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

Oscar 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.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's been a slow period for many actors because of the pandemic, but not from my guest, Oscar Isaac. He stars in the Paul Schrader film "The Card Counter," which is now available to rent on Amazon and other streaming platforms. Isaac starred with Jessica Chastain in the HBO limited series "Scenes From A Marriage," which concluded earlier this month, and he's one of the stars of the new film "Dune," adapted from the Frank Herbert science fiction novel.

Isaac has managed to have a successful career in independent films, including his breakthrough role in the Coen brothers' movie "Inside Llewyn Davis," while also being in blockbusters like the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy and "X-Men: Apocalypse."

We'll start with a scene from "The Card Counter" because I love this film. It was written and directed by Paul Schrader and has many echoes of "Taxi Driver," which Schrader also wrote. Oscar Isaac's character, who goes by the name William Tell, is a man who holds everything inside, but some kind of explosion seems inevitable. He's a card counter who goes from casino to casino, almost always winning, but keeping his bets modest so he can remain unnoticed. Let's start with the opening voiceover as he's writing in his journal from prison. We don't yet know where this fits in the chronology of the film or why he's in prison. He says that as a young man, he was terrified of confined spaces and just wanted to drive and drive and drive. So when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, he was surprised to find he adjusted quite well. He goes on to explain.


OSCAR ISAAC: (As William Tell) I like the routine. I like the regimen - same activities, same time every day, the same toothbrush, the same clothes, the same toilet, same stale sweat, stale smoke, stale bodies, stale cooking, stale farts, same conversations. The faces change, but not much. No choice. I found that I liked reading books. I never read a book before - not all the way through. I found a life for myself that had been beyond my imagination. It was in prison I learned to count cards.

GROSS: That's Oscar Isaac reading from the character's journal in "The Card Counter." Oscar Isaac, welcome to FRESH AIR. Such a pleasure to have you on our show.

ISAAC: So happy to be here with you.

GROSS: I love this movie so much. And it's part of director and screenwriter Paul Schrader's series of movies about a man alone in his room or God's lonely man, which is a line from "Taxi Driver," from his journal. And you know, Paul Schrader has described these films, which include "Taxi Driver," "Light Sleeper," "First Reformed," as a man alone in a room, wearing a mask, and the mask is his occupation. I also think of these characters as being dead inside - like, something they've experienced has caused them to basically be, you know - yeah, to be dead inside. And typically, they find something that's on the verge of bringing them closer to being alive again, but that thing doesn't last long.

ISAAC: Well, it was interesting because I wouldn't think of them as dead inside. I would think that the mask is kind of a deadening - you know, 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, you know, rage at the people that have put him there, and...

GROSS: Guilt.

ISAAC: Guilt - and really, the biggest thing is trauma. And that's one of the first books that Paul sent over to me, which is "The Body Keeps The Score," the great book on trauma. The author - I can't remember his name at the moment. But incredible book. And he's got all this trauma that's stored in there. Shockingly enough, trauma that - you know, often we think of trauma is, there was a - you know, you're the victim of somebody perpetrating some abuse on you. But he's been traumatized by the abuse that he was told to perpetrate on others. And so that's part of this just massive burden that he holds, where even after spending, you know, eight to 10 years at Leavenworth, he gets out and feels that that wasn't enough.

GROSS: Wasn't enough punishment?


GROSS: And can we say that the trauma is as a result of having served in the Iraq war and things he had to do or was told to do during that war?

ISAAC: Yes. He was asked to do very horrible things - 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.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned purgatory - that this character is living in a purgatory. Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the film, was brought up in a very strict Calvinist family, where - I mean, there was no dancing, no singing, no movies allowed. You grew up in an evangelical family. And I'm wondering if the idea of hell and the devil and eternal suffering was very real to you when you were growing up.

