Daniel K. Isaac
Daniel K. Isaac. Photo by Sequoyah

While most fans know of Daniel K. Isaac from seven seasons as Ben Kim on Showtime’s Billions, the versatile actor is no stranger to the stage. Still, when the call came from the Geffen Playhouse to consider starring in Every Brilliant Thing, a leap of faith was required.

Playwright Duncan Macmillan’s one-person show required vulnerability (each production is adapted to the actor in the role) and spontaneity: much of the performance was improvised, based on audience interaction.

Before the play’s opening, Isaac told Queerty, “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 theater for. So that’s why I keep doing it.”

Daniel K. Isaac in 'Every Brilliant Thing.' Photo by Isaak Berliner
Daniel K. Isaac in “Every Brilliant Thing.” Photo by Isaak Berliner.

Isaac has been forging new paths for queer Asian actors. In 2018, he was cast as William Inge in the New York premiere of The Gentleman Caller. Based on the real-life relationship of Inge and Tennessee Williams, the play portrayed the couple’s fraught dynamic and pushed casting preconceptions by casting Korean-American Isaac as Ingle and Juan Francisco Villa as Williams.

Later that year, Isaac performed another two-hander, The Chinese Lady, Lloyd Suh’s play about the first Chinese woman to arrive in America. In 2023, the production was remounted at The Public Theater, with Isaac and co-star Shannon Tyo reprising their roles. The New York Times described their deepening chemistry as follows: “In their bickering, their loneliness, their not-quite-solidarity, they remain entirely winning and occasionally devastating.” 

Isaac has also taken to playwriting as another means of creative expression. He returned to Ma-Yi Theater Company, where The Chinese Lady made its New York premiere, but this time as an author. ONCE UPON A (korean) TIME followed a Korean family’s journey to Los Angeles as told through a lens of Korean folklore.

Isaac, born in the U.S., knew little about his ancestry and embraced the art form as a means of personal excavation. Spanning more than 100 years, the expansive play also looked inward, providing the artist with a platform to connect further with his heritage.

Isaac has also embraced his body as a form of self-expression and advocacy. “Asian male bodies in America have historically been de-sexualized and neutered,” he said in an interview with ALL ARTS TV. “And so, if I can do my part, here is my naked body.”

Isaac says there have been improvements in representation in TV, film, and theater, but there is still more work to be done.

“I moved to [New York City] in 2009, so progress has been made there,” said Isaac. “But, as always, more progress can be made because it has to happen on all sides of the table.”

For Isaac, progress has also come in the form of embracing his queer identity after spending his teenage years in “conversion therapy” after coming out as gay to his devout (and divorced) Christian mother. Isaac graduated high school early, then studied theater at the University of California, San Diego, where he found a community that embraced him for his full self. His familial relationship has been tumultuous over the years, but he’s chosen to live in a “gray area,” as a therapist once told him.

“I opted for this slightly trickier but sometimes very funny and, um, weird relationship with my mother that takes a lot out of me at times,” Isaac told Slate. “This isn’t some like, uh, easy enlightened exercise. It is a constant negotiation.”

Isaac also must negotiate an industry and a culture that continues to dismiss Asian masculinity. But his social media feeds tell a different story. While followers can discover photos of recent projects, trips, and intimate moments with life partner Scott Rising, they can also be treated to Isaac’s proclamation of his gay Asian identity in all its shirtless glory.

“It’s a reminder for me to treat my body and where it is today with its own love and tenderness and care,” said Isaac. “I can be very hard on myself in that regard. So let me do this for myself in addition to the dopamine hits of someone else liking it.”

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