Bykevin stewart, writer at
From Mattel's Viewmaster to a master of viewing, writing and expression
kevin stewart

OSCAR ISSAC is often called upon to play the roles difficult to play. He assumes the role of the person who is apt to be viewed as “a loser”. If gut reactions to a character were to be valued, then loser would fit but the arch of a plot affords a character some wiggle room. Since before the days of Shakespeare we indeed have flat characters. They often end up the same way we are introduced to them. Issac has assumed roles that fit that stereotype. Yet he manages to invite us along for the ride and we oblige him despite our fears of the outcome.

In DRIVE Oscar plays an ex-co named “Standard”. In DRIVE we meet Standard after we have began to root for a relationship between Standard's wife (played by Carey Mulligan and with our no-named/ protagonist- antihero/ main character Ryan Gosling.Yet what is unique about Issac's ability is what he brings to the role. He always manages to make audiences fall for the characters he plays. In less than a minute screen time Issac use of voice and the nuances embodies his characters with a fighting spirit. This fighting spirit is often fatal as the arch of his roles is to ultimately lose . This is the fate of certain archetype. Issac says for him acting is about expressions rather than communicating. By merely expressing he leaves interpretations open to the viewer. This way (according to Oscar) viewers find empathy. Therefore, loses are not necessarily ends. The character traits my find residence in one's own bosom.

Despite his ability to embody his character roles with the necessary degree of humanity, enough for viewers to develop empathy, after watching his in several films, one becomes conscious of the film construction of blocking Oscar's characters in so that his humanity is both called up as well as insufficient to overcome the obstacles he faces. Standard's life is boxed one one hand by this and the other by a debt he still owes his own gangster pasts. It is good that this subplot does not take up much time in DRIVE yet Oscar does manage to win audiences over. He seems ready to assume the role as father as he is ready to die. This all leads to a character study of OSCAR ISSAC as he uses these qualities time and time again.

In the HBO mini series Oscar's portrayal of a mayor (Mayor Nick Wasicsko) who is faced with irreconcilable differences. On one hand he has a constituency of angry residents of Yonkers, New York who do not want pubic housing built in their neighborhood on one hand and on the other he faces a federal judge's mandate to build said houses. As fines rack up, again we find Oscar character, boxed in. These seemingly constrictive and contradiction situations call for actors who can navigate such impassible spaces all the while pulling viewers along for the ride. In television this is a great aspect for actors who can create characters whose undoing is punctuated by episodic pauses. After deciding one likes a character, viewers will stomach his stumbles and his falls. They are apt to tune in on later episodes to see him rise and get his revenge.

Despite starring in roles made by directors with diversely different takes on movie making, the roles of Standard as well as the title Mayor Nick Wasicsko are all aided by the production designs that surround them. In Show Me a Hero David Simon, with his illustrious background at HBO knows how to create urban stories that feel real. He did it with THE WIRE where in he and his team created the drug infested corners and hallways of public housing. He did it with THE CORNER. Paul Haggis brought in to direct the six part series knew, like David Simon, this factual story where the character was the actual mayor of Yonkers was an ordinary guy who fails. Such racial politics with issues as relevant as today as they were back in the 1970s', needed an authentic actor to match the complexity this of pubic housing diabolical. Oscar's performance (along with a strong supporting cast) used his controlled expressions that did not give away how draining the real situation had on the real Mayor Wasicsko. They wanted an actor who could convey a fatal determinism often seen in honest politicians.

Given the drab coloration and claustrophobic settings, death seems a plausible escape for such one dimensional characters. Nonetheless, Oscar Issac's portrayal of these driven characters remain memorial.The violence surrounding Standard's death in DRIVE comes as a matter-of -fact. He is but a foil for the larger plot. Nick Wasicsko' suicide in SHOW ME A HERO while tragic, was based on fact. Although fore shadowed in cinema's history archetypes of the failed hero, neither was telegraphed by Oscar's performance. They are not easily dismissed. The circumstances are often grave and stiflingly to most human beings. By the time we get to A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, we see where production design with drab and claustrophobic setting has often been apart of the worlds Issac's characters live in.

Most impressive also is casting directors who Issac auditions before. They must know he is among the go to person for scripts in need of an actor whose facial expressions and body language add flesh to the written word. In Watching Isaac walk across a room in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is to see him in contemplative confidence. The settings are dark yet he strives to be bigger than where he is . To see him walk away from the camera is to question his machismo. He often looks too regular and too small to be as big headed as his profile and up-close personas suggests. With a mixture of confidence and disgust he goes from one frame to the next; he manages to mimic his surroundings and yet appear void of them. There is not that much "violence" in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. The title of the movie characterizes what the character or the couple views as their obstacles. Able seems to posses a darker side even as he traverses a darkened universe.


