You know Oscar Isaac’s face. You’ve seen him in one film or another over the last 10 years (including 2012’s high-school-reunion dramedy 10 Years). He’s the guy with the forceful presence and dark, gruffly handsome features, who always makes a memorable impact on the sidelines. Maybe he’s your favorite actor to tell your friends about. Born in Guatemala and raised in Miami, this 33-year-old Juilliard grad has an early filmography that’s fairly stereotypical, listing a single-episode arc on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and bit parts in the Ice Cube actioner All About the Benjamins and something called Pu-239, directed by Scott Z. Burns. That Isaac had never emerged from the supporting-actor ranks before this year is what had some viewers gobsmacked at Cannes, where he knocked them flat with his title role in the Palme d’Or frontrunner Inside Llewyn Davis. Gifted the part by the film’s directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, after sending in a highly convincing audition tape, the actor is suddenly gaining the most press of his career, and if the Oscar buzz is legit, it’s not likely to stop soon. As noted in a piece in The Guardian that ran amid the festival, even journalists were stumped after the movie made its debut. “Where have you come from?” a press-conference attendee reportedly asked. But fans who’ve been watching Isaac already know the answer to that.
Isaac’s first major role came in 2006, when he played Joseph opposite Keisha Castle-Hughes in Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story. Smaller parts followed in films like Che, Body of Lies, and Agora, another religion-themed film that surely evoked what the actor has called a “very Christian” upbringing. By 2010, after winning a Best Supporting Actor trophy from the Australian Film Institute for his turn in Balibo, Isaac had become a bona fide scene-stealer. Along with fellow villain Mark Strong, he handily snagged the spotlight away from Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, bringing new, magnetic venom to the done-and-done-again role of Prince John. The following year, he took on the controversial part of Blue Jones in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, playing the brutal, misogynistic head of a brothel/asylum (as any Sucker Punch viewer will tell you, it’s complicated). Perhaps primed to continue tackling daring work, the faithful side player moved on to the iffy-from-the-get-go romance W.E., acting under Madonna and opposite his Sucker Punch co-star, Abbie Cornish. What else that year? A little movie called Drive, wherein Isaac let Ryan Gosling take the glory, but brought pathos and zeal to his role as a jilted boyfriend.
Isaac has been deservedly busy ever since. He lent small contributions to The Bourne Legacy and Won’t Back Down, and he’s booked for the foreseeable future. In mid-December, he’ll star with Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen in Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January, and looking further ahead, he’ll appear in Inertia, Memorial Day, William Monahan’s Mojave, and Brad Furman’s The Ballad of Pablo Escobar, in which he’ll play the title role. But before all that, there’s Inside Llewyn Davis, which, for many, is one of the most anticipated films of 2013. Co-starring Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and Garrett Hedlund, the movie tells of a folk singer-songwriter roaming New York in the 1960s, trying to be the next Bob Dylan but straining in his quest (it’s reportedly based in part on the posthumous memoir of folk artist Dave Van Ronk). Inside Llewyn Davis did pick up the Grand Prix at Cannes, and it features all of its actors doing their own singing and performing. Isaac comes from a musical background. He played lead guitar and sang in the band the Blinking Underdogs (who once opened for Green Day), and in 10 Years, which cast him as a successful John Mayer type, he performed his own songs, including the bittersweet “Never Had” (below). Inside Llewyn Davis sees Isaac playing instruments too, but there’s one he finally won’t be playing: second fiddle.