“I’m the type of actor that doesn’t take up the most space in the room,” Daniel K. Isaac speak.
It was on a weekday morning, at the Public Theatre, an hour or so before Isaac started rehearsing for “Chinese Lady,” a play of Lloyd Suh runs until March 27. Isaac sits on the edge of the chair – arms crossed, legs crossed, chest concave, occupying only a minimum of leather seats.
“It was a big chair,” he said.
Isaac, 33 years old, a stage actor and ensemble player on the Showtime TV series “Billion” combines that caution with intelligence and warmth, qualities that help magnify every character he plays. (On this day, he dresses like a New Yorker, all blue and black, but his socks are printed with a black and white happy face.) With sad eyes and a ringing voice, he he’s an actor you remember, it doesn’t matter how much screen time or stage time he gets.
“The Chinese Lady” is inspired by the life of Afong Moy, a Chinese woman who came to America as a teenager in 1834 and was displayed as a curiosity before disappearing from her imagination. everyone. Isaac plays Atung, her translator, who has even made more or less of a mark in history. “He exists as a secondary information,” says Isaac.
Isaac created this role, in 2018, in a production by Barrington Stage and Ma-Yi Theater Company. Even when playing two-handed, he rarely takes center stage, giving that space to Shannon Tyo’s Afong Moy.
“I’m not involved,” Atung says in the play’s opening scene.
Isaac told. During the first decade of his career, he felt dependent, in part because of the available Asian-American men. He still feels the same way. But now, at 30 – and as a playwright due out later this year – he’s trying to be the main character in his own life.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a big problem or something big, extremely visible or recognizable,” he said. “My life is a slow pace, a marathon rather than an instant sprint.” Isaac should know: He recently trained for his first marathon, and then posted fun selfies – among him in his NipGuards – to Twitter.
Isaac was born in 1988, in Southern California, the only child of a single mother who immigrated from Korea. At her supermarket, his mother heard a story about a pastor with stage fright. And because she imagined that one day Isaac might become a preacher — or a lawyer, or a doctor, who might give lectures from time to time — she enrolled him in the troupe. church drama.
In high school, he got into secular theater for the first time, playing a gambler in “Guys and Dolls.” He liked it. “There is nothing like the community of the theater, or what I still call the church of the stage,” he said. This was also the time when he struggled with his attraction to men and voluntarily underwent conversion therapy. On the contrary, the stage allows him to experiment with his identity, to try different ways of being.
“It became a safe space that allowed me to grow, mature, open up more,” he said.
He finished high school at the age of 16 and went on to study theater at the University of California, San Diego, where he accepted his sexuality, which led to the estrangement of his mother. (They still work on it.) After graduating, he moved to New York City and found a job in a restaurant. He set his sights on the classical scene because his peers had told him that, as an actor of color, he could find more parts there.
“I’m trying to imagine, can I be Asian in a project?” he say. “And is that enough?”
Seven years, several Off Broadway plays and a few TV episodes later, he played a small role in pilot “Billions”. He didn’t think much of it. He knew that a lot of pilots didn’t take it. And he was killed or wiped out in those cases. But “Billions” took place, and his character, Ben Kim, an analyst turned portfolio manager, is still alive. Isaac appeared in every episode. (He still didn’t quit his restaurant job until the middle of Season 2. And technically, the restaurant asked him to go.)
“Billions” presenters, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, have no big plans for the character of Ben. After understanding Isaac’s intelligence and versatility, they expanded their roles. “Daniel is a fearless actor and that gives us great freedom,” they wrote in a joint email.
There’s a sweetness to his “Billions” character, in contrast to the macho posture of his colleagues at a wealth management firm. And that sweetness, as co-star Kelly AuCoin said in a recent phone conversation, is all about Isaac. “He couldn’t have been a more likable or positive person,” he said. “He radiates love.” AuCoin failed, worried that his praise sounded fake. That’s not it, he assured me. Then he broke up again. Isaac just texted happy birthday.
For Isaac, who struggles to get on stage between filming for “Billions,” taking on the role of Atung felt very personal. And it feels important, not only as a way to discover who these characters are, but as a means to restore their history.
“Daniel understands the sacrifices that get him where he is and that permeates his work with a sense of purpose,” Ralph B. Penadirector of the play, wrote in an email.
In 2018, playing the role of Atung, and recounting the weight of what men like him must endure, feels painful. “I think I did it a lot more personally,” says Isaac. In recent years, prejudice against Asians, fueled by misinformation surrounding Covid-19, seems to have only increased, which makes this work all the more necessary.
“If art has any capacity to create space for understanding, or empathy, or maybe not just entertainment, which I hope and live by, then I want to share that, ” I said.
Isaac has a way, in conversation and it seems in his life, to take the emphasis away from himself and place it on his work, his colleagues, the world. That’s why he started writing plays.
“Because then I can literally bring attention to other people,” he said. “And sit in the dark and still experience something and the joy of creation.” Ma-Yi will produce her first play in the fall, “Once Upon a (Korean) Time,” which explores the Korean War through Korean fairy tales.
Tyo, his co-star in “The Chinese Lady”, wants to see him find his light. They often help each other in movie auditions, so she saw the range of what he could do. “I just wanted someone to give him the chance to be a heroic small town cop,” she said. “He’s very good. He is very good at windsurfing. There are so many people that I would love to see him at the center of the performance. ”
He’s trying, he said. And at the risk of emitting what he calls “extra woo-woo,” he thanked the theater for giving him a try. “I credit the movie theater community because that is where I feel safest and see people fearlessly confident in themselves,” he said. “That allows me to try to get there in my own journey. And I’m still doing it.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/24/theater/daniel-isaac-the-chinese-lady.html Daniel Isaac, the ‘billionaire’ actor, captures the focus while quietly directing it