Joseph is barely a supporting player in most people's version of the nativity. He's often "the creepy-looking guy in the back behind the sheep," according to actor Oscar Isaac. But that's not the case in the upcoming "The Nativity Story" (Dec. 1), which stars Isaac as Mary's betrothed and Jesus' earthly father.
Oscar Isaac portrays Joseph in "The Nativity Story," which opens Dec. 1. (New Line)
In a real way, this anticipated film from New Line—which merges biblical accounts with some speculation about Mary and Joseph's emotional journey—is largely Joseph's story. Though Oscar nominees Keisha Castle-Hughes and Shohreh Aghdashloo perform beautifully as Mary and Elizabeth respectively, relative unknown Isaac gives the film its emotional conflict and moral gravity.
"I tried to attack Joseph as any other character," Isaac recently told a group of religion journalists covering the movie in Los Angeles. "How do you make him three-dimensional? How do you make him a real person? I think that's how you service the story, and I think that's how you service him as a real person that lived."
Of course, the 2005 Juilliard graduate said the character of Joseph did present certain challenges.
"How do I play, 'I'm going to have the son of God'?" said Isaac.
Christian Scriptures don't provide many character notes about Joseph. About the only description comes from Matthew 1:19, where various translations describe Joseph as righteous, good, upright or just.
"The Bible describes him as righteous, and that's it," said Isaac. "So as an actor, it's like, 'Play righteous.' Are you just going to stand up straighter? What does that mean as an actor? And so I had to figure that out."
"For me, righteous meant love," said Isaac, adding that Joseph expressed his righteousness through his total love for Mary. When Mary turns up pregnant, Joseph has several options.
"He doesn't stone her, he doesn't humiliate her publicly, because he's righteous," said Isaac. "And when I did the scenes, the thing I felt the most—even though I had the anger and the rage and the fear and the doubt—I just loved her so much, that suddenly I realize that righteousness just means selfless, humble love."
Isaac, born in Guatemala and raised in Miami, got a head start on Joseph by attending a month-long "Nazareth Boot Camp" for the actors. He left his New York digs to work with first-century tools and be immersed in the customs of the day. Isaac even went so far as to make the staff he carries in the film.
Asked if he kept the staff, Isaac joked, "I take it with me on the subway."
Isaac's sense of humor translates on screen as well. Though the wise men are cast in "The Nativity Story" as a sort of comic relief, it's Joseph who delivers the movie's funniest line as Mary and Joseph leave Nazareth for Bethlehem—a moment that further proves Isaac's range as an actor.
The line came from director Catherine Hardwicke, who earned the job after impressing producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen, both Christians, with her "subjective" approach to telling the nativity story.
"We met with a lot of people who came in and said, 'What a great story. And we know the story,'" producer Godfrey told reporters. "And they took the objective approach to the story in a weird way—the event approach rather than the subjective approach."
"We've seen this story and heard sermons about this story," said Godfrey, a 1990 Princeton graduate from East Tennessee. "But we haven't seen a movie experience—at least not in our recent times—where you feel like you get to know these people as people and not as icons."
Hardwicke's ideas spelled good news for audiences' experience of Joseph.
"I wanted to see that moment when Joseph saw Mary pregnant" for the first time, Hardwicke told reporters. "That wasn't in the script at first. I thought that would be a powerful moment. She returns home after visiting Elizabeth, and that's the first her family knows about the pregnancy."
"And I wanted to see him [Joseph] with friends and a sense of community and realize that it mattered to him, too; that he had high stakes, too; that he would be judged also," said Hardwicke.
Screenwriter Mike Rich ("The Rookie," "Radio," "Finding Forrester") said Joseph "was one of the most exciting characters to me."
"The character of Joseph for me, on the page, evolved more than any character in the film," Rich told reporters. Rich, a devout Christian, is the one who came up with the idea for telling the nativity story on film.
While little is known about Joseph, "Matthew and Luke leave these wonderful little hints for us," said Rich, noting Joseph's record of always making the right and courageous decision. He cited Joseph's acceptance of Mary, as well as his 100-mile foot journey—with pregnant wife—to Bethlehem.
Rich said only a righteous, humble man would make the decisions Joseph makes.
"There are so many little moments that define him throughout the story," said Isaac. "He's forced to make a decision, and he makes the right one."
Isaac said Joseph's "whole being is one of humility," adding that humility was also one of Christ's major teachings. Isaac speculated that Jesus had that trait modeled for him by his earthly father.
"The power of humility never really hit me before," said Isaac. Then, remembering the baby Jesus in a manger, he continued. "This is the greatest act of humility—to an ostracized and oppressed people. This is how God decides to come to earth. I think that's a really powerful message."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie's official Web site is here.