Films

Oscar Isaac: “I listened to a lot of metal”

First The Force Awakens, now the bad guy in X-Men: Apocalypse. Oscar Isaac is making the transition from indie darling to blockbuster hero just fine. James Gill meets a man not looking back

It’s no surprise Oscar Isaac has become hot property, although his recent superstar status has been some time in the making. From the 37-year-old’s string of indie flicks – playing brooding artists, misunderstood weirdos and ambitious outsiders – to his colossal role in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Isaac has endeared himself as a smart, funny, interesting actor who also knows how to pull off a leather jacket. All important qualities, you will agree. But just as the rest of the world plays catch up and starts to recognise his leading-man status, Isaac goes and plays a humanity-nuking supervillain with a blue-hued face. Well, what else would you expect from a character called Apocalypse?

Yes, like so many actors before him, he’s turned his attention to the superhero franchise with X-Men Apocalypse, although he’s taken the road less travelled and opted to play the bad guy instead. Isaac’s character wants to wreak havoc on the world and rebuild it in his own image, all while looking like a Smurf on steroids. And, as he tells ShortList, he went truly biblical to prepare for it.

How did the role of Apocalypse come about?
It was a character that I was very familiar with. When I was younger, X-Men was one of the comics that I was really into and collected. I was always drawn to that character and also quite frightened by him – just everything that he represented. This character embodies, basically, the Second Coming, which is something, as a kid growing up in an evangelical family, I knew a lot about and was terrified by. Once I got the first draft of the script, Simon [Kinberg, X-Men producer] and I got together and went through it and I opened up my Bible and we tried to get some of that kind of really hallucinogenic language. It’s pretty wild, I mean this guy – in the Book Of Revelations – is on an island just tripping balls and seeing all this crazy sh*t. And so we kind of tried to take some of those ideas and some of that language and views.

You’re a good-looking man – how did it feel to cover that face in all the prosthetics?
It was a really interesting, unique challenge to find a way to express. Through all the make-up and the suit there was a limited amount of things that I could do and it became a very different challenge to not rely on naturalism to express. You still have to be truthful but you’re just not naturalistic so what else do you do? So I looked into [Japanese] Kabuki theatre and Greek theatre and about when a performer attempts to embody things that are bigger than just an individual human’s experience.

Did you pick the brains of the other X-Men about dealing with prosthetics? I’m thinking Nick Holt as Beast…
It’s not a fun process; on top of the make-up, I had this very heavy suit that needed a cooling mechanism underneath. Nick did, too. The one thing Nick did tell me was to leave the cooling suit on. Always. Sometimes you just put it on when you think you’re gonna be hot, but by the time you realise you’re hot it’s already too late and you’re in the initial phases of heatstroke. So, keep it on the whole time. It was great getting to meet Nick and Jennifer [Lawrence] and Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. They’re just really great fun and positive people.

Menacing the X-Men as Apocalypse

How many hours were you in make-up?
It wasn’t too bad. In total, with putting on the suit and make-up, a little over two hours. But it was more about the process of withstanding it all for a 13-hour day. Having your head encapsulated, sweating into your ears and you can’t reach your ears because you’re encased in this helmet. Having the suit on, there was a limited amount of movement, so I had a cooling tent that I would sit in in-between takes. So it was quite isolating.

How did you pass the time between takes?
I would meditate. I would just sit and breathe and try to relax. If I had a chance to go back to the trailer I would sit and try to read, but it was very uncomfortable what I had on, so it was about trying not to do anything; just being still. They also were respectful of it: when I was all done up it would be a full day so I wasn’t waiting around too much. They had mercy on me.

I’ve got visions of you sitting in your chair rigid and someone coming in to try to read you a story…
[Laughs] It was kind of like that, yeah. I would listen to a lot of music and just try to relax under all that stuff. 

You’re into your music. What did you listen to when you were making the film? 
There were a couple of songs that were real inspirations. Bryan [Singer, director] and I would send music back and forth to each other. The first one was The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash, which was perfect because it’s about the Judgement. And the other was The Boy In The Bubble, the Paul Simon song, which had some fantastic references to the automatic earth and the days we’re living in. So those two were good anthems. And then I also listened to a lot of metal.

To get you in that Apocalypse frame of mind…
Yeah, some hardcore. So that’s kinda what Apocalypse’s jam was. And a good dose of Kendrick Lamar. It was great because I got to see him in Montreal. It was amazing. It was the first time I’d seen him play live and that was cool.

As Poe Dameron In Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Did you go with your cast-mates?
Yeah, a large amount of the cast. They have all these festivals in Montreal in the summer so we all went. Nick and a bunch of the cast were there and it was a very, very fun evening.

Given Star Wars and now X-Men, how has life changed?
My life hasn’t changed too much, which is the best news of all. It’s stayed pretty much the same. I think it’s busier, I have less breaks and definitely have more opportunities to do cool stuff and interesting projects. So on that level it’s changed a bit as far as incoming possibilities. But day to day, it’s same as it ever was.

You’re in London now. Can you go to the shops and jump on the Tube? 
Yeah, yeah, I go around no problem at all. I blend in.

It must be good to be such a film fan’s favourite?
Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s a very nice place to be and it’s exciting to know that people are interested and excited to see what comes next. And, you know, I’m sure I’ll let everyone down at some point. But while it lasts it’s great.

What else are you allowed to say, without someone breaking your kneecaps?
There’s going to be more Poe. [Director] Rian Johnson has done a really great job. He’s written an extraordinary script that pushes some boundaries in a great way and it has been fascinating to see these characters get pushed to their limits.

What’s your next project after Star Wars?
I will be playing Hamlet next year in New York.

How did that come about? 
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time with a really great director named Sam Gold. He actually has a play up right now called The Flick at London’s National Theatre. It’s a fantastic play that you guys should get out to see. He and I have known each other for 15 years and we’ve worked on bits of it before and we’re finally able to find some time in our schedules. So next summer I’ll be onstage in Hamlet, which is very exciting and frightening.

That’s the mother of all roles…
Yeah, gotta do it before the knees give out. Time goes fast, man.

How did you land the role of Poe? 
I met with JJ in Paris, along with [producer] Kathy Kennedy and [writer] Larry Kasdan, and they walked me through the role. At that time, Poe’s life was supposed to end when that Tie fighter crashes. JJ let me read some of the script on his iPhone, which was an incredibly surreal experience. 

Oh my God…
And then I went back home and said, “Oh, it’s a bummer that he dies, let me just think about it a little bit.” And I called him eventually and said, “Yes, of course I’ll do it,” and he said, “Well hold off, I have an idea.” And then a few days later he said, “I’ve figured it out. Poe’s gonna be in the whole film now. The only thing is that now it’s a much bigger role and we don’t know exactly where it’s gonna go, we do need you to come in and read with John [Boyega] and Daisy [Ridley].” And so I came to London, did a reading with the two of them, and two days later I was at that table read with the whole cast.

X-Men: Apocalypse (3D) is at cinemas nationwide now

[Images: Rex, Fox]