At this point in its history, Marvel isn’t known for tinkering with its proven superhero formula. And yet “Moon Knight,” the studio’s current Disney+ series, has taken some unexpected chances.
Its debut episode introduced Steven Grant, a maladroit museum gift-shop clerk with a dodgy British accent, played by Oscar Isaac. Isaac also plays Marc Spector, a grizzled American mercenary who shares the same body with Grant — and who is also Moon Knight, the crime-fighting avatar of an ancient Egyptian deity.
As the story of “Moon Knight” has revealed, Spector has had dissociative identity disorder, or D.I.D., since childhood, and Grant is an alternate identity he created to shield himself from trauma and abuse.
“Moon Knight” was a risk for Isaac, too, even though his résumé already includes some of the biggest fantasy franchises Hollywood has produced. While he has made a whole career of projects that are many orders of magnitude smaller — performing “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet” for the Public Theater and starring in intimate dramas like “The Card Counter” and “Scenes From a Marriage” — he has also been featured in film series like “Star Wars” and “X-Men.” Those blockbusters elevated Isaac to greater levels of recognition, but the grueling work they require and lack of input they typically allow made him hesitant when Marvel sought him for “Moon Knight.”
As Isaac, 43, explained in a video interview last week, the pleasure of “Moon Knight” was getting to explore the title character in a way that felt right to him, even if his approach did not always fit the Marvel mold.
Whether Moon Knight moves on to his own movie or a superteam like the Avengers “doesn’t matter so much,” Isaac said from the offices of the production company that he and his wife, the writer-director Elvira Lind, operate in Brooklyn.
“It’s a new character that we’re taking a chance on,” he said. “The nature of the story is this investigation, this slow-reveal mystery.”
“If it goes somewhere else, that’s great,” he added. “I’m glad it’s not just an advertisement for synergy.”
Ahead of the “Moon Knight” finale on Wednesday, Isaac spoke about the making of the series, of which he is also an executive producer. He also spoke about the unexpected oscillations of his career and about working for Disney while the company weathers a political firestorm. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Do you get two paychecks for playing two roles on “Moon Knight”?
I should, man. It’s funny because that’s what I was apprehensive about: I didn’t want it to feel like this masturbatory thing. When I started off, I was very adamant that I didn’t want to do the gimmicky, switching back and forth, Jekyll and Hyde part of it. I really segregated Marc and Steven, even asked if we could shoot them on different days. Just do it through reflections and don’t ask me to put on a different hat.
Some actors say they accept immediately when Marvel comes calling, but you didn’t. Why not?
I wasn’t, at that point, super eager to jump into a big production. I wanted to fall in love with acting again. I was a bit tired. I’ve got two young kids, and I was ready to take a step back, do smaller films that weren’t as big of a commitment. When this came, my immediate sense was, ugh, this is bad timing.
As a comics fan, did you feel like you were getting a B- or C-list character foisted on you?
Yeah, they’re pretty much down to the dregs. Although people said that for Iron Man, too — then it changes cinema forever and what an amazing performance that was. Part of the attraction was its obscurity, to be honest.
What were your inspirations for how you play Steven Grant?
It’s an homage to the things I love, like Peter Sellers and the British “Office” and “Stath Lets Flats” and Karl Pilkington. I was also watching “Love on the Spectrum” — these people are going on these dates, who are autistic, who are feeling all the same things that we all would feel, but they haven’t developed these masks to hide it all. It’s all out there in the open. There was something I found so moving about that. I started doing the character at home, and my kids were asking me to do him all the time
You spoke of feeling burned out on big-budget projects. When did you start experiencing that?
Toward the middle to end of the run on “Star Wars.” The commitment of time was such a long one, and the windows of availability were very specific. I started to get hungry for those character studies and working with those great directors.
You had worked professionally as an actor for several years and had some prominent theater roles. But did you find that big-budget films gave you some breakthrough opportunities?
There were a few supporting performances that gave me the opportunity to do really different characters on these big stages, like “Robin Hood” and “Sucker Punch.” What was fun was that nobody had any idea who I was. I played the King of England in “Robin Hood,” and nobody had a problem with that. Now that I’m more known, suddenly it’s like, can he play English? Should he play English? In this age, we know everything about everybody, and of course people have a problem with suspension of disbelief.
So as a Juilliard alumnus and a veteran Shakespeare performer, you didn’t think these types of films were somehow beneath you?
No, I didn’t feel like that. I wanted to make a living as an actor. I didn’t have the luxury of ethics; I didn’t have the luxury of integrity. [Laughs.] I felt like I could bring my point of view to whatever came my way. Early on, I was like, “If I had the one shot, I could prove …” And then I would get a chance, it would come and it would go, and I would realize, Oh! I guess I need another shot now. After a while, it was clear the only thing you can control is your craft and staying curious, and exercising that craft in whatever comes your way that you think is good.
Did starring in “Inside Llewyn Davis” feel like one of those opportunities for you?
