Oscar Isaac likes to quote Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” In the past two years, Isaac has learned this the hard way, pushing himself into ever riskier emotional terrain as an actor.
Ever since he broke out in 2013 with his first lead role as a sensitive finger-picking folk singer in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” (after supporting parts in “Sucker Punch” and “Drive”), he’s shown a remarkable range. From a dancing AI scientist in “Ex Machina” and Vegas loner in “The Card Counter” to heroic Poe Dameron in “Star Wars” and Duke Leto Atreides in “Dune,” he can seemingly do anything, as hero, villain, lover, gangster, or artist. Now he’s got his pick of film and TV projects, and his recent derring-do has landed him in Best Actor Emmy contention in not one but two Limited Series: Hagai Levi’s remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Swedish miniseries “Scenes from a Marriage” (HBO) opposite Jessica Chastain, and “Moon Knight,” Marvel’s first Disney Plus series based on a character not established on the big screen.
That was exciting to Isaac: he was able to invent a small-screen superhero character who doesn’t have to come back year after year. After showrunner Jeremy Slater showed him the scripts for two episodes, Isaac dug into the Marvel comics, and realized this complex and unpredictable multi-dimensional character was all over the map. They could do anything with him.
He also delighted in joining his old Juilliard buddy Chastain, who costarred with him in 2014’s “A Violent Year,” in “Scenes from a Marriage,” which dissects the dissolution of a couple, switching the genders of the husband and wife so that she is the one who leaves. Which role is more awards-friendly? Most likely, the intimate emotional beats Isaac finds with Chastain. (At Venice their red-carpet affection went viral.) But Isaac’s feat playing a neurotic superhero with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) in “Moon Knight” — with multiple personalities at war with one another — is also Emmy-worthy.
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Isaac can vividly recall the moment at Juilliard when he first clapped eyes on Chastain onstage in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “She was magnetic, I couldn’t take my eyes off her, the intensity and emotional honesty was amazing,” he said on the phone to IndieWire. “She started dating a friend of mine, she reminded me of elements of my sister, and we started hanging out a lot. We are very funny with each other. I recognized somebody who approached work in a similar way. She helped me to find my first manager. After we graduated, we’d go to each other’s premieres.”
When Javier Bardem fell out of “A Violent Year,” Chastain advocated for Isaac and got him in the room. “There was a shorthand between us,” he said. “We found that we each pushed each other, we had a sense of play, and that oftentimes the line is blurry when we are we talking as our characters or as Oscar and Jess. There’s something about being together and knowing each other so well; it’s hard to lie.”
In “Scenes from a Marriage,” on which Isaac also served as an executive producer, the actor plays Jonathan, a Jewish college professor who is besotted with his wife Mira (Chastain), a high-powered business executive who expects her husband to run the roost. “She’s got my character by the balls,” said Isaac. “Jonathan has figured it out, he’s comfortable, he has what he needs, he’s happy with his role and his wife’s role. There’s a little blind spot to where his partner’s at. It shifts and changes. It required a real sense of being present, what naturally would happen. I knew she knows me, knows my tricks. She has seen me work at learning the craft of acting. She will make me search for the most truthful way of playing a scene, not embellishing, not expanding out in big way, but truthful and honest in the moment.”
Isaac was first in, after meeting showrunner Hagai Levi (the original Israeli “In Treatment”) in February of 2019 about his American update of “Scenes From a Marriage.” As soon as Isaac left the meeting he emailed Chastain — without having been offered the role — telling her, “I can’t imagine doing this with anyone other than you.” Isaac had wanted to investigate the nature of love, he said. “I felt like it was something that I hadn’t really explored in film or in theater.” Eventually Michelle Williams was cast, but dropped out a few weeks from the start date for scheduling reasons, and Chastain, due to the pandemic, was free. “She read it, met Hagai, and jumped in.”
While “Scenes from a Marriage” may look like risky emotional terrain, Isaac was even more challenged by “Moon Knight.” “The risks were so high for me, creatively, with where the material was and all the unknown elements of it,” he said. “I pushed the creative team and [Marvel’s] Kevin Feige and Grant Curtis to talk about what approach to take. I was a bit reluctant, but I was hungry to delve into psychological stories and understanding character. When this came my way, I saw an opportunity to do those things I was curious about doing on a big stage, almost hijacking it. One could create an indelible comic character and underneath there’d be an investigation of how a psyche deals with DID. We could make what was happening a metaphor for that internal life.”
