Oscar Isaac excels at addressing life after “Star Wars.” Last year, when asked if he would return to play intergalactic pilot Poe Dameron if given the opportunity, he said he’d consider it “if I need another house.” At the Venice Film Festival in September, when pressed to explain why he signed up to play the guilt-stricken, gambling veteran at the center of Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter,” he called it a chance to escape “green screen alien space land.”
These cheeky replies almost certainly contain a kernel of truth, but in the case of “The Card Counter,” they only tell a fraction of a story that predates “Star Wars” by decades. The movie, which finds Isaac delivering a sullen, introverted performance as former Abu Ghraib soldier William Tell, feels like a natural extension of the self-defeatist pariahs he’s played in everything from the bashful musician of “Inside Llewyn Davis” to doomed businessman of “A Most Violent Year.”
Yet the seeds for this dark horse contender in the Oscar race for Best Actor go back much further than that. That context helps explain how Isaac turned up with his best performance to date in the midst of a busy season. This fall, Isaac also appears in “Dune” and the HBO miniseries “Scenes from a Marriage,” not to mention his voice work as Gomez Addams in “The Addams Family 2.” But “The Card Counter” crystallizes his talent like nothing else, in large part because he was so attuned to the material from the start.
“Paul’s work is in my DNA as an actor,” Isaac said over Zoom in a recent interview from his home in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, admitting that his passion for the work stems back to the 75-year-old director’s most famous screenplay. “It’s a cliché as an American actor to say that ’Taxi Driver’ is the thing that made me, but it was such a revolutionary piece of filmmaking, the stuff that changed it all for me and made me fall in love with movies.”
Isaac first crossed paths with Schrader in 2010, when the actor was just a few years out of Julliard, and his best-known work was Prince John in the misbegotten Russell Crowe version of “Robin Hood.” Schrader was slated to direct “The Jesuit,” the story of a Latino man who gets out of prison and must rescue his kidnapped son, and Isaac auditioned for the lead. Schrader had most recently worked with Jeff Goldblum on the Holocaust thriller “Adam Resurrected” and Woody Harrelson for “The Walker,” but felt like taking a chance on the newcomer. “He has a face you can read into,” Schrader said. “That’s what I look for.”
When the company producing “The Jesuit” fell apart, the project dissipated (it was eventually made, years later, with a different director). But Schrader and Isaac kept in touch as the actor’s star power grew. “I’d go to his office in midtown and we’d talk,” Isaac said. “This was not about trying to communicate my skill. He just lays out everything I’m interested in.”
When Schrader’s Ethan Hawke eco-thriller “First Reformed” came out in 2017, garnering the filmmaker an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, Isaac dropped Schrader a note. “I wrote him to say how absolutely remarkable it was, easily my favorite film of the year,” Isaac said. “He thanked me, then said he considered me for the role, but I was too young.” Schrader concurred. “I was always thinking about him,” he said, “his facial structure, his posture, his demeanor.”
And so when Schrader finished his script for “The Card Counter,” Isaac was the first person he contacted about playing William Tell. “I immediately wrote back and said, ‘Of course I’m in,’” Isaac said. “I’d been waiting for that email for some time.”
Schrader’s standard approach to “man in the room” dramas tend to focus on masculine figures trapped by their own sense of failure, a religious (or dogmatic) guilt complex, and misguided attempts to do something about it. “The Card Counter” is not exception: William did his time in the military prison Leavenworth, but feels such grief over the pain he’s inflicted that he turns to the endless purgatory of gambling rituals to escape his everyday pains.
That seems to change once he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of William’s former military peer who committed suicide. When Cirk states his desire to exact revenge on the veterans’ superior office (Willem Dafoe), who trained them in the enhanced interrogation methods that ultimately sent them to jail, William takes it upon himself to talk the kid out of it. The emotional stakes of a man both at peace with his fate and determined to do the right thing struck Isaac as fertile ground for exploration.
“He’s carrying this burden forever, and he understands that’s his punishment in life,” Isaac said. “For me, I had to really connect to the cross that he bears.”
He got to work. Schrader generally provides minimal guidance to his actors beyond a few notes on their delivery, but gives them room to explore on their own time. In Isaac’s case, that meant going back to his Julliard instructor Moni Yakim, as he did with “Inside Llewyn Davis,” to rehearse for the role while wearing a neutral mask. “I did card work with the mask on, and just really tried to focus on how the body shifts,” Isaac said. “What is the body like when he’s just aimlessly on the hamster wheel, going in circles, and what is like when he suddenly has a direction, an objective? All of that was provided by the script that Paul sent over. It’s like a playground he provides for you so you aren’t reaching all over the place.”
