The launch of Disney+ in 2019 gave Marvel Studios an unprecedented opportunity to extend and its characters’ storylines in a way it never could at the box office. Since then, fans have been entertained by shows such as Wandavision, Loki, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Hawkeye and more. These television series, alongside films such as Eternals and Black Widow, painted a very vivid picture of what to expect next in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with references to the Avengers, Thanos and the “snap.”
Moon Knight, which launched on the streaming platform last week, is Marvel Studios’ first Disney+ series that doesn’t focus on already established characters or even make references to them (at least, not in the first four episodes that we’ve seen). And that’s precisely what makes the show incredibly enthralling.
The story follows Steven Grant (played by Oscar Isaac), a soft-spoken and socially-awkward museum gift shop employee who lives a seemingly mundane life, except he constantly finds himself waking up in strange places with mysterious memories after random blackouts.
In the first episode, Grant learns that he has Dissociative Identity Disorder, and shares a body with Marc Spector (also played by Oscar Isaac)—a former mercenary and avatar of Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon and vengeance (voiced by F. Murray Abraham). Spector and Khonshu are in conflict with religious cult leader Arthur Harrow (played by Ethan Hawke), while Grant wants absolutely no part in any of this. However, with enemies fast approaching, both Grant and Spector must learn to navigate their complex identities amid a deadly battle between the powerful gods of Egypt.
Ahead, Oscar Isaac, May Calamawy (Layla El-Faouly), Ethan Hawke, Grant Curtis (producer), Mohamed Diab (director and executive producer) as well as directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead give us all the inside scoop on making Moon Knight.
You’ve been part of big movie franchises like Star Wars and Dune. In your opinion, how is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), specifically Moon Knight, different from anything you’ve done before?
Oscar Isaac: When I first looked at the material and spoke with Curtis Grant (executive producer), Kevin Feige (President of Marvel Studios) and Mohamed, it just seemed like there was a real opportunity to do something completely different—particularly in the MCU to really focus on the internal struggle of this character through the lenses of Egyptian iconography and the superhero genre. And also, to create an indelible, unusual character with Steven Grant. Once I got a real take on how I wanted to play Steven and I brought that to everyone, they welcomed that with open arms, which made me realised that I had incredible collaborators and that this was going to be a creative adventure.
What do you think makes Steven Grant, Marc Spector and Arthur Harrow different from MCU characters we’ve seen in the past?
Oscar Isaac: The point-of-view perspective where you’re in the skin of the protagonist and you’re seeing things happen; you’re experiencing it just as he [Steven Grant] is experiencing it. There’s also a sense of humour in Steven that is different from what we’ve seen. With him, it’s a different type of comedy—he’s funny without realising it. And then to find the counterpoint of that with Marc, who is, in some ways, the stereotypically tortured, dark vigilante. What makes him [Marc] special is that he has this little Englishman living inside of him.
Ethan Hawke: The history of movies is paved with storytellers using mental illness as a building block for villains, but we have a mentally ill hero. And that’s fascinating because we’ve now inverted the whole process. So as the antagonist, I have to portray a sane, malevolent force. That was an interesting riddle for me to figure out — how to be in dynamics with what Oscar was doing.
Mohamed was really embracing his mental illness as a way to create an unreliable narrator. Once you’ve broken the prism of reality, everything that the audience is seeing is from a skewed point of view. And that’s really interesting for the villain because am I even being seen as I am? I think that was our riddle, and we came up with somebody who was trying to save the world. In his mind, he’s Saint Harrow and thinks he’s gonna be part of the great solution.
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Oscar, in some of the scenes in Moon Knight, you’re basically conversing with yourself as Steven Grant and Marc Spector. As an actor, what was that like?
Oscar Isaac: Well, the first step was to hire my brother, Michael Hernandez, to come in and be the other me. He’s the closest thing there is to me on earth. He would come in and would play either Steven or Marc with the accents and everything. So it was really helpful to have someone that’s not only a great actor but also shares my DNA to play off of.
I didn’t expect this to be as technically demanding as it was. I had to show up and decide which character I was going to play first. Then block that out, give my brother notes and do the scene and then switch characters. One of the most fun things about acting is acting opposite someone and letting something spontaneous happen. But there really wasn’t an opportunity to do that, so the challenge was to figure out how to make it feel spontaneous and not all planned out.
How did you prepare for this role? Particularly, the accents.
