With ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ Oscar Isaac reaches new heights

Isaac says he had reservations about taking the Star Wars role.
Isaac says he had reservations about taking the Star Wars role. Lucasfilm

Oscar Isaac was 5 years old when his father took him to see Return of the Jedi. It is the first movie he remembers seeing in a movie theater.

“Maybe I had already seen Bambi or something at home, but Jedi was the first one that stuck with me,” he says. “I came online with that one. The thing that sticks out most is the moment when Darth Vader’s helmet comes off and you see he’s just this fragile guy underneath. He’s just a guy! This sad-sack guy! That scene spoke to that part of me that saw my parents as gods. It was the moment I started to realize they were actually just people.”

With Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, Isaac will help bring that same experience to a new generation of younger moviegoers — and give older ones the opportunity to revisit their youth.

In the movie, set roughly 30 years after Return of the Jedi, Isaac plays Poe Dameron, a hotshot with a reputation for being the best pilot in the galaxy. He flies an X-wing starfighter, he wears the same orange-and-white suit the soldiers of the Rebel Alliance wore in the previous movies, and he’s a good guy — a member of the Resistance, the next-gen incarnation of the rebels.

As of this interview, Isaac had seen the movie, but he was contractually bound to secrecy: On his last day of filming, as he walked away from the set with his personal copy of the script as a keepsake, a lawyer from Lucasfilm called and asked him to return it immediately (he can have it back after the film opens).

But even if he can’t go into detail, Isaac can certainly answer this question: Why would a serious actor who has proved his chops in films such as Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year and the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero want to sign up with the biggest, most commercial movie franchise of all time? “Star Wars” is known for many things, but great performances aren’t one of them.

During a visit to Miami to promote the film, Isaac, 36, smiles and nods and concedes the point, although he also reminds you that Alec Guinness and James Earl Jones were two formidable talents who had no problem signing up for George Lucas’ pop sci-fi fantasy.

Still, a movie as mammoth as The Force Awakens isn’t going to provide Isaac the opportunity to deliver the kind of intimate, finely shaded performance that has become his trademark in films and theater. He knew that going in — and admits he briefly struggled with the question.

“The fun part of acting, for me, is investigating myself — finding very different aspects of myself and magnifying them through a character,” he says. “With Star Wars, it’s a bit different. You’re working with primary colors as opposed to an entire palette.

“There’s popular music and then there’s music that’s a little more discordant. I tend to go for the slightly more experimental stuff that might make people go ‘Huh?’ for a moment. I’m less interested in doing things that are perfectly, instantly palatable. I try to do stuff that won’t necessarily be the most liked, even down to choices within a single scene.

“[Director] J.J. Abrams had seen Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina, and in spite of that — or because of that — he wanted me to add something to this world. I know a ‘Star Wars’ movie is a big pop piece, but I was curious about what he wanted me to add into this thing.

“When I first met with him and he told me the story, I told him I needed to think about this a little bit. I wasn’t sure if that was the right thing for me. Maybe I would rather be a spectator sitting in the theater all excited to watch the movie instead of being part of it.”

Eventually, Isaac says, the script evolved and the character of Poe changed enough to intrigue him.

“I was drawn to the challenge of playing with these slightly more specific set of tools. And because ‘Star Wars’ was such a big part of my life growing up, it was a difficult offer to refuse. So I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ I trusted J.J. completely. And what he has done with the movie is amazing.

“It’s closer to symphonic language than cinematic language. There are movements and rhythms and crescendos and pianissimos. I’m just the oboe that soars over everything for a moment here and there. J.J. was the conductor saying, ‘This is the sound and the instrument I need for this part of the music.’

“And to be honest, it didn’t totally land until I saw the movie. On the set, I felt like I was just out of school again, second-guessing myself and feeling a little self-conscious. I felt like I was yelling my lines the whole time. But when I saw, I thought, ‘OK. All right. I get it now.’