Moon Knight is one of a number of brand-new series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe set to premiere on Disney Plus. It stars Oscar Isaac as the titular Moon Knight, plus his alter-egos, American mercenary Marc Spector and British Museum employee Steven Grant. May Calamawy is Layla, an ally to Moon Knight and Ethan Hawke plays against type as the charismatic antagonist and cult leader, Arthur Harrow.
It’s been dubbed Fight Club meets Indiana Jones with its combination of Egypt-set adventure and a protagonist dealing with multiple personalities. It feels like a step in a new direction for Marvel, the series leaning into darker territory with thriller and horror sensibilities as well as a strong undercurrent of humour, while also tackling issues such as mental health. Isaac is more than familiar with colossal-budget productions from his work on Dune and Star Wars, but this could arguably be his most multifaceted role to date. The feeling of fresh blood being injected into the comic book world is also brought about by indie directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Synchronic, The Endless) as well as Mohamed Diab (Clash) being at the helm.
The Upcoming had the pleasure of hearing from the cast and filmmakers of the Marvel series at a press conference ahead of the launch, including Isaac, Calamawy, Hawke and directors Diab, Benson and Moorhead, plus executive producer Grant Curtis.
Grant, tell us a little bit about when Marvel started thinking about bringing Moon Knight into the MCU – what was it about this character that most intrigued you guys creatively?
Grant Curtis: Well, I think Moon Knight, in particular, has been on Kevin Feige’s radar from day one. I mean, you look at his history… first appeared in Werewolf by Night in 1975, then he kind of bounced around in the Marvel Universe for the next five years, and he got his own offering in 1980. And when you look at years and decades of storytelling, as the great storytellers and artists on the Moon Knight pages have been doing, I think this was a natural progression – a merger into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And I think it was just like “This is the perfect time.” When you look at Disney Plus and needing a broader canvas to tell this incredible story, March 30th, the audience will see it, and this was the perfect time to drop into the universe.
Oscar, you’re obviously no stranger to big projects like Star Wars and Dune. What was different about joining the Marvel world, specifically, with Moon Knight?
Oscar Isaac: When I looked at it and we talked – Grant, and Kevin, and Mohamed, as well – it just seemed like there was a real opportunity to do something completely different, particularly in the MCU, and to really focus on this internal struggle of this character, and to use Egyptian iconography and the superhero genre and this language to talk about this real internal struggle that this person is having. And also to create an indelible, unusual character, particularly with Steven Grant. So it felt like, for me, once I got a real take on how I wanted to play Steven and I brought that to everyone and they welcomed that with open arms, I also realised I had real, incredible collaborators and it was going to be a creative adventure.
For you, what is it that makes Marc Spector and Steven Grant different from some of the heroes we may have seen in the past?
OI: Well, I think the story is so “point-of-view”. It means that you’re just in the skin of this guy, and you’re seeing things happen; you’re experiencing it just as he’s experiencing it. So there’s something that’s terrifying about that. I think Steven, in particular, there’s a sense of humour there that is different from what we’ve seen. I think Marvel, in particular, have done such an amazing job at combining action and comedy in such a great way. And I thought, with Steven, there was a chance to do a different type of comedy than we’ve seen – of somebody that doesn’t know they’re funny, doesn’t know they’re being funny. And so that was really exciting. And then to find the counterpoint of that with Marc, in some ways leaning into a bit of the stereotype of the tortured, dark vigilante guy… but what makes him so special is that he has this little Englishman living inside of him.
May, you play Layla, who’s sort of an ally to both Steven and Marc. What was it about her that most intrigued you?
May Calamawy: I love how strong she is. But at the same time, I felt like I got to play the full gamut of a woman with her because she’s strong and she’s for the people and fights for what she believes, but she’s also really vulnerable and scared. So that was fun for me.
Ethan, you play the sort of charismatic antagonist of this story. What was it about Arthur that really hooked you and made you want to get involved in this story?
