Like Tinder and Google Glass, Oscar Isaac seemed to have been invented in about 2012. Of course, he’s much better than either of those things but his rise to prominence has been similarly steep. A small but distinguished turn alongside Ryan Gosling in Drive, alongside solid support work in a number of blockbusters, caught the eye of Hollywood and led to his breakthrough role as Inside Llewyn Davis’s titular folkie for the Coen brothers. This week sees him in A Most Violent Year and Ex Machina, followed by the small matter of Star Wars and X-Men: Apocalypse. If they ever plan a remake of Citizen Kane, you can guess who they’d call first. But what about those pre-2012 years? As our career recap highlights, there were some lower profile but still high calibre roles to enjoy.
Everyone knows that King John was an odious chap at the best of times but in Ridley Scott’s version he’s a real medieval toolshed, imposing made-up taxes, stealing from the poor and probably eating people’s chickens when they weren’t looking. Oscar Isaac does a very solid job with these base materials, oozing sinister charm and dispensing injustice, all while sporting the kind of goatee normally found on a second-tier drug baron. Unlike Ian Holm in Robin And Marian and that dorky lion in Disney’s take on the tale, Isaac’s monarch gets plenty of big moments, not all of which involve trying to decipher Russell Crowe’s Midlands accent. Thanks to some historical jiggery-pokery in Brian Helgeland’s screenplay, he has a face-off with Robin Hood himself as the French invade and is then there to burn the Magna Carta and declare Robin an outlaw straight after the battle. En Sabah Nur would surely approve.
Alejandro Amenábar's serious-minded film is an origin story for Christianity that involves more stoning than a Cheech & Chong marathon. Oscar Isaac is Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria given the impossible task of keeping the peace as a city’s worth of religious zealots beat, club and stab each other into the middle of A.D. 391. You know, just like the Bible orders them to. The actor, in a series of subtle recalibrations, depicts a man just too fiery and erratic to be the arch politician he fancies himself to be, who's also torn by his feelings for Rachel Weisz’s philosopher Hypatia. Unlike Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, another historical turn from Isaac, this one cleaves closely to the history of the period. At no point does he unleash dragons on the rioting masses.
This Oliver Stone-y account of a notorious 1975 incident in East Timor had Isaac playing the charismatic human rights lawyer José Ramos-Horta. It’s Anthony LaPaglia’s film – he plays the real-life Aussie journo Roger East who, on Ramos-Horta’s prompting, heads to Dili to investigate the disappearance of five fellow correspondents as Portugal pulls out and Indonesia prepares to invade – but Isaac, sporting camos and a bushy beard like a young Che, lends top-shelf support as an ambitious politico pursuing a cause célèbre. The two actors spark off each other, as Isaac’s firebrand wrestles with his ally’s more Aussie-centric agenda with heavily-accented intellect. Unsurprisingly, Ramos-Horta went on to become the country’s president. Well, we’d vote for him.
A ukele player, member of ska-punk outfit The Blinking Underdogs and graduate of the University of Miami School of Music, Isaac is gifted as a musician as well as an actor (see: Inside Llewyn Davis). Sucker Punch, a bulging piñata of extravagant visuals and skittish storytelling, took advantage of those gifts, as well as his propensity to carry off outlandish facial hair, in the role of a pencil-‘tached nightclub MC. He’s the glammed up alter ego of Blue Jones, a creepy asylum orderly with a touch of the Nurse Ratcheds about him, who makes Babydoll’s (Emily Browning) life miserable. Our advice? Skip all that and enjoy his Baz Luhrmann moment singing Roxy Music’s ‘Love Is The Drug’ over the end credits. ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, it ain’t.
Early Isaac, this, and the first in his Great Moments From History series that also includes Agora, Robin Hood and Che: Part One. He plays Joseph of Judaea, a man questing a bed for the night for himself and his young, pregnant wife in the days before Airbnb. Probably not one the actor will look back on with any great fondness, his Joseph is an earnest Paulie Bleeker to Keisha Castle-Hughes’s Juno MacGuff, although not before things turn a little Kramer Vs Kramer when he finds out she’s got all “with child” while his back was turned. Then it turns out God did it, and all is well again chez Nazareth. Calm and measured in a way that marginalises his natural charisma, the Guatemalan-born actor did what he could with the character, turning in another heavily-accented turn, but Catherine Hardwicke’s film was as wooden as the manger it ends in. Isaac facial-hair fans will have noted his luxurious face mane in this one.