It is 1992 and a house built on hope is cracking under pressure. A frightened young family huddles in the living room, hiding beneath a torn roof, praying to survive. The floors are lifting, the carpet is flooding, and as one wall then another splinters, this family’s dreams start to collapse.
Outside, Hurricane Andrew: the sound like a freight train, loud and ominous, relentless and otherworldly. It is coming for them, this force of wind and rain and some other power that feels unstoppable and ungodly, spiteful even. A tree spins through violent gusts, snapped cleanly from its roots. Manicured lawns in the housing development explode. Sidewalks heave and ripple. Windows shatter. It’s impossible to know where inside ends and outside begins. Time has stopped, yet everything else is still in motion. The edges of the world have blurred. I’m going to die, thirteen-year-old Oscar Isaac thinks as he hunches beneath flimsy sofa cushions with his brother and sister, with his parents and their already fraying relationship. I’m going to be hurled into the air by this hurricane and disappear.
It is possible to be young and old at once. To be filled with both a child’s confusion and adult terror—and to still have room for some other wordless, ancient fear to thread itself through you and disrupt the sleep that comes at night, even years later. The hurricane will leave a trail of destruction behind, and though Oscar and his family will make it out alive, some things will not survive intact, like his parents’ marriage. Something else intangible will come untethered in his life. There is nothing certain anymore. There is no such thing as solid ground. And while it might not be free fall, the boy senses a shift in the balance of the world: The security that (if we’re lucky) childhood provides is gone.
He had a small desk, full of pages of the stories he had written. All of them were lost to the storm, to the encroaching sea.
As the years progress, as a burgeoning interest in music and film opens pathways and brings him great acclaim, certain uneasy dreams still persist: of the house, of walking through it, of remembering it and yearning for the promises it held.
“I’ve always felt like an outsider,” Isaac says. He is talking about the characters he feels drawn to as an actor—how they, too, are often outsiders, people grappling with their place in their world. The sun, bright and unusually warm for the time of year, spills through the window behind him. He is in the Brooklyn apartment he bought back when he felt he had made it and that he keeps for visiting family and friends. He is wearing an orange tie-dyed T-shirt and dark sweats, and he sits cross-legged on his bright-yellow sofa, drinking a glass of water. His curly hair is casually finger-combed off his forehead, his dark eyes warm. “Literally, and then emotionally, psychologically. I always felt like I was observing life and not actually experiencing it. There was a lot of guilt with that sometimes—feeling like I was a vulture of my own life.”
To be in conversation with Oscar Isaac, who is forty-three, is to talk with someone who has thought deeply about the course of his life—not out of narcissism or vanity but by necessity, a desperate desire to find what feels like solid ground. For him. For his family. For us, whom his art reaches. He has worked to wrest meaning out of his confusions and fears. His effort is ongoing, and his audiences have the privilege of following him in his relentless and shattering performances, in search of the firm footing he lost every time another of his dreams was interrupted.
Forty-two movies in, where has he led us?
Two nights ago, he hosted Saturday Night Live, his first time. The gig was part of the buildup to his next big project, Moon Knight, his triumphant induction into the vaunted Marvel universe.
But everyone knew Oscar Isaac already, of course. As the wisecracking, brusque Poe Dameron in the three most recent Star Wars movies; as the unsettling, reclusive tech overlord in Ex Machina; as the desperate businessman in A Most Violent Year; as the devastated husband in Scenes from a Marriage. From Dune; from The Card Counter, a recent thriller by Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver; from the anguished melancholy of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Isaac is riveting onscreen, at ease with ambiguity, comfortable maneuvering in that unsteady space where there is no correct response, no right answers, but what exists might be something akin to a greater truth.
Then came SNL and we saw something else: Oscar Isaac is hilarious! As in laugh-out-loud, LMAO hilarious. (If you missed it, watch the whole show, but especially the skit in which he plays a janitor who wants to be a writer.) “Oscar is really funny,” says May Calamawy, his Moon Knight costar. “He’s always down to be goofy and play in between scenes.” When they weren’t rehearsing or filming, she says, they would play Ping-Pong on a table that Isaac had brought in.
Jessica Chastain, his costar in Scenes from a Marriage and A Most Violent Year and a longtime friend, first met him in college. “Oscar was really good friends with my college boyfriend,” she says. “So the first time I really remember being around Oscar was when all the boys were hanging out, and he always seemed like a bit of a troublemaker. He was very mischievous. I would tease him a lot because he would behave badly and I would take him to task for it.” Years later, when they were filming A Most Violent Year around 2013, Chastain brought a foot-massage machine to the set, and between takes Oscar would get his feet massaged while the two of them sat watching The Great British Bake Off.
