Daniel K. Isaac Makes His Mark

The actor and playwright’s debut project is a sprawling, five-part epic based on Korean myths imbued with his discerning cultural eye.

by Juan A. Ramírez

A portrait of Daniel K. Isaac with a neutral facial expression in black and white
Photograph by Emil Cohen

“I hope I never have to go on,” Daniel K. Isaac tells me at a rooftop café near the studio space where his upcoming play, Once Upon a (Korean) Time, is in the middle of rehearsals. Although he’s made himself comfortable in recurring roles on series like Billions and The Other Two—as well as a critically acclaimed staging of The Chinese Lady earlier this year at New York’s Public Theater—this marks his professional playwriting debut. And he’s listed as an understudy. (It’s a Covid precaution, acknowledging the new norm of cast members getting sick leading to playwrights stepping in on numerous occasions. Who better to be off-book at a moment’s notice than the person who wrote it?)

Not that he’s shaking off acting altogether: come October, he’ll lead You Will Get Sick, a new off-Broadway play, and he’s already looking forward to being back in the spotlight. “To just be an actor again will be a gift—to not have to feel the burden of writing or creative responsibility,” he says. “I cried the first time I read the play, actually. I thought, ‘Oh fuck, I’m going to care about this too much,’ and I did.”

Commissioned by the Ma-Yi Theater company, Once Upon… came from a realization that the California native knew much more about Shakespeare and the Western canon than he did about his own roots (his mother emigrated from Korea in 1980). So he set out to explore foundational Korean myths, most of which were passed down through oral traditions, and fleshed out a fantastical, five-part epic of Korean storytelling throughout the 20th century.

“I wrote it so that it seems impossible to stage—that way, people’s creative juices would start flowing,” he tells me. “Emerging playwrights are often told not to do that—to stick to what’s doable; programmable. But if you’re faced with the thing that feels impossible to do, you solve it.” His daily life, come to find out, is much more pragmatic—though with much, much room for artistic expression. Below, Isaac discusses Beyoncé gleaning inspiration from Everything Everywhere All at Once and why he’s taken up pottery.

What’s the first thing you do in the morning?

Coffee and—this sounds cheesy, but I do morning pages every day. Have you ever read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way? One of her big things is to wake up and write three pages freehand with no mission. It’s not about the finished product, so it helps to center myself. I don’t look back at them, but I imagine someday I’ll have to, if I ever want to write an autobiography.

What time do you wake up?

If I don’t have a prescribed thing, between 10 and 11 AM. I’m a “Don’t contact me before noon” kind of person. I sleep with the blackout blinds down, and three noise machines. My partner is a morning person who snores and wakes up without an alarm. When it’s really bad, I also turn on a Spotify playlist of white noise.

Favorite social media accounts to follow?

I’ll share two things: I started pottery classes last year—wheel throwing—so I followed a bunch of those accounts. I find it soothing to watch someone throw clay and see what they make, because I’ve gone past the point of being super frustrated with how bad I am. Now I can just appreciate.

My other would be watching roller coaster videos, which is so geeky. I love watching these POV videos. Oftentimes, I just watch them on mute. These are the accounts I follow so I’m not just following half-naked men all the time. It’s like, let me follow something else.. a modern art museum, even.

What drew you to pottery?

I wanted to be bad at something and not care about it. I wanted to try a form of artistry that I knew I could never be good at, and will never master, and to just make something with my hands. I can simply enjoy it and be present in it.

What was the last film you saw in theaters?

Everything Everywhere All at Once. I cried my eyes out; I loved it so much. But, wait, did you see Beyoncé’s teaser [that came out]?

No, not yet.

It’s just a teaser [for the “I’m That Girl” video], and there’s this part where it’s just her face in a bunch of different looks. It feels inspired by Everything Everywhere. I’m excited for all the music videos to come out.

What else are you listening to?

Lizzo’s album is bop after bop; you can just put it on repeat. “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)” is a great one. “Summer Renaissance” by Beyoncé would be another one. And now that we have the Madonna-Beyoncé collab...

Are you the podcast type?

No, and my partner has one. He hosts one called “Climate Positive” with two other people and they explore climate-positive solutions, which I really appreciate and respect. But I’ve never been someone who seeks out a podcast. The closest I’d get would be “Las Culturistas,” which I started listening to last year when I was training to run my first marathon. They’d make me laugh, and I wouldn’t think about the pain I was in.

This sounds dramatic, but when there were a lot—well, there still are—hate crimes against Asians, I stopped wearing headphones on the subway. So I’m very behind on music and podcasts, because I don’t want to be unaware. I read more now.

That’s a very “immigrant child” thing to do.

[Laughs] Just pay attention and don’t get hurt, right?

What are you reading?

I just finished Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee, which might be one of my favorite things I’ve read in a while; lyrical and so beautiful. It’s about a Korean-American guy who’s going through a breakup with his white wife with whom he’s lost a child, so they’re both grieving. His occupation is never fully articulated, but it’s kind of a spy job, and he follows a Korean-American politician who’s an AOC-type in Queens.

What’s the last play you saw?

The Nosebleed by Aya Ogaw. I had a very moving experience, because I have a project of my own that’s so autobiographical, so I’m in awe of people who do it with that level of theatricality.

Your go-to karaoke song?

I hate karaoke. This makes me a bad Asian and a bad actor, I’m sure. The last time I did it was after a day of shooting on The Other Two, and Ken Marino wanted everyone to go to karaoke, so we went somewhere on St. Marks Place in New York City. I think I sang a Kelly Clarkson song and he was like, “What is that? I want to add it to my repertoire.”