After all the work Isaac had put into the series, toward the end of shooting Marvel offered him the title of executive producer. “I watched every edit, gave notes, was part of the casting and the music process, the breaking down of the script, the dialogue,” he said. “It happened organically, in a way it was a compulsion. I’d say I felt compelled to do it.”
Isaac was pushing into the unknown, on a grueling seven-month shoot in Budapest and the desert in Aqaba, Jordan. “The bad version could have been so bad,” he said. “I know it. But it felt the closest to anything I’ve done to what it feels like to write and record music. It becomes a personal expression of my aesthetic. Having more ownership of the creative gave me more energy back. I have not worked since.”
Understandable. “Moon Knight” is made up of swirling patterns on patterns on patterns, a script supervisor’s nightmare. The way the cast and crew kept the timelines and characters straight, both Isaac and the actor playing his nemesis, cult leader and Egyptian Goddess worshipper Ethan Hawke, got together on their day off each Sunday with the directors, writers and other actors to sit around a table and read through the script. “We’d ask questions and talk about precisely what we are seeing and what’s happening when we’re there,” Isaac said.
At first Isaac kept the stoop-shouldered museum Egyptologist Steven Grant, whose British accent was inspired by Peter Sellers, separate from taller alter-ego Marc Spector, the cocky sharp-shooting American mercenary, but eventually was switching back and forth between them inside scenes, and in the bravura Episode 5, which featured four versions of his character and the Egyptian God Khonshu, he performed opposite his brother (Michael Hernandez). “Steven is in the present watching Marc becoming Steven, it’s like circle on circle. The technical mix and the emotional stress was at such an extreme level doing so many versions of the scene. When I wasn’t with my brother, I acted with a stand-in and lines were fed in my ear, and then I’d do it all again from the other character’s point of view.”
For “Scenes from a Marriage” Isaac and Chastain rehearsed for two weeks beforehand, making minor script changes for “a few moments per episode that don’t work,” he said. They shot in real time. “We shot for a week and then shut down another week for COVID. Jessica and I kept rehearsing and ran through the lines.” They also watched the entire Bergman “Scenes from a Marriage” again. “Hagai took biographical elements of his own life to make a modern American adaptation. When we were lost in the dialogue and wanted to know the objective intent, we’d go back to the original and see how it had changed. If the original was stronger, we’d go back to it.”
The actors shot long 20-30 minute takes, mostly with one camera, sometimes two. “We’re theater creatures,” said Isaac. “We clicked into the rhythms of it. We knew our lines, because the situations were so harrowing. We were able to show up and not plan anything. It was the most available and not thinking ahead either of us have ever been. We’re synchronized, surfing like a tuning fork with each other, on the same frequency. We moved through it together, shifted and made changes. Sometimes takes were quite different, they were so long. We followed the script mostly word for word.”
For the intense sex scenes, the actors relied an intimacy coordinator. “It’s trust,” he said. “Trust happens. It was good she was there to make sure. We know each incredibly well. We were up front about what the boundaries were beforehand, if any. Then it was just feeling each other and synchronizing in those situations with the choreography.”
Csaba Aknay / Disney+
Born Óscar Isaac Hernández Estrada in Guatemala City, Guatemala, to a Guatemalan mother and Cuban father, Isaac relied on Levi, who was raised in a Hasidic family, to keep him straight on playing a Jewish professor. “It was helpful to talk to him about his religious upbringing and ideas on sex and marriage and morality,” said Isaac. “I connected to my own religious upbringing as well. I grew up in an Evangelical family with a similar conversation about the idea of sex and marriage and what is the right thing to do.” The two men also referenced Eva Illouz’s “The End of Love: A Sociology of Negative Relations,” which “correlates the influence of capitalism and the free market with our idea of what love is.”
At the end of “Scenes from a Marriage,” Jonathan wakes up from a nightmare. “He’s freaked out,” said Isaac, “not sure what any of it means.” Isaac doesn’t have any answers either. But he knows that having the space to create is what he needs right now: “To do something where I can find more complex and complicated challenges, and feel something new to learn and express, is what’s been guiding me lately. It’s not the size of it, it’s more about inspiration.”
Next up: Isaac voices Gomez in the animated “The Addams Family” series as well as voicing a key role in the upcoming “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Ben Stiller is directing Eric Roth’s adaptation of “London,” from a Jo Nesbo story, and Isaac is excited about an untitled script from Oscar-winner Martin McDonagh costarring McDonagh vets Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell. “That’s in the plan for next year,” he said. And Isaac still hopes to star as ex-superhero Hundred in Legendary’s adaptation of the Brian K. Vaughan comic book. There’s also something in the works with Julian Schnabel, who directed Isaac in “At Eternity’s Gate.”