Oscar Isaac (“Dune,” “Moon Knight”) and Jared Leto (“House of Gucci,” “Morbius”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here.
In “House of Gucci,” Jared Leto vanishes into a larger-than-life performance as fashion world ne’er-do-well Paolo Gucci. By contrast, Oscar Isaac’s turns in Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter” (as William Tell, a poker player with a dark past in the Iraq War) and Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” (as Duke Leto, the head of a powerful interstellar dynasty) are tightly contained.
But the two actors still find many similarities to discuss, including their future as Marvel superheroes — Leto’s Morbius and Isaac’s Moon Knight — and their alternate careers as musicians starting in the 1990s. Isaac fronted the ska-punk band the Blinking Underdogs, which he left in 2001 to study acting at Juilliard, and Leto is the lead vocalist and songwriter for Thirty Seconds to Mars, which still tours.
OSCAR ISAAC: We have a lot of synchronicity with a lot of things. Some of our work that’s coming out, love of music and a real respect for the transformational part of performance.
JARED LETO: We both make music, and we both opened for Green Day.
ISAAC: Did you open for Green Day? That’s amazing!
LETO: It was a festival in Italy. This storm came outta nowhere and they shut the show down during our last song, and then Green Day actually never played. So technically, I don’t know if I did open for Green Day, but we were on the same bill.
ISAAC: We’re even more of a technicality. We played at the same festival, not even on the same stage. But we played beforehand. Still counts.
LETO: You were making music still with that particular band at the same time I was touring around, probably a lot of the same areas. We were signed in ’98, but our first breakthrough song was in 2006. So we had a lot of touring.
ISAAC: See, I went to drama school in 2001, so that’s when it really slowed down. And we were all based in Florida and never came near the amount of touring and success that you guys had. But that was the dream at first, you know, and that was really the first place that I really started performing for people and expressing, was musically on stage.
LETO: I remember when we played a show, and maybe there were 10 people there. And I was just so blown away that someone bought a T-shirt, like one shirt. I couldn’t believe that someone wasn’t embarrassed to wear our shirt. They actually spent their money to buy a fucking T-shirt because they liked the band and the music.
ISAAC: It’s like the first time you look out and there’s people that are singing along. You’re like, “They know this song? That’s crazy.” That’s an amazing feeling.
LETO: Our first album, it kind of got a cult following, it sold about 100,000 copies, but no one ever sang any of the songs. They were quite strange. I remember we opened for Incubus, and these are arenas full of people singing every word of every song. And I just thought, “Oh, we’re just not that kind of a band. That’s never going to happen to us.” But I was so wrong, and it is a beautiful thing when you do just look out and you’re like, “Wait, is that person … What’s going on there?” I guess they care enough and they’ve listened to the music enough and it’s connected in a deep enough way. I always thought that was a really pivotal part of the process. We make music, we make films, you create a character, you write songs, and then you give it away, and then people spend time with it and they make this connection to it.
ISAAC: How did you balance your acting aspirations with the music in those early days, like in ’98, ’99?
LETO: I really sacrificed the acting, to be honest. I guess the music was the primary focus, and I share the band with my brother. So it runs really deep, it’s a family project.
I was reading about your early days and that you went to an actual acting school. I remember when I was in art school I was studying to be a painter. I was still making music, but I would go visit the acting side of the school and I’d just be in awe of the actors and how brave they were to get up on that stage. It just blew my mind to see you guys do that. What was that like in the beginning for you? First you were on stage as a musician, and then an actor?
ISAAC: It’s funny, because when I was at acting school, I would go and look at the opera singers and the dancers and just be marveling at the theoretical knowledge that they have. I play everything by ear. I don’t know ever what I’m playing, but to see these people with their just vast amount of knowledge musically, they’re just savants. Juilliard primarily started as a music school. So to see that, I was astounded.
But yeah, I guess fifth and sixth grade I really got into plays, and it was also a really turbulent time at home with my parents divorcing, and so it just suddenly seemed like a real place of expression.
LETO: How did you get into a play? Was there a teacher at school?