Ethan Hawke: Well, the history of movies is paved with storytellers using mental illness as a building block for the villain. I mean, there are countless stories of mentally ill villains, and we have a mentally ill hero, and that’s fascinating because we’ve now inverted the whole process – and so now, as the antagonist, I can’t be crazy because the hero’s crazy. So I have to kind of find a sane lunatic or a sane malevolent force, and that was an interesting riddle for me to figure out – how to be in dynamics with what Oscar was doing. And Mohamed was really embracing his mental illness as a way to create an unreliable narrator. And 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. And in his mind, he’s Saint Harrow, you know? I mean, he thinks he’s gonna be part of the great solution.
Mohamed, when you first got involved in this project, what was it that made you most excited about it?
Mohamed Diab: I come from a background that is very independent – small films, usually from the Middle East. I remember the first call between me and Oscar, and he told me, “Mohamed, what the hell are you doing here?”. He called me privately. Oscar was smart – he just wanted: why? Why am I here? And I remember telling him something about making intimate stories not exclusive to budget. And I think Marvel was onto something. I had other offers before to make big-budget movies, but I never connected to anything like this – intimate stories that have some big stuff happening around them. So just imagine that line: you as a normal person discovering that you have another identity that is a superhero. So, I was drawn right away. And I never want to forget Jeremy Slater for creating such a great concept on how to tackle the story – such a great tackle. And the other aspect that really attracted me was the Egyptian part of it, the present and the past, the Egyptology of it. As an Egyptian, we always see us depicted – or the Middle East depicted in a way that is… we call it Orientalism, when you see us as exotic and dehumanised. Just showing us as human, just normal human beings, through Layla’s character, and seeing even Egypt as Egypt, because 90% of the time Egypt is not Egypt. Imagine Paris and you’re seeing Big Ben in the background – that’s how we see our country. So it’s funny, but it hurts. So that’s really what attracted me. And I wish there were more rows here – we had 1000 people working with us, literally almost 1000, and the most important one missing for me was Sarah, my wife, who’s a producer on the show and even was a partner with me in the pitch getting the show. I’m so lucky. I think it’s gonna be hard for all of us to find a better team and a better shepherd.
And Justin and Aaron, what was it about this story that initially hooked you and made you want to be a part of it?
Justin Benson: Well, you know, in the roughly 50 years of comic books, this character is somewhat defined by being bold and being an outsider, and there was something attractive about telling a superhero story like that, but then also working with a bunch of people who were so clearly going to make it something personal to them, and then finding what’s personal in this at such a large scale. And then, especially these three, finding this deep humanity of humour and pain and everything else in what you might call the great mythology of our time.
Aaron Moorhead: Although, it’s true, actually, because we’ve been trying to make sure that all of our independent films, they’re based on a new mythology – it’s something that’s come up whole-cloth. And you kind of think, “Oh, where are the new stories coming from?”. And weirdly enough, I mean, our great, modern myths are Marvel movies right now. The Great American Myth right now comes from Marvel and a lot of other places, but it is really cool to actually be a part of that and telling a story that’s actually about these ancient myths and things that we all grew up on. And also just the fact that that tonally somehow dovetails with all of our independent work is really, really cool. We probably would have said yes to anything, but it happened to be something that was just like what we do, you know? So very cool.
Oscar, in some of the scenes you’re basically conversing with yourself. We see Steven Grant having conversations with Marc Spector. As an actor, how do you approach those scenes where you’re basically playing a character with two guys living inside his own head?
OI: Well, the first step was to hire my brother, Michael Hernandez, to come in and be the other me – that’s the closest thing to me there is on Earth. So he came in and he would play either Steven or Marc, even do the accent and everything – both accents – so that was really helpful to have someone that’s not only a great actor but also shares my DNA to play off of. But that was something that I didn’t anticipate – how technically demanding that was going to be, having to show up and decide which character I was going to play first. And then try to block that out, give my brother notes, and then do the scene, and then switch characters, and then figure it out. Because one of the fun – if not the most fun – things about acting is acting opposite somebody and letting something spontaneous happen that you didn’t expect. But there wasn’t really an opportunity to do that and still having to try to find what makes it feel spontaneous and not all planned-out. So that was challenging.
And how did you find the accents, specifically for Steven?