As we sit and talk in the apartment in Brooklyn, he says he’d like to go get coffee soon, but we never do—the conversation flows and there is never a natural break. He is as funny and quick-witted as the others say. He laughs easily, and bubbling between pauses is a ready smile. Behind him, a bicycle leans against the railing of the narrow balcony. A tall shelf in the living room holds rows of records. Next to the glass coffee table, on a console against the wall, are photos of his wife and their children. In one, Isaac is holding his baby son, bent down to kiss him.
This article appeared in the APRIL/MAY 2022 issue of Esquire
There is a moment in Scenes from a Marriage, a five-part series that explores a couple’s relationship, when Isaac’s professor character, Jonathan, recounts a nightmare to his estranged wife, Mira, played by Chastain. He is bare chested, just woken from the disturbing dream, and he is trying his best to describe what he dreamed. He is shaken—scared, even—and uses his hands as he attempts to explain what he saw. What makes this scene mesmerizing and painful is the tremor in Jonathan’s voice as he speaks to Mira, his eyes locked on hers, never leaving her. He is afraid to let her go, maybe more afraid of that than of anything else that has ever frightened him, and what rests between that tremulous voice and that unwavering gaze is another terror—primal, even. We feel it, too. A fear of the unknown.
He tells me about a home movie, The Avenger, he made at around ten years old with his friend Bruce. It had a simple plot: One of a set of twin brothers owes money and is trying to escape a henchman. The complication comes in the roles Oscar and Bruce assigned themselves. Oscar plays the debt-ridden brother and the henchman—dual opposing roles. The characters fight each other, and the henchman kills the brother, prompting the surviving twin to seek vengeance. It looks like the work of a child who felt split between forces that seemed equally oppressive, equally bad.
He showed a clip of this home movie on SNL, this childhood vision of himself as a hero, vanquishing the enemy inside. Emerging triumphant and strong in the world he constructed when so much else around him felt like too much.
Where can one go when it feels like there is no escape?
It is possible to be both villain and avenger, to be in a battle where you must find a way to simultaneously destroy and protect yourself. This conundrum is at the core of what makes us human—it has been the inspiration behind some of the greatest performances and the most devastating art, and of some of the most seismic human actions in world history. It is also at the core of the electrifying, elusive restlessness that flickers between Oscar Isaac’s spoken lines in every scene he does. It complicates his characters, layering their every expression with something else that eludes language, that unfolds only in the subtle gestures that constitute an entire and silent vocabulary.
Denis Villeneuve, who directed Isaac in 2021’s Dune, says there was a scene in which Isaac suggested cutting most of his spoken lines entirely. “It was a very intimate scene with Lady Jessica, and the scene became absolutely cinematic,” he says. “Oscar expressed everything in his eyes. I thought that was way more moving and interesting.”
Moon Knight is a thrilling six-part series based on the Marvel comic. On the show, Steven Grant is a hapless, mild-mannered museum-shop employee who starts to suffer blackouts and discovers he shares a body with a conflicted but cruel mercenary named Marc Spector—Isaac plays both characters. Grant, we learn, has dissociative identity disorder, and his struggle transforms him, allowing him to move forward in unpredictable ways.
Isaac is very aware that the Marvel franchise, of which he is now a part, has become a significant point along the continuum of cinema. “Marvel has taken the place of big comedies, to a certain extent, in the theater. There was a time when you’d go and watch the big comedies. You’d watch Hangover, you’d watch all the great Judd Apatow films,” he says. “And now it feels like these are the movies that people go to, to have a really good time and to laugh. These superhero movies, particularly the Marvel movies—exclusively the Marvel movies. That’s a really important element. But tonally, what Downey started—which was just amazing—was kind of the slightly self-referential, really cynical, but beautiful character. If you go back and watch that first Iron Man, that thing’s got teeth.”
Moon Knight, too, has its teeth, barely hidden. The series makes a unique and powerful assertion about mental illness: It removes the stigma and reminds the audience of the power of the imagination to offer life-sustaining alternatives to a troubled man who might otherwise break.
“It’s a celebration of the power of the human mind,” Isaac says. “It’s basically saying, We have a superpower and it’s the human brain, particularly for those who deal with trauma and sustained abuse. There’s this thing that the brain can do to allow them to survive.”
