Oscar Isaac takes a break from piloting Poe Dameron’s X-wing fighter in the Star Wars saga to deliver an emotional punch in uplifting First World War drama The Promise. The star of the Coen Brothers classic Inside Llewyn Davies and X-Men: Apocalypse talks to NME about working with Christian Bale, his passion for making music and The Last Jedi.
It’s now over 100 years since the harrowing events of the Armenian genocide portrayed in your new film The Promise. Amid today’s chaos, should we do more to heed warnings from history?
“When I first read the script for The Promise things were starting to happen in Syria and the refugee crisis was getting bad but I couldn’t have imagined it would continue to get worse and worse. And that the rhetoric you would be hearing from the powers that be would be just as aloof and callous as they were back then, over 100 years ago on the eve of the First World War. Lessons clearly haven’t been learned and with tragic consequences. The hope is that people will see this movie about these atrocities that took place a century ago and not feel that they are so abstract. These events are personable and relatable and draw worrying parallels with the harsh reality of what’s happening now. Back then the government decided Turkey was only for the Turks, singled out the Armenians and began the systematic extermination of this persecuted group. As people fled for their lives and sought refuge, the world for the most part just stood and watched, much as we’re seeing today.”
It’s an emotional rollercoaster, so what was the toughest scene to shoot?
“The whole thing was pretty gruelling. We shot in 18 different cities and towns over many months. For everyone involved it was a challenging experience. There were a lot of moving parts to this roadshow. Shooting up on a mountain for the film’s climactic battle scene was physically tough being exposed to the elements. But as a performer the reason I chose to do the movie was the emotional challenge. There’s a scene where my character Mikael returns to his village and discovers the true horror of the genocide. Arriving in the aftermath of the slaughter of men, women and children by a stream in a quiet forest it moved me deeply. Preparing for that scene to allow its truth to happen without forcing it too much and treat that moment honestly was key for me.”
Mikael never gives up. His journey is a triumph of the human spirit… Did you find your preparation different and more difficult compared to other films?
“You allow yourself to let go of the responsibility of having to hit anything. It’s a scary thing to do but you know what? If you’re trying to get a scene right it just might not happen. We might all be up here on a mountain and it won’t be worth filming what comes out. Once you allow that it takes the pressure off and you can be a little more honest in your process. I read a lot about the events portrayed in the film and listened to the stories of survivors who saw grandmothers bayoneted, dead babies left under trees, mass rapes and people being marched out into the desert to their execution. Hearing them describe these horrors first hand was humbling. So, when you’re in that moment in the scene you don’t have to try so hard to imagine what these people suffered. On the day I had to stay easy and loose but also concentrated. It’s a very different experience to shooting X-Men: Apocalypse.”
What did you learn from, and how did you collaborate with, Christian Bale?
“He was pretty amazing, like the elder statesman on set. He’s so relaxed and easy with everyone and, as gruelling as conditions were, he was having a really good time. He was really invested in the point of view of being a journalist (Bale plays American correspondent Chris Myers) and how important it was at that point in history to be the one recording the truth behind what became enemy lines. Even though our characters are competitors in a love triangle (with Charlotte Le Bon) throughout the film, we had a lot of fun together and he taught me the value of maintaining a sense of humour on set even when you’re dealing with heavy material.”
Like Bale you’ve entered the world of film franchise mega fame. Given your increased profile since Star Wars and X-Men what’s the worst and best things about it?
“I seem to be signing stuff a lot more these days! Though for me it’s always fun when kids come to visit the set of a film like The Last Jedi. Even though it’s Star Wars, you’re still at work and like any work it gets boring. But then when you see the magic of what your hoping to create with the film through their eyes it’s very exciting and makes me realise how lucky I am. It’s a weird phenomenon where kids that haven’t even seen all the films are still obsessed by them.”
Thanks to playing Poe Dameron, has achieving a level of fame where you’re instantly recognisable taken getting used to?
“I’m actually grateful for it because it’s afforded me the opportunity to do a lot of different films. My lifestyle in New York and the way these things go hasn’t felt like a major shift for me personally. I can see it professionally with the parts I’m in contention for but I get left alone pretty much so I can still walk down the street.”
What can we expect from The Last Jedi? Is there a chance that Poe could drift to the dark side of The Force?
“The heroes get challenged very specifically. It’s almost like you get to discover their character flaws and those things get tested. Out of that I think you’ll get a much better sense of who Poe, Finn and Rey are because you get to really know somebody in a crisis. Star Wars is fixed in my calendar until at least 2020 so watch this space…”
We’ve recently learned that Gary Barlow will be appearing in the film…
He was in a ’90s boy band called Take That. Did your paths cross on set?
“Unfortunately I was not part of that scene (laughs).”
Your fellow actor Guy Pearce released an album after three decades of playing and writing for himself. Will you wait that long?
“In the past it’s been on the back burner as the next thing and I think it will be again. At the moment, I admit I just play for myself… I’ve got lots of bits and pieces and half done things. I still love playing and singing but as far as putting together an album I don’t think it’s part of my immediate future.”
You told Rolling Stone that you chose acting over music because you felt you could add something rather than just work within genres. Is that what’s holding you back?
“Exactly. Because I’m thinking: What’s the framework? What’s the context? I’m not just gonna put out a bunch of songs. It would have to be the right approach and that takes more than a little bit of thought to do in an honest way and create something you can be proud of.”
You combined the two with Inside Llewyn Davies. Would you like to score a film?
“I’d love to take that approach again, particularly with the Coen brothers. Depending on the project or what opportunities are available it would be a great way to once more combine two things I love.”
The Promise is in cinemas April 28