Oscar Isaac on the Coen brothers: 'They've been like godfathers to me'
Oscar Isaac tells our film crtic about his special relationship with the Coen brothers and why he wished he had been able to film some of his Star Wars scenes in Ireland
Three years ago, Oscar Isaac was an obscure actor in his mid-30s who didn't seem to be going anywhere very fast. Small parts in films like Che, Robin Hood and Madonna's disastrous Wallis Simpson biopic W.E. hadn't attracted much notice, and he was still auditioning for theatre plays and TV shows when the Coen brothers asked him to try out for their 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis.
A wry drama set in 1960s Greenwich Village and telling the story of a struggling folk musician, it was a role tailor-made for Issac, who's a musician himself and still regularly performs. He got the part, was nominated for a Golden Globe and suddenly every casting agent in Hollywood was interested in him.
He's chosen his subsequent projects well. After an eye-catching turn in Hossein Amini's underrated Cold War thriller The Two Faces of January, Issac co-starred with Jessica Chastain in JC Chandor's gripping 1970s thriller A Most Violent Year, giving a performance so intense some likened him to a young Al Pacino.
He played a creepy inventor obsessed with creating the perfect sentient robot in Alex Garland's beautifully orchestrated science-fiction chiller Ex Machina, then turned up in the most celebrated sci-fi franchise of all, starring opposite Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Adam Driver in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a daring rebel fighter pilot who takes Daisy Ridley's character under his wing.
He has had luck, which he acknowledges, but also the courage to tackle demanding roles, and his latest film plumbs the horrors of the Armenian genocide during World War One. In Northern Irish director Terry George's drama The Promise, which opens here next Friday, Isaac plays an ambitious young Armenian from a small country town who arrives in Istanbul to study medicine on the eve of World War One. The Ottoman Empire enters that conflict with typical bluster, but within a year, the Turkish government begins a covert attempt to annihilate its Armenian minority. "To my great shame, I didn't know much at all about it," Isaac tells me. "I'd heard about it vaguely, but had no idea of the scale so when I read more, I was surprised, shocked, appalled, moved, and wondered why it was so unknown. It's so close in a way, and yet so on the cusp of being lost to history so I felt like it was extra special to be part of a film being made about this subject, you know?"
His character, Mikael, arrives in Istanbul with high hopes for a future that's about to be taken away from him in the most brutal and unexpected way. But he's no saint himself: he's engaged to a girl from his village whose dowry is helping pay his college fees, but falls in love with a glamorous society beauty played by Charlotte Le Bon.
"I think the hope in creating these fictional characters," Isaac says, "and this love story in the middle of it all, was that they're very relatable things.
"The idea of coming from a small town and wanting to go to the big city and make something of yourself, and you fall in love with someone that maybe you shouldn't, these kind of things happen to people every day all around the world.
"And then within that, to have those things stripped away by these horrible events, I think that is hopefully what allows people to make parallels to what's happening now. It becomes not abstract, but very personal.
"Mikael just kind of gets buffeted by the winds of fortune, and he reacts to them in much the same way the average person would. And it's just a reminder that things like this are happening right now."
The Promise is unlikely to get a release in Turkey, however, as Ankara has never formally acknowledged that the genocide happened, or taken any responsibility for it. "It's unfortunate," Isaac says, "and it's a tactic we still see today with a lot of governments, you know, admit nothing, deny everything."
The Armenians had always been second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire, despised for their Christian faith and distinctive customs, but in the spring of 1915, while the rest of the world was distracted by the Great War, the Turkish authorities began a covert and systematic campaign of terror and repression that seemed consciously designed to wipe the Armenians off the face of the earth.
Able-bodied men were either massacred on the spot or slowly worked to death in forced labour camps, while women, children and the elderly were marched into the Syrian deserts to die. Between 1915 and the early 1920s, it's estimated that about half of the Ottoman Empire's Armenian population, or 1.5 million people, were wiped out - and many others fled to the US and elsewhere to survive.
In approaching this enormous, daunting subject, Issac tried to focus on his own character first because "that's where everything starts for me".
"I needed to figure out what does he have to know, and what do I need to know about living in a small village in the Ottoman Empire around this time, what of the relationships between Turks and Armenians - what was it that went so horribly wrong?
"The scene that hooked me into the project in the first place was the one in the forest when Mikael finds his family and his entire village slaughtered: every time I would read that, it was very moving for me, so then it was like, well, what will allow that to happen. And so I listened to recordings of the survivors of the genocide recounting their stories, where they'd talk about their grandmothers being bayoneted to death by the gendarmes, babies being left under trees and marching out in the desert to die of thirst.
"All that kind of stuff you have swirling around inside your head so then when you're in that moment, and you see those people, you don't have to stretch so hard, you know."
The shoot, he says, was tough going. "I think there was something like 18, 19 different cities and towns that we shot in throughout Spain, in all kinds of conditions, and it was exhausting. It was one of the most challenging films I've been a part of on a physical level, but also emotionally."
But his performance holds the film together, and demonstrates once again why Issac is one of the most sought after leading men in Hollywood.
Handsome but not especially tall, Oscar has a kind of everyman quality, and an ability to move easily between very different types of role.
Raised in Miami and trained at the exclusive Juilliard School, he made his professional acting debut at 19 in a forgettable film called Illtown. TV and theatre work followed, and in 2005 he played Joseph in Catherine Hardwicke's controversial biblical drama Nativity Story. But the 2000s were slow for the young actor: he was almost too versatile, too good at disappearing into forgettable character roles. Well-received appearances in Robin Hood (as the villainous King John) and Nicolas Winding Refn's thriller Drive were a step in the right direction, but it was the Coen brothers who really changed everything for Isaac.
The Coen brothers had a very hard time casting the role of Llewyn Davis, the earnest folk singer whose attempts to breakthrough in early 1960s Greenwich Village will be entirely overshadowed by the arrival of Bob Dylan. In fact, according to Ethan Coen, they were "screwed until Oscar showed up".
The character of Davis was partly inspired by the 1960s singer Dave Van Ronk, and Isaac's initial audition involved performing one of his songs.
"I sent them a video of me playing a Van Ronk song," he recalls with a smile, "and based off of that, they decided to bring me in. So I auditioned in front of them, and about three weeks later I found out that I'd got the part."
The role might have been written for him, combining the kind of intense character he excels in playing with plenty of singing and guitar playing.
"It was the crowning achievement for me that I was able to do that," he says, "not only because it involved all of the things that I love, but because out of that, I developed a friendship with Joel and Ethan. They've been kind of like godfathers for me with everything I've done post-Llewyn, and it's such a special film for me.
"Doing Inside Llewyn Davis opened up so many opportunities that I wouldn't have had otherwise, and I've been working more or less non-stop ever since."
Oscar's ascent continues apace: later this year he'll star in the George Clooney/Coen brothers comedy Suburbicon, and after that he'll resume his collaboration with Alex Garland in the eagerly anticipated sci-fi thriller Annihilation. And then there's the little matter of The Last Jedi, the next instalment of the Star Wars franchise that's out at Christmas and is likely to be the biggest film of the year.
"My whole family were huge Star Wars fans," he says, "so doing the first one was a surreal experience. Unfortunately, I didn't get to shoot in Ireland for this one. I've never been, but I'd really love to."