If superheroes have their capes and their flamethrowers to help them survive, we ordinary humans have our imagination. It has been our shelter for millennia, a way to express and to understand what feels incomprehensible. When it all gets too heavy, sometimes the fragile rope tethering us to solid ground snaps clean, and there is often no refuge sturdy enough to put us back together except in the intimate, private shelter of our minds.
“My uncle suffered with mental-health issues,” Isaac says. “He started crying watching an episode of Moon Knight because, I think, it just felt like being seen. There was something there that felt like an acknowledgment of the pain and what people do with pain, and the forgiveness, of how you forgive yourself, and how to come to terms with the child within you.”
Isaac’s performance is masterful. His work on it was intensive, says Ethan Hawke, a costar: “There are some actors—and you see them in a Marvel movie, or any big studio movie—and, like, they cashed out. They got to a certain level of fame and now they’re going to make a bunch of money and phone in a performance and they’ll get back to what they really love. Oscar didn’t do that. He worked on both of these characters differently. He had his vocal coach there with him in the makeup trailer, he’s doing countless tests, he’s coming in on Saturday for rehearsal and Sunday having brunch with the writers. He came in every day hell-bent to make something worth watching. And he transfused his energy to us.”
His work on Moon Knight as an actor and executive producer is the closest he has come to what it feels like to write and record music, he says. He’s an accomplished musician (in Inside Llewyn Davis, he sings all the songs his folk-singer character performs) and was part of a band in Florida that was starting to achieve some success—they opened for Green Day once—before he left to study acting at Juilliard in 2001. For years, his songs came to him only when he swam in the ocean, in Florida. While he floated with his arms outstretched, suspended between flight and collapse, a melody would attach itself to words. The words always came, without fail. Lyrics about hope and uncertainty and confusion and trying to corral a world that kept shifting.
Music was leading him toward another creative path, and eventually he had to decide between his band and his acting. The goal was the same: to try to make sense of what it means to live in a world that was not fashioned in a way he would have liked. The choice was not a choice at all, though. “There’s something my dad said, from the Bible,” Isaac says. “It’s something along the lines of ‘Do what’s before you with all your might.’ What was before me was acting.”
To this day, though, he always has a guitar nearby.
The ranch-style house in the suburbs of Miami, Hurricane Andrew still a couple years away. Several windows with crisp white frames grace the front. There is a well-kept lawn with short hedges and a tree perched on the edge of a gentle slope. This house sits, serene and lovely, against the bright Florida sky. It is a structure built to look like a home, designed to inspire dreams of a tranquil future, of a life surrounded by safety and calm.
The house, in fact, is the model for the housing development—a metaphor for every dream of those who walk through it. It is an idea of a house. Yet Oscar and Eugenia, Isaac’s parents, bought it anyway, furniture included. It has taken the young family years to get to this place. After many moves and several apartments, they have finally arrived. It will be the first time they live in a house.
Little by little, the family wove its own dreams around the promise that the house offered. I try to imagine what the black-and-white kitchen tiles that Oscar’s mother picked out might have represented to a young mother from Guatemala, those tiles so emblematic of a nostalgic American dream, of Americana. That music coming from the converted garage where her husband, who is a doctor but also a musician in his spare time, writes music and listens to his stereo and plays Cat Stevens songs on his guitar: Could it have reminded Eugenia of the recording career that her mother—Oscar’s grandmother—had to abandon once she was married in Guatemala? As she goes into the room of her sons, Oscar and Michael, and watches them play in the red truck-shaped bunk bed they love, does she look inside the small desk and feel pride in Oscar’s stack of short stories and plays?
Every Friday night, on his way home from work, Oscar’s father would bring home movies for the family to watch on Betamax. Once he brought home Clue, in which Tim Curry plays a clever English butler. Another Friday night, it was Legend, the Ridley Scott movie—in which Curry plays the Devil. Oscar was fascinated. “There was one moment when the Devil laughs and I saw that little sneer in his lip. It was the revelation that the same actor from Clue is also the Devil. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that it was the same person,” he says. “So that kind of immediately hooked me into, there’s this thing where you can magically transform into somebody else and nobody will know—and maybe somebody will know.”