ISAAC: What we grew up with - and it was funny because I just talking the other day with my sister about this - is, 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, you know, by storing up supplies. And so that - it's funny because she's a - she went into - you know, she's a scientist. She's a climate scientist. And so it's funny that her profession ends up being about the end of the world in some ways. But yeah, we grew up with that sense that it was around the corner at any moment. And will you be left behind?

GROSS: Oh, so it was the left behind thing. Yeah

ISAAC: Yeah. You're going to be left behind in the years of tribulation with the mark of the beast and, you know...

GROSS: The plagues, the...

ISAAC: Yeah, all the plagues...

GROSS: Yeah.

ISAAC: ...That are coming and all that. No, yeah, yeah. That was a real sense. It was less about if you've done right or wrong. It's like, how much do you really believe in Jesus, you know? Do you really believe? Are you just saying that you do? So it's - that kind of thing was definitely in there. And with that, that feeling, that anxiety - anxiety that - do I not - do I believe? 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, you know, and the sky breaks open?

GROSS: Wow. That's a lot to deal with as a child.

ISAAC: Yeah. Yeah (laughter). It's its own type of trauma.

GROSS: I mean, it's like, it's the worst horror movie, but - except it's real in your mind.

ISAAC: Yeah. What's funny though, too, is, unlike, you know, maybe Paul's upbringing - Paul Schrader's upbringing - ours was a little less - how can I put this? - a little less principled, meaning sometimes it was really important, and then sometimes it was less so. It was a bit more of an emotional thing. So sometimes, suddenly, there was no TV in the house because TV was not right. And then a few weeks later, a month later, the TV would be back. You know, suddenly, there'd be a chunk of time where music - you know, any non-praise music was not allowed in the house. And then other times, were listening to the Beatles and, you know, Cat Stevens and all that. So it was a little bit of an unusual landscape because I think it also added to the anxiety, which is, like, wait, what do we believe in now, you know?

GROSS: Oh, right. And is the world going to end? Or, like...

ISAAC: Yeah. Are we all being left behind now as a family? What's going on here?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. A little sidebar here - what did your parents store for the apocalypse?

ISAAC: You know, a lot of - my dad was in a kind of - trying to get canned goods and things like that; you know, ammunition. I remember Y2K was a big - you know, it felt like that was like a convergence of the apocalypse and, you know, the technological disaster that was coming. So there's just - you know, there's - I've found that there's something in, like, the evangelical thing that really - there's an excitement about the end because it just means you're right, you know?

GROSS: You must have felt like you were living in a little fort with the ammunition and the...

ISAAC: Yeah. I mean, that - it kind of - that kind of happened more and more afterwards, after my parents divorced and my dad was kind of on his own. And again, it would - sometimes it seemed like it was really important, and sometimes it wasn't, so there was a bit of that.

But I will say within that, the ideas of grace and forgiveness were - like, those were kind of the silver lining in all of that, in all that kind of darkness; that there was grace and that there is the ability to forgive. And even when it was difficult to figure out what as a family we were believing in and what we were not, those principles were helpful.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Oscar Isaac. And he stars in Paul Schrader's film "The Card Counter," which is available now for rent on Amazon and other platforms. He starred in "Scenes From A Marriage" on HBO, and that ended very recently. And of course, you can watch that on demand. And he stars in the new movie - he's one of the stars of the new movie "Dune."

ISAAC: One of the many stars (laughter).

GROSS: One of the many stars. Yeah, yeah. So we're going to take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Oscar Isaac, who's been in, like, three consecutive things in rapid succession - "The Card Counter," which is Paul Schrader's latest movie; "Scenes From A Marriage," which was a new adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman 1973 Swedish TV series in which he starred with Jessica Chastain. And that's on HBO. You can still see it on demand. And now he's in "Dune."

So I want to get back to "The Card Counter." You read from your - well, you have voice-overs of the journal that you're keeping. And it's, of course, obviously very much an echo of "Taxi Driver," where Travis Bickle has his diary that he reads from or that he narrates (laughter) through voice-overs in the film. I know that you know the film "Taxi Driver," so was there anything you wanted to capture or avoid from the way that De Niro inhabited Travis Bickle and the way he read the diary?

