In the flesh, Oscar Isaac has a relaxed charisma that puts you at ease. Ahead of his arrival, NME has been shuffled from one tastefully beige London hotel room to another, but he soon charms away any awkwardness. He’s warm, smiling and shakes NME‘s hand firmly: no fist bumps here. Sadly he isn’t wearing the internet-slaying skirt suit he rocked to the previous evening’s Moon Knight premiere, just a casual blazer and jeans today. But hey, you can’t have everything.
By now, 43-year-old Isaac is an old hand at giving spoiler-free interviews about projects fans are clamouring to know more about. After all, he played heroic fighter pilot Poe Dameron in the last three Star Wars films and Duke Leto Atreides in Denis Villeneuve‘s dazzlingly ambitious sci-fi blockbuster Dune, which is up for 10 Oscars on Sunday. He also has a Marvel superhero movie on his CV, having played the OG mutant En Sabah Nur in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse.
However, this doesn’t mean he reels off boring, by-the-numbers answers. When NME asks if he was apprehensive about taking on another Marvel role in Moon Knight, the latest feverishly anticipated MCU series created for Disney+, which debuts next Wednesday (March 30), he fires back: “Oh, nearly every part of me was apprehensive!”
“There was a tiny part of me that thought there might be a possibility of something interesting here,” Isaac continues. “But the larger part of me was saying: ‘I don’t know, man. Are you going to do this to yourself again? Are you going to put yourself into, like, the service of the big machine?'”
Isaac admits it took “a lot of thinking” and several conversations with Marvel boss Kevin Feige to convince him fully. “Clearly they’re very, very successful,” he says of the MCU machine. “But I just had this horrible nightmare that I would find myself in the middle of a shoot in Budapest with a cape on being like, ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life?'”
“I had this horrible nightmare that I would find myself in the middle of Budapest with a cape on”
The character he portrays at the start of Moon Knight definitely doesn’t wear a cape. Isaac adopts an unexpected British accent – he pegs it to Enfield, an outer suburb of northeast London – to play Steven Grant, an unassuming gift shop employee who hasn’t yet realised why his life is so chaotic. Isaac says bringing Grant to life was his “way in” to the project. And knew he’d cracked it when he came up with his distinctive speaking voice.
“I thought, ‘What’s an energy that I haven’t seen in the MCU before? Like, what if someone asked Peter Sellers to be in a Marvel movie,” Isaac recalls, before name-checking an even more surprising figure from the British comedy world. “And then I thought of Karl Pilkington,” he adds. “I was watching a lot of An Idiot Abroad, not so much for the accent, but for the comedy of it: like, you often don’t know if he knows he’s being funny. And there’s something a little bit naturally introverted about him, which I really liked a lot.”
At this point, Isaac decided to make the character English, but also Jewish. Given that Brits in Hollywood projects are too often played as either comedy cockneys or old-fashioned stiff upper lip types, this was a smart idea. “So I also listened to Russell Kane, the comedian, because he comes from [Enfield],” Isaac continues. “And I put in a bit of Russell Brand, even though he’s much more loquacious. And then, really, it was about finding the [character]’s emotional place. Like, why he is kind of mumbly and inward.”
Steven Grant isn’t your typical superhero because he has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) but doesn’t know it when we first meet him. People with this mental health condition, which is associated with overwhelming trauma and childhood abuse, are able to maintain two or more distinct personalities and may experience memory gaps. Grant feels as though he has lost days at a time until he realises he is also Marc Spector AKA Moon Knight, a battle-scarred American mercenary who serves as the avatar – or conduit – for Khonshu, the Egyptian God of the Moon and Vengeance.
“This is a first for the MCU: where the story itself is about a person and their DID,” Isaac says proudly. Because Grant/Spector are Khonshu’s reluctant avatar, they find themselves locked in conflict with Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), a cult leader who has acquired superpowers from another Egyptian god, Ammit. Harrow believes he can heal the world and is prepared to kill innocent people who get in his way.
Interestingly, Hawke says that Spector’s DID had a profound effect on the way he plays Harrow, a baddie who’s absolutely convinced of his moral superiority even when he is behaving abhorrently. “I mean, there’s countless stories of mentally ill villains, and we have a mentally ill hero,” Hawke explains. “And that’s fascinating because we’ve now inverted the whole process. And so now as the antagonist, I can’t be crazy because the hero’s crazy. So I have to kind of find a sane lunatic or a sane malevolent force. And that was an interesting riddle for me to figure out: how to be in dynamics with what Oscar was doing.”
What Isaac was doing sounds complicated and exhausting: sometimes, he would be playing Grant and Spector simultaneously in scenes where the two characters are squabbling with one another. “Generally, the fun part about being an actor is reacting to something, right?” he says. “Like, [your scene partner] does something different, which changes the way you do it and keeps you present. But sometimes [on Moon Knight], I’d show up on set and it would be a scene with myself. So I’d have to figure out, ‘Well, who do I want to be first?'”
