My introduction to Oscar Isaac was the 2006 movie “The Nativity Story.”
Isaac played a hunky, sensitive Joseph to Keisha Castle-Hughes’ underage Mary in director Catherine Hardwicke’s take on the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ.
I certainly noticed the actor, but there was nothing at the time to indicate what a versatile, intriguing performer he would become. Or perhaps he always was, but didn’t have the chance to show it until many years later.
Now, of course, Isaac is about to become a household name, as fighter pilot Poe in “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens.”
In trailers and promotions, the actor hasn’t enjoyed as much play as John Boyega, aka Finn, or Daisy Ridley, who portrays Rey.
We know his character is an X-Wing pilot and a soldier in the Resistance. We’ve seen him shaking hands with Finn and being tortured by Kylo Renn. He may be master of adorable droid BB-8. But Poe remains largely shrouded in mystery.
That’s appropriate because J.J. Abrams could not have selected a more mysterious actor to portray this key figure in the new Star Wars trilogy.
Isaac didn’t really land on Hollywood’s radar until 2010 and 2011, when he played a pair of showy villains: a hot-tempered, lascivious Prince John to Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood and abusive brothel manager/asylum orderly Blue Jones in Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch.”
Neither movie was very good, but Isaac delivered memorably flamboyant performances in both of them. The films weren’t really an indication, however, of the cinematic nuance Isaac is capable of.
Despite appearing in many movies of note, including “Drive” and “The Bourne Legacy,” there are only three roles you need to see if you’re wondering why Abrams cast Isaac in “The Force Awakens.”
Llewyn Davis, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” 2013
As the title character in Joel and Ethan Coen’s electrifyingly beautiful, achingly sad folk drama, Isaac leaves a lofty and lasting impression. This is one of the Coens’ love it or hate it films and it was roundly ignored by the Academy come Oscar time. I could deal with that, but not with the fact that they totally snubbed Isaac, my pick for best actor that year.
Capitalizing on his Juilliard education and experience as a guitarist and vocalist, Isaac takes a character who is basically a complete jerk and shows us his worth while delivering soulful, convincing renditions of folk songs, circa 1960s Greenwich Village.
Thanks to the actor, we may never grow to love Llewyn Davis, but we understand him — a tortured artist who cannot function in a world that has turned its back on true art.
Abel Morales, “A Most Violent Year,” 2014
Isaac embraces his inner Al Pacino, but not in a way that feels crass or derivative in this anti-gangster film by up-and-coming director J.C. Chandor.
As an immigrant’s son, who sets out to use his considerable optimism and determination to build a business empire in 1980s New York, without falling victim to the corruption that surrounds him, the actor radiates confidence mingled with an increasing desperation.
Jessica Chastain plays his wife, the daughter of a jailed mob boss. She’s the Lady Macbeth to Isaac’s would-be empire builder. Together, they whip this drama into a frenzy of tragedy, as Abel wills himself to resist temptation, even as he is manipulated by virtually everyone he knows.
Nathan Bateman, “Ex Machina,” 2015
The actor’s gift for evoking menace, mystery, and even a hint of comedy, is on full display in this sleek, suspenseful, breathtakingly twisty science-fiction thriller.
Isaac appears opposite “Force Awakens” co-star Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander, of “The Danish Girl,” as a sort of bizarre, tech-savvy Willy Wonka, presiding over a strange contest involving the development of an uncannily lifelike artificial intelligence.
Nathan Bateman is the genius creator of a Google-like search engine, who lures Caleb, one of his brightest programmers, not to a chocolate factory but a pristine, minimalist compound in the mountainous middle of nowhere. Part Steve Jobs, part frat boy, Nathan is, well, a total tool who drinks heavily, says “dude” a lot and displays confounding mood swings.
Isaac builds layer upon layer into what could have easily been a one-note role, injecting weird humor into his character’s darkness. And he participates in one of the funniest, most disturbing dance sequences in cinema history.
I’m pretty sure Poe’s got nothing on his moves.