Yakim beamed about Isaac’s skill. “Oscar’s instincts are highly sharp and evolved,” he said. “However, he is elusive. You focus on his instincts and then you discover that one right word triggers his imagination, and he takes flight to places you didn’t expect.” With respect to “The Card Counter,” Yakim said that the character “lives with such inner pain and rage, that the only way for him to survive without breaking into pieces is to squash his emotions forcefully. … Hence, the neutral mask. It imposes a measured and economic behavior. It helps you in holding back, assessing, analyzing the situation, before you move into action.”
The research continued from there. As with “First Reformed,” William maintains a journal that supplies the movie with its occasional Bressonian voiceover, so Isaac took penmanship courses. “I thought this guy is about control, he spends a lot of time doing things by himself, so his penmanship should be really good,” Isaac said. “I had this daily practice of writing.”
As for William’s specific experiences in the military, Isaac drew from a more personal place. When he graduated high school in Miami, he and a friend decided to enlist in the marines. “I had taken an oath and was ready to go,” he said. “I was really into it. I was like, ‘Well go, work out, get money for college.’ It was more in that vein, not about ideology.” In the months before he would have enlisted, though, Isaac’s central role in the ska band The Blinking Underdogs took him in a different direction. (The group enjoyed moderate success, at one point opening for Green Day; watch an early clip of their performance below.)
“I felt like I could always go to the military later, so I figured, let’s try this album thing first,” he said. “And that just took me on a different path.” He left the group for Julliard in 2001.
Years later, while playing an ex-military vigilante in “Triple Frontier,” Isaac said he got to know some of the real-life military advisors on set. “I stayed really good friends with one guy in particular,” he said. “I just really connected with their mentality. I related to what it was like to be sent off to do a job for six or eight months while being away from family. Obviously, in my case, there is a lot less physical danger.”
Needless to say, Isaac had plenty of material to draw on by the time he arrived on set in early 2020. “He did what pretty much every actor does until they get so lazy that they don’t care anymore,” Schrader said. “Sometimes the best thing you can do is not to interfere.”
With so much invested in the part, Isaac was hit as hard as his director when the onslaught of the pandemic forced “The Card Counter” to shut down production with only five days to go. “That was a brutal moment,” Isaac said. “It was hard to understand the reality of it in the moment. Being a few days away from finishing and not knowing — you know, Paul’s up there in age – so not knowing if we’ll get a chance to come back, that was pretty devastating.”
As Schrader pushed back on pressure from producers, Isaac tried to rush to the finish line. “I was saying, ‘No, no, let’s grab the DP and just finish it real quick, just the three of us,’” he said. “Obviously, it was the right thing to do and the best thing that could’ve happened to the movie, because it gave Paul a chance to sit with it, edit it, ask questions, and add some additional things we wouldn’t have been able to do before.”
When the production finally reconvened for a few days in July, it coincided with Schrader’s birthday. “You are the most punk rock Calvinist in human history,” Isaac emailed Schrader. “Your vitality, passion, and fuckin warrior spirit is an inspiration.”
Schrader previously explained to IndieWire that he was able to use the down time to share a rough cut with executive producer Martin Scorsese, who suggested that Schrader enhance the relationship between William and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), the gambling agent who doubles as an unconventional romantic interest. While that process kept the director busy, Isaac waited around. “Even now, it’s a haze,” Isaac said. After “Star Wars,” the actor made headlines by saying that he wanted to take a year off, but this was not what he had in mind. “I got some down time,” he said, “but I’m going to stop making pronouncements about taking breaks. I’ll let you know in retrospect if it happens.”
But then he doubled back with a sheepish grin. “I mean, there is a thought now about taking another break,” he said. “It’s quite likely. Hopefully there won’t be any new work until next summer into fall.”
Isaac recently made it back to New York after an eight-month shoot overseas for the upcoming Disney+ series “Moon Knight,” where he plays the lead. While it’s too early for the actor to say much about the role, the Moon Knight character is consistent with Isaac’s recent performances, William Tell in particular: He’s an ex-marine mercenary with troubled relationship to the world around him. Isaac himself is all too eager to explore the throughlines of his recent work, from William in “The Card Counter” to futuristic patriarch Duke Leo Atreides in “Dune” and the professorial Jonathan in “Scenes From a Marriage.”