ISAAC: Yeah, the assignment was to write a paragraph short story as an animal on Noah’s ark, and I wrote a musical that was like 20 pages. My teacher, Mrs. Stuckey, I still remember her, she was like, “We’re going to make this into a play and you’re going to be the main character, the platypus.” It was a weird Christian school where the plays that we would do were you just get up and lip sync to a preexisting track that would be a Christian story song about the devil and Jesus battling and having a boxing match in hell. [The next year,] I played the devil and I scared the teacher. And then girls started being interested in me, and I’m like, “This is amazing. I’ve found my calling.”
LETO: As soon as you played the devil, the girls came running.
ISAAC: I mean, that’s when it happened. Once I got into high school, I did a little bit of drama stuff in the beginning, but then I quickly moved over to music and I found this little crew, and we just started playing all the time. My dad, he’s played music his whole life and recorded music and made movies, just home movies with us. And so I really got the bug from him.
Do you approach any of your roles or breaking down a script or a character musically?
LETO: In the case of Paolo and “House of Gucci,” the voice was very musical. That lilting, melodious voice had a really wide range and specific register. Working as a singer for so many years, that’s taught me to be mindful about that.
ISAAC: What strikes me a lot about your work is your commitment to the transformational aspects of it. How did you find that way of working, that kind of commitment?
LETO: I’ve always loved immersive work. I’ve always admired that in actors. You know what it is, Oscar? I like to see people die for it. I really do. I like to see people bleed for it a bit. Whether you’re a painter or a singer or whatever it is, I love commitment, in athletes, in outdoor adventure, mountaineering. I think that kind of acting, for me, it’s big wall climbing. It’s the Himalayas, so to speak.
ISAAC: Is that why you gravitated towards Paolo?
LETO: Yeah, I think so. When I read the script, I just fell in love with the character. I didn’t know what he looked like and I didn’t really care. That wasn’t important to me, at that time. I just was struck by his heart and his humor. He had an impish quality about him. He had this spirit that I really related to, this desire to make something special and to share that with the world. And, of course, we all know a lot about failure, as well.
ISAAC: It’s such a heartbreaking scene, the one with Jeremy Irons, when [Paolo] comes in and shows all of his drawings and his designs, and there’s so much joy and excitement, and just the heartbreak that happens [when Irons’ character trashes the work]. It really feels like it’s a character that’s just trying to climb a greased pole the whole time.
LETO: That’s a good way to put it. That really is exactly what his life was like. The people closest to him were the very same people who never heard him, never supported him. It’s his family. That scene was my first scene. Jeremy Irons is just a legend. I was literally and figuratively shitting my pants. I could imagine what kind of diaper Paolo would wear. It was risky. I was just barfing Paolo up onto the set that day and everyone was seeing this for the first time. It was exciting and it was horrifying. But I remember seeing the drawings that I laid out, and I said, “Wow, they’re actually pretty good. There’s no reason that he should be shamed like this,” and then Ridley [Scott] comes up and says, “I’d like you to pull your pecker out and piss all over this scarf.” He had given me this wonderful gift, and it was the freedom to fail, absolutely. I love that. I want to be at that breaking point where I question my own abilities, where I’m on that tightrope. I love it as a singer and I love it as an actor.
What about you? Is that important to you when you’re working?
ISAAC: I’ve always been drawn to experiences that are way outside of my own. Those tend to be the characters that I get excited about. As I’ve done more work, what’s exciting is finding something that seems so far away and finding it, somehow, through my imaginative experience, I bridge that vast gap and suddenly feel like I’m living a life, even for just a few months of an experience that was completely unknown to me, but suddenly now exists. That’s a really magical thing that happens.
Sometimes, it can just be the voice being placed in a different place, and that difference creates a whole chain reaction of differences — the way you move and hold your chin and your shoulders. In the Schrader film, [it was] learning a new way of penmanship. I didn’t really know how to write in cursive, but I felt the character would write in cursive because it’s about control.
LETO: Did you read that script and say, “Oh, I have to play this part?” What was the thing about it that really attracted you to the role?
ISAAC: Paul Schrader. I think that’s what it was. One of the first auditions I ever had was for Paul Schrader, when I’d gotten out of drama school. It was in a little strip mall in the Valley somewhere, in a little black-box theater. It was for a movie called “The Jesuit” that never ended up happening, but I had gotten the part. And we kind of stayed in touch. When I saw “First Reformed,” I just wrote to him to tell him how amazing I thought it was and just what a beautiful film. And then, a year later, he sent me an email saying, “I wrote a script for you. Well, not for you, but you’re the first person I’m going to. Would you take a look?”
