Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac hit the big screen last week as the roguish x-wing pilot Poe Dameron, although the role made him ‘green and insecure’ according to an interview in GQ magazine.
“I was like, what am I doing here? There was not a lot of room to shade in the character. Every time I tried to do that, it would slow things down too much. J.J. would be like, ‘Get on with it, man!’ Just, Louder! Faster! And then I would feel like I was doing that all the time. It felt weird and like I was not being creative.”
Isaac, sometimes compared to Al Pacino for his serious demeanour and striking Latin looks, is usually drawn to dark, complex, melancholic roles. His part as an upbeat Star Wars hero – more than faintly reminiscent of Hans Solo – signalled a radical change of style for the actor, but director J.J. Abrams found his scrupulous approach a benefit.
“He’s a great actor,”
“Oscar’s concerns about making the character feel alive and authentic is the exact reason he’s a great actor. This is a hero that you need to believe is also a human being. And he gave the role a nuance that I think made it one of the strongest in the movie.”
Born Óscar Isaac Hernández Estrada to a Guatemalan mother and a Cuban father, Isaac moved to the United States when he was just five months old. Following stints in Baltimore and New Orleans, his family settled in Miami, where Isaac attended a private school. He was taught to speak in a well-to-do ‘Standard English’ accent (“I was able to think of it not as ‘I’m going to change the way I speak’ but ‘I’ll be able to speak this way as well’”), but was eventually expelled for misbehavior.
Artistic and non-conformist, Isaac spent his formative years singing and playing guitar in a punk band called the Blinking Underdogs.
“For my father, individualism was very important, and he instilled that in me,” Isaac told GQ. “It was way more important to recognize myself as an individual than as part of a group. I wasn’t part of the ‘Latino community.’ I was just a kid in high school with friends, who was into playing music.”
Isaac’s musical talents – and his sense of tortured individualism – proved to be ideal pre-requisites for his leading role as a moody, talented, down-on-his-luck folk singer in the Cohen brothers’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’. Likewise, his most notable parts have drawn on his affinity for complicated, purposeful characters and unusual philosophical themes. In ‘Ex Machina’ he played a narcissistic genius undone by his robotic creations; in ‘A Most Violent Year’ he played an ambitious local businessman grappling with existential crisis.
“I don’t feel comfortable saying I speak for Guatemalans.”
Although he uses an Anglicized name, the actor is fluent in Spanish and did not seek U.S. citizenship until 2006 (his parents became citizens when he was 10). However, he does not think of himself as an ‘ethnic actor’.
“I don’t feel comfortable saying I speak for Guatemalans.” He told GQ. “Or for Latin men. Or for Latin men that are five nine.…”
Isaac is clearly his own man, but his affection for the motherland is indisputable. In February, he toured Guatemala and played a concert with singer Gaby Moreno. In May, he commented how Poe Dameron comes from the planet of Yavin 4, which famously featured in the closing scene of the first Star Wars film. As all good fans know, the Mayan pyramids of Tikal in northern Guatemala were the shooting location for Yavin 4.
‘Star Wars: the Force Awakens’ is currently on general release.
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