“I know it happens to everybody, but it’d never happened to me,” he said. “I know people’s mothers have died, but this was mine.”
Mr. Isaac’s mother died in February, but “Hamlet” is still with him. For most of this heat-struck summer, he is performing as the tortured prince grieving the death of his father, six times a week for nearly four hours a throw at the Public Theater.
Mr. Isaac certainly has other ways to spend his days. For one, his first child, a son, was born in April. And his film career is booming. In a few short years, he’s graduated from indie artisan, with films like “Inside Llewyn Davis,” to bona fide star with roles in “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” He can probably take whatever theater job he wants to or not take any theater job at all.
That said, “Hamlet” is a play that exerts a strange pull on a lot of movie and television stars (Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant, Jude Law, Ethan Hawke), and it’s a role just about any classically trained actor and plenty of actresses have dreamed of playing.
But it’s also a tragedy that asks Mr. Isaac to relive the anguished death of a parent at every performance. In Sam Gold’s rowdy, deconstructionist staging, every time Mr. Isaac mud-wrestles, or lofts a prop skull or performs a mad scene in just a T-shirt and briefs, he seems to be working through his own loss, transforming raw private grief into riveting public performance.
“It’s for my mom that I’m doing it,” he said. “It’s to honor her life, but also her death, which was so awful.”
ON A RECENT WEEKDAY, an hour before rehearsal, Mr. Isaac hunched in a booth at the back of the Library, the Public’s restaurant. Looking slighter in person than onscreen, he was sitting underneath a skull-bedizened poster for an earlier production of “Hamlet.” His black warm-up jacket was a modish update of Hamlet’s “inky cloak.” It wouldn’t have been a huge surprise if he had drawn a sword from underneath the table or spotted a ghost over by the bar.
This symbolic brazenness seemed like a joke; Mr. Isaac was probably in on it. He has a roguish sense of mischief that underlies even his more serious roles (“Ex Machina,” “A Most Violent Year”). And he’s one of the few actors of his generation who can combine the unrestrained volatility of a Method actor with pedigreed classical chops.
His Hamlet is antic, mercurial, unpredictable, but each line of verse comes across clearly, almost conversationally. As Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater — who helped cast a Juilliard-fresh Mr. Isaac in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” in 2005 and “Romeo and Juliet” two years later — said, “That combination, particularly in such a handsome man, it’s amazing.”
It’s that charisma that helped the “Star Wars” director J. J. Abrams decide not to kill off his character, Poe Dameron, who will reappear in the coming “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” “The idea of Oscar Isaac as Poe coming back into the movie and being an ally to the cause got my blood pumping,” Mr. Abrams wrote in an email.
MR. ISAAC LOVED THEATER early. Born in Guatemala and raised by evangelical Christian parents in Miami, he had his first roles in religious plays. Even then, he played antiheroes. His first lead? The Devil. He devised an entrance from underneath the bleachers, scaring an adored teacher and exciting the interest of the popular girl he had a crush on.
“For that little moment, I thought, this is what I want to do,” he said.
Eventually he fell away from the church, and though his parents supported his acting ambitions, for a while he stopped that, too. He turned to music, migrating from soft rock to grunge rock to heavy metal, before landing in third-wave ska groups like the Worms and Blinking Underdogs, which attracted a local following.
Still, he never really shook theater. He studied it at community college and apprenticed at Area Stage Company in Miami. The artistic director got him reading Shakespeare again. “I didn’t really understand it,” Mr. Isaac said, “but I liked it a lot.”
He even developed an infatuation with the film soundtrack to the Zeffirelli “Hamlet.” On an impulse, he auditioned for Juilliard, using a monologue from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” and arguing about its interpretation with the head of the drama division in the middle of his callback.
Richard Feldman, one of Mr. Isaac’s Juilliard teachers, remembered sensing in him “the best kind of artistic ambition,” adding: “I’m not talking about fame, I’m not talking about fortune. I’m talking about the hunger to be really good.”
At Juilliard, he met Mr. Gold, at the time a directing student. Mr. Gold was immediately struck by Mr. Isaac’s “easy energy and an easy relationship to his talent and having an incredible amount of talent” and a shared belief that “acting shouldn’t look hard,” Mr. Gold said.
The two of them fooled around with some comic scenes from “Hamlet,” making a pact to work together one day on the whole play. They both got “bit by it and obsessed by it,” Mr. Gold said, speaking by phone. Those talks continued, and two years ago, Mr. Isaac signed on, saying he felt he had to do it “before the knees give out.”
“You can only be so old and be upset that your mom remarried,” he said.
Once he’d agreed, Mr. Isaac began reading academic books, watching famous past performances, playing a recording of John Gielgud’s Hamlet “and just listening to the beauty of that man’s voice,” he said. After creative tensions with the production’s original home, Theater for a New Audience, “Hamlet” shifted to the Public Theater, where Mr. Isaac had made his post-Juilliard debut, and dates were set.
But then his mother got sick and his partner, the documentary filmmaker Elvira Lind, got pregnant, and suddenly “there were a lot of things that really connected on a very personal level,” he said. As Mr. Isaac explained, performing has always helped him come to terms with his emotions. “This is how I’m able to function,” he said. “The only way that I’m really able to process stuff is through reflecting it.”
Some of the visual language that he and Mr. Gold settled on — the syringes, the IVs, the PICC lines — make his memories and associations even more visceral. His Hamlet wears rumpled clothes and has a 5 o’clock shadow (if you’ve seen Mr. Isaac’s movies, you know his facial hair is a key to character) to approximate “the look and feel of spending long hours visiting a loved one at the hospital,” he said.
In the first days of rehearsal, Mr. Gold worried “that there would be things in this play that would be such deep triggers that he wouldn’t be able to make it through the show,” he said. But he watched Mr. Isaac use the play’s words “to contextualize what he was going through,” he said.
Mr. Isaac didn’t worry about making a timeworn speech like “To be or not to be” sound new. As soon as he says the words, he is instantly reminded of his personal loss and “the feeling that grief can just make you want to stop,” he said.
At the same time, he never really discussed that personal life in the rehearsal room. “It was always a very subtle thing hovering in the air, ” Mr. Gold said. Instead, he threw himself into experimenting with the role — physically, vocally — and worked on making his colleagues laugh.
Keegan-Michael Key, who plays Hamlet’s pal Horatio, noted that Mr. Isaac, who bought a Ping-Pong table for the rehearsal room, “likes to have fun.” Onstage he’ll often monkey with a pronunciation or arch an eyebrow just to get a rise out of a cast mate.
“He’ll do it on purpose just to keep everyone on their toes,” Mr. Key said. “The more alive it is, the more uncertain it is, the more dynamic it is.”
Mr. Isaac said that performing the play hasn’t felt especially dour. When he comes offstage after four hours he feels energized, he said.
That’s in part because the play isn’t only for his mother. When he acts, he’s also thinking of his 2-month-old son, Eugene, named after her. The baby has Eugenia’s lips, he said, and her hands.
He brought Eugene to the first run-through (“I think some of the more philosophical and theological aspects of the play were above his head,” Mr. Gold joked), and it’s Eugene he thinks of when reciting the “to be” part of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy.
As Mr. Isaac explains, the speech is about dying — that’s the “not to be” part — but it’s also about choosing to go on living. And Mr. Isaac has better reasons to go on than Hamlet does.
“You have a child,” he said, “and you must — you must for their sake — you must say yes to life.”