A lot of eyebrows were raised when an actor of Oscar Isaac’s caliber committed to playing what many might call a second-tier Marvel character in a show for Disney+. As it turns out, though, Moon Knight presented Isaac with one of the most difficult roles of his career. As Marc Spector/Steven Grant, Isaac has the considerable challenge of playing not just a beloved cult hero in the Marvel Universe, but a character with PTSD and dissociative identity disorder. To have that character’s trauma playout against the backdrop of the superhero genre is no mean feat—and that’s before you get to the talking hippo.
In our conversation, Oscar explains why he took on the role, how he wanted to honor those that suffer from dissociative identity disorder, and the high-wire act he had to complete to pull it off.
Awards Daily: You have worked on some pretty sizable projects before—Dune, Star Wars, and X-Men: Apocalypse—but you’ve never played a superhero before. What drew you to this particular material?
Oscar Isaac: I saw an opportunity to create an indelible comic character that opens up and breaks open, as the story goes on, into a real tragic investigation of this human being’s trauma and how they survived it. The language in DID (dissociative identity disorder) is quite dreamlike and fantastical, so in some ways the superhero genre elements felt like they were really appropriate metaphors for that internal struggle. It actually matched up with a lot of my research. So, that felt like a really interesting opportunity. Marvel’s the big show in town. It’s the biggest stage there is. So the attempt would be to create a character study on a phantasmagorical and psychedelic but also deep point of view and to be able to try to execute that in this super pop genre. It felt like a really worthy challenge. And then speaking with (Director) Mohamed Diab, seeing his films—this guy is a real serious filmmaker with a very unique point of view—and then having conversations with him just felt like this was the best shot at doing that.
Awards Daily: Because you’re dealing with the mental health elements, and then there’s also the fantastical superhero elements of the show, was there any fear of trying to balance those to do service to both?
Oscar Isaac: Yeah, because we know what kitchen we were cooking in. It’s a Marvel show and a comic book. It’s got its own staples. Not saying it’s Shakespeare, but Shakespeare would write within a genre. He knew that “Ok at the end, I need a big sword fight.” There’s things that are staples of a genre. Within that, it was clear that (Executive Producer) Kevin Feige and Grant Curtis, our producer, were interested in seeing how much we could push those other elements inside that architecture. So, yeah the apprehension is that it’s not gonna work and it’s just going to be gobbledygook. Or it’s going to be like a flop sweat, like we’re trying so hard but the structure just can’t hold it. So, it was really important that all of us were on the same page as to what we were trying to make.
Awards Daily: Before this, I think WandaVision was seen as the outlier project from Marvel. But Moon Knight has talking hippos and alligators and the disembodied voice of F. Murray Abraham. From a perspective of “how is this going to play,” did you think it was a little crazy?
Oscar Isaac: Yes of course it’s crazy. That was part of the appeal; it was the madness of it all. But sure, especially with the hippo, Taweret. We talked a lot about how she is incorporated, how to use her. We didn’t want to have a Jar Jar Binks situation. [Laughs.] How can we be really smart about how we use this, and again, part of that is how do we connect it to what’s happening emotionally in the show? If those connections are deeply felt and deeply understood by everyone then it will connect.
Awards Daily: Was it helpful that Moon Knight is not one of the most well known characters in the Marvel universe that you could maybe take more liberties?
Oscar Isaac: Completely. Not only is he not so well known, but even within his comic book history he’s shape-shifted so much. He’s very mutable. His backstory has changed multiple times. His personality has changed. Everything about him has changed and shifted depending on what a writer was interested in focusing on. It was a balance there to find what things we found the most compelling.
Awards Daily: One thing I found interesting in the series is that we don’t see a ton of Moon Knight in Moon Knight. There’s a lot of restraint around bringing out the suit. Was that a surprise to you?
Oscar Isaac: I think he comes out at least once in every episode. But no, it wasn’t a surprise. In fact that was part of what I liked about it. Anybody can do somebody wearing a suit and kicking people in the face. That’s not new. The character parts of it were, for me, what was most interesting.
Awards Daily: It’s a really challenging character. Sometimes you’re acting with yourself. Sometimes you’re acting with the disembodied voice of F. Murray Abraham. But we always have to know which person you are. It’s not like you get a funny haircut when you’re the other guy. It’s nothing like that. Did you find it challenging sometimes acting across from yourself?
