Oscar Isaac is a busy man. Last night marked the finale of the HBO miniseries “Show Me A Hero,” and if you’ve missed it, be sure to track it down on HBO’s streaming services or in reruns. Written by David Simon, directed by Paul Haggis, and featuring one of Isaac’s finest performances to date, it’s the tremendously moving true story of Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko who fought to implement court mandated public housing in the wealthy, mostly white city. Facing political opposition and public anger, Nick put his own personal health and reputation on the line to do what he believed is the right thing. Working with Simon’s great script, Isaac creates a complex, compassionate portrait of the former mayor.
However, as I said, Oscar Isaac hardly has a moment. In addition to promoting “Show Me A Hero,” he recently wrapped work on “X-Men: Apocalypse,” he starts shooting “The Promise” with Christian Bale in September, and there’s a little movie coming later this year called “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” that will bring the actor global recognition. So perhaps it’s not a surprise it took a few missed calls and some rescheduling to get the actor on the phone, who was gracious enough to follow-up given his already full calendar.
Starting off with his work in “Show Me A Hero,” and I also talked with Isaac about his approach for the ‘X-Men’ and ‘Star Wars’ films, and more. Check out our discussion below.
The final scene in the second episode with you and Catherine Keener is great, I think it’s one of the key moments of the whole series. How did you two approach and work on that scene?
We had talked a bit about it before, Catherine and I, but the schedule was such that we weren’t going to be there [to shoot the scene together]. So we just rehearsed over the phone a bunch of times and tried different things and just talked about where we were at and what was happening.
It was really, really helpful and that actually ended up being one of my favorite scenes, because I also have such an affection for her as an actor and a person. I do feel like Nick — I want her to like me [laughs]. [The scene] was one of those things where two people are reaching for connection but not necessarily even knowing that they are. And I think Catherine played it so well, that moment when she realizes that she’s actually talking to the Mayor. And that’s always the best when you see a character betray himself, starting off believing they’re one thing or going after one thing and it gets completely turned around.
I think it was one of those scenes that really does highlight how Nick really responded [in real life]. I have a recording, an hour of him on a radio program just taking calls from angry listeners. And they say some heinous things: How could you sell us out? You’re selling our souls up the river. Then he’d say in that calming voice, “Well it’s a tough time in Yonkers. It’s a tough time for everyone, especially if they’re in elected office, but I hope that you can remain trusting in me and knowing that I’m trying to do the best…” He would never take the bait, but you know how much it was affecting him. To turn the other cheek, that kind of reaction to such vitriol, that does take a toll as well.
It sounds like for you that was an entry to understanding who he was. That this is a guy who would go to the furthest degree to make a point and take a stand.
Or to appeal to the fact that it’s the law. The constitution is not there to protect what’s popular, it’s there to protect the laws of the land. It was a clear guide for Nick into what was the “right thing” to do. It wasn’t so much a moral obligation. In a way he realized, “I’m there to make sure the law is upheld” and that’s what at that moment, as the mayor, he thought, “That’s what I can best do. I can say we can do everything we can within the law to appeal it and we lost the appeal and now we have to make sure the city doesn’t fall apart, we have to implement it, and personally what is everyone freaking out over anyway?”
This is your first major television series. How did staying with a character for so long change your approach or process?
I’ve been with film characters longer. We shot this in under four months. It’s like a six hour movie, so the work load was far greater, but the amount of time was the same. It wasn’t a character I lived with for a long time, it was concentrated. But I had to figure out an arc over that length of time, be absolutely secure in what part of the story I’m in at in any given moment when we’re shooting it so wildly out of order, and build it very incrementally. Because we knew where we were going, we had more room to be light in the beginning. And just by the nature of the script you know how Nick much you cares about [the housing fight], and there is an energy to Nick in the beginning, a lightness, an optimism and playfulness, that we could actually let breathe for a while, knowing that things were going to take a turn, and we didn’t have to telegraph it in the performance.
This is a great role. Are you seeing on the TV side more stories like this that you wouldn’t normally see say from the studio side?
I don’t know, I don’t actually see a lot like this [in general]. This is kind of unique and this is why David Simon is such an important voice, because he has the interest and the expertise and the talent to do it, and also the clout so that he can get it done and he can get it made. It doesn’t sound like the easiest sell but we know that it’s done with integrity, so I think we’re fortunate that we’ve got a storyteller like him that’s willing to give us something that is different from a lot of the other stuff that’s out there.
What was the sell for you when this project came to you: was it David Simon, was it Nick? Was it something else?
It was a little bit of everything. Our director Paul Haggis said a really smart thing for a director to say to an actor like myself: “I want you to do this because I have no idea how you’d do it.” And that appealed to my sense of creativity, and it’s a challenge. The gauntlet is thrown down, and it’s “All right what can you do?” and obviously I read the script and thought it was interesting but it really wasn’t until I saw a video of Nick, and that was basically it. I saw a video of him walking up to the microphone, and it was in front of the Supreme Court and everybody was yelling at each other and he’s trying to get in, and he’s waiting to go speak, and everyone’s kind of towering above him and there was just something about his energy and the way he held himself, the way he was talking, which was both fiery and heartbreaking.
What’s happening with “The Promise” with Christian Bale?
We start shooting next month, and it’s from Terry George, the great writer and director. He did “Hotel Rwanda” and “Reservation Road” and this is about the genocide that happened in Armenia from 1915-1917. It follows this doctor, that I play, who gets caught up in the tide of war and Christian Bale plays a reporter from the Untied States and he’s out there trying to get the world to see what’s happening there.
It’s kind of great to watch your career because you’re now doing both smaller films and large franchises. Are you consciously trying to have a foot in both worlds or is this a lucky circumstance?
You can’t really plan that stuff out. I don’t know how you could, especially not me. I was just fortunate enough that things came around when they did, and they seemed cool enough for me to want to get involved with them. I like acting, so it was just fun to try different styles, and I definitely like a good challenge, so I look for stuff that I haven’t done before.
And what have you learned and taken away from your experiences making “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”?
You use different tools, different approaches. With ‘X-Men’ it was great because there’s an embodiment of such big ideas, you’re not working in the realm of naturalism. And just because something’s natural doesn’t mean that it’s interesting — and I think Kubrick knew that very well. Sometimes it’s fun to push performance into other places that is not just about the same kind of verité thing. You can go to heightened places in a Greek tragedy or kabuki kind of way. You have these forms that express more than just an individual’s personality. And that’s been really fun to play with in ‘X-Men.’ With ‘Star Wars’ it’s similar things, you’re playing in such a heightened reality that in that regard sometimes simplicity is your strength. Instead of getting out all the colors, you focus on the primary colors, and keep it simple and direct.