In 2005, Drama Group 34 alumnus Oscar Issac seemed to walk off the stage at commencement in May right onto the stage of Central Park’s Delacorte Theater in August to play Proteus in the Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. Since then, he has portrayed a wide range of characters, from a phantasmal Garcia Lorca in the Manhattan Theater Club’s production of Nilo Cruz’s Beauty of the Father to a Russian crook in HBO’s PU-239, scheduled to air in November. Most recently, he returned to Shakespeare in the Park as Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet that co-starred Lauren Ambrose (of Six Feet Under fame) and ran from June 6 through July 8. After the run ended, the 28-year-old Isaac took time out to talk with The Juilliard Journalabout the production and how he prepares for roles.
How do you choose your next role? Are you looking for something in particular?
Everything I’ve done leads me to the next thing. I think that’s kind of built in. I don’t necessarily say, “Alright, well, I’ve played this guy, so next I have to play something very different.” If I read something and if it resonates in some way, then I guess I go from there.
Do you find that there’s one character attribute that makes a character resonate with you?
The balance between suffering and humor—at least that’s what I try to find in all of them. Whatever they’re doing, whatever their task is, whatever time they’re living in, how do they find their humor about situations? Ultimately that makes somebody very real. They can be going through very tense, dramatic things, but within that they can find the joy. With Macbeth, and even with Romeo, I don’t think one would necessarily think “Oh, he’s a funny guy,” but I think there’s a lot of humor in what he does and I think that’s just innately built into us.
When you’re preparing a role like Romeo that so many people have done before, is the humor what you look for to make it your own?
I don’t necessarily like the idea of making it my own. I think that because I’m doing it, it’s going to be my own. I don’t necessarily try to do something strange or that has never been done before. For me, it’s more about how the words resonate with me as a person, and my experience, and my life. I try to be open and as honest as possible, not to try to lay a bunch of ideas onto it. It’s more about letting this beautiful text, these words, bounce off of me.
What is your dream role? Is there one character that you really want to play?
I’ve always really wanted to play Astroff in Uncle Vanya. I’d love to do that. I [played] Leontes in our first year [at Juilliard]. I liked Leontes a lot. It was the first moment that unlocked this love for Shakespeare. I think the character is one of the more stunning—his [struggle with] jealousy. I know at the time when I did it, I was fighting with the idea of jealousy as well, so it resonated in a particular way. I would just like to see what it would do now.
How has your Juilliard training helped you in your professional career?
Without a doubt, I would not be able to do or sustain any of what I do without the training that I have had. I really try to incorporate it because it works. I even still find myself calling my professors and asking for help. From Italy, I called Richard Feldman and said, “I need help, man!” We went through [the scene] a little bit and he gave me some great, great things. [He] reminded me about some first-year acting stuff, about objects and about some basic principles that we learned that opened up the scene for me.