backstage pass

Daniel K. Isaac on his fav Beyoncé concert moment, time-traveling for Taylor Mac, & things that grow (or don’t)

Daniel K. Isaac in 'Every Brilliant Thing.' Photo by Isaak Berliner
Daniel K. Isaac in ‘Every Brilliant Thing.’ Photo by Isaak Berliner

For seven seasons, Daniel K. Isaac has worked his way up the corporate ladder (with a couple of stumbles along the way) as financial analyst-turned-portfolio manager Ben Kim on Showtime’s Billions. As all good gigs must come to an end, the multi-faceted actor returns to the stage in Geffen Playhouse’s production of Every Brilliant Thing.

Originally conceived by English playwright Duncan Macmillan as a thank-you/apology for a friend who appeared in one of his earlier plays (and had no lines), Every Brilliant Thing took on a life of its own, eventually evolving into a full-length piece that premiered at the Ludlow Theatre Festival in 2013.

Each production of the solo play is unique, with the opportunity to adjust references to the actor’s lived experience and background. LA audiences can discover how Isaac’s personal identity manifests in this production, which runs through October 15.

Daniel K. Isaac with an audience member in 'You Will Get Sick.' Photo by Isaak Berliner
Daniel K. Isaac with an audience member in ‘Every Brilliant Thing.’ Photo by Isaak Berliner

While the themes of the play deal with depression and suicidal thoughts (the play’s title is taken from all of the small observations that bring us joy and hope), Isaac shares that the work is also filled with humor and lightness. The script’s improvisational nature engages the audience in unexpected ways, creating a unique experience at each performance. Isaac says he was once a “super introvert” but is forging a new path with the help of director Colm Summers.

Isaac says he’s “so excited to share this story,” emphasizing that “the show has so much comedy, light, and laughter even though it’s tackling a heavy subject matter. Because what can we do but try to laugh in the midst of darkness, right? And find hope when all seems hopeless. As cheesy as it sounds, that’s something I turn to theatre for. So that’s why I keep doing it.”

Queerty caught up with Isaac, who grew up in Koreatown and makes his LA theater debut at the Geffen, during a rehearsal break prior to the show’s opening, where he was surrounded by Post-its to help remember the names of the vast number of theater-makers involved in the production and process rehearsal notes.

The one thing they don’t tell you about rehearsing a play with audience participation is…

The complete unpredictability factor. I’ve had test audiences in rehearsals, and you do not know what will come of these people’s mouths. In one instance, I need someone to wear socks, and I’m in LA right now — no one is wearing socks. I need a book at some point. And I’m not saying that people don’t read in LA, but who’s carrying a book around when they have a car? So, it’s about trying to catch all the variables and being flexible. Physically, I’m not a flexible person, and now I have to be agile — mentally and theatrically.

Daniel K. Isaac in rehearsal for 'Every Brilliant Thing.' Photo by Isaak Berliner
Daniel K. Isaac in rehearsal for ‘Every Brilliant Thing.’ Photo by Isaak Berliner

Working on this play has taught me to appreciate…

Solo shows! Conceptually, you understand that it takes a lot of work, it’s a lot to memorize, and it’s a different beast to tackle. In the midst of it now, I am so full of gratitude that there are all these people in the theater contributing to make this one thing work. It continues to blow my mind, and I’m having trouble being patient with myself, not living up to the high expectations I have for myself, and trying not to disappoint. I’m always working on my people-pleasing, and this endeavor is making me face that head-on.

Music is a big part of Every Brilliant Thing. (This production draws inspiration from the world of jazz.) The song or artists that get me every time are…

Right now, it’s Beyoncé — I saw her concert tour in New Jersey before starting rehearsals, and it was mind-blowing. I hadn’t been to a stadium concert in a long time, and large crowds normally make me uncomfortable. We had people around us who knew every single lyric. I’d find that annoying at, say, Wicked, which I saw once, and someone was singing along, and I thought, “I didn’t pay to hear you sing.” But at Beyoncé, it was such a celebratory thing that I didn’t mind at all.

Sibyl Wickersherimer’s scenic design for Every Brilliant Thing includes dozens of hand-knit blankets sourced from around the country and stitched to create a canopy that envelops the audience. The thing that gives me comfort is…

Bourbon and my boyfriend.

Daniel K. Isaac in 'Every Brilliant Thing.' Photo by Isaak Berliner
Sibyl Wickersheimer’s scenic design for ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ includes a canopy of knitted blankets. Photo by Isaak Berliner

The show that changed my life was…

Les Misérables on tour in LA. My mom was working at a bank, and they must have been sponsors, so we got comp tickets way up in the nosebleeds. While I didn’t follow the story fully, the revolving set just blew my mind. As a kid, just watching the set spinning was the coolest thing ever — I never imagined I’d be on one, but I can check that off the bucket list.

The queer theatermaker everyone should be paying attention to right now…

My friend Keelay Gipson is creating such great work that needs to be produced. His play, demons., premiered early this year in New York City, and I know he has more plays and stories to tell. I’m always always excited about Taylor Mac. I only saw 21 hours [of 24] of Taylor Mac’s 24-decade History of Popular Music because I was filming at the time. If I had a time-traveling device, I would go just to see those three hours. Yeah, sorry, I’d do something else to rectify a horrible historical wrong, but for Taylor Mac, I’d go back for those three hours.

[Spoiler Alert] My biggest onstage mishap happened when…

My fear is that I’ll have to fart, and this theater is in the round and so intimate. But that hasn’t happened before. Although one time, I was a dresser for a show, and someone farted on stage — it was a giant musical at La Jolla Playhouse, and everyone smelled it. The actor claimed it and had a very good sense of humor about it.

When I did the Off-Broadway play, You Will Get Sick, had this sort of exoskeleton under my costume to create illusions because my character was becoming sicker and sicker, and the way that playwright Noah Diaz theatricalized this was to have me slowly become a scarecrow. Our brilliant designers and illusions team created all of these different mechanics. But every week, there would be some sort of mishap, and I would just have to pretend like it worked or just go with the flow. At one point, my arm turned to hay, and there was this contraption that grew out of my hands and arm. That one did not always like to grow, which I’m sure many men have experienced.

Daniel K. Isaac in 'You Will Get Sick'
Daniel K. Isaac in ‘You Will Get Sick.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

Revive ____________ so I can star in it…

Oh! The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but I’d want to play Leaf Coneybear [a role originated by Jesse Tyler Ferguson]. Or Tick, Tick… Boom! I love that show. But I’m a bass, and musical theater doesn’t like basses. So, I’m just waiting to be Norm Lewis’s age, and maybe they’ll finally let me on a Broadway stage.  

Daniel K. Isaac appears in Every Brilliant Thing at Geffen Playhouse through October 15, 2023.

Editor’s note: Every Brilliant Thing contains discussions of depression and suicide. The theater has partnered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Greater Los Angeles and Central Coast ChapterMindful Connections, and NAMI Westside Los Angeles to provide further resources.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or thinking about self-harm or suicide, there is help available. Call or text 988 for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.