How Do You Play 'Righteous'?
Oscar Isaac has a winning smile, an easy laugh, and seems like the kind of guy who'd be fun to hang around. But for a few months earlier this year, Isaac was as serious as he could be, trying to figure out how to best portray a man that the Bible tells us very little about—Joseph, descendant of David, husband of the Virgin Mary, and earthly father to a child who was the Son of God.
Isaac, a 2005 Julliard graduate, is the leading man for The Nativity Story, which fleshes out Joseph's character in more depth and detail than any Bible movie before it. The film, opening December 1 in theaters worldwide, also features former Oscar nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) as Mary.
The Bible doesn't tell us much about Joseph other than the fact that he was a "righteous" man, but screenwriter Mike Rich and director Catherine Hardwicke took that one adjective and ran with it, developing a character who demonstrates that quality in both subtle and powerful ways at every turn.
Isaac says he was so focused on the role that he didn't stray too far from being "in character" during in his time on the set. His earnestness and diligence pays off; viewers will get to "know" Joseph more than ever before in what plays out as a bit of a non-traditional love story on the big screen.
We recently interviewed Isaac in Los Angeles during a press trip for The Nativity Story. The conversation below includes segments from our one-on-one interview, as well as segments from a roundtable discussion Isaac held with several members of the media.
Why did you want to play this role?
Oscar Isaac: One, I wanted to work! But the truth is, what a cool, strange, intense role to play, and one that's unexpectedly so. It was exciting to get a chance to show that this character—one that people feel they know all they need to know about—was actually one of the most complex people in the Bible, I think. I mean, the things that he had to deal with, the ideas that he had to grapple with—something like sharing the woman you love with God. Here's a man that loves God so fully and loves this woman so fully, and then he has to share his wife with God. How do you do that? What is it like to have to share your woman with God?
It's an interesting character study too. He wanted to have a family with this woman, he wanted to have a nice normal life in his little house that he's building, and suddenly he's forced to kind of ask God, Why her? I love you so much, I love her so much, but couldn't you pick anybody else?
It was nice seeing Joseph's character fleshed out. Usually he's just the guy in the background with the mule?
Isaac: Yeah, if you look at all the paintings, he's kind of the creepy-looking guy in the back behind the sheep, just trying to get his face in the camera.
The Bible doesn't tell us much about Joseph, so you guys pretty much had to invent his character. All we know is that he was a righteous man?
Isaac: That's all we know, and as an actor, that's an unplayable adjective. How do you play "righteous"? Do you just kind of stand up straighter? What does that mean as an actor? You don't really play a quality. So we had to find out, how do you make this guy completely relatable. Show the audience that he's feeling anger and fear and doubt and romantic love and jealousy—but he works through those things. He ends up making the right choices. He's a righteous man. But we see that it cost him something to make those choices.
I realized that Joseph's righteousness had to be shown in his actions. For me, "righteous" meant "love." He doesn't stone Mary when he finds out she's pregnant, because he's righteous. He doesn't humiliate her publicly, because he's righteous. When I did the scenes, the thing that I felt the most—even though some scenes called for me to feel anger and fear and doubt—was that I just loved her so much, and I realized that "righteousness" just means selfless, humble love. That realization took me throughout the rest of the film.