How Do You Play 'Righteous'?
Scripture doesn't say much about Joseph, except that he was "righteous." Oscar Isaac, who plays that role in The Nativity Story, had to figure out what that might have looked like in everyday life.
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.
And you had to play a lot of those emotions without saying anything, because the dialogue is so spare. Do you think your background in theater helped you?
Isaac: Yeah, I think very much so. Mike Rich did a fantastic job with the script, but a trap would be to read it and think just because they're not saying anything, they're not really going through something. But it's there. If you read between the lines and really think about what's not being said, that's where you can find those little moments of nuance.
You've done a lot of Shakespeare, so you're use to talking your head off …
Isaac: Yeah, and this is the complete opposite. With Shakespeare, there's no subtext; you're speaking exactly what you're thinking constantly. And this is the flip—but you're still feeling Shakespearean emotions. You're still feeling all those things, but you're just not saying it. That was the challenge, to continually remember not to sit back and just passively watch, but to constantly be desiring something even though you're not saying it.
Did you stick to the script?
Isaac: Mostly, but in one scene, there's one moment when we [Joseph and Mary] are by the Sea of Galilee and she says, "Are you afraid?" And in the script, I say, "No, are you afraid?" And she says, "No." But as an improvisation, when she said, "Are you afraid?", I said, "Yeah, are you afraid?" And she just said, "Yeah." And it was this moment of connection, and they kept it.
What is your favorite scene in the movie?
Isaac: There's a few of them, but that scene by the Sea of Galilee is kind of a sweet, melancholy scene. It's the first time they really get a chance to sit next to each other and talk about, "How are we going to raise this kid?" And Mary kind of jokes, "Tell me about your dream," and he's like, "Nah, I don't want to tell you about my dream." It's the first time you see some warmth between them; they're still feeling each other out. If you think about it, he's trying to get her to fall in love with him. He wants this to work, because he's been in love with her for as long as he can remember.
During that scene, Joseph says, "I don't know if I'll be able to teach him anything." Really, what do you teach the Son of God? What went through your mind with all of this?
Isaac: When I first read the script, I was like, "How do I play this? How do I play that I'm going to have the Son of God as my son?" It's such an abstract idea. I just don't know what to think about it. Then I realized that's exactly what Joseph is thinking. Joseph has no clue what that means. He has no idea what to expect. So I think that gave me some freedom to actually think about those things.
What was it like working with Keisha?
Isaac: Fantastic. She is such a naturally gifted actor, undeniably so. I mean, you watch Whale Rider and I defy you to not get teary-eyed at the end there. I mean she was something else. Keisha just has this way of really being able to forget that she's in a movie. It's what every actor aspires to do, to literally forget that there are cameras and people and lights around, but somehow she's able to do that.
It's a genuinely mysterious thing, especially because she's such a funny girl; she's humorous. You would think to have that kind of depth, she'd be going around in some sort of deep, poetic haze. But she's not. She's a really funny, joyful girl. But she's also incredibly mature. She's perfect for Mary, because at one moment she's like a grown woman with the way she can be so articulate about things. And the next moment she can be just a young carefree girl. She's fantastic. I was really lucky to share the screen with her.
Was there any kind of spiritual experience for you in making this movie?
Isaac: Absolutely. I read a lot of the Bible. And once I figured out the thing about love, I started to read about what's biblical love. And the power of humility. That never really until after I saw the finished movie, and I thought, Oh my gosh, this is the greatest act of humility ever. To an ostracized and oppressed people, this is how God decides to come through. I think that's a really powerful message.
Talk a bit about your own faith journey.
Isaac: I grew up in a very devoutly Christian home. And as Joseph, you know you kind of go through this journey of asking yourself questions, wondering if you're listening to God in the right way. It's definitely been an evolution of how I think. Making the film forced me to think about those things, my own spirituality. Having to play a pious Jewish man, not knowing what that's like, and to have to play somebody that devout—if you're an actor worth your salt, you really try to really put yourself in that place.
Do you think there's a "defining moment" for Joseph in this film?
Isaac: I see him as a character that's having to react a lot. He's got some issues to deal with; he's got a lot to work through. Mary is perhaps the more constant one. She's pondering a lot in her heart; she's taking things in quietly. Joseph is having to react a lot more and to figure out what he's going to do.
Any last words on the film?
Isaac: I think what's really special about The Nativity Story is that it really treats them as real people, and yet you're still able to get all of the power of the story.
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