‘Billions’ actor Daniel Isaac hands over the spotlight while quietly ordering it
“I’m the kind of actor who won’t take up the most space in the room” Daniel K. Isaac noted.
It was a weekday morning at the Public Theater about an hour before Isaac started rehearsing for “The Chinese Lady” a piece of Lloyd Suh which runs until March 27. Isaac was perched on the edge of his chair â arms crossed, legs crossed, chest sunken, taking up the bare minimum of leather upholstery.
“It’s a great chair,” he said.
Isaac, 33, stage actor and ensemble cast member in the Showtime drama “Billions” combines this reluctance with intelligence and warmth, qualities that enlarge every character he plays. (That day, he was dressed as a New Yorker, all in navy and black, but his socks were printed with black and white happy faces.) With his sad eyes and resonant voice, he’s an actor you know remember, no matter how much or how little 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 exhibited out of curiosity before disappearing from the popular imagination. Isaac plays Atung, his translator, who has done even less damage to the historical record. âIt exists as a secondary note,â Isaac said.
Isaac originated the role, in 2018, in a Barrington Stage and Ma-Yi Theater Company production. Even in a two-man match, he rarely takes center stage, ceding that space to Shannon Tyo’s Afong Moy.
“I’m irrelevant,” Atung says in the play’s opening scene.
says Isaac. During the first decade of his career, he felt incidental, in part because of the roles available to Asian American men. He always feels that way. But now, in his thirties â and with his playwright debut later this year â he’s trying to be the main character in his own life.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had the big break or the hugely visible or recognizable big thing,” he said. “My life has been a slow burn, a marathon rather than an immediate sprint.” Isaac should know: He recently trained for his first marathon, then posted happy selfies – from him in his NipGuards â to Twitter.
Isaac was born in 1988, in Southern California, the only child of a single mother who had immigrated from South Korea. In his mega-church, his mother heard the story of a pastor who suffered from stage fright. And because she imagined that Isaac might one day become a preacher â or a lawyer, or a doctor, who might have the occasional lecture â she enrolled him in the church’s theater troupe.
In high school, he took part in secular theater for the first time, playing a player in “Guys and Dolls”. He loved her. “There’s no such thing as the theater community, or what I still call the theater church,” he said. It was also a time when he was struggling with his attraction to men and voluntarily undergoing conversion therapy. The theatre, on the contrary, allowed him to experiment with his identity, to try out different ways of being.
“It became the safe space that allowed me to grow, to mature, to open up more,” he said.
He graduated from high school at 16 and later studied acting at the University of California, San Diego, where he came to terms with his sexuality, which led to his estrangement from his mother. (They are still I’m working on it.) After graduating, he moved to New York and found work at a restaurant. He had set his sights on classical theater because his peers had told him that as an actor of color he could find more roles there.
“I was trying to imagine, could I be the token Asian in a project?” he said. “And would that be enough?”
Seven years, a few Off Broadway plays and a few TV episodes later, he landed a small role in the pilot “Billions.” He didn’t think much about it. He knew that many pilots did not take. And he had been killed or written off in those who had done so. But âBillionsâ caught on, and his character, Ben Kim, an analyst-turned-portfolio manager, lives on. Isaac appeared in every episode. (Still, he didn’t quit his restaurant job until the middle of Season 2. And technically, the restaurant told him to go.)
“Billions” showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien didn’t have big plans for Ben’s character. Once they understood Isaac’s intelligence and versatility, they expanded the role. “Daniel is a fearless actor, and that gives us great freedom,” they wrote in a joint email.
There’s a sweetness to his “Billions” persona, which contrasts with the macho posturing of his colleagues at an asset management company. And that sweetness, as his co-star Kelly AuCoin said in a recent phone conversation, is all about Isaac. “He couldn’t be a more charming or positive person,” he said. “It emanates from love.” AuCoin paused, fearing his praise would ring false. Which was not the case, he assured me. Then he paused again. Isaac had just texted her to wish her a happy birthday.
For Isaac, who tries to do some acting between “Billions” shoots, taking on the role of Atung was personal. And that felt important, not just as a way to explore who these characters were, but also as a way to reclaim their story.
âDaniel understands the sacrifices made to get him to where he is, and it imbues his work with meaning,â Ralph B. Penathe play’s director, wrote in an email.
In 2018, playing Atung and dealing with the weight of what men like him had gone through was painful. “I think I took it a lot more personally,” Isaac said. In the years that followed, anti-Asian bias, fueled by misinformation around Covid-19, seemed to only increase, making the work even more necessary.
“If art has the ability to make room for understanding or empathy, or maybe more than just entertainment, which I hope for and experience, then I want to share it,” he said. declared.
Isaac has a way, in conversation and seemingly in his life, of detaching himself from himself and putting it on work, his colleagues, the world. That’s why he started writing plays.
“Because then I could literally give other people the limelight,” he said. “And sit in the shade and still experience something and the joy of creation.” Ma-Yi will produce her first play in the fall, âOnce Upon a (Korean) Time,â which explores the Korean War through Korean fairy tales.
Tyo, his “The Chinese Lady” co-star, would love to see him find his light. They often help each other out at movie auditions, so she’s seen the range of what he can do. “I just want someone to give him the chance to be like a small town hero cop,” she said. “He’s very good at it. He is very good as a brother surfer. There’s an array of people I’d like to see him take center stage.
He tries, he says. And at the risk of sounding what he called “extra woo-woo,” he credits the theater for helping him try. “I credit the theater community because that’s where I felt safest and saw people being fearless themselves,” he said. “It gave me permission to try to move towards that on my own journey. And I still do.