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 CNS Story:

NATIVITY-ISAAC Nov-16-2006 (850 words) With photo posted Nov. 15. xxxn

Actor who is Joseph in 'Nativity' film may not stay unknown for long

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Not too many people are likely to recognize Oscar Isaac, the actor who plays Joseph in the new movie "The Nativity Story." Apart from a couple of TV guest roles and a minor part in a four-year-old movie, he hasn't been seen on either the big or the small screen.

That could change after the Dec. 1 U.S. release date of "The Nativity Story."

Mary is portrayed by Keisha Castle-Hughes, who at age 12 was the youngest person to receive an Oscar nomination for best actress for her role in "Whale Rider," and Elizabeth is portrayed by Shohreh Aghdashloo, likewise Oscar-nominated for her role in "House of Sand and Fog." But aside from them the rest of the cast is virtually unknown.

"I think it was a smart move to not have people who are very recognizable in the film -- which was helpful for me," Isaac said with a laugh.

Isaac agrees with the notion that a certain kind of interior uplift takes place within an actor when working on a spiritually oriented project.

"The first play I was ever in was 'Godspell,'" said the Guatemalan-born Isaac, referring to a musical derived from the Gospel According to Matthew.

"It's important to make a film, whether it's a football movie, or a hockey movie, or one about the army, or one on race car drivers. I try to immerse myself completely in it," he told Catholic News Service during an interview in Washington. He hopes the audience connects with his character from "the opening note" of the film.

Isaac spent two months filming "The Nativity Story" in Italy and Morocco, and one month before that he was in what he called "Bible camp," learning how to work and carry himself as a Judean during the time of Augustus Caesar.

"Keisha had one (consultant) who taught her how to milk goats. I had one who taught me how to use first-century tools," Isaac said. "I was actually building that stone house in the film. So when you saw all those cuts and scrapes and bruises on my hands, that wasn't acting."

What Isaac called "the normal challenges," heat and weather, "didn't bug me," he told CNS. "The other challenge -- figuring out how to make the people real -- it certainly is difficult when you're playing these icons. They were flesh and blood."

The New Testament accounts of the Nativity say little about Mary and less about Joseph, posing a considerable obstacle for two actors who expected to carry the bulk of a 93-minute theatrical film. "But I'll tell you, anything I did must have been easier than Keisha having to ride a donkey for eight hours a day. But she's a great actor. She bore it well," Isaac said.

One unusual aspect about "The Nativity Story" was that it was given the go-ahead for production Dec. 1, 2005 -- exactly one year prior to its nationwide premiere. "That's the part that feels compressed," Isaac said, noting he had completed another film role before "The Nativity Story" and is still waiting for that movie, called "The Half Life of Timofey Berezin," to reach theaters.

Having just a year between filming and the "Nativity" release "keeps the memory of having completed the film that much closer to me," he said.

The "Nativity" film set was "a mini-United Nations," Isaac said. Castle-Hughes is from New Zealand, Aghdashloo hails from Iran, and of course Isaac was born in Guatemala though raised in the United States. Ciaran Hinds, who plays King Herod, was born in Northern Ireland.

"I remember being on the set, bedeviling him with all these questions" about how to portray a scene, Isaac said, "and he answered them all. ... The kindest people wind up being the best villains."

In real life, Isaac doesn't look much like the Joseph depicted in most artistic renderings. His hair is shorter, as is his facial hair -- although he could have grown a beard for the role had he been asked.

"I have very virile facial hair. I shaved this morning -- really," he said, pointing to a nascent five o'clock shadow minutes before noontime. "I played a young Fidel Castro (in a play) and I grew a full beard," he said, holding one hand several inches below his chin. A friend of Isaac's watching the play reported later that at the intermission he overheard a woman say of Isaac, "He's great, but the beard's so fake!"

"That was awful to hear! I spent five months growing that beard down to here," Isaac lamented.

"The Nativity Story" was classified A-I -- general patronage -- by the USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting.

"The film's hopeful message should resonate beyond Christian audiences to a world still groaning for peace and good will," said staff critic David DiCerto, who noted that Isaac "soulfully essays Joseph with an empathetic decency, as he quietly shoulders his appointed responsibility, while troubled by an abiding sense of inadequacy."


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