Gilroy. But chances are you will see him on a stage again soon enough: “As an actor on film, you just need to live believably, be as honest as possible, and the director and editor will create the story; but on stage, you have to really drive the plot and the scenes yourself. I still like to go back to that and keep those muscles strong.”