That was completely life-altering in every single way. That was my first lead role. It was a Coen brothers movie. I played music. I still can’t believe that happened. I wanted it so badly and just worked my ass off beforehand. It was the serendipity of the moment that I did what I intended to do and the Coens took the risk on someone relatively unknown.
Was it strange that it led to even more fantasy franchise roles? Like, this is what they think of me?
I’ve been doing it long enough to know that there’s no “they” — it’s just people trying to make movies, whether they’re on a huge scale or a small scale. J.J. [Abrams] wanted to meet me [for “The Force Awakens”] while I was still shooting “A Most Violent Year.” I remember because Albert Brooks [his co-star on “A Most Violent Year”] left me a really funny message pretending to be J.J. before I went to go meet J.J. You take a leap of faith. And sure, had I not done that, perhaps I would have been available for some other thing that would have come my way. But no one ever knows.
You got an earlier shot at comic-book adaptations with “X-Men: Apocalypse.” It wasn’t well received, though I think it gets a bad rap. Is that a role you’ve disowned?
No, I don’t disown it. I know exactly what I went in there wanting to do and the reasons why. There were these amazing actors involved that I really wanted to work with, [James] McAvoy and [Michael] Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence. I collected X-Men growing up, and I loved Apocalypse, I just found him such a freaky, weird character. And then you get there and you’re like, Oh my God, I’ve got all these prosthetics on. I’ve got a suit on. I can’t move. I can’t see anybody. All these actors I wanted to work with — I can’t even see who they are. I still think back to that time with fondness. I wish it would have been a better film and that they would have taken care of the character a little better, but those are the risks.
Would you count your time making “Dune” with Denis Villeneuve as one of your typical franchise film experiences?
Denis was the reason to do that. When he came to me, he actually didn’t have a role in mind for me yet. He was like, “I’m doing ‘Dune,’ are you interested? What role is interesting to you?” We decided it was Leto. It was challenging to be a very specific sound in a big symphony.
And you knew, going in, that it’s a character with a limited life span?
Yes, that was part of the attraction.
Was “Star Wars” your closest frame of reference when Marvel sought you for “Moon Knight”? Was that what made you wary?
They are such big, huge films. As fun as they can be, you’re outputting a lot of energy and then you leave and you’re just exhausted. That was part of the fear. I didn’t anticipate how much creative flexibility there was going to be — how much energy it gave me back.
Once Mohamed [Diab, a director on “Moon Knight”] and I started talking about what it could be if we could put our lens on it, we were like, it’s way more important that we’re true to D.I.D. than to some kind of comic-book back story. When you do the research on what causes D.I.D., it’s not like one thing. It’s not, you watched something horrible happen and suddenly you break out into all these different personalities. It’s from sustained trauma and abuse over time. This is a survival mechanism that clicks into place for someone who’s experiencing that. That they’re able to fracture their mind to survive it is kind of astounding.
For much of the series, Marc and Steven would interact in discreet ways, like talking to each other in a mirror’s reflection. How did you handle the sequences we saw in last week’s episode, where the two were often standing side-by-side?
I had my brother, Michael [the actor Michael Benjamin Hernandez], who is a great actor and shares my DNA, stand in as my alter. Other times, it was a huge challenge technically as sometimes, especially in the wide shots, I’d have to act with no one and remember the blocking I had done as the other character and respond to the lines being fed to me in an earpiece I wore.
Was D.I.D. a subject you knew about before making “Moon Knight”?
I didn’t. I had just done “The Card Counter,” which was all about trauma and living with P.T.S.D. I had been doing some research into that, and there was something that felt organic about seeing what’s on the other end of the spectrum.
Does “Moon Knight” speak to why stories about alternate identities and multiverses are becoming increasingly popular?
We live in a post-reality world. Things used to feel a lot clearer, and now they’re not. Nothing can be true or authentic anymore, and I think that’s being reflected in a lot of our popular culture.
You’re a prominent ambassador of Disney’s brand at a time when the company is experiencing conservative backlash and political retribution for its opposition to Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” law, which its critics call “Don’t Say Gay.” Is this something you feel a personal investment in, and does that backlash affect you individually?
No, I’m not experiencing that. I’m not on social media, so luckily, if that is coming my way, I’m ignorant of it. But everything has a political undercurrent at the moment. Disney was forced to take a stand, and I’m glad that they took the right stand there. Sometimes silence or neutrality is just not going to work. It’s astounding to watch a vindictive politician try to own the libs. I grew up in Florida, and I recognize how dysfunctional the state is. But it’s an interesting time where everything is parsed, and if Disney is going to own so much of the entertainment industry, they’ve got to expect to come up against some tough decisions.
Are these the kinds of considerations you’re going to have to make now whenever you work for a major studio?
I’d rather not. [Laughs.] That’s going to require me to do a whole lot of research beforehand that I’d rather not do. I’d rather spend that time figuring out a good character.
There has to be some conscientiousness about it, but at the same time, you’re also trying to make a living and you’re trying to live in the world. I just want to make good stuff and hopefully try to do it in a responsible way.