New Here

Mia Isaac Is Finding Herself in Each New Role

At 18, Isaac already has three buzzy projects under her belt. Here, the actor opens up about her latest: Hulu's Not Okay, opposite Zoey Deutch and Dylan O'Brien. 
Mia Isaac
Stephanie Diani

Mia Isaac claims she wasn’t popular in public high school. As she explains it, missing school for auditions doesn’t necessarily build social capital. Still, it’s hard to believe that an actor who comes across so self-assured and magnetic both on screen and off didn’t once helm a squad of It girls.

It doesn’t matter—she’s on her way to becoming one now. The 18-year-old is having the kind of busy summer most actors only dream of achieving. She recently starred opposite John Cho in the well-received Don’t Make Me Go, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Then there’s Hulu’s satire Not Okay, which premieres this week. She appears in that alongside Zoey Deutch and Dylan O’Brien as Rowan, a school-shooting survivor wrestling with how the public exploits trauma. Next up: the lead role in the Oprah Winfrey–produced series Black Cake.

“I struggled a lot with worrying that I take up too much space or that I’m too loud or too big or too confident,” she tells Glamour. “I love that Rowan is unapologetically taking up the space and having a big platform. She is who she is, and she’s not afraid of it or sorry for it. I’m learning from her in that way.”

For a career that was founded on a bet with her dad—she learned the multiplication chart up to 15 in exchange for an agent—it’s clear that Isaac is in the first of many heydays. Here, she opens up for Glamour’s latest installment of New Here about navigating the industry while young and what she dreams is still ahead.

Glamour: Is there any preparation that you normally do for your auditions? Do you have any superstitions around them?

Mia Isaac: I definitely have some. When I auditioned for Don’t Make Me Go, I wore the same shirt for almost every audition. I even brought the shirt with me to New Zealand when we were shooting. When I auditioned for Rowan in Not Okay, I wore the same shirt again because I had this weird superstition that it was my lucky shirt. So, that’s my little superstition.

In Not Okay, a privileged woman capitalizes off her performative allyship but leaves the brunt of the true activism for your character, Rowan. Did you feel like you related to Rowan in the movie?

Yeah, it’s weird because I feel very, very close to Rowan. Obviously I’ve not been through the trauma that she has, but I relate to her in so many ways. One of the biggest things that stuck with me was Rowan’s relationship with Danni (Zoey Deutch). It’s so common for me as a Black woman growing up in predominantly white areas and white schools—I’ve had those kind of tumultuous relationships with white women. There are these subtleties that are hard to relate to if you haven’t been through it. Reading the script and being in the moment, I could relate to the ways in which Danni took advantage of Rowan and used her. I’ve felt used like that before. 

Not Okay was filmed before the recent surge in mass shootings this summer. Is there anything you hope people see through your character?

I’m just hoping that it sparks some conversation. What I really love about Rowan is that for the first time we can focus on the survivors of shootings. I don’t think that’s something people talk about often. Rowan is an activist and people use her as a political figure, but she’s been through real trauma. You can see the effect that it has on her mental health. Hopefully Rowan’s character can bring that to light because it’s a real problem. 

Was there a costar on Not Okay that made you feel the most star struck?

This is kind of embarrassing to admit, but definitely meeting Dylan O’Brien was a big moment for me. I’ve always been such a huge fan of his, so I was so nervous doing the Zoom table read and meeting him on set. He’s a really cool guy. I’m glad I got to meet him because he was an idol of mine for a while.

How did you celebrate getting this role? 

After I found out that I booked Not Okay, I came back from New Zealand. I had eight days to be home before I was flying out to New York, which was kind of crazy because I didn’t have any time at all to get myself together or anything like that. But within those eight days, me and my family had dinner and celebrated in our own way. It was really cool to be in New York with my dad. He came with me and he had grown up there, so we kind of celebrated by exploring the city. It was my first time in New York, so that felt like a celebration too.

Will you do anything to celebrate when the movie comes out?

Not Okay comes out July 29, so I will be in Jamaica working on Black Cake. Hopefully I’ll have some time off set to celebrate with my mom or something, but I’ll be working.

How does it feel to have all these back-to-back bookings?

It doesn’t feel real. I think it’s good for me—it’s hard for me to sit still. It always feels good to have something to focus on or something to work on. I just feel really lucky. For a big part of my life, I was dreaming of these kinds of things and never thought they could actually come true.

What was your idea of success as an actor when you were a kid? And now that you’re in the industry, even though you are still young, has it changed?

As a kid I just wanted to see myself on screen. I’ve never really seen that many girls that look like me in movies or TV shows. It felt like such a big unrealistic dream that I kind of never thought it could come true, so now it feels surreal. When I saw Don’t Make Me Go at Tribeca Film Festival, it was really emotional because I’d never seen myself on a big screen like that. I’m so grateful I got to do that and see it with my family. 

My dreams and goals have shifted because of my experiences working with Hannah Marks, the director of Don’t Make Me Go, and working with Quinn Shepard, the director of Not Okay. Seeing them go from acting to writing and directing has inspired me. I would love to do that. It has sparked this new dream in me.

Is there a TV show or a movie you were obsessed with growing up because you were able to see yourself onscreen? Or did you have a favorite actor you were able to see yourself in?

I have always loved Zendaya. But for me as a little kid, very little, I was obsessed with Harry Potter and Hunger Games and Marvel movies. I loved those fantasy, superhero, out-of-this-world things. So that had always been a dream of mine. I mean, I was Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen for Halloween. I’ve always wanted to be a superhero.

So if you had dinner with Zendaya, what would you say to her? 

I would just love to hear about her growing up as a child actor. She went from Disney Channel as a kid and has grown into this amazing talented actress. And she’s done the Spider-Man movies, which is my favorite superhero. I love that she’s a model too. She’s done so many things. I look up to her a lot.

Now that you’re in the industry, is there anything you’re passionate about changing?

I’ve been really lucky in that I've gotten to see the beginnings of a new era in film. I’ve only ever worked with female directors. I’ve never worked with a male director, and that’s something that’s new. Not a lot of people can say that. So I feel like I’ve already seen tons of change. I’m excited to see what comes next, and I hope I can be a part of it.

What was the biggest lesson you took away from being on set?

In general, acting has given me a lot of confidence. I used to be really shy. In middle school my parents took me to public speaking classes and stuff like that because I was so scared to talk to people and speak in front of a crowd. Being on set has helped my confidence in a way that I couldn’t imagine. I mean, even sitting here talking to you is something that probably would’ve made me so nervous before. 

Is there a snack or drink that you love on set?

I always go for the stuff I’m not allowed to have. Everyone always gets mad at me because I’ll be, like, eating Cheetos and then have dust on my fingers and on my lips. I remember there was an ice cream truck, and of course I got the ice cream that was bright blue. My lips were blue and everybody was so mad at me. [Laughs.]

What was something you purchased with your first big paycheck?

I love vintage shopping. In New Zealand when we were shooting Don’t Make Me Go, the first thing I got were these vintage satin Diesel pants that I thought were so cool. They are bright orange and I love them. I still haven’t worn them out because I can’t figure out what to match them with, but I love looking at them in my closet. Those are the best purchases—when you really don’t know what to wear with them, but you know that no matter what, the purchase was worth it. I have a ton of things like that.

If you could manifest a dream role, what would it be?

Definitely a Marvel superhero. Isn’t that everyone’s dream role? I would be thankful for one line in a Marvel movie. I would take anything. If I could play any Marvel superhero, I’d be grateful.