The first time I met Oscar Isaac was on the set of Sucker Punch. He was incredibly electric in person, and nobody on that set knew how that movie was going to turn out. At the time Sucker Punch was still a musical, and Isaac was very excited about the song and dance numbers. The next time I met Oscar Isaac was at the junket for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and he was visibly exhausted, and we conducted this whole interview while he laid on a couch with his shoes off. In between these two meetings Isaac had become one of my favorite actors, delivering astonishing performance after astonishing performance, even in movies I didn't particularly like. His turns in Ex Machina and Inside Llewyn Davis alone are all-timers, the kinds of performances that define an actor in the public consciousness forever.
Will his new role in Star Wars be as iconic? Who knows! I attended this junket despite not having seen the movie. I've certainly interviewed filmmakers and actors without seeing their films - this is how Comic-Con works, after all - but I also knew that I didn't want to spend my ten minutes with Isaac asking him questions about the movie that he wouldn't answer, thanks to the cloak of secrecy over the whole thing. What followed was a loose conversation that I certainly enjoyed more than attempting to get secrets and spoilers from him.
And anyway, when you're talking to a dude spread out on a couch the whole vibe is just more relaxed.
One of my favorite quotes about the making of a Star Wars movie comes from the first film, and it’s Harrison Ford saying, ‘Listen George, you can type this shit but you can’t say it!’ I’m fascinated by how an actor approaches this kind of movie when it comes to the jargon and the crazy names. Do you have to sit around and get used to it, or have you grown up on enough technobabble that it works for you?
It’s a little bit of both. I’ve grown up with all of them, so you grow up with a sense of that tone, but it’s another thing to be put on the spot and be told “Okay, make me believe it.” Luckily JJ was really into keeping it loose. We got to improvise a bit - throw out some lines, add some lines. He was after a more messy quality. A quality that was a little bit more alive.
At the same time there’s something classic about it. There isn’t a lot of irony in these things. Granted, Han Solo is very sarcastic, but it lacks cynicism. The real Star Wars tone has an innocence to the whole thing that’s very different from everything else, especially in modern movie making. So yeah, it took me aback a little bit when I saw the lines for the first time and I thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of old school.’ But you go with it, because it’s unique.
An actor can often come into a movie and create their character. They can work with the director or the writer to create a backstory, to get a sense of who this character is off the page and outside the frame. But you’re walking into a story where all of those pieces are going to be decided elsewhere, where Poe Dameron’s backstory is being told in novels and comics that have nothing to do with you. How much do you get to know that stuff in advance, and how much say do you get? Or are you just focusing on the scenes and trying to be in the moment?
This is one of the most surreal things that happened. After shooting I was pontificating about his past, publicly, and I thought, I’m from Guatemala, and in New Hope at the end, at the medal ceremony, it was shot in Guatemala, in Tikal, where you see the pyramids as the ships are leaving. So I thought, how cool would it be if Poe was from Yavin, if he was a rebel fighter from Yavin? So I started saying that and, sure enough, I see a comic book come out where me talking about my character background suddenly is in panels for a comic book and it’s amazing. Lucasfilm got wind of what I was saying, and it got back to the creators of the comic book, and they thought, ‘Yeah, that’s a pretty cool idea! Why don’t we do that?’
That’s not usually how that works on a movie this size.
Yeah, I don’t think it often happens this way. But I think what people often don’t understand - and I say this with all kindness and love to fanboy culture - we’re making this shit up. It’s a creative field, we’re not fucking bankers! We are making it up. Just like the comic books, when a new artist and a new writer comes on to a comic book and they say, ‘What am I gonna do with this shit?’ and they figure it out. And then a new story is born and then because it’s in print, this is the thing, as if it’s always been here. And it’s the same thing with religion! A new dude comes around and makes shit up… but there’s conviction behind those choices. You can have conviction. I can argue why I think this is the way it is, but that’s the artistic process. In a fun way the artistic process of creating Poe has been done publicly where you’ve got this character and then I talk about where he’s been and [Lucasfilm] says, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ and then this comic book comes out that kind of changes it, because I said Poe would be at the medal ceremony, but that doesn’t time out right -
He wouldn’t be that old.