ISAAC: Well, there are - they're such different characters. There's such a different energy to them. I didn't concern myself too much with that, you know? In some ways, I embraced the similarities as well. You know, I know Paul talked to me a lot about that. But the voice-over is not so much in comparison to Travis Bickle, but more about the way he sees it as this mainline into the audience.

And that allows you to underplay in some ways even more because the way that he likes to feed this - it's not even information because what he does is he likes it to be quite droll and even dull. And, you know, his example is like, you know, I went to the supermarket. I picked up some eggs. I picked up some milk. They asked me if I wanted paper or plastic. I asked for plastic. I got a phone call. I found out that I do have cancer. I then walked down the street. I got a pack of gum. You know, it's - he just puts these little important bits in the middle, in this bed of, you know, very drab details.

And that's how he kind of creates this - he creates, like, this rhythm and this momentum, this very slow momentum. And I must have done it maybe 14, 15 times at least in the entire film - voice-overs, different versions, different intonations, different energies. And it's a real balance between not wanting it to be a narration, not wanting to sell it too much or to over emote with it; to let it feel like it's reading from a journal but at the same time not wanting it to be completely robotic. And so that was a delicate line.

GROSS: Well those journals are so important because your character is not an emotional character. He holds everything in. And the insight that we have into him is through the journal. So we are in your head because of the journals. We know what you are thinking. We know your deepest thoughts.

ISAAC: What's interesting with that is just, like, the - you know, because with acting, it's like, all right, well, what's my intention, right? Why am I saying what I'm saying? And that's a difficult thing when you're reading a journal because if you're ever reading your journal out loud, it's usually for a very specific reason.

But I think what we were trying to find is the moment between the thought and it coming down onto paper. What would that sound like if it was coming out, you know, out of a speaker? So that's what we're trying to find.

GROSS: So as a radio person, I really listen to voices when I watch movies. And you have a great voice, and it has such good effect in the readings from the journals because your voice has such richness and depth. And yet you're reading in this kind of monotone that we described, and it's a really - it's a very powerful combination.

ISAAC: Well, thank you. Yeah. It's - I know my voice teachers back at Juilliard will be very happy to hear you say that...


ISAAC: ...As much as I frustrated them. I remember Joel and Ethan actually talking about that, that that's something in auditions that they listen for a lot.

GROSS: This is Joel and Ethan Coen?

ISAAC: Coen - yeah, yeah - talking about, you know, the difficulty because so many modern actors, you know, there's just a thinness to the voice. Or - and I think it's a lot about, you know, not wanting to commit too much. That's why, you know, it just feels like the more and more time goes on, the more people speak in the back of their throat in order to protect themselves a bit more. You say like and things like that because, you know, you don't really want to commit. There's a little bit more fear of saying what you mean, I mean, especially nowadays. And I think sometimes the voice can do the same thing, you know? There's just not as much air. There's not as much support because you're just - you try to protect yourself a bit.

GROSS: Yeah. That's a good insight. Tell me something great that a voice teacher told you about the spoken voice?

ISAAC: (Laughter) I remember - this wasn't great, but - this is the opposite of great. But I remember my teachers said, you have such a rich, sandy quality to your voice. Was that from listening to all that flamenco growing up?


GROSS: Oh. Oh, gosh. For anybody who doesn't get that joke, you're of Guatemalan and Cuban descent.

ISAAC: Yeah. Flamenco is from Spain. I didn't grow up listening to flamenco.

GROSS: Yeah. No. Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

ISAAC: I guess he just imagined me, like, singing Gipsy Kings around the house or something.


ISAAC: Oh, you know what? I did remember one thing that just came to me when you asked me what are some good things that the voice teachers said. One of my teachers at Juilliard, Richard Feldman, he did say this - wasn't a voice teacher. But I think this is one that I've held onto, which is, life squeezes us. And these are the noises we make. And I just love that. So that the voice...