I didn’t totally understand it the first time I read it. He writes almost in a Harold Pinter kind of way. There’s so much space in-between the lines. He writes a lot of unconscious flow. But I knew I needed to do it and I wanted to do it. It had been a while since I had done something that was so point-of-view character study. I was a tiny, little movie, three million bucks, basically, in Biloxi for 20 days. I met with cardistry experts, just so it could look like I knew my way around a deck, and did a lot of research on trauma, and then went to my drama school with one of my old teachers, Moni Yakim, who’s been there since the beginning of Juilliard. We just worked with neutral masks and movement and rhythm.
LETO: What’s a neutral mask?
ISAAC: Basically, it’s just a blank mask that has no expression on it. It felt like this is this guy that wears a mask and, especially when playing poker, someone that doesn’t want to be seen. It was that kind of stuff — like you said, a full immersive experience.
LETO: And as far as the PTSD part of it all, tell me what you learned and what that was like to be in that place?
ISAAC: One of the books that Paul mentioned was “The Body Keeps the Score.” I don’t know if you’ve read that.
LETO: Oh yeah, I’ve read it.
ISAAC: It’s seminal writing on post traumatic stress disorder. That was a big point of reference for us. It’s about someone that has trauma because of the pain he inflicted on others. Then the national trauma— that’s what Paul’s amazing at, grafting a personal story onto a bigger one. “First Reformed,” it was this man who was dying of a disease on top of the world that’s dying of this environmental disease. And in ours, it was a person’s personal guilt grafted onto a nation’s guilt for what they’ve caused to others.
LETO: I feel like Paul Schrader in your film continues the tradition of the art movie. When I was young and even going to film school, I would just go to the art house theater. That was my teacher. I’m so glad that people are still making some of those films. Where are we going in the future with that? Where is that ecosystem of that culture of filmmaking?
ISAAC: You’re right, that was another feeling being on set with him. It felt subversive and punk rock. He purposefully does things to frustrate the audience at times. He’s like, “I know what you want here, and I’m not going to give it to you.” That’s a necessary part of this story and this style of storytelling, but it’s getting harder and harder these days. Luckily, I do think there is a lot of risk being taken in the streaming world. And something to talk about, too: we both jumped into the world of the Marvel hero. We both got these guys coming out that we did, both starting with the letter M!
LETO: Moon Knight and Morbius. Both interesting because [they’re] titles a lot of people are going to be introduced to for the first time, right?
ISAAC: I’d never heard of “Moon Knight” before, and I collected comics when I was younger. I’d heard of “Morbius,” but I’d never heard of “Moon Knight.” I don’t know how the process was for you because it’s a feature film, we’re a limited series. There was a lot of room to try stuff because there wasn’t the pressure that we got to make sure we make however many hundreds of millions of dollars on the opening weekend. So we could make it very point-of-view. We could make very weird decisions. At the moment, at least — and I don’t imagine it’s going to go backwards — it feels like that’s where more of the risk is being taken because it can financially.
LETO: I agree completely. It seems like there’s a lot of talent going in that area. It’s a beautiful thing that people are still interested in living with characters over a long period of time in this fragmented world where everyone’s just swiping on TikTok. I happen to have “House of Gucci” and “Morbius” both exclusively in theaters. So, we’re kind of like raising the flag and marching forward even the midst of COVID and everything.
ISAAC: “House of Gucci” did quite well for an adult drama.
LETO: Yeah. I think it was a film a lot of people went back to the theaters for the first time [to see]. I love cinema, I love theater, but I also love the idea that creative people can be flexible and not penalized for doing different kinds of work. You remember a time back in the day, if you did a series, it was either at the beginning or the end of your career. I like that there’s the flexibility there.
ISAAC: I still have that a little bit. It’s been very hard to let that go, that idea. And the truth is, my love is the cinema. I think there’s something incredible about the craftsmanship it takes to distill a story to a couple hours, give or take, with the beginning, middle, and end. That’s hard to beat for me.
LETO: Actually, “Dune” was the first movie that I went to the theater to see since before COVID.
ISAAC: Oh, wow.