OI: I don’t know, it was set in London, and when I asked why it was like the answer was we just, “We have too many characters in New York. So it seems like let’s just change it up. Let’s make him an expat in London.” And so I was like, “Okay.” But then it felt like there was – I mean, I love English humour, like The Office and… Stath Lets Flats – and there’s just so much of that humour that I just find so funny, and I thought “There’s an opportunity here to maybe make something. What if we make him English? What if Peter Sellers was approached with a Marvel project? What would he do?”. And so I started thinking about that, and that led me to Karl Pilkington from An Idiot Abroad, and not so much for the accent but just for his sense of humour – where you can’t tell if he knows he’s being funny. And then I thought about the Jewish community in London and where a lot of that community is from, and Enfield as an area, and sort of listening to accents that are northeast London. And then I just committed to that and found this guy that it wasn’t just about accent, but it was also about his timidness, but also wanting to connect with people but not quite knowing how. So yeah, Russell Kane was a comedian that I listened to, as well.
As you said, this show is such a wonderful mix of genres: it’s got elements of horror, it’s got elements of comedy. For the directors, how did you guys approach the tone? Were there any unusual reference points or things you used to figure out what the right tone was for this story?
MD: For me, I think part of it… I’m going to talk about myself as an Egyptian. Egyptians are funny in the most dire situations – so in a funeral, we’re gonna crack a joke. That’s the way it is. I felt already there is a Marvel tone to the show before I even came in. Definitely Oscar’s take took it in a different direction a little bit; I’m sure each one of the people sitting here and other people even that were participating, each one of them put something, but it pushed it a bit different. If you saw the reaction to it, a lot of people are saying even the humour feels a bit different than the norm, which is something I’m so proud of. You jump in and say something.
JB: I think in everything we do, our cheat to finding the humanity in characters is have them crack a joke in a stressful situation. And so Moon Knight, obviously, in decades of storytelling, has been somewhat defined by that – at least in some of our favourite runs, like the Lemire and Smallwood run. That one feels like it’s like, oh yeah, one page of something brutal; literally half a page later, there’s a punchline, there’s a joke.
AM: And actually, this is just to pay you guys some compliments, but we like to do all this preparation before set; you come with this plan of exactly how something will feel. But then in our kind of war-room rehearsals, or even just on the morning of, someone will come in with an idea and, honestly, it could change the whole tone of a scene right then and there. And I feel like we all did it with confidence – that that was the right move in that moment. And that was actually one of the most exciting things – kind of just making sure to do service to the work that was getting done, to the ideas, to chase the good idea… just make sure we’re capturing the good idea rather than sticking to a plan that was made four months ago that may or may not still apply.
MB: And one of the things that I’m really proud of – again collectively every one of us – is putting all those genres together and blending them in a way that doesn’t feel alien. You have horror, you have action, you have comedy and you have very serious drama. And you never feel like, “Okay, this is not going well.” It all blends in a very good way. A lot of times, Oscar would tell me what’s funny and what’s not because it’s not my language. But when I hit it once and I tell him this is a joke that I created, I literally danced and said, “I’m funny in a different language!”. He remembers that. It happens once every blue moon.
You guys shot on location: you were in Hungary, you were in the desert. Is there a particular memory or a day that stood out? Ethan and May, was there a day that really stuck out for you?
EH: There’s one that jumps to mind: getting to be on the deserts in Jordan and literally being on location where they shot Lawrence of Arabia. And one of the things that surprised me about the Marvel Universe is that it’s kind of fun acting in front of a lot of green screens. I come from theatre training. I enjoyed all that, pretending something was there, pretending you’re on top of a pyramid. But then when you’re really in the desert, it’s so beautiful and you feel – I don’t know – I felt some kind of connection to the cinema history of the desert. And the people there in Jordan treated us so well, and it elevated our collective imagination, I think, and it broadened the scope of the show. So I loved being there.
MC: Yeah, same.
AM: Actually, I have a story from that same thing where we were driving to scout it, so it was like day three of working on this whole project. And we’re blasting through the Jordanian desert, and our driver points out the Dead Sea, and I realised that, in my mind, I’d mythologised the Dead Sea as this place that… it wasn’t that it didn’t exist, it was just that I never thought I’d ever see it. It was like Shangri-La, and it was just this mythical, amazing place. And I actually started tearing up while I was looking at it. I was like, “I’m just from Florida, I never thought I’d ever see the Dead Sea.” Incredible.