GROSS: That is great.

ISAAC: The voice is basically life being squeezed out of you at any moment (laughter).

GROSS: And was that helpful in terms of acting?

ISAAC: Incredibly helpful, yeah, you know? It's the lack of control in a way, you know? The circumstances squeeze you, and this is the sound that comes out.

GROSS: Yeah. And the more tense you are, the more squeezed you sound. I don't mean you in particular. I mean one, anyone.

ISAAC: Anyone. Yeah, yeah. And it just connects it immediately to the emotion. Yeah.

GROSS: You know, getting back to "Taxi Driver" and its connection to "The Card Counter," I think you said that "Taxi Driver" was basically in your DNA. What was the impact of that film on you? When did you first see it? And what does it mean to you? And maybe, how has the meaning changed over the years?

ISAAC: Right. Yeah. I saw it - I think I must have been 16 years old. That was one of the ones that actually made me want to make movies. And I remember we started - me and my friends started making lots of movies, kind of emulating "Taxi Driver" and driving around in his car, in his little Honda in Florida and making these short films. It was magic to me. And seeing the arc of this character go through all these different phases and the energy of that thing, and the kind of subversive, punk rock nature of it as well, so much so that by the end he has a mohawk - and I was in a punk band in high school. And it just spoke to me on so many levels - feeling like an outsider, feeling a lot of rage, I think, against my upbringing and, you know, the dissolution of my family. And, you know, it just connected with that existential despair - and then the idea of doing something about it. And then just, like, the fantastic nature of those violent scenes when he finally comes in and takes out all the bad guys, you know, there was just - it was like a punk rock opera.

GROSS: And has the meaning of it changed to you over the years?

ISAAC: Yeah. It's sadder now, you know? I see it now, and it's - I didn't really get the trauma of it before. Now seeing somebody so horribly wounded - you know, that scene with Peter Boyle outside of the cafe, you know, and he's saying, you know - it's just - and it was such a beautiful example of lack of clarity, you know? It's like everything is just an aborted sentence, all the words that he's saying. And then Peter Boyle has, like, the most inane response. And there's just something about that that I found so beautiful, the inarticulate-ness of it all.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Oscar Isaac. And he's been in, like, three consecutive things recently - Paul Schrader's movie "The Card Counter," the HBO series "Scenes From A Marriage" and now "Dune." So we're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Oscar Isaac. And he's been in three consecutive movies in just a short period of time - the Paul Schrader film "The Card Counter," the HBO series "Scenes From A Marriage" and now the science fiction film "Dune." You probably also know him from his appearances in "X-Men" movies and "Star Wars" movies, in the film "Inside Llewyn Davis," in other TV and movies. He really has a pretty long resume at this point (laughter). So in "Scenes From A Marriage," your wife is played by Jessica Chastain. It's about a dissolving marriage and the aftereffects of the dissolution.

I want to play a clip from "Scenes From A Marriage," and this is from the third episode. And so it's been a year since you and your wife have separated. She left you for another man. And since she left, you and your young daughter Ava have stopped using the upstairs rooms of the house, and your downstairs office is now a bedroom for you and your daughter Ava with a partition dividing their bed spaces. And in this scene, Mira's come over to the house, and she still has feelings for you. And while you've moved on with someone else, you're still in a very vulnerable place. So you both start kissing, and then you stop her, and you say this.


ISAAC: (As Jonathan) I don't think you actually really understand what it was like for me here a year ago. That first moment was - I was just on autopilot. I woke Ava up. I got her dressed. I dropped her off at preschool. And I canceled all my classes, and then I came back home. I thought I was literally losing my mind. And there was a moment where I thought that I didn't even want to stay alive. And there was lots of moments where I was sure I didn't want you to stay alive. Like, I really wanted you to die. And then there was a moment I wanted Ava to die, for that to be my revenge. And that night, she started coughing like crazy, and at one point, she threw up from coughing so much. And - 'cause she spiked a fever of 104, and I wasn't sure if I should take her to the emergency room, and so I ended up putting her in a bathtub. And that lasted all night, and I was scared to death. I thought I'd killed her.

