Daniel Isaac, ‘Billions’ Actor, Cedes the Spotlight While Quietly Commanding It
“I’m the type of actor who won’t take up the most space in the room,” Daniel K. Isaac said.
This was on a weekday morning, at the Public Theater, an hour or so before Isaac would begin rehearsal for “The Chinese Lady,” a play by Lloyd Suh that runs through March 27. Isaac perched at the edge of his chair — arms crossed, legs crossed, chest concave, occupying the bare minimum of leather upholstery.
“It’s a big chair,” he said.
Isaac, 33, a theater actor and an ensemble player on the Showtime drama “Billions,” combines that reticence with intelligence and warmth, qualities that enlarge every character he plays. (On this 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 is an actor you remember, no matter how much or little screen time or stage time he receives.
“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 exhibited as a curiosity before disappearing from the popular imagination. Isaac plays Atung, her translator, who made even less of a dent in the historical record. “He exists as a side note,” Isaac said.
Isaac created the role, in 2018, in a production from Barrington Stage and the Ma-Yi Theater Company. Even in a two-hander, he rarely takes center stage, ceding that space to Shannon Tyo’s Afong Moy.
“I am irrelevant,” Atung says in the play’s opening scene.
Isaac relates. In the first decade of his career, he felt ancillary, in part because of the roles available to Asian American men. He still feels that way. But now, in his 30s — and with his debut as a playwright coming later this year — he is trying to be the main character in his own life.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had the big break or the large, hugely visible or recognizable thing,” he said. “My life has been a slow burn, a marathon rather than immediate sprint.” Isaac ought to know: He recently trained for his first marathon, and then posted cheerful selfies — of him in his NipGuards — to Twitter.
Isaac was born in 1988, in Southern California, the only child of a single mother who had immigrated from South Korea. At her megachurch, his mother heard a story of a pastor who suffered from stage fright. And because she imagined that Isaac might one day become a preacher — or a lawyer, or a doctor, who might have the occasional lecture — she signed him up for the church’s drama troupe.
In high school, he participated for the first time in secular theater, playing a gambler in “Guys and Dolls.” He loved it. “There’s nothing like the community of theater, or what I still call the church of theater,” he said. This was also a time when he was struggling with his attraction to men and voluntarily undergoing conversion therapy. Theater, by contrast, allowed him to experiment with his identity, to try on different ways of being.
“It became the safe space that allowed me to grow up, mature, open up more,” he said.
He finished high school at 16 and went on to study theater at the University of California, San Diego, where he accepted his sexuality, which led to an estrangement from his mother. (They’re still working on it.) After graduation he moved to New York City and found restaurant work. He had set his sights on classical theater because peers had told him that, as an actor of color, he might find more parts there.
“I was trying to imagine, could I be the token Asian in a project?” he said. “And would that be enough?”
Seven years, some Off Broadway plays and a few episodes of television later, he landed a small part in the “Billions” pilot. He didn’t think much of it. He knew that plenty of pilots didn’t take. And he’d been killed or written off in ones that did. But “Billions” took, and his character, Ben Kim, an analyst who became a portfolio manager, remains alive. Isaac has appeared in every episode. (Still he didn’t quit his restaurant job until midway through Season 2. And technically, the restaurant told him to go.)
The showrunners of “Billions,” Brian Koppelman and David Levien, hadn’t had huge plans for the Ben character. Once they understood Isaac’s intelligence and versatility, they expanded the role. “Daniel is a fearless actor, and that gives us huge freedom,” they wrote in a joint email.
There’s a sweetness to his “Billions” character, which contrasts with the macho posturing of his colleagues at an asset management company. And that sweetness, as his co-star Kelly AuCoin said during a recent phone conversation, is all Isaac. “He could not be a more lovely or positive person,” he said. “He emanates love.” AuCoin broke off, worrying that his praise sounded fake. Which it wasn’t, he assured me. Then he broke off again. Isaac had just texted to wish him a happy birthday.
For Isaac, who tries to do theater in between “Billions” shoots, taking on the role of Atung felt personal. And it felt important, not only as a way to explore who these characters were, but also as a means to reclaim their history.
“Daniel understands the sacrifices made to get him where he is, and it imbues his work with a sense of purpose,” Ralph B. Peña, the play’s director, wrote in an email.
In 2018, playing Atung, and reckoning with the weight of what men like him had suffered, felt painful. “I think I took it a lot more personally,” Isaac said. In the intervening years, anti-Asian prejudice, fueled by misinformation around Covid-19, seemed only to increase, which has made the work feel even more necessary.
“If art has any capacity to make space for understanding, or empathy, or can be more than just entertainment, which I hope and live by, then I want to share that,” he said.
Isaac has a way, in conversation and seemingly in his life, of taking the emphasis off himself and putting it onto the work, his colleagues, the world. That’s why he started writing plays.
“Because then I could literally give the spotlight to others,” he said. “And sit in the shadows and still experience something and the joy of creation.” Ma-Yi will produce his first play in the fall, “Once Upon a (Korean) Time,” which explores the Korean War through the medium of Korean fairy tales.
Tyo, his “The Chinese Lady” co-star, would like to see him find his light. They often help each other film auditions, so she has seen the range of what he can do. “I just want somebody to give him the chance to be like, a small town hero cop,” she said. “He’s very good at it. He’s very good at surfer bro. There is a range of people I would love to see him take center stage doing.”
He is trying, he said. And at the risk of sounding what he called “extra woo-woo,” he thanks theater for helping him to try. “I credit the theater community because that’s where I felt safest and saw people being fearlessly themselves,” he said. “That gave me permission to try to step toward that in my own journey. And I’m still doing that.”