As pilot Poe Dameron in the latest “Star Wars” trilogy, Oscar Isaac has become an international star, and that clout also got him the lead role in “The Promise” (opening Friday), a powerful look at the Armenian Genocide.
Also featuring Christian Bale as an American reporter covering the end of the Ottoman Empire and Charlotte Le Bon as the woman both men are in love with, the movie isn’t lacking in star power. But Isaac carries it as Mikael, an Armenian medical student who finds himself a target of the Ottoman government when it begins to systematically exterminate Armenians during World War I.
“He had that gravitas and the talent of being a Juilliard-trained actor to take on board not just the accent but the cultural mannerisms of Armenians of that period,” the film’s director Terry George told Business Insider of why he cast Isaac. “He studied the village life and did a lot of research but at the same time had the talent to stand up with Christian Bale.”
Isaac talked to Business Insider about why the Mikael role will never leave him, what he learned from working with Christian Bale, and that time he did 25 takes of a scene with Carrie Fisher for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Jason Guerrasio: With a role like this that has so much history, is there a fear at all of being over-prepared?
Oscar Isaac: No. No. I think the feeling is always, “I wish I had a little more time.” But in the moment of doing it you just let that all go. It’s kind of like you see what stays. It’s like sifting through something. You just hope that through all of that material, that thinking, wondering, practicing, visits to museums and listening to survivor’s tales, working on the accent, that in the moment you let it all go. You trust that stuff is going to be there and it’s going to affect your consciousness.
Guerrasio: Did you have questions for Terry before committing to the role?
Isaac: There wasn’t so much big general questions, it was more story things. Figuring out the character and trying to understand certain scenes and trying to basically get his ideas and his tone and what he was going after and then trying to sync that with what I was finding interesting about it and then together molding it.
Guerrasio: This is such an intense role. Can something like this stick with you mentally after you’ve wrapped on shooting?
Isaac: I’m a human so it’s like any work that you do. It stays and it influences you and maybe the specific things that you’re fixated on, that goes away —
Guerrasio: There needs to be a decompression moment?
Isaac: Sure. Even if I have to jump into something else. Which, in fact, I did. I think I went right back to shooting “The Last Jedi.”
Guerrasio: So that helps because you can’t dwell on the character. You have to go right into being Poe.
Isaac: Right. You’re focused on something else. But all of that stays. It becomes part of you. It was an educational process for me because to my great shame I didn’t know about the Armenian Genocide before and I think, unfortunately, a lot of us in this country and in the West and all around the world have been purposefully kept in the dark about it. To be a part of something that does shed light on this horror that occurred is very special. And on top of that, to be part of something that’s so philanthropic, where the producers really put their money where their mouths are. One-hundred percent of the proceeds go to charity — that’s unheard of.
Guerrasio: On set with Christian Bale, did he bust your chops about “Star Wars,” since he went through something similar with the Batman movies?
Isaac: No. Not really.
Guerrasio: Did he try to get info about the next movie out of you?
Isaac: No. He didn’t want to know any info or anything like that. It was the exact opposite. For me, it was great to see and to learn from him. Here’s somebody who just knows how to maneuver so things don’t get to him so much. I know there are stories out there of him being difficult, whatever. For me it was like watching a kung fu master. He didn’t get caught up in the little things that happen on set or in a scene where insecurities can suddenly bubble up and cause people to behave like a–holes. Just to watch things roll off his back that way, for me, still figuring a lot of this stuff out, it was great to see.
Guerrasio: It sounds from Kathleen Kennedy like “The Last Jedi” will be the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher in the new “Star Wars” movies. Can you give me your fondest memory of working with her on “The Last Jedi”?
Isaac: There was so much. I just remember running lines with her for a scene or going over things and there were some really incredible scenes. I do remember one which was basically my first day where we did about 25 takes in total. Half of them were on me and half of them were on her and… Oh, s—, that kind of gives some of it away. [Laughs]
Guerrasio: Don’t give anything away now!
Isaac: Yeah, I can’t give anything away. But there was a scene where there was some physicality there and it was shot just over and over and over and she relished the physicality of it, let me just say. [Laughs] It was pretty intense. It will be funny to see what they cut together based on that. But at every moment she would just wander over with her Coke — she was constantly drinking Coca-Cola — and find a way to undercut the situation or to cut through something or make me laugh.
Guerrasio: I don’t know if you saw that HBO documentary about her and her mother, “Bright Lights,” but she had cartons and cartons of Coke in her refrigerator.
Isaac: Yeah. She loved that Coca-Cola. It’s just one of those things where I was so fortunate that I got to be in her gravitational field even for a moment.
Guerrasio: You weren’t able to attend Star Wars Celebration. Tell me how you experienced watching the trailer for “The Last Jedi.”
Isaac: I watched it that day at home on the live stream with my brother, and it was wild. You don’t know what to expect.
Guerrasio: That was the first time you saw footage from the movie?
Isaac: Yeah. First footage I’ve seen. I’m just happy that I made it into the trailer! [Laughs] I think it looks great and I think people are really going to be impressed with what [director] Rian [Johnson] has done.