GROSS: That's my guest Oscar Isaac in a scene from "Scenes From A Marriage." You were a father by the time you shot that scene.

ISAAC: Yeah, father of two.

GROSS: Yeah. So do you think there was, like, an emotional depth you were able to bring to it? 'Cause I think all parents worry about something happening to their child and carry around a certain amount of guilt for something that they did do or should have done or wish they'd done or...

ISAAC: Yeah, of course. We didn't have to reach so far. You know, I'm not an ex-torturer living a life in a casino. I'm not, you know, a space king. You know, this was - sometimes, you know, at the end of the day I'm filming a scene in this little wooden bed with a 5-year-old playing my daughter, reading her a book with this little bunny lamp on. And then I'd get in the car, come home just in time to lay down in a little wooden bed with a book with the same exact bunny lamp, reading to my 4-year-old, you know? (Laughter) So it was - yeah, it was a very strange process, definitely the most uncanny thing that I've done as far as just, you know, going from one house with little kids to another, one being the real one. So yeah, I think those things - I didn't need to reach very far to feel emotionally connected to them.

GROSS: There's been so much social media in terms of "Scenes From A Marriage" about your looks, about, you know, you being sexy, about your body 'cause there's a very brief, you know, full-frontal shot. What's your reaction to that? I know you're not that big on social media. But how do you feel about people commenting on your body and in a very positive way?

ISAAC: I was surprised that Hagai left that in there because it gives it away that I'm not (laughter) - that I wasn't raised modern Orthodox.


GROSS: It's maybe too brief to really notice that, but - (laughter).

ISAAC: I hope so, but some people clearly caught on. So I was like...

GROSS: That's really funny. I didn't realize that.

ISAAC: Yeah, yeah. I was like, I don't know. I was - I wouldn't have done that. But, you know, all right.


ISAAC: Maybe that was a little more...

GROSS: Maybe a behind shot would have been better.

ISAAC: A little more fourth-wall breaking, I guess, that's going on there.


ISAAC: Yeah. I don't know. You know, it's - I think it's just part of the thing now, you know? You know, I mean, you've got so much - many more voices that are able to kind of talk and be heard. And it's - you know, I wasn't bothered by it.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is actor Oscar Isaac. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Oscar Isaac, who's been in, like, three consecutive things in rapid succession - "The Card Counter" which is Paul Schrader's latest movie, "Scenes From A Marriage" which was a new adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman 1973 Swedish TV series in which he starred with Jessica Chastain, and that's on HBO. You can still see it on demand. And now he's in "Dune."

When did you see your first "Star Wars" film? Because you've been in "Star Wars" films, too.

ISAAC: I have been in those, yes. I saw "Return Of The Jedi" with my dad at the theater.

GROSS: How old were you?

ISAAC: I must have been 4 or 5 years old.

GROSS: Oh, that's really young.

ISAAC: Yeah, I was little.

GROSS: What impact did it have on you?

ISAAC: I just - I remember very vividly the moment when Darth Vader's helmet came off and being so weirded out by this, like, fat, sad dad underneath, you know?


ISAAC: So yeah, that just stuck in my head.

GROSS: Do you think that was, like, formative in terms of your idea of what is a movie and what does one go to a movie theater to see, what is that experience like?

ISAAC: Yeah, a bit, a bit. I remember that one. I remember going to movies with my dad. And you know, he - there was - "Cocoon" was playing and "The Goonies" was playing at the same time. And he wanted to take me to see "The Goonies." And I threw such a huge tantrum because I wanted to go see "Cocoon."

GROSS: "Cocoon" - it's so funny because "Cocoon" is - "Goonies" (ph) is for kids, and "Cocoon" is about older people.

ISAAC: I didn't realize that. What's...

GROSS: What did you think it was, like, a monstrous caterpillar or something (laughter)?

