Sure, he’s already starred in a Coen Brothers movie (Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013), stared down Ryan Gosling (Drive, 2011), and proved he can be a deliciously evil villain (Robin Hood, 2010). But it’s taken until 2015 for Oscar Isaac’s high-flying career to go into full-blown hyper-drive—largely thanks to his lead role in A Most Violent Year and his turn as a rebel pilot in J.J. Abrams’ forthcoming Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens.
For our money, though, Isaac’s finest performance has been as Nathan, the beefed-up tech billionaire and robot creator in last spring’s sleeper sci-fi hit Ex Machina. When viewers first see him, he’s not coding—he’s pounding the heavy bag. And when he steps away from it, it’s usually to pump out biceps curls and snap off crunches. So we tracked down the 35-year-old Guatemalan-born actor to discuss his preparation and inspiration, the latter of which, just like Ex Machina’s ending, you never see coming.
In Ex Machina you play Nathan, a genius scientist/inventor. But when we first meet him, he’s punching a bag and nursing “the mother of all hangovers.” Why is he so physical?
Alex [Garland, the writer-director], wanted him to be superior at every level to the protagonist, the young computer programmer Caleb [Domhnall Gleeson]. Financially, Nathan beats him. Intellectually he beats him. And physically he beats him. He’s this unstoppable force. So in the end, when the tables turn, it’s a lot more rewarding.
Did you model Nathan on anyone in particular?
When I started researching the role, one of the influences I really grabbed on to was [former chess champion] Bobby Fischer. He had a brilliant mind and a very dark, troubled soul, and I learned that when he was preparing for his big chess battles against [Boris Spassky in the early 1970s], he had an Olympic trainer. There are all these photographs of him training intensely, and you think, “Why would a guy playing chess need that?” I think there’s a real connection between physical discipline and mental discipline. And when you get into that world of “I want to win,” even if it’s just mentally, physicality is important.
What did you do physically to prepare for the role?
I work with a trainer named Josh Holland. We actually met when I was doing the film that Madonna directed, W.E., and he was her trainer. We tried to follow the regimen Nathan would follow, which was a bit of cardio, a lot of weight training, and hitting the punching bag. I basically did that and tried to eat clean, but more calories than I normally eat.
It was important that Nathan was a formidable-looking dude—stocky and square-shouldered, with an aggression to him. That’s why I really focused on the bag and the weights, things that require quite a bit of aggression. I think that shows through even when Nathan is seemingly being nice or friendly. There’s still this aggression underneath, and that comes from the physical preparation.