Q & A with Oscar Isaac
Actor, in the role of Joseph in The Nativity Story
By Julie Rattey
Oscar Isaac, 26, had scarcely graduated from Juilliard in 2005 when his acting career took off, leading him to starring roles in New York theater and now to the big screen, where, this month, he will portray Joseph in “The Nativity Story,” a film about the life of Mary and Joseph in the year before Jesus’ birth. Catholic Digest spoke with Isaac after the filming, in a follow-up to a special report on the film that appeared in the November 2006 issue.
Q. How did you feel when you found out you would be playing Joseph?
A. I was pretty shocked. It took a while to sink in, because he’s such an icon, you know. I was down in Miami at the time with my family. I was very excited.
Q. How did your family react?
A. (Laughing) My father said, “I hope I don’t see your picture with a bunch of candles around it in church next time I go.” [But] they were just thrilled.
Q. How did you approach the part?
A. Well, I definitely read a lot of Scripture, and at first I was reading just the actual
account of the nativity, but that only went so far, so I started trying to find bits and pieces here that would inspire me. So for instance, I was like, Well, I think he operates from love, so I would read Song of Solomon, [thinking] about Mary. And then I read 1 Corinthians 13. And then I thought about how he’s a person of the land and how that defined him [and] his work.
And, actually, I guess his Jewishness, that was very important to me to find out, really — I mean, it’s kind of impossible to think how they felt and how they thought as a society, but [we can learn about] their traditions, how they spoke. I think that was very important, just because that’s who [Mary and Joseph] were: Their identity was very much their religion.
Q. Was there anything you discovered about Joseph that surprised you?
A. Yeah, you know, I think what surprised me was how full of love he is, and really, love for her. I read about his righteousness; you know, he decided to divorce her quietly. He doesn’t want to humiliate her, ’cause he’s in love with this woman. No matter how angry he is, no matter how much he has the temptation to do that, or even the desire to scream, and yell, and throw her out in the street, because he loves her so much, he doesn’t do that. And I think that does come through.
Q. You’ve indicated that you have a Christian background.
A. Yeah, I grew up going to church, and my parents are definite believers.
Q. What was your impression of Mary and Joseph when you were growing up, and did that impression change during the film?
A. [Seeing paintings of Joseph, I would say,] “Who’s that old guy in the background? Oh, that’s Joseph.” He is kind of back there in the shadows, looking benignly at the situation. And I think doing the film, [getting to understand] his virtues, and just him as a human being, that really opened up this whole idea of, “Wow, he really had a lot on his shoulders.”
There’s a lot of stuff that he had to overcome through faith, and I think he ultimately did that, but what was interesting to me was pinpointing all those moments of anger, of fear, of doubt, of all those things that I think everyone goes through and that he did as well. For instance, the fact that he loves God so much and he loves this woman so much, and it’s like, “Why did you pick her?! Come on! Out of everybody!” I think it’s exciting, but at the same time, I mean, he’s not going to have a normal familial life, you know. I think there’s part of him that just saw this woman, loved her, wants to get married, have a family, live in Nazareth.
Q. So much for the quiet life.
A. Exactly. Exactly. (Laughing) He’s kind of thrust into this role, and I think it doesn’t happen immediately, at least, for the purposes of the film. It’s something that he realizes as he goes on the journey, and I think for me, someone who’s courageous is not someone who’s fearless. Someone who’s courageous is someone who has fear, and does it anyway.
Q. I think that promises to be one of the strengths of the film, is that you don’t take anything for granted. You don’t say to yourself, “Oh, they’re Mary and Joseph, they know what they’re doing.”
A. Yeah, exactly. I think that’s what faith is: It’s doing it when it’s hard.
Q. How do you think Joseph can be a role model for young people today?
A. I think the idea of acting in a selfless way. Of acting from a place of love and compassion. I think all of those things are incredibly important. And strength — not being afraid to have strength, do your role, and shut up. (Laughter) I mean, it’s like you suck it up and do it.
Q. Does being a Christian inform your choice of projects as an actor?
A. I think it innately does, but it doesn’t necessarily do it on a conscious level. For me, it’s about the condition of being human now, and what that means now. You know, even doing this film, which takes place in the first century, (you can think about) how it relates to the now. I think for me that’s the most important thing. Projects that speak to some sort of truth about us as people. I think for me this script does that. It wasn’t just a retelling of something that most people know pretty well. It’s something that was really trying to find a deeper truth about what these people went through and what they’re really feeling.
Q. What do you hope that will bring to audiences?
A. Just a richer, deeper understanding of what these people did and what they went through. What it meant. What it cost.
Q. If you had been in Joseph’s shoes, how would you have reacted to Mary’s story?
A. I probably wouldn’t have been able to deal. I probably wouldn’t have believed her. And for me, that’s why figuring out what goes through his head (was so important). But then, I don’t know. Maybe if when I looked at her and I saw her and realized how much I loved her, maybe I would have been able to be righteous. But I don’t know. (Laughing) I don’t give myself that much credit.
Q. Tell me about Nazareth Camp. You had a few weeks with experts from Nazareth Village (a reproduction of Jesus’ hometown, in Israel). What was your day like?
A. I’d wake up, go to dialect, then go do woodwork, then I would go pull Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays Mary) around on a donkey for a few hours. Then we’d rehearse with (director) Catherine (Hardwicke) some scenes, go out to the village, do some stonework with Luigi, the Italian masonry guy. I actually got to build a lot of my own house that’s in the film. It was great. The staff that I use the whole film, I made the staff. I made a few other things.
Sometimes they’d get annoyed because they’d be looking for me to put makeup on or something and I’d be there, making a spatula or something. But I loved it. I really got into the whole woodwork and carpentry and all that.
Q. So you’ve had quite a year; since you graduated you’ve had all these projects flooding your way.
A. I’ve been very, very, very fortunate. It’s kind of the right thing at the right time, and also hard work. It's been a crazy year, but very exciting. CD
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
A CLOSER LOOK AT OSCAR ISAAC
OSCAR'S DREAM ROLE: Macbeth. I think it’s just the best play ever. That or Atrov in (Anton Chekhov’s) ”Uncle Vanya.”
HOBBIES: I had a band for a long time. I played guitar for 11 or 12 years. I’ve gotten into pingpong. I’d never played … until I got to Morocco (for filming) and they had a pingpong table. And now — when I got back I was so obsessed that I went out and bought one. I bring my friends over and just nail them.
MOST FUN PART OF FILMING “THE NATIVITY STORY”: Just being in Morocco was fantastic. I hadn’t really traveled all that much before. And I thought, kind of going out into the desert and filming in the dunes, for me it just had such a spiritual feeling to it already.
FAVORITE THING TO DO WITH HIS FAMILY: Hang out at home and watch movies with my dad. Eat good food. Hang out with my cousins and play video games. Just do geeky family things.
The Nativity Story online
“The Nativity Story” opens in theaters December 1. For more information on the film, visit www.thenativitystory.com.