LETO: It’s my first and only time back to the theater. I went by myself in New York. I snuck out and went by myself to the theater, and it was a beautiful experience and a beautiful performance as well. And you guys say, “Duke Lee-to”?
ISAAC: Duke Leto. Yeah…
LETO: Because it’s my fucking name.
ISAAC: I know, man!
LETO: It’s funny. I’m a super fan of “Dune,” both the book and the first movie. I thought it was genius.
ISAAC: And I saw the [SyFy] series too. When I got cast, I wrote to William Hurt because he played Duke Leto. And I just got his vibe on it. I met him on the Ridley Scott film, the “Robin Hood” movie.
LETO: Yeah, Denis. Of course, a gifted madman and “Blade Runner ” was really a special one. I’m having these opportunities. I think it’s just confirmation that we’re living in a simulation because “Blade Runner,” one of my favorite movies of all time, watched it 700 times at least. And then I end up in the sequel, very strange.
And then there are these things that just come into play. Certain actors like Al Pacino was a person that taught me what was really possible. Taught me about choices. Taught about range. And with Paolo Gucci, I really felt like it was the opportunity of a lifetime. For me, Paolo was like, “This is the last role I’m ever going to play and I’m done.” I was just in love with the role, the experience, the challenge, the panic, the fear and just buried in all of it. It’s not like that every time.
LETO: Having these moments and having Al there. I just remembered one day, he unleashed and he gave it to me. He brought something out of me in that moment. Jeremy did too. Jeremy has a way of putting angles on words, and syllables, and consonants — and throwing them at you like daggers, and they’ll hit you in the gut, and the heart, and the brain. There’s something about working with these older people, Oscar. There’s all these clichés about experience is overrated. But I have to say, wisdom is a beautiful thing, and it’s intoxicating to be around it.
LETO: What’s the part that you’re dying to play?
ISAAC: There isn’t a role that I’m dying to go out and do. I generally get really excited about the possibility of working with people, like to work with Pacino, I would love that so much. I remember he came to “Hamlet.” I had invited him. And the way we did it was very much like, I look everybody [in the audience] in the eye and I talk to them, almost more like standup, even. I see him up there and I couldn’t resist: The moment when Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, I say [to Pacino], “My father, me thinks I see my father!” After intermission, I come back, and he’s moved three rows behind, and is wearing sunglasses. Probably made him so uncomfortable. But then he was so sweet and afterwards. We went out and talked, and he even gave me some thoughts about stuff.
So you know what? There are some plays I’d like to do. I’d like to do “The Caretaker” by Harold Pinter. I’d like to do Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale.”
LETO: And why theater? What do you get out of theater?
ISAAC: It’s the writing. I read those plays and there’s just something visceral that happens to me when I read them, particularly the Shakespeare plays. It collapses time when I read something, and it feels so immediate, and so true, and it’s so old. It just feels like you’re communing with something that’s outside of time and it’s like a magical, chilling feeling. Do you have any interest in theater?
ISAAC: No. Even though you… How come? Because you do stage work, but with your music, and you’re an incredible actor.
LETO: My life is a theater, my friend. We tour relentlessly. I’m on stages all over the world. So I couldn’t imagine getting done with a global tour and saying, “Oh, let’s get on a stage over here.” I think it’s just not a need. I kind of have that itch scratched well and grateful for it.
LETO: My first love was film. I didn’t go to many plays. I’ve maybe been to five plays in my life and I haven’t read many plays, so it’s just something I’m not familiar with. Maybe if I educated myself more, I’d be fascinated by it. But I grew up on those films like “Blade Runner,” “Apocalypse Now,” or “Taxi Driver,” those kind of films that changed how we saw the world. That’s always been my first love. I don’t know how you do it. I mean, it seems like such an incredible commitment for that long a time. Aren’t you just in the middle of that saying like, “Just take me out the back and put me out of my misery?”
ISAAC: A little bit. But that’s like the Mount Everest climb, you know? That’s definitely what “Hamlet” was. It felt like out in the wilderness for a very, very long time, you know?
LETO: Yeah. I have a deep respect for that, and it seems like something very daunting, but maybe I need to come see you in a play and then I’ll be getting motivated to do it. But I don’t think anyone’s missing out on me not being in a play.
ISAAC: I don’t know, man. I feel like you’d have a lot to offer.