How much can a house contain? Eugenia’s is a story of other women from other places, like my own mother and her sisters in Ethiopia: She was never encouraged to go far in school, to pursue creative interests or a career. What she has is this house. It is tangible, more solid than her marriage. It will shelter her children and give them refuge in a storm. These children. They will carry what she is becoming too ill to shoulder. Because there is also this: the body we must all bring with us, no matter where we go, no matter how high we climb. She will teach them about love, about faith, and right from wrong. And they will flourish, no matter what happens to her.
“My mom and her sisters,” Isaac says, “were taught, Don’t waste your time on an education. Follow God, get your husband, raise your family. Every single one of them divorced, and so I get it. It was like the house was the symbol.”
Isaac leans back in a chair in a different house now, also in Florida, a home he bought for his mother when he became a star. He wears a black T-shirt and baseball cap. A painting hangs on a pale-blue wall. It is sea green, with what looks like a mountainous landscape rising from water, surrounded by low-hanging clouds. Tomorrow marks the day, five years ago, that his mother died from pancreatic cancer, in this house.
And so tomorrow, he and his family, including his wife and two young sons, will walk on the beach and throw flowers into the ocean, a way to remember the woman who took him to his first audition, who drove him to every one during those early years. She stood next to him in Cannes in 2010, and she was beside him when he got his first Golden Globe nomination, for Inside Llewyn Davis in 2014.
“She watched everything,” he says, smiling. His voice grows soft here, tender. “She kept a scrapbook. She did everything.”
(We are speaking over Zoom, and at one point he suggests a break to get coffee. “Ten minutes,” he says. Precisely ten minutes later, he reappears. “Got a coffee, wiped a kid’s butt, good to go,” he says.)
Those days in the model home should have been full of happiness and excitement, but the family was slowly falling apart. His mother was suffering from kidney problems and had to start dialysis, and his father was often gone at work. His parents weren’t getting along. Oscar took refuge in his imagination. He wrote plays that were turned into musicals at school. Short stories about a mockingbird in a cuckoo’s nest, where it doesn’t belong, knocking the eggs over. About a platypus on Noah’s ark, skeptical about the coming flood. And he made those short movies about invincibility. His characters fought each other on camera, one side of himself battling and defeating the other.
Isaac has of course made friends, good friends, over the years—friends who feel like family, or a different kind of family. One is Pedro Pascal, whom he met when they both acted in an off-Broadway play. “We have very similar backgrounds,” Pascal says. “We’re both children of Latin immigrants, so there’s sort of a cultural familiarity, then at the same time we’re both actors. We have the same dreams. It’s something very special because it can be a lonely journey when you’re out there going after—it sounds corny, but going after your dreams, and to find family along the way.” He pauses, laughs: “The other side of it is that he’s the younger brother I never wanted.”
After Hurricane Andrew destroyed that model home, his parents separated. Oscar, his siblings, and their mother moved again to another house. It was large and spacious and sat on five acres, its rooms waiting to be filled with memories and new hopes. Her “dream house,” he says. Oscar’s mother put everything she had into purchasing it, leaving no money for furniture. Three years later, she would undergo a kidney transplant and be forced to sell it. She had to move away again, to another town, but it was just before Oscar’s senior year of high school, so he didn’t want to leave the school district. For that last year, he slept on a couch at a friend’s house so he could graduate with his classmates.
“For me,” Isaac says, “she was unconditional love. And when she died, it felt like God died, too.”
Oscar was born in Guatemala and came to the United States when he was six months old. He grew up in a deeply religious household and in a community of evangelical Guatemalan immigrants who felt they must be prepared for the apocalypse, who envisioned the physical world as the arena for spiritual warfare, who worried that if they were not righteous enough, if they did not believe enough, they would not get called up to heaven in the second coming of Jesus Christ.
“We would have church in our house,” he says. “We would have traveling pastors from Guatemala stay at our house. For us, it was like the end of days was around us all the time. The sense of the apocalypse, the sense that we were going to get left behind, the mark of the beast. There was a picture up: I remember my grandmother had this big painting of Jesus knocking on the United Nations, this huge Jesus. It was terrifying.”
I know the one! I tell him. When I first arrived in the U. S. from East Africa, I went to school and attended church with evangelicals, and that picture that Isaac mentions hurtles me back to my own childhood, to the fire-and-brimstone preachers, to that pastel-blue Jesus—he calls it “Godzilla Jesus”—standing in front of a huge building.
We exchange memories of how frightened we were as young children, seeing that image of an oversize, elongated Christ standing at the United Nations. Neither of us yet understood the function of the UN, but we were starting to have a sense of a world that needed to be controlled and patrolled by a greater spiritual force, manifest in a man who looked nothing like the communities from which we came, who looked like no real human at all. To put it bluntly: That shit was scary. It was terrifying and oppressive, and damaging, whether an adult or a child.