ISAAC: Yeah, I have no idea what I was thinking. I just knew that I really wanted to see that instead of "Goonies." And to my dad's credit, he said, OK, fine. And I remember we went in there, and we watched "Cocoon" (laughter). I was so confused, and I didn't understand, and - you know, it was funny. Growing up, my dad was very formative with films. Every weekend, he'd come home from the video store with a new movie that we'd all watch. I remember that's the first time I saw "NeverEnding Story" (ph) and "Legend" and "Clue." And those were a lot of the films that made huge impressions - "Time Bandits."

GROSS: So it's interesting that he bought home movies. I guess this was during periods when it was OK to watch movies.

ISAAC: Yeah. Yeah. This was when movies were OK.


ISAAC: Thank God.

GROSS: Right.

ISAAC: In a way, like, movies - you know, we didn't have a TV for a while. But yeah, like, movies tended to be OK. And then it was my dad that got a camera - a camcorder - because he used to make movies with his brothers.

GROSS: Really? What kind of movies?

ISAAC: He'd make, like, Super 8 movies. And then he'd even, like, edit them, and he'd make a live soundtrack at the same time.

GROSS: Did you get to see his movies?

ISAAC: I never saw them because he couldn't find them. But we started making some. Like, he made some with us - with his kids - like a "Dracula" movie. And you know - and he loved movies. I remember, that's first time I saw, like, "My Left Foot" and "Deer Hunter" (ph) - things I probably shouldn't have seen, being as young as I was. But it was really formative for me.

GROSS: Did that give you a sense that, like, well, Dad makes movies, I can make movies?

ISAAC: Yeah. So I started making movies with his camcorder. And he even had, like, a little video equalizer where you could put in titles and things. And so, yeah, I started making movies of my toys at a pretty young age, and then made a movie with my middle school class - or, like, my elementary school class. We were, like, sixth grade, fifth grade. So yeah, that really - that's what kind of got me started in that. Because we had a camera, so we could make movies. And I could see how magical it was to make them.

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about growing up. Your mother was from Guatemala, your father from Cuba. How did they meet? Where did they meet?

ISAAC: My father - he was from Cuba, but he grew up in Washington, D.C. And he went to Guatemala for medical school, him and his two brothers. So it was down there that he met my mom.

GROSS: So he's a pulmonologist?


GROSS: Right. So you and your parents moved to the U.S. when you were 5 months old. Why did you move from Guatemala?

ISAAC: Work for my father. We moved back up in the D.C. area for his residency. So we moved there. I basically moved every two years my entire life. So yeah, we moved there. We were there for a year or two. We moved to Virginia, D.C., Louisiana and then all around Florida.

GROSS: When you were in Florida, your house was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. How old were you then? And where were you during the storm - the hurricane? Yeah.

ISAAC: Yeah. This was 1992. So yeah, I was, you know, 12, 13 years old. And we were inside the house when the house blew down. Luckily, the one wall that we were up against was in the middle of the living room. They were just covered in cushions. The roof blew off. The rooms got blown away. Yeah. It was like a bomb went off.

GROSS: Can you describe a little more what that experience was like?

ISAAC: I had my - I had a little dog with me, so I was kind of holding him the whole time. And our - my cousin and aunt and uncle - my two cousins and aunt and uncle - they had been evacuated from where they are to our house. And the hurricane made a turn at the very last minute. It was like a buzzsaw, Andrew - small, but just so powerful. It turned right towards our neighborhood where we were - weirdly enough, farther away from the water. We were quite out west.

But yeah, it happened. And I remember it being exciting, you know? There was - you know, I was sitting in my living room underneath these cushions, and I was feeling water come up to my ankles. And then, I remember really wild, weird sounds, like the phone ringing, and then suddenly flying off the handle and still ringing in, like, a really weird, alien kind of sound. I think the fact that I was holding onto my dog probably helped me not be so scared.