JB: I never told you this, but I was standing in the Jordanian desert, and I remembered my parents met at a David Lane film. In a way, I wouldn’t exist if not for the Jordanian desert.
For Oscar and May, how did Oscar playing both Marc and Steven affect your dynamic on set, particularly given how different their relationship with Layla is?
MC: I watched Oscar a lot on this project – I didn’t tell you, but you were a big acting teacher for me throughout… I don’t want to compliment him now, but he really understands it at such a cellular level. And when he would be each character, it was really two separate people, and I could feel the energy. I wouldn’t even have to ask who he was. With Marc, I would find myself more guarded; with Steven, I’d feel more nurturing. And there was no intellect or thought process involved in it – it was just visceral, and it was so fun to work with you and experience that.
Tell me a little bit about designing the look and feel of the suit, because you have two iconic looks for Moon Knight.
GC: Well, I mean, the beautiful thing – it was mentioned – this character has been around since 1975. The artisans and craftsmen and women who have been associated with this project on the page are incredible. But then you bring in these guys and these gals… what this team of artisans and craftsmen and women do, and what we were able to translate to the suit and really take inspiration from a lot of the great pages of 50-plus years – it was really best idea wins. And I think the best idea is what you see on the page, both in the Mr Knight and the Moon Knight costumes.
OI: It was an investigation and a collaboration. I think that was what was so exciting. There was a moment there when – I think, originally, Marc was Mr Knight and Steven was Moon Knight – and we just talked about all these things, and we tried to make it all connect, and so that switched. But Meghan, our costume designer, I mean, she just did such an astounding job taking it from a concept to something that I could wear, and move in and fight in. The craftsmanship was just astonishing.
MD: And even before Oscar came, there was a suit, and we all felt like, “This is the best suit in the world.” And then Oscar came, and he had some comments. And I think, right now, one of the main things that everyone is commenting on is how beautiful the suit right now is, and it’s different. And this reminded me of the power of collaboration; you always think, “Why work with one mind when you can work with 50?”. You know? And it really showed in that suit. Everyone loves how different from all the other Marvel shows it is. It’s beautiful.
The series delves into ancient Egyptian mythology. Did you do any deep dives on the history, or did you stick to the comics?
EH: We had a huge advantage, which is our director is Mohamed Diab, who was an education. I mean, the way Mohamed thinks – I think you can get a taste of it even here right now – the way you think, and talk, the way you edit, the way your brain works musically, it’s a different rhythm than the one I’ve grown up in. And it was wonderful. And the way you brought in other Egyptian actors and the way that you would think about approaching scenes was a unique point of view, and that was more valuable to us as performers than something we could learn in a textbook. And perhaps I probably should have learned more about it, but I felt so safe with Mohamed. I knew that it was incredibly important to him to not just respect it and honour it, but to revere it and to be playful. And he was just our leader in that way, and we felt very safe with him there because of that.
MD: I have to say something. First is I’m very humbled by what you said, but I want to say that Ethan and Oscar, when it came to the signing, Ethan is someone that… everyone sees him as this great, legendary, independent film actor, and joining the superhero world is something big. So when Oscar first approached him and then I talked to him about it, we pitched him the idea, but I told him, “Please don’t read the script.” Not that the script is bad, but when you work with him, you have to get it from him. Like, I think Harrow is his son, in a way, it’s a ping-pong between us all, but definitely his son. So to trust us and sign without – he told me this was the first time in 35 years that he signed something without reading a script. And he did it. Thank you for your trust.
EH: The one thing I wouldn’t want this whole conversation to go by without saying is that, in my whole experience, usually when there’s a huge budget, there’s a tremendous amount of fear. And the people in charge are incredibly controlling, and creativity is reduced. In my entire experience, with you Grant and with Marvel, it’s the opposite of that – you guys have translated your success into confidence and the confidence to… yes, we are going to cook in your kitchen, but if we stay in the kitchen, we can do what we want. And there was a lot of playfulness and a lot of willingness to fail and a lot of willingness to have bad ideas – because you can’t find a great idea if we don’t say some dumb ones and make mistakes. And I sensed it from Oscar from the get-go, there was this huge –
OI: A lot of dumb ideas?
