Interview: Oscar Isaac in 2006
Posted on December 17, 2015 at 8:50 am
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” star Oscar Isaac played Joseph in The Nativity Story and I have been a huge fan ever since. Here’s the interview I did with him back in 2006.
Oscar Isaac plays Joseph in the respectful new retelling of “The Nativity Story,” opposite “Whale Rider’s” Oscar-nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary. Isaac is a 2005 graduate of Juilliard with an impressively wide range of performances already. He plays a Russian gangster in the forthcoming “PU-239” and will be in Stephen Soderbergh’s “Guerilla” and has appeared on “Law and Order,” a musical version of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and in the title role of “Macbeth.”
He spoke to me about appearing as a man everyone knows, but no one knows well: Joseph, husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the man who brought her to Bethlehem. We spoke on November 8, 2006, in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington DC.
You had a very international cast and crew. How was that a help and were there any ways it made the project more challenging?
We agreed we would have one united “middle eastern-ish” accent for all of us. It was a lot of fun because I was the only American in the cast, so the others were constantly berating me with questions.
You were working opposite a very talented actress, but someone who was very young and did not have the benefit of your level of training. How did you find a way to work together?
She’s so naturally gifted, she is so natural, such a deep soul, so in touch with that, that it was easy to work with her. She had to ride a donkey for eight hours at a time with heavy robes and the fake plastic belly, and she always had a great sense of humor about it. I tend to be very serious and deep into the character. She’s remarkable, she has an old soul, very present for the performance but ready to laugh as soon as it’s done.
Director Catherine Hardwicke has shown as a director a real feeling for the point of view of teenagers. How was that a factor in telling this story?
I found out she was the director, I said “Really, that’s an interesting choice,” but I realized it is completely logical because she’s always done stories about adolescents going through intense periods and these are the most famous adolescents in history going through the most intense experience in history. She is great at cutting through stuff and getting to the heart of it, she’d take Keisha off to the side and when she came back she’d be more intense and focused. Catherine relates very well to adolescents and their perspective on what is happening to them.
How was your classical training helpful in developing this character? Did you focus more on research or on motivation?
Both. I do a mixture of inside-out and outside-in when I prepare for a role. In this case, the hands were very important to me. I thought about Joseph — he lives in the first century. The Jewish people at that time identified with two things most, the faith and their ties to the land. The key is in the hands. The script talks about his calloused hands. I worked with a technical advisor for a month with authentic tools of the period. I made the staff, the olive press, the walls of the house and I got the real calluses, making him a flesh and blood person, not a walking icon.
How do you take a character who is in some ways so well known and in others so little known and make him both a distinctive character and an archetype?
Joseph is going to be an archetype; the work has been done for you. But he is human. It’s not that he doesn’t feel fear, jealousy, betrayal, and doubt. The one word that describes him in the Bible is “righteous.” His actions are righteous. Courage is not being fearless but working through the fear. Joseph decided not to stone Mary or divorce her publicly, even though that was his right and that was the law. Being righteous in that case does not mean following the law; it means love and humility and faith. He’s in love with Mary and he believes in her. Where does it come from — that selfless, humble, love? The most amazing act of humility is the essence of the story, how God made himself flesh in the most humble of ways with the most humble people. Jesus was not born to kings or to wealthy people but to Mary and Joseph, poor but righteous.
How did the setting help you understand the characters?
When we were filming the scene out in the wilderness, when we were traveling to Bethlehem, starving, down to the last piece of bread, and I feel my bread to the camel — I wish there had been a camera behind me so people could see what I was seeing, the sun was setting, the moon rising at the same time. It was so stirring. For Joseph in that scene, the sign he asks for doesn’t come, but for me, for Oscar, the sign was there.
Who are some of your influences? What were the performances that led you to want to become an actor?
Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon.” For any film I do, I watch it. I watch it once a month for homework; it taught me as much as Julliard did. I love “Midnight Cowboy,” “Taxi Driver,” incredible performances. I want to add to the medium the way they do. I loved Ryan Gosling in “Half Nelson”– so egoless, so into it, so all about the craft, Daniel Day Lewis in anything, a kind of inarticulation.
How does this movie appeal to believers who will want to see their own vision of the story and those who are not as familiar and approach it as a narrative rather than as worship?
It doesn’t follow one gospel. It incorporates a fuller, dramatic vision. For both believers and those who come for the story, the message of humility and love is an important reminder that it’s not about bombast and pride. God he has brought down the rich and exalted the humble and the poor. It is a huge epic adventure with this little intimate love story about these two people, and how they really become a family. This is a story of the Jewish people, we have to let people understand that, so it was critical to get the customs right, get the words right, get the prayers right. That’s why the message is so great; it is about humility and exalting the humble and those that react in love.