And then at a certain point, when things calmed down, I remember hearing somebody breaking through the door, and it ended up being my dad, who had been at the hospital. At that point, my parents were divorced already. And he had been working there, and he came to pick us up. And so he got the kids. And yeah, I remember coming out into the neighborhood, and just - it really looked like an atom bomb had gone off. It was just leveled, the whole place.

GROSS: Was that traumatizing?

ISAAC: Yeah. Yeah, very much so, and the days that followed, too. Because I remember staying at my grandma's house, and there was no lights. And then my sister went off with my mom, and so we got separated, and I didn't hear from them for a while. And then suddenly, we were going back to Guatemala all together. And then we were in Guatemala for a couple months.

GROSS: Were there things that you lost - besides just, like, your home, but things that were precious to you as a 13-year-old that you really felt bad about never being able to get back again?

ISAAC: Yeah. I'd had a bunch of little short stories I had written that I had in my desk. Yeah. I really liked doing all these. And I had a play that I had written about Noah's Ark. It was a musical. And we ended up actually doing it in fifth grade, but I'd had it kind of saved, and that was gone. But mostly it was the house. I would have dreams for a long time about the house because it was the place that I'd been the longest out of anywhere. And so it felt more like home. Because I'd never - you know, we always were moving around all over the place. So that was, like, a big longing I had for a long time.

However, I was going to go - they were going to a school where there was no music or dancing because I'd been expelled from my Christian school. And that school got blown down as well. And so I ended up - we ended up moving up north to Delray Beach. And then I went to a public school and had such a great time.

GROSS: Were you relieved that that school was no longer a possibility?

ISAAC: Oh, man. Yes. Oh, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, you know, it sounds like this was like an incredible, terrible lesson in impermanence and the impermanence of everything. But also, like, did it play into the whole end-of-the-world-apocalypse scenario that you were brought up to believe in?

ISAAC: Yeah, a bit. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, everything about life for me has been a lot of impermanence. You know, that's also the - what's funny about the profession that I'm in. You know, you have these really intense months with these people doing this thing where it means so much. You know, I remember I was talking to Ethan Hawke where it's like, we're like, what's wrong with us? You know, oftentimes you're in a scene and you're like, what limb can I cut off so I can be 10% better in this scene?

And then a year later, you're like, I don't even care about that movie, you know. But in the moment, it means everything. And then it goes away, just like - it dissolves. And, you know, sometimes you keep in touch with some of the people, but more often than not you don't. And so it does feel like there's just been this long narrative from the moment I've been born of just the temporary nature of things.

GROSS: And what about the end-of-the-world scenario, I mean, having your house blow away while you're inside of it? Did that deepen - I don't know where you were in your own sense of belief at that time.

ISAAC: Yeah. I think it's sort of moving away from it, really, you know, in some ways because it's like, you know, yeah, these things happen, but it doesn't - yeah, it doesn't mean it's the end. You know, and it - this isn't God doing this. This is just a hurricane, you know.

GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Oscar Isaac. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Oscar Isaac, who has starred in three things consecutively - Paul Schrader's film "The Card Counter," the HBO limited series "Scenes From A Marriage," and now he stars in "Dune."

So 2017 - I want to skip ahead to there - was a really life-changing year for you. Your mother died in February. You got married in March. Your first child was born in April. During that period, you also played Hamlet. The impact of having death and new life so close together must have been - well, I don't know. Maybe you can say a little bit about what it was like. I've seen that happen so often where somebody - where an older member of a family dies and then a new baby is born. You know, talking about impermanence. What was it like for you to have, you know, death and new life so close together?

ISAAC: Yeah. Yeah. Just seeing that little - that gateway, you know, being the same one, right? You know, it's kind of go back to where you came from. Yeah. It was - it obviously was 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. You know, whether that's the healthiest thing, I don't know. You 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, you know, it's one thing to grieve as a character and one thing to grieve as an actual, you know, person. And I think that there's some - still quite a lot of unresolved stuff there. But to have this little baby boy who I named after my mom, you know, come just a month and a half later, that was really something. And yeah. Yeah. It's just that, you know, it's the biggest things and gave a lot of perspective to it all. You know, I think since then, I've become a much less desperate person. I feel like I was...

