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Is Bearded Oscar Isaac the Best Oscar Isaac? A Very Hairy Investigation

He’s one of his generation’s finest actors. But when you give him some whiskers, the internet really loses its mind

All this week, join us for a delightfully unwell celebration of our Internet Boyfriends. They’re sweet, beautiful men we’ve never met, and we can’t wait to share the fully formed relationships we have with each of them.

In her 2020 book A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends, writer Esther Zuckerman has an entry on Oscar Isaac, extolling his many attributes, including his “[g]reat singing voice, great dance moves, chiseled jaw, prominent thighs.” She goes on to declare him “one of the most talented men in the business who also seems like just a delight to be around: good-humored even as he smolders,” which is all true. But there’s another aspect of his appeal that — although it might be superficial — is very, very real. The man looks great with a beard.

Recently turning 43, Isaac has already amassed an impressive résumé of strong performances, but I started wondering if his absolute best, most popular work had any correlation with the amount of facial hair he sports in those roles. The world loves Oscar Isaac all the time, but are they especially thirsty when he’s rocking a beard? 

After doing some research, my answer is, “Yeah, sure seems like it.” What follows is an unscientific, highly hairy breakdown of his career.

Robin Hood (2010)

Does He Have a Beard? Absolutely.

How Did It Work Out? Robin Hood was the first time mainstream audiences got to see Isaac in a major role: He’s the villainous King John squaring off against Russell Crowe’s moody Robin Hood. This Ridley Scott film isn’t very good — it’s trying so hard not to be the fluffy Kevin Costner Robin Hood of the early 1990s that it’s no fun — and Isaac is as dour as the rest of the cast. But he’s pretty persuasive as a sexy, bad-boy king, with the beard helping to sell his fiendishness. Robin Hood was a dud, but clearly the actor and his facial hair had a bright future. 

Sucker Punch (2011)

Does He Have a Beard? No, he just has a mustache. But it’s a damn fine mustache.

How Did It Work Out? In this completely off-the-rails Zack Snyder action flick, Isaac plays Blue Jones, the evil pimp tormenting our heroines in the fantasy world inside of Sucker Punch. (He’s also a meek orderly in the real-world asylum that houses Emily Browning’s Babydoll.) The film was a commercial and critical disaster — an ill-fated passion project that Snyder got to make after 300 and Watchmen — but nonetheless it demonstrated Isaac’s dreamboat intensity. The internet’s crush on him really started here, accelerated by Sucker Punch’s extended edition, which included a cut scene of him singing a sultry version of “Love Is the Drug.” His character’s prominent ‘stache played into his suave sex appeal.

Drive (2011)

Does He Have a Beard? Yup.

How Did It Work Out? Drive was his first critically-acclaimed film, proving to be among 2011’s most celebrated movies and starring Isaac as Standard, an ex-con whose wife (Carey Mulligan) is starting to have feelings for the mysterious guy in her building (Ryan Gosling) who just happens to be a getaway driver. But Isaac, whose father is Cuban and mother is Guatemalan, initially turned down the role because he didn’t want to play into negative cultural stereotypes. 

“He was just written as this gangster, this thug that was horrible to his family, lived a life of crime,” Isaac said later, “and then you just wanted him to die so the white people could get together.” But director Nicolas Winding Refn let him develop Standard, making him more of a nuanced, tragic figure — in the process, giving him a soulfulness that Isaac capably conveyed. Standard’s beard speaks to the man’s edginess and desperation, but it was Isaac who forced us to see beyond the character’s potential clichés — Standard might be a criminal, but he’s deserving of our compassion.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Does He Have a Beard? Of course he does.

How Did It Work Out? There are more commercially successful Oscar Isaac films, but there will probably never be a more Oscar Isaac film than this one, in which he plays the tough-luck 1960s folk singer who can’t get out of his own way. It’s a marvelous performance, balancing pathos with prickliness — Llewyn Davis has the soul of an artist but, god, what a dick he can be sometimes — and the film also features his most iconic beard. 