“In a sense, they’re all in an existential crisis,” Isaac said. “There’s a real sense of poetry to them. They all have characters dealing with pain, loss, confusion, and trying to make their way through these things. For me, it’s all about whether there’s room to explore something interesting in that. It’s more about that than whether the director or character is cool.”
Still, he was drawn to go back to “Dune” in part because of director Denis Villneuve. “The big spectacle part of it was not the attraction,” he said. “There was very, very little green screen for my scenes. The set was all these brutalist architectural forms, with two hangers built into entire palaces. To be honest, it felt like opera, as though I was on a stage for a massive theatrical experience.” His character’s climactic confrontation with the movie’s big villain left him reeling. “I remember doing that scene and thinking it might as well have been ‘Macbeth,’” he said. “I could feel how elevated it was, but there was also such a tragic intensity to the whole thing.”
Like Villneuve, Isaac wasn’t thrilled about the day-and-date release plan for “Dune,” but praised Warner Bros. for committing to a 45-day theatrical window on releases in 2022. “That’s half of what it used to be, but it’s something,” he said. “I can’t see it going back. There’s a compromise there. There’s something about the nature of how we consume media that is hard to pull away from.”
While Isaac has plenty of ideas about the industry, he has an uneasy relationship to his fame. When a bizarre slo-mo video of him apparently kissing “Scenes from a Marriage” co-star Jessica Chastain’s arm on the Venice red carpet went viral, it generated more headlines than “The Card Counter” itself.
I wish I had words for this but I really do not pic.twitter.com/xJVzOJJCeh
— Christina Newland (@christinalefou) September 4, 2021
Isaac dodged any discussion of that peculiar moment while making his stance on it clear. “Um,” he said, when asked about the clip, and paused for a solid 15 seconds. Then squinted into the camera and grinned. “That wasn’t me,” he said. “I don’t know who that was, but we’re on to it. We’ve gotta stop that guy, whoever that was. I’ve got my best people on it. I’ve got to figure out what that was all about, aside from distracting people from the important things.”
He was much happier to address rumors of his potential next moves. While he’s currently set to play Francis Ford Coppola in a behind-the-scenes miniseries about the making of “The Godfather,” the real-life Coppola also made news recently by saying that he was hoping to cast Isaac in the lead role of his decades-in-the-work passion project “Megalopolis.”
Isaac confirmed their discussions for “Megalopolis,” which Coppola has said he’d spend as much as $120 million of his own money to finance with an eye towards shooting next fall. “Francis and I have been in conversation about it, and it’s really exciting,” Isaac said. “Obviously, if it gets up and running, how could someone not be a part of that, you know? I certainly have every appendage crossed that it actually comes to fruition, because being on set with him would be out of this world.”
Coppola and Schrader both emerged from the iconic era of American cinema in the 1970s that Isaac holds dear. “There was something visceral and irreverent about those films and the performances in them,” he said. “There’s an immediacy and intensity to that work that I feel is often missing in a lot of modern films. Everything now often feels quite safe and willed into being.”
It was a striking observation from an actor who spent the past decade starring in the biggest movie franchise in film history, and he wasn’t finished. “Look, a lot of people are making good movies, but the ’70s movies were mainstream movies,” Isaac said. “And so in mainstream filmmaking today, things just feel a bit more constrained, more square. I generally get more excited about movies I’ve seen many times from back then than anything in current mainstream films.”
Isaac has seen the Hollywood machine up close a few times over and knows what sort of danger lies there. “It’s a challenging thing, that dirty word ‘content,’” he said, and cringed. “Everything just becomes a sea of content. Yeah, it’s very easy to get pessimistic about it.”
He’s learned to find his own pathways towards justifying the bigger projects. “I think, often in these weird, uncertain times, that’s where innovation can really come in and save storytelling from these big conglomerates,” he said. “It doesn’t all have to become content. It can be actual, rebellious, subversive art. There’s gotta be room for that as well.”
Yes, he added, even with the “Star Wars” franchise. “If something comes my way from that world and it feels like there’s space to do something creative and exciting,” he said, “I hold room in my heart for that.”
“The Card Counter” is now in theaters and digital release from Focus Features.