Oscar Isaac: It was the biggest, most technically challenging project I’ve had to do. It was patterns on patterns is how I describe it. If you just think of the scene in the fifth episode where Marc breaks down outside of his family home the day of his mother’s shiva, that’s an example where I’m playing so many different versions—I’m playing Marc breaking down in the past, Steven watching him break down in the present, and Steven watching past Marc turn into past Steven, and then present Marc watching present Steven watch past Steven… you know? [Laughs.] And making them all have their own point of view, their own presence, their own understanding of what’s happening in that moment, their own personal responses to what they’re seeing and what they’re doing and how they’re very different from each other. And in those scenes, sometimes I’m doing it opposite my brother, sometimes I’m doing it opposite nobody, and I’m just having the lines fed into my ear. Sometimes I’m doing it with a stand-in who’s not an actor but whose shoulders look a little more like mine, and then having to do it all over again from the other character’s point of view. That was a staggering amount to hold in the brain and then at the same time be free emotionally.
Awards Daily: I spoke to May Calamawy a couple of weeks ago, and she had said that she was nervous to be working with two very established actors in you and Ethan Hawke, but that she found both of you to be incredibly generous. I really think she blossoms throughout the show, even to the point where in the final episode it almost felt like it was as much about her as it was about your character.
Oscar Isaac: Yeah, I agree. I agree, and that had a lot to do with Ethan and I pushing to have the table reads every Sunday while we were shooting. And again it was about everyone being on the same page, but that was a forum. To Marvel’s credit, and Grant our wonderful producer’s credit, it was just a non-judgemental space where we could just ask all the dumb questions. We could open this thing up and really talk about our characters, defend things about our characters, advocate for our character’s point of view. It was out of those conversations that it felt really clear, in the fourth episode, for example, that we needed to split up Steven and Layla in the tomb. Originally they were just going to kind of do the whole thing together. But we thought, you know, again to go back to the Shakespeare thing, there’s got to be a time when Macbeth or Hamlet goes off stage and comes back. It’s like a classic thing. The hero’s gotta leave for a moment so that you want him to come back. It’s like, why not at this moment allow Layla’s story to come forward a bit more, and to get to understand her a little more, and to let her go through her own journey as well, and then meet up with Steven on the other side. At first I was advocating for even more time off set [Laughs], but then we came up with this balance. Again that was about all of us as a team creating this thing together.
Awards Daily: One of the most jaw-dropping moments I’ve seen on television this year was the asylum reveal. How did you prepare for that? Did you look at that and think, oh man, we’re really going for it here?
Oscar Isaac: That was one of the things that I loved most about it. That was another one where it was such a great moment, and it was supposed to happen in episode five, but it just felt like the smart thing to do was to bring it forward and make that the ending of episode four. That way we had a little more space in five to explore. I loved that, because again, it played with patterns on patterns. Where does this fit? How does this change your whole point of view of what you’ve been watching?
Awards Daily: Typically, when Marvel sets up a new character, that character will go somewhere else—whether that’s another series or perhaps a film. What I would ask you though is, are you up for more?
Oscar Isaac: It all depends on what the story is and what the stakes are. I love the character, I love working with Marvel, I love working with Grant. I really enjoyed the challenge of creating this thing. If there was a really inspiring story to tell, I’d be very much up to doing it.
Awards Daily: This is really a high-wire walk, this show. It’s been very well received by both fans of Marvel and by just regular watchers of TV and film. The critics responded pretty well, too. Were you surprised that you got this kind of fulsome and positive response?
Oscar Isaac: I never know if my sensibilities are gonna align with a lot of people’s sensibilities. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. The fact that we approached this with as much care and thought and passion as we did and on the other end of it there were people there to receive it in that way is great. Particularly I’ve heard a lot from the DID community, and while this show may not be the perfect example or perfectly depict DID, because the show is still a fiction, a lot of that community felt seen and like it was really taken seriously. And it was done on, again, the biggest stage possible which is a Marvel show. That means a lot to me, because that really was my focus. It was a story of trauma and a story of healing, and it feels like that sense was taken and understood. Also I appreciate that you think this is a high-wire act, because it is. From a performance standpoint, it was a massive, massive challenge. The fact that I feel, for the most part, that people really connected to the character/characters, is very gratifying.
Awards Daily: This isn’t Moon Knight related but I have to ask it: is there any way we can make you and Jessica Chastain work together at least once a year? I don’t care if it’s a Coke commercial, I don’t care.
Oscar Isaac: [Laughing] She’s a very good friend. We’ve already talked about what it is we’re gonna do next. We’re just gonna go on and on, hopefully forever.
Moon Knight streams exclusively on Disney+.