Paired with those flowing locks, the beard perfectly establishes that this character is tormented and a beautiful dreamer — the kind of guy you meet in your 20s who’s sure he’s meant to do big things as an actor or musician. But it’s also a bit of a shield, protecting Llewyn from the grief he feels over losing his close friend (and bandmate) — as well as from the creeping suspicion that, maybe just maybe, this folk-singing thing isn’t going to work out for him. 

A Most Violent Year (2014)

Does He Have a Beard? No, but he’s got some good five-o’clock shadow going on.

How Did It Work Out? One of his first major post-Inside Llewyn Davis films, A Most Violent Year is a conscious throwback to the sort of 1970s New York crime drama that Sidney Lumet used to make, starring Isaac as the head of a heating-oil company who finds himself feeling the squeeze on all sides — including from his less-than-scrupulous wife (Jessica Chastain). A character study more respected than loved, the film failed to make an impression on Academy voters or arthouse audiences, and although Isaac’s quite good as this beleaguered man fighting to stay a step ahead of the forces conspiring to pull him down, it’s notable that he’s clean-shaven — a change of pace from previous roles. 

“I remember I was just trying to figure out the character; I was like, ‘[Writer-director] J.C. [Chandor], what’s he thinking here?’ and he would say, ‘I don’t know, but his hair is going to be amazing!’” Isaac recalled around A Most Violent Year’s release. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, but what does he want?’ and he was like, ‘I don’t know, but his suits are going to be so nice!’ Finally he said, ‘Look, his suits have nothing to do with vanity. His suits are suits of armor.’ Everything is about presentation, what is showing.” In that sense, the absence of whiskers was telling, suggesting a man so focused on playing the part of a successful businessman that he won’t allow a little stubble to tarnish the image. 

Ex Machina (2015)

Does He Have a Beard? Yes, yes, yes.

How Did It Work Out? I’m violating Internet Protocol™ by mentioning Ex Machina and not including a clip of the impromptu dance Isaac performs with co-star Sonoya Mizuno. (There’s no need: You can picture it in your head already.) But perhaps almost as iconic as that sequence is the actor’s look as Nathan, the possibly nefarious CEO of a technology company who shows Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb what he’s been working on. Sporting a shaved head and a thick beard, Isaac reimagined mad-scientist chic, giving us a cocky tech bro who’s hunky and buff. It didn’t hurt that Ex Machina was an indie smash, becoming a modern sci-fi classic while cementing Isaac’s Internet Boyfriend status. 

Show Me a Hero (2015)

Does He Have a Beard? No, he just has a mustache. 

How Did It Work Out? Isaac played Nick Wasicsko, the mayor of Yonkers in the late 1980s who was court-ordered to build low-income housing in his city — a decision that angered racist white locals. The real Wasicsko had a thick mustache, and Isaac does as well for David Simon’s acclaimed miniseries, which earned the actor some of the best reviews of his career. (As Vox critic Emily St. James put it, “[H]e turns Nick Wasicsko into a walking examination of how some driven people use their work to stand in for the big, central questions about themselves that they’ve never dared answer or even ask.”) By this point in Isaac’s career, he and his look were so well-established that the fact that he just had a mustache was another way to distinguish this embattled mayor from other characters he’d played in the past. For what it’s worth, though, when he won the Golden Globe for Show Me a Hero, he was his usual bearded self.

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Does He Have a Beard? Uh, no.

How Did It Work Out? The stupendously entertaining X-Men: Days of Future Past reinvigorated the mutant-superhero franchise, and the news that the follow-up would feature Isaac as the all-powerful Apocalypse was certainly promising. But X-Men: Apocalypse turned out to be a massive disappointment, essentially signaling the beginning of the end for the X-Men in their current big-screen form. And Isaac didn’t have much fun, either. 

Calling the experience of making the film “excruciating,” the actor noted, “I didn’t know when I said yes that that was what was going to be happening. That I was going to be encased in glue, latex and a 40-pound suit — that I had to wear a cooling mechanism at all times. I couldn’t move my head, ever. … I would be rolled into a cooling tent in between takes. And so I just wouldn’t ever talk to anybody, and I was just gonna be sitting and I couldn’t really move and, like, sweating inside the mask and the helmet.” 