Despite having done good supportive roles with varies a-line actors and one franchise (THE BOURNE franchise)-fairness does not dictate to treat Mr. Issac as a typecast) Nonetheless, then came the call to audition for the Coen Brothers. Having long established their love of music they decided to make folk music the subject of a movie. They would come to rely on trusting Oscar Issac. It would prove to be the turning point of his career. The movie was INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Here we see Oscar expose his darker side even more. On a lighter note Oscar was raised in Miami, Florida. Before he became an actor, he played lead guitar and sang vocals in his band the Blinking Underdogs. He graduated from the Julliard School in 2005. His musical background had already served him in SUCKER PUNCH, yet he had not been called upon to carry an entire movie using a great deal of his then developed skills.

The darker side had always been there in the previous roles. Able Morale in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR could be viewed as a socio-path. Despite him being a man determined to outwit those who are bailing out of New York back in 1981, his singularity isolates him from showing compassion in times needed. He is rift for brutality as any turn. Played with control, his resilience comes across as that of a determined capitalist. This, no doubt because of those around him who are serve to trap him in their outdated manners.

Jessica's performance as Able's r wife took some of the sting away from his diabolical persona. Viewers could perceive her as the more sinister of the partnership. The film itself is morally ambiguous and his role as a near do well capitalist again pits him in a pit where he appears to be about to loose control of his wife at any turn. We see him pitted against Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain) in the same manner as Tony Montana is with his wife....indeed the hairstyles are the same. NO doubt this is a stylistic node rather than a character. Whereas In SCAR FACE Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer) just wants to look pretty and powder her nose in cocaine... Jessica's role is that of a gangster's daughter who does not mind getting her hands dirty. Indeed it almost as if there is a role reversal. Oscar Issac more calculated moves make him appear strong yet more feminine to those of his wife's. Yet all this is but one possible reading, the complexities of the era being portrayed allow many more.

On the silver screen such a character development often rely on dialogue and plots But in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS the presences music and performance thereof can soften the blows that a difficult character might make on audiences. Yet in this role. Oscar has to play a character who is is own worst enemy. What songs he sings at at given moment might turn an opportunity into a loss. What a depressing yet challenging role. This relies on superb acting and suburb editing to hold develop character and maintain an audience's compassion. Oscar Issac has managed to demonstrate that he can create characters whose moral compass may be off yet the ambiguity within them is multi dimensional enough to surprise viewers and win their patience. Such was/is the case with A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and BEING LLEWYN DAVIS.

There are times when multiple readings of a movie become apparent due to allegory. In Sucker Punch, the allegorical levels depicted does not extend to Oscar's sinister role therein. He simply was a misogynist as Blue Jones. A dapper one, but a misogynist nonetheless. Its rare to find Issac in such one-dimensional roles. Nonetheless, this complex movie deserves mentioning.


This study of loser roles played by Oscar Issac are not meant to be a total account of his skills as an actor. The character roles he has played were largely supportive roles. Since Being Llwyn Davis, Issac has become a leading man. There is one movie THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY that I have not seen and will avoid trying to force fit. We conclude with his role as Nathan in Ex Macina. In this thriller si-fi Oscar assumes the role of a possible megalomaniac who is also definitely misanthropic. Despite having reached the ratified status of billionaire Oscar manages to deliver a rubric cube personality type that is in bad need of a psychologist.

As always his role relies on foibles to take some of the edge off. This is accomplished well by actors Domhnall Gleeson who plays Caleb, Alicia Vikander who play the AI (Ava) and Sonoya Mizuno who plays geisha type servant Kyoko. This role is one that may leave you wondering if Oscar is right for you. LOL. He is so immersed in this role, that one not familiar with his resume might assume him to be one in the same with Nathan. One almost forgets to separate Nathan's flaws as a character from Issac. Oscar Issac always engages in characters that he can live in. He wants to express out without communicating his ideas. He wants you to do that work. He plays games with audiences. In this one he plays with us and Caleb.

The set designs have opened up for Oscar. In Ex Machina, glass is everywhere. He is no longer boxed in. His character has space to roam around. Oscar Issac like to take on roles not because they are archetypes. He takes on roles because they often remind us of ourselves. In Ex Machina we come as close to reality in terms of being in the now as any roles we have seen Oscar assume. Like Ava, the robot in this film, the questions asked of could be asked of him. Is he pretending?

Actors referenced in this piece on Oscar Issac


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