Oscar Isaac has established himself as one of the most versatile Hollywood actors in recent memory – and his leading role in the latest Marvel Studios’ series “Moon Knight” shows why.
Audiences first meet Isaac in the role of Steven Grant, who works at a museum gift shop and is borderline obsessed with Egyptian mythology. But Grant’s seemingly mundane life is upended when the character learns he possesses a second identity in the form of an ex-mercenary named Marc Spector, who also serves as the earthly avatar of Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon and vengeance.
Grant and Spector also have their individual superhero alter-egos, Mr. Knight and Moon Knight, respectively.
At its core, Isaac portrays a man grappling with dissociative identity disorder, a condition characterized by the presence of multiple distinct personalities. It is often developed in children exposed to long-term abuse or as a response to others traumas such as military combat or natural disasters, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
“For me, that was the most interesting part of the character,” the actor, who is of Guatemalan and Cuban descent, told NBC News. “The story of this person coming to terms with this disorder that they have, and more – the trauma that caused this thing.” His character’s trauma partly stems from the dirty work he does for Khonshu as well as from other painful memories from his past.
In an action-packed but deeply introspective performance, Isaac pushes himself into risky new territory by undertaking a character that pushes the boundaries of what a traditional hero looks like in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Marvel heroes are often presented as individuals with relatable flaws who are still able to do extraordinary things. But in “Moon Knight,” the hero’s origin story is rooted in the character’s journey to integrate his multiple identities, effectively adding a new level of complexity to Isaac’s performance of Grant and Spector.
“The journey of that and the integration of these two personalities, in particular of these two alters … That is the journey of healing and living with dissociative identity disorder,” Issac said.
According to Marvel, the comic book versions of “Moon Knight” have a long history of exploring mental health themes. To continue that precedent, the studio brought in Dr. Paul Puri, a board-certified psychiatrist and an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, as a consultant to help the cast and crew understand the disorder and its implications.
“It was really important to study it and to talk about it to really give the audience the feeling of what it might be like to live with this,” said Isaac.
But equally valuable is the precision and confidence with which Isaac tackles such a multifaceted role, one that also mirrors his wide-ranging career of more than two decades.
In each episode, Isaac’s character grapples with the many contradictions that define his existence. He can be both fearless and fearful, honest and deceitful, a hero and a villain.
“It was a big risk doing this kind of wild character, but I did see that there was a chance to do something that I hadn’t done yet,” Isaac said. “Unless you’re risking something, I think it’s not that interesting to do or to watch.”
Tackling one of his ‘biggest challenges’
Despite acting in more than 50 films and TV shows, “Moon Knight” “certainly was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever undertaken,” he said.
Isaac’s gripping screen presence has captivated audiences since his breakthrough performance in 2013, starring in the moving Coen Brother’s film “Inside Llewyn Davis” about a gloomy young singer navigating the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
The 43-year-old actor solidified his international success the following year starring as a Dr. Frankenstein-like programmer experimenting with artificial intelligence in Alex Garland’s dark sci-fi film “Ex Machina.”
But most people remember Isaac as a charming pilot Poe Dameron in the “Stars Wars” franchise.
Most recently he portrayed a grand galactic ruler in the Oscar-winning adventure film “Dune” and a devastated husband grappling with a crumbling relationship in the dramatic TV series “Scenes from a Marriage.”
Despite the different genres or character type, Isaac delivers an unyielding performance, and “Moon Knight” is no exception.
Isaac’s co-star on the show, May Calamawy, agrees with the Latino actor on the challenges their roles presented.
The Bahraini-born, Egyptian-Palestinian actor plays archeologist and adventurer Layla El-Faouly, who gets dragged into Spector’s ongoing conflict with his rival Arthur Harrow, played by Ethan Hawke.
“It took a while to figure out who she was,” Calamawy told NBC News about her character. “That was confronting me as an actor to sort of see where I held myself back and where that wasn’t serving the character.”
Isaac, who also serves as an executive producer in the show, described “Moon Knight” as a “really powerful piece of entertainment.”
“It’s a real, legitimate, character study and a terrifying, psychological thriller,” he said. “It’s an astounding supernatural adventure story and a real investigation of trauma and mental health. It’s sincerely and authentically done. “
New episodes of “Moon Knight” are released on Disney + every Wednesday.
Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.