Next Big Thing: Mia Isaac on the Advice John Cho Gave Her While Filming Debut ‘Don’t Make Me Go’

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In a Hollywood where the average onscreen high schooler is played by an actor a decade removed from homeroom, Mia Isaac and her lively performance in Don’t Make Me Go stand out. Isaac turned 17 on the first day of filming for the Hannah Marks-directed coming-of-age movie. She plays Wally, the teenage daughter who begrudgingly goes on a road trip with her father (John Cho), who is keeping his terminal cancer diagnosis a secret.

Isaac, an Atlanta native, had long known she wanted to be an actor, but her parents had hesitations. Hoping to break the détente, Isaac, at age 11, asked her parents for an agent — for Christmas. “My dad told me that I had to learn my multiplication first, all the way up to 12,” remembers Isaac. After conquering those multiplication tables and landing an agent, Isaac did some commercial work and auditioned for the requisite Nickelodeon and Disney Channel gamut but “never felt super connected to a script,” she says.

When it comes to teen-dom onscreen, there is the ultra-sanitized kids network version, and then there is the Euphoria end of the spectrum. Don’t Make Me Go (out July 15 on Amazon Prime) occupies the sparsely populated in-between. Explains Isaac of her character: “The way that she was navigating growing up and becoming an adult felt so similar to me. I felt seen.”

Filming took place in New Zealand, where Cho had to be for his Netflix series Cowboy Bebop. With some effort, the country doubled for the American Southwest. A year after getting her driver’s license, Isaac filmed driving scenes on roads that had to be shut down and staged with cars running the opposite direction of local traffic. Then there were the mimed keg stands Isaac did for a party scene meant to take place at a summertime Texas party but was shot during the middle of the night in the New Zealand fall at a working cow farm.

Just as Wally is seen coming of age with several firsts onscreen, Isaac experienced a series of firsts on set. She was on a studio feature film set, in her first starring role and, early on, was confronted with the reality of doing her first big emotional scene. “I was nervous because I wanted to do a good job and it felt like there were so many people watching,” she remembers. She had finished a first take but was not entirely pleased with the result. Cho then pulled her aside: “He told me what I think I’m going to remember forever: ‘One scene doesn’t define the whole character or the whole movie.’ ”

Isaac and Cho in Don’t Make Me Go.

Courtesy of TAMAR MUNCH/AMAZON

Following Don’t Make Me Go, Isaac headed to New York to film the upcoming Searchlight satire Not Okay, in which she plays a school-shooting survivor. Next up, Isaac has a decidedly adult role, leading the Hulu drama series Black Cake, an adaptation (due in 2023) of Charmaine Wilkerson’s book whose creative team includes Oprah Winfrey. She will play Covey, a star swimmer in 1960s Jamaica who, confronted with an unwanted marriage, seemingly disappears in the ocean.

Since wrapping her two films, Isaac has been in Atlanta, hanging with former classmates who were finishing up their senior year of high school. (Isaac graduated at age 16.) In between working on her Jamaican dialect and poring over Wilkerson’s source material, she’s been enjoying time with her friends before they head off to college and she flies to her next project— “just being kids and doing stupid stuff.”

A version of this story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.