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has showed off his chameleon-like talent as he transformed from his critically acclaimed performance in the title role of Inside Llewyn Davis to take on the real-life Nick Wasicsko in HBO’s limited series Show Me a Hero.
Based on Lisa Belkin’s book about a public-housing policy dispute in Yonkers, N.Y. in the late 1980s that divided the city along racial and class lines, the story opens with Wasicsko running for mayor, and winning by promising to not comply with a court-ordered mandate to integrate Yonkers housing. It was something the incumbent knew was an impossibility, but it is a lesson that Wasicsko learns once in office, when he is forced into compliance. It was not a popular decision, and Show Me a Hero takes us through the mayor’s frustrations, decline in popularity, and eventually, loss of his constituency.
Paste caught up with Isaac to talk about tackling the role of Wasicsko, joining both the Star Wars and X-Men franchises, and more.
Paste Magazine: What was it about Show Me a Hero that spoke to you?
Oscar Isaac: I read it and thought, “What an incredible story.” Incredible because it happened not so long ago and not so far away. It happened in New York in the late ‘80s. It wasn’t in the ‘60s in Alabama. When I started reading about everything that went down and learning about the real Nick Wasicsko, I fell in love with him, and I really wanted to try to understand who he was, and tell that story.
There was something about Nick’s personality, or his physicality, the way he spoke, the timbre of his voice, it’s hard to explain why. It wasn’t an intellectual thing. It wasn’t until I saw him on video that I wanted to understand what it was like to live through this thing the way that he did.
Also, I hadn’t ever worked in this longer format with six episodes, six hours to try and build an arc for a character. Obviously, David Simon is fantastic and his script was interesting. And at the meeting with [director] Paul Haggis, he said something that I thought was really honest: “I want you to do this because I have no idea how you would do this.”
Paste: You are multi-ethnic—Guatemalan and Cuban with a French grandmother, and you grew up in a multi-cultural city where something like what happened in Yonkers wouldn’t happen. Was that part of the appeal?
Isaac: Probably. I wouldn’t say that happened consciously in any way. I think the idea of people wanting to better themselves and moving into areas where people feel uncomfortable because of whatever prejudices or preconceived ideas they have—that is something I have been aware of in my life even though I did grow up in a multi-cultural area. Part of growing up in a multi-cultural area is that at some point that has to happen. I would say that would register in some way.
Paste: With Ferguson and Baltimore, and people still talking about Trayvon Martin, do you think Show Me a Hero is a mini-series that speaks to what is going on in America now?
Isaac: Just telling the story, that this happened not very long ago at all … in fact the case didn’t settle until 2007. I think the telling of the story alone is enough to say, “Wow! We really feel a false sense of comfort when it comes to these things.”
Paste: Is there more of a responsibility when you’re playing someone real?
Isaac: No. Because it’s fiction. It’s filtered once through Lisa Belkin, who wrote the non-fiction book, then through David Simon, then through Paul and then through me, so it’s more of a meditation on a life. I don’t necessarily feel responsibility. In fact, what you have is more tools at your disposal. In some ways, it can be easier than creating something from scratch, because you have something to go off of.
Paste: How successful do you think Wasicsko’s quest was? And how much did he feel that?
Isaac: For him, it wasn’t a success, because I think he was naïve, and he got chewed up by it to a certain extent. But, at the same time, as he got to understand the reality of the situation, he grew. He grew with it, and he grew into the leader that he had wanted to be. I just don’t think he ever realized that by doing the right thing, by being that leader, he was also sacrificing himself, and it was something that he couldn’t bounce back from.
So for me, as an actor, to a certain extent, the process was that of being a detective. There was this unexplainable act that the script starts with. And to have to investigate how this could have happened, what he could have been thinking, it was not only about reading the book and the script, but talking to the real Nay Wasicsko [Nick’s widow] and really trying to get some sort of understanding.
And, in fact, the more questions I would ask and the more I found out, the farther away I would get from an answer. So it was an interesting challenge to try to find that because, whatever reasons, they were internal. They were very internal, and nobody, nobody could have expected what happened, and in some ways, I think not even him.
Paste: You are also going to be joining the Star Wars and X-Men franchises. I’m assuming that you’re looking forward to that.
Isaac: For me, more than anything, it was about being guilty of nostalgia. I was a big fan of Star Wars. I was also a big fan of X-Men, particularly the villain Apocalypse, so when those parts came around and there was interest for me to do them, I was excited about it. I was excited to explore those worlds. There is something more mythical … basically, you’re playing God. It’s a challenge.
Paste: Do you think Inside Llewyn Davis made these other roles possible? Was that movie a turning point in your career?
Isaac: It’s funny, because everything is a turning point. Everything leads to something else. I would say yes. I could feel an immediate shift. It was my first lead role and it was from the Coens, so that does go a long way.
Paste: After filming, was there anything you ran out to buy and celebrate?
Isaac: I didn’t have to buy anything to celebrate. The real celebration was the very last day after the very last shot, Joel and Ethan [Coen] brought out a case, and it was the case I had been carrying around, and it was the guitar that I had played, which was a 1924 Gibson. They gave it me as a gift with a little plaque inside that said, “Wow!” So that was really exciting.
Paste: Do you actually play it, or…?
Isaac: I had to figure out if it was going to be a museum piece. But, no, I take it on tour. I play it in coffee shops. It is meant to be played, so I play it all the time.
The Show Me A Hero finale airs tonight on HBO.