GROSS: What does that mean?

ISAAC: Well, I think I was always desperate to like - I got to be great. I need to be seen. I need to say the right thing. I need to make the right decision. I need - you know, there was just all these - talk to the right person. I need to, you know, make this person like me. I need to meet, you know - all these kind of desperate feelings that have really finally melted away for the most part. I mean, it still comes up now and then. But for the most part, I think that's what a lot of that did was just reshuffle what I find important.

GROSS: Another thing I can imagine happening is it shifting your whole sense of generations because you no longer had a mother but now you are a father. And so that's a huge shift in identity and a sense of where you are in the generations.

ISAAC: Yeah, sure. You know, the grief was - you know, the only unconditional love I've ever really felt was from my mom. So, like, that was like God. And then God died. And then I - it's like, I'll never have that again, you know, because it's impossible. You only have the one mom. But I can give that. And that shift, you know, has been a really beautiful thing, to move into that, into the giving.

GROSS: I read that your mother loved Shakespeare. So when she was sick, you read "Hamlet" to her. I guess you were preparing for the role at that point?

ISAAC: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So can you talk a little bit about passages from "Hamlet" that have just, like, special resonance for you because of reading it to your mother and because you were playing the role after she died, because part of the - so much of the story is about grief. He's lost his father. He believes his father was murdered. And he thinks he knows who murdered him.

ISAAC: Yeah. There were so many. I mean, I remember doing "O, What A Rogue And Peasant Slave" for her. And she's just like, oh, that's very good. She was just - she was so sweet about it. But I think the one that really - I remember, actually, every night, it just would hit me in such a really intense way, which was the - you know, the, if it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. And that was a really strong one because, you know, we were all, in a way, getting ready for the inevitable, which was she was going to pass. She had been given a death sentence.

And, you know, the idea of the sparrow falling. And she'd always talked a lot about that, you know, that he knows when a sparrow falls - as a sign that God cares if He knows even if a sparrow falls. And what does He not think of you? How does He not feel of you? Something like that. So that always hit me really hard. And I'd always hear my mom in that. But the whole thing really was - it felt like a funeral for her every night, you know? I would picture her in the audience when I was preparing. And I'd pick the seat that she was going to be in. And, you know, a lot of focus would go towards that seat every night.

GROSS: Well, just one more thing - you know, we talked earlier about growing up in an, you know, evangelical family with a profound belief in the inevitability of the apocalypse happening soon. And you said, when you left that faith, it was either - you know, either you believed or you didn't. That, too, was, like, an on-and-off switch. And you turned it off. Did you ever try turning it back on again? Or are you still in the off mode?

ISAAC: I'm trying to turn it back on. I'm grasping in the dark for the light switch because, yeah, I have found that, you know, living in just the kind of materialistic sense of things - you know, just the material world is all that's real - that feels like a dead end as well. And it's also quite an egotistical thing to be like, everything I see, that's all that's real. I know exactly what - you know, how everything works. And I wouldn't presume to do that. So yeah, I think I am in a bit of a search, and a hopeful search, for - to cultivate a bit more of a spiritual life.

GROSS: Well, I wish you well with that.

ISAAC: Thank you.

GROSS: Oscar Isaac, it's just been wonderful to talk with you. I'm really grateful that you joined us on the show today.

ISAAC: I was so happy to speak with you, too. It's been a long time coming for me. I'm really - it was a real honor to talk to you. I think you're just one of the greatest.

GROSS: Oscar Isaac stars in the latest Paul Schrader film "The Card Counter," which you can rent on Amazon and other streaming platforms. He stars with Jessica Chastain in the HBO limited series "Scenes From A Marriage," which recently ended. But you can see it on demand. And he's one of the stars of the new film "Dune." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with two actors and singers, Cynthia Erivo and Billy Porter, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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