Yeah, he wouldn’t be that old. So he’s not at the medal ceremony, but his parents were at Yavin. It’s like we’re collaborating over this vast public field.
You’re in another major science fiction movie, Ex Machina. It’s a different kind of science fiction movie - a much headier film with a lot of thematic stuff on its mind. Some would say that Star Wars is the opposite of that, that it’s all escapism and fun. Do you think there’s more depth to Star Wars than some might believe?
I absolutely do. I think that’s the whole point of The Force. There’s a spiritual quality to it that separates it from everything else. True, it’s not intellectual, but it’s spiritual. There’s this thing that you can tap into, there’s a light side to it and there’s a dark side to it, and it’s not material. I think that speaks to this longing we all have that there’s something greater and deeper than you see and touch.
I know nothing about your character because they haven’t shown the movie, and I’m sure you’re not allowed to say that much, but from the marketing so far Poe looks like a roguish type. In the original films the original rogue, Han Solo, didn’t believe in The Force. What does Poe feel about it?
I can tell you that he believes in The Force completely. And he believes in The Resistance. And he is committed to The Resistance… almost recklessly.
You’re good at giving answers that are evocative but won’t get you killed by JJ! Is that a pain in the ass, the secrecy? I’m sure from the moment you were announced for this film, every time you’re in public people are asking you about Star Wars. Does it become a drag having to keep it to yourself?
It’s fun. It’s like you buy a present for somebody, you don’t want to tell them what’s inside of it. You want them to open it. It’s that feeling.
Even though The Force Awakens has a lot of practical effects, you’re not actually flying an X-Wing Fighter. You’re sitting in a fake cockpit pretending to dogfight in front of a green screen. When does that become real for you, or is it always silly?
It always feels silly until I see the pieces together. It was a little humiliating. It was tough to figure it out.. well, no, that’s not entirely true. There were moments where I went there with it, but there were moments where it was tough to be in the cockpit and have very non-specific things to react to. “Okay, look right… something blew up!”
Was it on gimbals?
Yeah, it was moving around, they were shaking it, so that part was good. But it was very challenging.
I have no idea if Poe makes it out of this movie alive, but even if he doesn’t there are always comics and books and video games to give us untold stories. You talked about that weird collaboration you had in creating the character - are you open to more traditional collaboration in these ways?
Sure. I did the voice in the Disney Infinity video game. It’s a more childlike version of the character, but it was fun.
Was that your first time doing voice over?
I had done a video game before, but I got fired off it.
I think they just thought I was bad. It was such a shitty game, though. Dante’s Inferno.
That is a really bad game.
You dodged a bullet there.
I had no choice. It was a Force dodge.
As someone who has been following your career for a while it’s interesting watching the kinds of roles you take. Here you’re a supporting actor, but in a movie like Inside Llewyn Davis - and if I can geek out for a second here, that’s one of my favorite movies of this decade - you’re in the very strong leading role. Do you prefer one type of role or the other? Is there a sense for you that you prefer character parts to lead parts? Or vice versa?
I like being the lead of a movie! I like that lead to be a cool character. I’m a lead character actor?
It seems like in the bigger movies it’s hard to find that kind of a role. The lead character in big films rarely is allowed the room to have the depth you brought to Llewyn Davis. Are you able to bring that kind of depth to a Star Wars movie at all?
It’s a different thing. Sometimes simplicity is what is needed, and there’s nothing simple about simplicity. It’s way harder to do, because you don’t have as many tools to express an idea. You’re working with just primary colors and just basic shapes. To try and elicit a feeling of truth with limited things can be much more challenging. I’m not sure I did that with this one, I hope I did some.
But it’s also like an orchestra. It’s a symphonic thing. Maybe I was the oboe who flies in and does this thing but it’s a specific sound that’s needed to complete the sound of the symphony. It’s a different thing, but it has its own set of challenges that are just as legitimate as all the subtle shades that you can create with an introspective character study.
Your thoughts on simplicity sound like something Yoda might say.
Difficult simple is!