After a string of indie hits, Oscar Isaac has a CV to die for. But he’s about to become a whole new leading man
Oscar Isaac feels like he’s been hit by a truck. But he’s not describing the brutal training regime for his upcoming role in The Force Awakens, nor is he regaling ShortList with a particularly grisly on-set anecdote. No, his full-body bludgeoning is the reaction he felt when he saw the new film for the first time.
“Just processing the whole thing,” he says quietly. “Watching it was like being brain-hacked by JJ Abrams. Things from my childhood, things about my future. It’s intense.”
Isaac, who plays smooth-talking resistance fighter Poe Dameron, remains conveniently silent when asked about the plot. But he describes his wisecracking character as “the guy you’d want in the trenches with you”, which is handy as, much like last time, the start of this trilogy sees the galaxy plunged into war.
That sense of chaos across the Galactic Empire affects the actors, too. Isaac may have more big-screen experience than newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, but he’s largely known for his indie-film leanings, from A Most Violent Year to playing the titular character in Inside Llewyn Davis.
A new world
His new role as a Disney-approved bona-fide action hero, then, must be slightly daunting, not least because he’s on the verge of being one of the most in-demand actors in the business.
“I don’t really think about that so much,” he admits. “Because... what’s the point? You don’t know how things will go. I’m someone who likes privacy and anonymity, and so I just make choices that try to preserve some of that.”
As the (self-professed) “Greatest Pilot In The Entire Galaxy”, Poe Dameron has drawn comparisons with Han Solo due to his one-liners, old-school charm and unflappable demeanour. But Isaac isn’t having any of it.
“[People say that] because they lack imagination,” he says dryly.
Ah. So Poe is more of a Luke Skywalker kind of guy?
“He’s like Poe Dameron, man! He’s his own man,” Isaac replies. “He’s cutting his own path.”
If his character sounds like anyone, it’s Isaac himself. In person he is warm and engaging, pacing around the room instead of sitting down because he’s getting slightly restless. He talks in slow, considered tones, pausing often to think, before springing up and walking somewhere else.
You feel a bit ridiculous making stuff up to react to. [The directions] were “Yeah, just fly around and shoot stuff, maybe say something
It’s hard to verify what he’s saying, though, thanks to the intense hush-hush surrounding any and all details concerning The Force Awakens. When ShortList travelled to Los Angeles to meet the cast for this issue’s colossal celebration of the massive franchise, fans, journalists and insiders alike were swapping rumours, tidbits and hearsay in an attempt to try to piece together what happens in the new film.
Filming for The Force Awakens took many of the cast to far-flung corners of the world, from Iceland to Abu Dhabi, as remote landscapes and lush forests were transformed into striking planets and jaw-dropping homeworlds. But as for Isaac, he stayed at the slightly less exotic Pinewood Studios, where much of his filming involved sitting in the cockpit of his very own X-Wing.
As a hardcore Star Wars fan, this ended up being kind of a big deal. But Isaac comes from a long line of Star Wars fanatics – his uncle, brother and cousin are all huge fans – and when he arranged for his uncle to visit the Pinewood set during filming, JJ Abrams made him a once-in-a-lifetime offer and asked if he would like to appear in the film as an extra (naturally, Isaac can’t tell us what his part involves).
The mind of a fighter
To get into Poe’s head, Isaac read What It’s Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes, a book exploring the mentality of fighter pilots, in order to understand the process of people involved in the fighting.
“[It] talks about the emotional aspects of the job, and entering a ‘spiritual domain’ – a lot of soldiers aren’t trained to understand what you’re dealing with in that kind of world. And I thought that connected so beautifully to this, because, at the core of Star Wars is this spiritual aspect of light and dark, and this ‘thing’ that connects us all – the Force.
“I read about what you have to do up there, thousands of feet in the air at incredible speeds, and all the other things that are going on in your mind,” he recalls. “How those dogfights create a sense of invincibility, and swagger, and confidence. You’re able to do things that nobody else can do.”
Even though his X-Wing doesn’t actually, you know, fly or fire lasers, continuity in the Star Wars universe meant that Isaac had certain protocol to follow when he finally sat in his vehicle.
“I arrived on set and they had this blueprint in my trailer showing the cockpit layout,” he says. “And they actually had an ignition sequence, showing what buttons I needed to press to get it started. It was very specific.”
But when it came to shooting dogfight sequences, Isaac had to figure that out for himself.
“All the stuff in the cockpit is challenging,” he says, “because you feel a bit ridiculous making stuff up to react to. [The directions] were “Yeah, just fly around and shoot stuff, maybe say something”, and I thought, “Riiiight.” It was a little tough, and a little humiliating. But you see it put together and it works. It’s about trust.”
It’s hard to imagine Isaac covered ‘firing imaginary lasers’ in his thespian training. Like Adam Driver, he trained at The Juilliard School in New York, which is renowned for having one of the most prestigious arts programmes in the world.
The two enjoyed working together on The Force Awakens, too. Footage in the trailer shows a particularly bruised-looking Isaac being dragged down a dark and ominous corridor, leading many to assume he may get captured by the sinister First Order, a group who have come together since the fall of Darth Vader’s Empire in Return Of The Jedi.
“It was good to be with him again,” he says of Driver. “Our first day on set was with our scene together.”
“Er, with a scene together. That was nice, we were both equally a bit nervous, so we could talk to each other, joke to each other.
“He’s really, really great in this movie,” he says, looking slightly awe-struck thinking of Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren.
“It was very cool, because [our working relationship] was so different,” he says. “In Llewyn Davis I was the mean one and he was the nice one, and now we’ve switched roles. It was like revenge for him.”
The next episode
Filming for Star Wars: Episode VIII will begin in the new year, according to producer Kathleen Kennedy. Whether Isaac is involved or not remains a mystery. First, he’ll need to survive The Force Awakens.
“Mmhmm,” he says, when asked about his schedule for January.
Is that a yes?
“I’m going to get up again,” he says, before pacing the room. Star Wars fans might be finding the wait to know more excruciating, but they’ve got nothing on Oscar Isaac.
The Force Awakens is at cinemas nationwide now