For lots of superhero fans, watching Apocalypse was just as painful — it’s easily the most charmless performance Isaac has ever delivered, and considering what he had to do to get transformed into the character, you can understand why. Would the movie have been better if Apocalypse had worn a beard? We’ll never know — but probably not.

Star Wars (2015-2019)

Does He Have a Beard? Sadly, no.

How Did It Work Out? Like a lot of people, I was looking forward to Isaac being in the new Star Wars trilogy. He’s one of our best actors, so it would be fun to see him playing around in George Lucas’ universe. And then… the movies happened. 

On the whole, I’m pretty down on the new trilogy, largely because of the annoying fan reactions to them, but all in all, I also don’t think that the movies’ biggest stars were well-served — and that includes Isaac as Poe, a Harrison Ford-ish wiseass who never really escaped Han Solo’s shadow. And while this has nothing to do with my disappointment in the trilogy, I can’t help but point out Isaac’s lack of facial hair in the role. It’s not that he’s not still incredibly handsome, but the filmmakers’ conception of Poe — clean-shaven, blandly “rebellious” haircut — was as tame as the movies themselves. It seemed impossible to make Oscar Isaac bland — somehow, Star Wars managed that impressive feat.

The Card Counter (2021)

Does He Have a Beard? No.

How Did It Work Out? This Paul Scharder stunner is the great exception to the rule that Isaac is better bearded. In The Card Counter, he plays William, an Iraq War veteran who’s trying to forget the shit he saw over there, remaking himself into a top-notch card-player. William is a tightly-wound, darkly intelligent man — he has no personal life, and he doesn’t want to talk about the past — who meets an agent (Tiffany Haddish) interested in backing him financially for the World Series of Poker. It’s one of Isaac’s best performances — controlled and brooding — but despite good reviews, The Card Counter fell off the radar pretty quickly. Put it this way: His two other late-2021 projects were better-received, and they both found him sporting scruff. 

Scenes From a Marriage (2021)

Does He Have a Beard? Yes.

How Did It Work Out? This HBO remake of the 1970s Ingmar Bergman classic is peak Professorial Oscar Isaac. He plays Jonathan, an academic who doesn’t realize how bad his marriage has gotten until his wife (Jessica Chastain, his Most Violent Year co-star) informs him that she’s fallen in love with somebody else and wants out. The series was only so-so, but for those who crave Isaac in tormented-sensitive-guy mode, Scenes From a Marriage was heaven — and his salt-and-pepper beard, wire-rim glasses and unkempt hair only added to the character’s snuggable/frumpy appeal. It’s a great, great beard — although, to be fair, I should point out that the viral moment that occurred at the miniseries’ Venice Film Festival premiere, where he and Chastain are being all flirty with one another, features a clean-shaven Oscar Isaac. (Clearly, the man contains multitudes.)

Dune (2021)

Does He Have a Beard? Hell yes.

How Did It Work Out? In 2021, Isaac confidently transitioned into DILF mode — and the year’s crowning moment was his turn as Duke Atreides, the wise, melancholy leader assigned to safeguard the spice on Arrakis. He’s a pretty wonderful father figure in Dune, and his flowing beard heightens his warm regal bearing. Remarkably, though, the facial hair wasn’t initially going to be part of the character — Donald Mowat, the film’s head of hair and makeup, told GQ that it was Isaac and Dune filmmaker Denis Villeneuve who insisted that the Duke not be clean-shaven. (And remember: Jürgen Prochnow, who played the character in the 1984 version, was also beared.) 

Isaac doesn’t have a large role in Dune, but it’s crucial for preparing Timothée Chalamet’s Paul to become the hero he’s destined to be. The actor and his fabulous beard (which apparently took more than three months to grow) provide all the gravitas needed. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the Duke without the beard — which makes you wonder if maybe even Oscar Isaac knows what his secret weapon is. Sure, he’s got loads of talent and charisma, but give him some whiskers and he’s just about unstoppable.