Isaac hit upon a simple but ingenious way of keeping himself present: he hired his brother, journalist and fellow actor Michael Benjamin Hernández, to act as his scene partner. Incidentally, Isaac’s full name is Óscar Isaac Hernández Estrada. He was born in Guatemala City to a Guatemalan mother and Cuban father, then moved to the US with his family as a baby. He told Esquire in 2017 that he dropped his Cuban surname soon after launching his acting career to improve his chances. “When I was in Miami, there were a couple of other Oscar Hernándezes I would see at auditions,” he recalled. “All [casting directors] would see me for was ‘the gangster’ or whatever, so I was like, ‘Well, let me see if this helps.'”
“It was a crazy technical challenge”
Today, Isaac recalls in detail how his brother, a “great actor”, helped him create his Moon Knight characters. “Let’s say Marc is the one really driving the scene,” he explains. “I’d do Marc first because Steven is going to react to Marc. So I’d do Marc and then say to my brother ‘can you do what I just did’ so I could react to that as Steven. Then I’d rehearse it as Steven and see how it was feeling.”
As the scene took shape, Isaac would go back and forth between Marc and Steven, modifying their reactions to each other and giving his brother direction with each tweak. The whole time, he was also trying to remember his blocking – or choreography for the camera – as both characters. “It was just crazy. It was a crazy technical challenge,” he says with mock-exasperation.
Still, Isaac also stresses that it was important to treat Grant and Spector as distinct characters for the sake of authenticity. “From my research in DID, that’s what it is,” he says. “It’s not that there’s another version of you; you have to respect that [each personality] is their own fully formed individual because that’s what they are.”
As Isaac begins to discuss his research into DID, it becomes obvious that he took this responsibility very seriously indeed. He points out that the condition remains shrouded in so many misconceptions that “there are even some people in the psychiatric field who don’t believe it exists”.
For Isaac, reading Robert Oxnam’s 2005 book A Fractured Mind: My Life with Multiple Personality Disorder was the hammer that “really cracked it open”. He became fascinated with the way Oxnam describes the relationship between his various “alters”, or identities, as one comes to the front and others fade into the background. “A lot of the language he uses is quite symbolic,” Isaac says, before sharing an analogy that struck a chord.
“Like, imagine you’re in a car,” he says. “Sometimes you’re driving the car, sometimes you’re in the passenger seat. Sometimes you’re in the backseat and you’re blindfolded, so you can hear what’s happening but you can’t see what’s happening. And sometimes you’re in the trunk, and you have no idea what’s happening at all.”
Isaac says he was committed to understanding “the experiential process” of what DID really feels like, “so I wasn’t just doing it as a performance, but making sure that every part of the whole show was an expression of that”. Wasn’t that incredibly draining? “Actually, no,” he replies, “it was really energising to portray because it required constant investigation and creative energy.”
At this point, Isaac says something quite revealing about what drives him as an actor. “You know, in the past I’ve had smaller roles on big things, and those can be even more draining because you output a lot of energy and not a lot comes back,” he adds. “But on this project, I was getting a lot back because there was a real emotional exploration about the nature of abuse and trauma and identity.”
Isaac is too much of a pro to mention which “big things” he found draining, but his CV is sprinkled with some absolute beasts. Since his breakout role as a folk singer in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, a Coen Brothers movie on which he duetted with Marcus Mumford, Isaac has balanced blockbuster work on X-Men: Apocalypse, Star Wars and Dune with more intimate projects. He shone as a hubristic tech CEO in Alex Garland’s cerebral sci-fi film Ex Machina and as an enigmatic professional gambler in the underrated crime movie The Card Counter. Earlier this year, he earned a Golden Globe nomination for his intense performance in HBO’s acclaimed romantic miniseries Scenes from a Marriage.
“Sometimes a ‘disorder’ is actually an incredible form of survival”
Given his impressively varied CV, it’s kind of surprising to hear him say that he never considers “the bigger picture” of his career when picking a role. “To think that I could control that, that would take so much,” he says. “For me, when something comes along, it’s just a question of: ‘Is there room, is there space to create something within this?’ I think that’s the guiding force right now.”
Isaac also says he places no stock in whether a project seems like “a sure bet” that will “make tons of money” or win awards. “If it’s not giving me any energy back, that stuff doesn’t matter, because it’s my life: my life is the doing of it for however many months it takes to film,” he says. On Moon Knight, he became so invested in the creative process – chipping in on everything from costumes to casting – that he earned an executive producer that wasn’t originally part of his contract.
Given that it became such a passion project for him, what does he want people to take away from Moon Knight? “I think that this show recognises the incredible superpower that humans have: that sometimes what is labelled a ‘disorder’ is actually an incredible form of survival,” he says. It’s an unexpected way to plug a superhero series, but then again, Oscar Isaac is a very different kind of superhero lead.
‘Moon Knight’ streams on Disney+ from March 30