Oscar Isaac on Star Wars, Carrie Fisher, and Imminent Fame

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Oscar Isaac lies sprawled out on the couch in front of me, his shoes shucked off, his eyes heavy-lidded. The 36-year-old star of Ex Machina and Inside Llewyn Davis is finishing up his third straight day of press for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but there's plenty more to come after our chat, including a worldwide media tour and gala premieres across the globe. In the J.J. Abrams–directed The Force Awakens, Isaac plays the daring pilot Poe Dameron, who becomes entangled with the other newcomers Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger with a secret, and Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper with a crisis of conscience, while also carrying on with Star Wars veterans Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han (Harrison Ford). It's all enough to blow the mind of any Star Wars fan, and Isaac ought to know, since he's one of them.

I just saw you walking down the hall with the six-foot-three Gwendoline Christie, who plays the villainous Captain Phasma. You were arm-in-arm, and it was kind of adorable.
Oh, you mean when she cradled me? Yeah, she’s a special lady.

There are a lot of special ladies who worked on this movie. I know you spent time hanging out with Carrie Fisher. Do you remember when you met?
The first time I met her was a dinner that we all had when the cast was first arriving. Immediately, she just wasn’t interested in small talk. She even said it: “I’m sorry, I just can’t do small talk. Let’s just get into it.” She talked about her fears and her insecurities, and she’s so refreshingly off-grid. I love it, I love it. She’s a truth-teller.

Is that humbling, that an actress returning to this iconic Star Wars character can still possess insecurities about it?
It’s just an acknowledgment that the other stuff doesn’t matter, that perception is bullshit. You’ve got a whole industry that makes a lot of money off of just perception, and then there’s the reality of people’s day-to-day lives. Her questions and insecurities had little to do with playing Leia — it had more to do with this whole industry, which can be incredibly brutal.

So does that give you pause when you get a role in something as massive as this franchise?
No, not even a little bit! I become very myopic about those things, and after I sign on, I just think, “How do I get involved with this character? How do I make him interesting? What can I do with it, and what do I read about?” It’s never a calculation about my career or my life, because what are you going to do to prepare for it? Change all your passwords?

Maybe!
I don’t really know! What does one do? So I just do the work.

So what is the work in a special case like Star Wars? What do you research, and what do you use to ground the character of Poe Dameron?
Well, you start with, “Okay, it’s Star Wars. War … why don’t I read about war? Let’s just go there.” So you start there and do the reading, and then you say, “Okay, I’m playing a pilot. Pilots … maybe there’s a biography of a pilot that explains what the feeling is to be soaring above everyone else and having your eye on the enemy. And what does that do to the psyche?” I read a book called What It’s Like to Go to War that talks about the ecstasy of war, and how war is a spiritual arena. That spoke to me a lot because I think it’s at the core of Star Wars, this idea that there’s a spirituality to the universe that you can access and use for good or for evil.

And can you feel all that in Poe now?
It’s about finding something that lets your imagination ignite and gives you some specificity, but the truth is that you can read every book you want and it might not affect anything. You just do it and when you show up, you let all that go and you trust J.J. You say, “Tell me what to do. Louder? Slower? Faster? Should I improvise a little? Does that line work?” You trust the guy who’s orchestrating the whole thing, because in some ways it has more to do with a symphony than with a movie. You’re an instrument that has a specific tone that’s needed for this thing. You’re a color that’s used to create this collage.

So what color is Poe? A fun color? An adventurous color? Does he bring some humor to the franchise?
It’s a bit of that. It’s a bit of classic heroism. It’s the guy that you want in the trenches with you. It’s the person who butts up against authority a little bit. It’s that idea of the quintessential fighter pilot that comes in and saves the day. The really cool thing is, if you think about what J.J. has done, he’s essentially made a Star Wars movie about the people who are normally extras in a Star Wars movie.

How so?
Stormtroopers, rebel pilots … other than Luke, you saw characters like that for literally a second in the other movies. And with Daisy’s character, she’s just some scavenger on a desert planet. It’s as though these characters have always existed, but instead of having his camera on the monarchy or the royalty, he just kind of moves it over to the people who are usually more behind the scenes.

Have you seen the film?
Yeah.

Are you usually good at watching yourself in a movie?
I’m not that great.

So does something like Star Wars, with its scale, sweep away all your concerns about watching yourself? Or are you just as hard on yourself as ever?
It’s a mix. That’s why it’s a little bit overwhelming to watch something like that, because those insecurities are natural: What could I have done better, and what can I learn for next time? And how do I think constructively about that for next time, rather than just being like, “I’m horrible, ahhh!”

Especially because you know there will be a “next time,” in this case.
Potentially, yes. So that element goes into it. But then there is this story that sweeps you up, and you’re reacting as a fan. It’s accessing childhood feelings, and knowing that while you’re on the inside of this thing, you’re also way on the outside. Because I grew up with this thing, and now I have my own John Williams theme! So it’s a whole lot of feelings.