Oscar Isaac: When I asked why [Moon Knight] was set in London, the answer was that we have too many characters in New York. So they decided to change it up and make [Steven Grant] an expat in London. And I was like ‘okay.’ I love English humour like The Office and Stath Lets Flats that I just find so funny. So I thought there was an opportunity to maybe make something. What if Peter Sellars was approached with a Marvel project, what would he do? And so I started thinking about that, which led me to Karl Pilkington from An Idiot Abroad. It wasn’t so much for the accent; it was his sense of humour where you can’t tell if he knows he’s being funny. So I committed to that and found this character that was timid yet wanting to connect with people but not quite knowing how.
May, how did Oscar playing both Steven Grant and March Spector affect your dynamic on set, especially given how different their relationship is to your character, Layla El-Faouly?
May Calamawy: Oscar did such a great job on set. He was like a big, acting teacher for me throughout the whole process. He really understood each character at such a cellular level. When he played each character, it was really two separate people and I could feel the energy shift; I didn’t even have to ask who he was portraying. I found myself feeling more guarded around Marc, whereas with Steven, I felt more nurturing. And there was no thought process involved in it—it was just visceral.
This series delves deep into ancient Egyptian mythology. Did you do any deep dives on history, or did you stick strictly to the comics?
Ethan Hawke: We had a huge advantage with our director being Mohamed Diab, who is Egyptian. And we also had Egyptian actors on set. Seeing them speak and work was more valuable to us as performers than anything we could learn in a textbook. Perhaps, I should have probably learned more about it. But I felt so safe with Mohamed. I knew that it was incredibly important to him not just to respect and honour it, but to revere it and be playful. He was our leader, and we felt very safe with him.
Grant Curtis: I want to jump in and just echo what Ethan said because it’s not as tangible as I think other aspects of filmmaking are. The talent that came around after Mohamed joined brought so much authenticity in the storytelling that it’s immeasurable. Just look at Hesham, our composer, and Ahmed, the editor of Episodes 3 and 4. They all came on board because of Mohamed.
Mohamed Diab: Everyone who’s sitting here added their soul to this project, and I have to say that we hold the record of the least additional photography in the history of Marvel…
Ethan Hawke: Because we rehearse a lot.
Oscar Isaac: On the weekend while we were shooting, we would all sit around the table and have a Sunday brunch and we would all just talk about the episode.
Ethan Hawke: How could it be better? What did that mean? Could that be more interesting? And it brought our collective imagination into one thing. And that made it easier when we were being directed because it was always part of the same team. The imaginative force behind it was the same.
May, what was it like to be part of this?
Ethan Hawke: It’s a very male-driven rehearsal room.
May Calamawy: That’s true.
Ethan Hawke: And she had to fight for Layla all the time—and she did. It was my favourite thing: Watching you ask questions, pushing on and trying to make [Layla] a three-dimensional person. And it was challenging because it’s a male-driven story.
May Calamawy: I’m relatively new to this whole process and industry, so I’m lucky that you were all fighting for Layla, as well. I didn’t know that I was going to be able to take the space to collaborate in that way so it took me a second to trust my opinion. I got to watch you two do it by just throwing out so many ideas. And even if it was one that doesn’t work, we would move in a direction based on the one that didn’t work. I think in the beginning, there were times where I would go to people individually. I’d be like, (whispers) ‘Mohamed.’ Or I messaged Ethan and I was like, ‘I really think we need a scene together.’ And then Ethan came and had this whole scene idea that now I’m like ‘thank God I reached out to you.’
Everyone was empowering. The main thing with Layla is that I didn’t have this idea to pull for this woman and it was just really important to me as someone who grew up in the Middle East. I ended up taking inspiration from myself, and it became easier. And I wanted to find a story that would work with someone who had a similar conditioning, who would deal with situations a certain way. What would that look like for someone raised there versus someone raised in the West? And it was confronting in many ways, but when I felt okay taking that space, I felt like it was happening in a more fluid way.
Lastly, what do you hope audiences will take away from this series?
Mohamed Diab: I would call myself ignorant about Dissociative Identity Disorder because all the information that I knew came from movies. It’s a bit shallow. But what I learned through the journey of directing the show is that the characters needed to live with themselves. And I felt that. I identified with the way each of our persona is a mask that we’re putting on. And I think what I learned from Marc Spector and Steven Grant is that I need to be the same. I need to be one person. And I think this is the struggle that all of us going through the journey of life are trying to achieve.
Oscar Isaac: I think that is the thrust of it. That in itself is its own superpower. To be able to live through abuse or trauma and survive it and then come to terms with that, as opposed to push it all away. And to see that journey happen, I think that’s a really powerful thing.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Watch ‘Moon Knight’ exclusively on Disney+.