“It feels like something directly out of my nightmare,” he says. “It was a form of spiritual abuse. There’s like a real spiritual abuse. So this year’s really been about trying to cultivate a healthy relationship with spirituality, because I went the opposite way—pure materialist—because of all that spiritual trauma,” he says. “If I couldn’t see it and couldn’t touch it, I didn’t want to deal with it.”
His sister and he talk about those childhood days of constant fear and uncertainty, the stifling rules and paralyzing judgment, the purported possessions and exorcisms and the continual awareness that so many of our natural inclinations can be termed sin, so much of who we are can hurl us into a fiery hell and eternal damnation. (His sister is a climate scientist now. “So her profession is end of days,” he says.)
He turned away from religion, from anything that resembled a belief in a higher power, in divine intervention. Recently he has started to reconsider what spirituality can mean, without the oppressive and controlling features. “I’m trying to move back to a sense of something bigger than myself,” he says. “There’s obvious beauty and importance and connection in spirituality, but man, can it get hijacked.”
Silence. Isaac transforms into a disillusioned sixties intellectual in a restless, radical enclave of New York City. The play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,written by Lorraine Hansberry and published in 1964, is an examination of the hypocrisies that exist in even the most bohemian, liberal communities. It is a play about art and its potential to disturb and confound, and about the sacrifices and risks that making art entails. There he is, the lights coming up—
This is one of his dreams. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is the project Isaac dreams of doing. Hansberry—the first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway, A Raisin in the Sun in 1959—challenged society’s sense of decorum, asked what respectability means when it continues to allow—and participate in—discrimination and bigotry. Brustein’s Window was the last play that she wrote before she died at the age of thirty-four from pancreatic cancer, in 1965.
“You realize what the world was deprived of when she died,” Isaac says. “She was just staggering.” He is drawn to the play’s defiant statements about art, racism, homophobia, and misogyny. There is a moment in the play when Sidney’s wife chides him for his illiberal sentiments and calls him Victorian. “The Victorians, sweet, were not against ‘sin,’ ” Sidney retorts. “They were opposed to its visibility.”
“In a way, we’re living in an almost Victorian time,” Isaac says. “It’s not about what you really believe. It’s about what you’re going to get called out on. I even noticed when I did four productions during Covid, and even the Covid protocols were all vastly different from production to production, because it wasn’t really about safety. It was about liability, right? It was about, What might we be called out on if there’s an outbreak, if this person gets sick, if that person gets sick? So it depended on who was running the show and how fucking crazy they were and how much they wanted to defend their position in their job. Then within that, of course there’s safety and we want to do the right thing and we don’t want people to get sick. But that’s not what it was really about.”
There are important conversations to be had about topics that might make people uncomfortable, but when expressing honest thoughts becomes a liability, he says, it gets difficult to communicate. “That’s very hard, to have dangerous art, so in some ways the abstract and the surreal, there’s more safety there,” he says—and that’s scary for a lot of people. “I grew up with this idea of, Don’t label me. I don’t need your labels, man. Now it feels like you’ve got to have a label and it better be the right label. It’s very much about the labels. It’s interesting, the evolution towards that, which all comes from a reaction to something else, and how that evolves and then suddenly you find yourself in this weird place. Then how that’s going to eventually change to something else—the abstract and the surreal being the scariest place for people who need to have intense definition to be able to say what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Isaac and Ethan Hawke at a lake in Hungary, on a break from Moon Knight rehearsals. They are tripping on mushrooms, lying in the grass, soaking in the sun. A live Phosphorescent album plays in the background, maybe on somebody’s phone. Everything is expansive, glowing, harsh lines melting and sun a cascade of light falling like stars. Oscar is floating again, back in the ocean, back at home in his mother’s house. He is somewhere between ascent and free fall, in that suspended place where the imagination rises to make contact with the divine. The music: soaring and aching, steady and gentle. The deep thrum of the bass, the reverb, the hush in the crowd audible even from this place.
Here is joy: It is a tender gift to cup in the hand and protect.
Here is mercy: It is all going to be all right. Keep going, keep doing what you are doing, because it matters. It is beautiful.
Oscar is both dreaming and, finally, on solid ground, the earth steady beneath him.
The crowd cheers.
Here is a dream: Remember it. Hold it tight.