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Latino Trailblazer

Oscar Isaac

  • Gender: Male
  • University: The Juilliard School
  • Undergraduate Degree: Drama
  • Hometown: Miami
  • State: Florida
  • Position Title: Actor and Musician

Born in Guatemala as Oscar Isaac Hernández Estrada, Oscar Isaac came to the United States with his family when he was five months old. They first moved to Baltimore, Maryland and then New Orleans, Louisiana, finally settling in Miami, Florida. His mother, a native Guatemalan, cared for the household, while his Cuban-born father, who had been a pulmonologist back home, studied to transfer his medical credentials to the US, and then set up a practice in Miami. 

Growing up, Oscar found an outlet in music and acting, performing with punk and ska bands, and putting on plays with his sister in the family's backyard.

He began his professional career in music, as the lead vocalist and guitarist for the punk band, Blinking Underdogs—but the lure of acting was stronger. After performing in regional theaters, he moved to New York City and auditioned for the prestigious Juilliard School, where he was admitted and focused on drama. By the time he graduated, he had also made his feature-film debut in the Ice Cube action-comedy, All About the Benjamins (2002). 

While still at Julliard, Oscar decided to use his middle name in place of his surname, in order to expand the types of roles that directors and casting staff would envision for him. He has since been outspoken about issues relating to race, ethnicity, stereotypes, and casting in Hollywood. In an interview with The Atlantic, he explained the rationale for dropping his last name. “Starting out as an actor, you immediately worry about being pigeonholed or typecast,” he said. “I don’t want to just go up for the dead body, the gangster, the bandolero, whatever. I don’t want to be defined by someone else’s idea of what an Oscar Hernández should be playing.”

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he shared an example of how he continues to do what he can to break down those barriers. In that instance, he had been given a role in the feature film, Drive (2016). “I didn’t like the character,” he explained, “and I felt like he was a bit of a cliché, and a bit of a stereotype. He was written as a Latino ‘thug’…I wasn’t interested in playing that….  So we started developing the character and he became a different man.”

Today, he has been in more than 30 feature films, including The Nativity Story (2006) and Robin Hood (2010). He starred in the comedy-drama Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), for which he received his first of two Golden Globe Awards, as well as the crime-drama A Most Violent Year (2014), the science fiction thriller Ex Machina (2014), and X-Men: Apocalypse (2016). He starred as Poe Dameron in the latest Star Wars trilogy—Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017), and Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). More recently, he was cast in Dune, scheduled to release in December 2020.

In 2017, he received critical acclaim for his performance of the title role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, at the Public Theater in New York. The prior year, he received his second Golden Globe, for Best Performance by an Actor in HBO’s miniseries Show Me a Hero. In 2016, Time magazine named him one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."