Oscar Isaac talks ‘A Most Violent Year’ and why he changed his Latino last name: ‘Oscar Hernandez is like John Smith’

NYDailyNews.com — Stroll into a random café in New York City to watch a live band play and you may just find Oscar Isaac singing and strumming guitar. The Golden Globe-nominated actor gives award-worthy performances in films like 2013’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but off-screen he indulges in his other passion — music. But it’s his talent for acting that’s suddenly making film audiences take notice of the Guatemalan-born Isaac, who grew up in Miami to a Guatemalan mother and Cuban father. The Juilliard graduate’s acclaimed performance as a troubled New York businessman alongside Jessica Chastain in the ’80s-set “A Most Violent Year” will be followed with roles as an X-wing fighter pilot in “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens,” as the titular villain in “X-Men: Apocalypse,” and the sci-fi thriller “Ex-Machina.”

Your character in “A Most Violent Year” had some really strong lines throughout the film like, “When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump. Otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life.” Did those lines jump out at you when you first read the script? It did. It definitely spoke to someone who is very confident in their vision, and everything (my character is) doing is exactly that. It’s 1981, one of the most violent years on record, the city’s on the brink of economic collapse, people are leaving in droves, and he decides now is when you grow, now is when you risk it all.

You’ll be appearing in the latest “Star Wars” and “X-Men,” plus “Ex-Machina.” Do you enjoy playing sci-fi roles? The genre is less important to me than the story and the world of it. And, obviously, great directors. Between J.J. Abrams, Bryan Singer and Alex Garland, who’s the writer and director of “Ex-Machina,” those are amazing people to work with and real visionaries. That, for me, is the most exciting thing, and then characters that are really interesting and unique. Things I’ve never done before.

At this rate, you may soon be a geek god. Well, I guess a geek god that’s also a geek. I really do like sci-fi. The really great sci-fi is … never about aliens and mutants and robots, it’s actually about the human condition and us trying to express something about existence and the mystery of it.

Did you decide to go with the name Isaac instead of your birth name of Hernandez in order to expand your appeal in Hollywood? It wasn’t so much Hollywood that I thinking about. This was before I even went to Juilliard, when I was an actor in Miami. Oscar Hernandez is like John Smith down there… so I wanted to differentiate myself.

Casting directors, especially when you’re starting out, there’s not a lot of imagination yet, so they kind of just pigeonhole you as one thing and I was hoping they’d see me for other roles, not just “The Gangster” or whatever.

What do you say to the naysayers in the Latino community who may not support the decision to drop your last name? That’s their prerogative. I feel totally comfortable with my decision. I’m very up front about the fact that I was born in Guatemala and that my father’s Cuban, my mother’s Guatemalan (and) I speak Spanish. I think the idea of show business and names, that’s always been an element of just the nature of show business.

It seems to be working for you, considering you’ve had so many different roles, not just Latino stereotypes. Yeah, it’s great. Also with “A Most Violent Year,” it’s like the very first time that you see a Latin American man portrayed this way. He’s not a gangster; he’s nonviolent, he’s powerful, he’s quintessentially American, and he’s not a sidekick. We get to see a very un-clichéd look at the Latin American immigrant experience and really what the backbone of this country is. A lot of people like this come and work their way to the top, and this is somebody that buys into the American dream — and at the same time he’s very flawed. When you present someone not as a token for the entire community, I think that actually does more for the community than being some sort of poster child.

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