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For Oscar Isaac, life — and acting — is all about impermanence

Oscar Isaac, shown here at the 2020 Academy Awards, credits his father with introducing him to acting: "I started making movies with his camcorder."
Oscar Isaac, shown here at the 2020 Academy Awards, credits his father with introducing him to acting: "I started making movies with his camcorder."

Actor Oscar Isaac was middle school-age in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew swept through his hometown, blowing the roof off his Florida home. He remembers holding his dog and huddling with his family under some cushions in the living room as water rose up to his ankles.

Isaac's family, who were evangelical Christian, initially thought the storm was a sign of the the apocalypse. After it passed, he says, "I remember coming out to the neighborhood and it really looked like an atom bomb had gone off. It was just leveled, the whole place."

It was an early lesson in the temporary nature of things, a theme that would follow Isaac throughout his career.

"Everything about life for me has been a lot of impermanence," he says. "That's also what's funny about the profession that I'm in. You have these really intense months with these people doing this thing where it means so much ... and then it goes away."

Isaac plays a disgraced military man dealing with trauma from the Iraq war in the film, The Card Counter. He co-stars with Jessica Chastain in the HBO limited series Scenes from a Marriage, and he's one of stars of the new film Dune.


Interview highlights

On the trauma his Card Counter character is dealing with

I wouldn't think of him as dead inside. I would think that the mask is kind of a deadening, the card counting mask, this kind of self-imposed purgatory that he's put himself in, where he just basically is running out the clock on his existence, playing low-stakes blackjack and poker just enough to get by. And that kind of is the wall that he's built around himself. But inside, what was important for me was to feel like there's this furnace that's brewing this kind of volcanic thing that's in there that he's desperately trying to keep down. That is a bunch of rage and self-hatred and rage at the people that have put him there and guilt. And really the biggest thing is trauma. ...

Isaac plays a military man who was convicted of war crimes in <em>The Card Counter. </em>
/ Courtesy of Focus Features
Isaac plays a military man who was convicted of war crimes in <em>The Card Counter. </em>

He was asked to do very horrible things [in the Iraq war] to torture people, and he did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. And I think the biggest trauma of all is that he was good at it and he had it in him.

On his evangelical upbringing and believing in the apocalypse

We grew up with a very, very real sense of the impending doom of the apocalypse. We had pictures, paintings. Often my father would be preparing for it by storing up supplies. ... We grew up with that sense that it was around the corner at any moment — and will you be left behind?

It was less about if you've done right or wrong, it's like, how much do you really believe in Jesus? Do you really believe or are you just saying that you do? ... [I had] anxiety of, do I believe enough? Maybe I'm lying to myself. Maybe I am going to be left behind. Is it coming? What's it going to be like when we hear the trumpets and the sky breaks open?

On his dad stockpiling supplies

My dad was trying to get canned goods and things like that, ammunition. I remember Y2K was a big deal. It felt like that was like a convergence of the apocalypse and the technological disaster that was coming. I've found that there's something in the evangelical thing, that there's an excitement about the end because it just means you're right.

On his father introducing him to movies and getting a camera

I started making movies with his camcorder, and [my dad] even had like a little video equalizer where you could put in titles and things. I started making movies of my toys at a pretty young age and then made a movie with my middle school class: sixth grade, fifth grade. That's what kind of got me started in that, because we had a camera so we could make movies that I could see how magical it was to make them.

On the grief of losing his mother mixed with the joy of his son's birth less than 2 months later

The only unconditional love I've ever really felt was from my mom. ... I'll never have that again, because it's an impossibility; we have the one mom. But I can give that.

It was obviously a very traumatic time as well. So still to this day feel like I haven't completely processed it. And in the moment it felt really good to have something like Hamlet to pour all of that grief into and then also hope at the same time, whether that's the healthiest thing, I don't know. It is a funnel, and it's always been where I go to understand things about life and things that are happening to me. But it's one thing to grieve as a character and one thing to grieve as an actual person. And I think that there's still quite a lot of unresolved stuff there. But to have this little baby boy, who I named after my mom, come just a month and a half later, that was really, really something. ...

The only unconditional love I've ever really felt was from my mom. ... I'll never have that again, because it's an impossibility; we have the one mom. But I can give that. And that shift, you know, has been a really beautiful thing to to move into that into the giving.

On how fatherhood has changed him

I've become a much less desperate person. I think I was always desperate, like I've got to be great. I need to be seen. I need to say the right thing. I need to make the right decision, talk to the right person, make this person like me. All these kind of desperate feelings that have really, finally melted away, for the most part. It still comes up now and then. But for the most part, I think that's what a lot of that did. It was just a reshuffle of what I find important.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.