EH: A lot of dumb ideas. No, there was a huge passion to contribute. And when an actor has a strong hit on a character, when they have something they want to contribute and you follow it, good things happen. And we just kind of.. Oscar had a hit on this guy, on DID, on how it could be useful, and combined it with the architecture we had already. And that’s what collaboration is. And you guys were willing to have that happen, and that’s what you guys told me would happen, but sometimes what people tell you and how it is… and that’s why you don’t sign on without reading a script. But I’m really glad I did because I think it’s better because of the way it evolved.
OI: Moral of the story, never read the script.
GC: I want to jump in and just echo what Ethan said because it’s not as tangible as, I think, other aspects of the filmmaking are. But the talent that came around after Mohamed joined brought so much authenticity in the storytelling, it’s immeasurable. Because you look at Hesham, our composer – he came to the table because of this guy; Ahmed, the editor of episodes three and four – because of this guy. That’s one thing I’m excited about for March 30this for people to start reading the credits, because it’s breathtaking when you see the names associated with this project, and a lot of those names came on because of all these people on this stage, but particularly this guy. It’s amazing.
MD: This is too much for me, but thank you. I have to thank Marvel for giving us the chance to play. Remember guys, I think you gave us the chance to develop this show when you gave us the chance to have those table reads. Everyone who’s sitting here added his soul to that project, and I have to say that we hold the record of the least additional photography in the history of Marvel –
EH: Because we rehearsed a lot.
OI: 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. We’d talk about the show and what we wanted to do and –
EH: How it could 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’d be directed by you versus you – it was always part of the same team. The imaginative force behind it was the same.
AM: Yeah, those days were probably the days when the work felt like it was getting done – in terms of building a plan to execute – more than any other single day. They were very exciting.
May, was there something in particular, like a conversation you had about how you wanted to see Layla grow?
EH: You had the hardest job because look at what you’re looking at right now: it’s a very male-driven rehearsal room.
MC: That’s true.
EH: And she had to fight for Layla all the time, and she did. My favourite thing about watching it was watching you ask questions, keep pushing, keep pushing, keep trying to make her a three-dimensional person. And it was challenging because it’s a male-driven story.
MC: Yeah, and I’m relatively new to this whole process and industry, so I’m lucky that you were all fighting for Layla, as well. I just didn’t know that I was going to be able to take the space to collaborate in that way, and then seeing that I had it, I think it took me a second to trust my opinion. I’ve been in this place where I’m like, “I’m just going to do what I’m told.” And then I get to watch you two, and that’s something I really learned from you is you would just throw out so many ideas. And even if one was like, “That doesn’t work”, we would move in a direction based on the one that didn’t work. And, yeah, they all just – they really heard me. I think in the beginning, there were times where I would go to people individually. I’d be like, “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.”
EH: That was a good text, yeah.
MC: But everyone – everyone – was empowering. I guess the main thing with Layla, I didn’t have this idea to pull from of this woman – without giving any spoilers – and it was just really important to me that, as someone who’s grown up in the Middle East, that I take… the more I ended up taking from myself, the better, the easier it became, because I wanted to find a story that would work with someone who had 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 to take that space, I feel like it was happening in a more fluid way.
For everyone, what do you hope audiences take away from Moon Knight when they finally get to meet Marc and Steven?
MD: I wanna tell you, the way I identify with the character is the idea… at the end what we learned… I would call myself ignorant about DID because all the information we know is from the movies – it’s a bit shallow – I’m gonna call myself that – but what I learned through the journey of doing the show is that the character needs to live with themselves, the identities. And I felt that I identified with that by the way each of us – the persona is the mask that we’re putting on. I’m right now putting on a mask to hide my desires, to hide everything, the other real character in me. And I think what I’m learning, what I learned from Marc and Steven, is I need to be the same. I need to be one person. And I think this is the struggle that all of us through the journey of living are trying to achieve.
OI: Integration, yeah.
EH: Yeah, well said.
OI: Yeah, very well said. And I think that is the thrust of it, you know? That 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.
Moon Knight is released on Disney Plus on 30thMarch 2022.
Watch the trailer for Moon Knight here:Related ItemsEthan Hawkefranchisegaspard ullielinterviewmarvelmini seriesoscar isaacsuperheroes