From Marvel Studios, exclusively for Disney+, comes the all-new, original, live-action series Moon Knight, starring Oscar Isaac, Ethan Hawke, and May Calamawy. Moon Knight is due to premiere exclusively on Disney+ on March 30th, with weekly episodic releases.
The story follows Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), a mild-mannered man who lives a mundane life, plagued by blackouts and mysterious memories of a life somehow separate from his own. After one fateful encounter, Steven discovers that he has Dissociative Identity Disorder and shares a body with Marc Spector—a former mercenary and the ruthless avatar of Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon and vengeance. With their enemies converging upon them, Steven must learn how to adapt to this revelation and work with Marc. With other godly motives at play, the two must navigate their complex identities amid a deadly battle played out among the powerful gods of Egypt.
In August 2019 at the D23 conference, Marvel Studios announced that a Disney+ series based on Moon Knight was being developed. In preparation for the series’ release this March, the studio assembled the cast and filmmakers for a press conference, streamed live to reporters across the world. On hand to take questions were actors Oscar Isaac (Steven Grant), Ethan Hawke (Arthur Harrow), and May Calamawy (Layla El-Faouly). Executive producer Grant Curtis, joined by executive producer and director Mohamed Diab, were both in attendance, alongside directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
During the 40-minute press conference, topics ranging from performance methods to costume design were discussed, with the reporters in attendance hoping their questions would be selected following the brilliant reception to the first four episodes which were released to press all around the world.
The project really took form when Mohamed Diab was brought on board as executive producer and director. Despite Diab receiving offers for high-budget movies in the past, one aspect that attracted him to helming Moon Knight was the Egyptology that was so integral to the series’ concept: “The other aspect that really attracted me was the Egyptian part of it”, the director says. “The present and the past, the Egyptology of it.”
The importance of faithful Egyptian mythology in this series was reiterated by executive producer and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, who stated in the production brief:
“We have fascination and reverence for Egyptian history… it was very exciting to take Moon Knight’s origin story, which is grounded in Egyptology, and infuse it with globetrotting adventure, intensity, and mystery.”
Diab, the first Arab director to release a Marvel project, also saw this series as a tool to correct many of the past portrayals of Egypt in filmography that he feels are not representative of his, and many others, own experiences as Egyptians: “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 dehumanized…”, he says. “Imagine Paris and you’re seeing Big Ben in the background. That’s how we see our country”.
A part of Diab’s proposal to rectify this was the hiring of Production Designer Stefania Cella, who designed sets to not only be accurate to the spirit of Egypt but also convey the series’ themes of duality and identity, a feat most apparent in the Burial Chamber set.
With much of the production taking place in Budapest, Hungary, many large-scale practical sets had to be built on soundstages. Even the museum scenes required an entirely original Egypt exhibit, an undertaking that took the art department several months to complete.
Khonshu’s on-set performance actor Karim El-Hakim corroborates the realism of the production design, joking that the team “brought Egypt to Budapest, down to the license plates, even the t-shirts – everything in Arabic”, the actor states. “It brought me back to being in Cairo. It was like a flashback; it was so realistic – the smells, the smoke, the cars, the tuk-tuks, even down to the food and the types of fruit that were on sale in our marketplace. It was really impressive”.
May Calamawy also recalled the attention to detail Diab wished to replicate on-screen: “One of the main things he wanted was for people to watch and to not be able to tell at all…”, she says. “That was very important to him. It’s down to the newspaper clippings that have been torn on the floor; that’s the precision that we’re talking about”.
Mohamed Diab spoke to his keenness to shoot practically and on location: “I’m all for reality”, he says. “I’m all for minimizing the green screen as much as possible, especially with a story that could be in the mind of someone”. As a testament to the effect of Diab’s methodology, it came as a surprise to a sample of the London-based reporters (who viewed the first four episodes) that the street scenes in London were recreated in a Budapest market street, which was altered to replicate a real-life Brixton street.
When discussing the signing of Ethan Hawke as the series’ central villain, Diab spoke to the unorthodox means of developing the character of Arthur Harrow, revealing he implored Hawke not to read the script before signing:
“When it came to the signing, Ethan is someone that is – 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 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 I signed something without reading a script. And he did it.”
As revealed in an interview by On Demand Entertainment during the Moon Knight UK Special Screening, Hawke actually rejected Marvel roles in the past, a fact which has only heightened fans’ expectations that after fourteen years, Arthur Harrow, the role Hawke finally accepted, must be incredibly special. Having followed up Diab’s comments regarding signing on blind, it appears the collaborative freedom between the actor, writer, and director to sculpt the story and character is what enticed Hawke to join the project:
“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 that’s what collaboration 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.”
Hawke followed up to reassure prospective viewers he chose correctly, speaking about his experiences on set, and praising every department involved with the project: “As somebody who’s never worked on a Marvel film or series and hasn’t even worked inside this genre in any way, I’ve had the best production design of my life, the best costumes, the best craftspeople”, says the actor. “The cinematographers are incredible. I’m working with Oscar every day, and we have time to do it right. We have time to rehearse. We are trying to make five to six hours of really quality entertainment and that’s a heavy lift, but we have the tools that we need to do it.”
A promising, compelling rendition of the hero-villain dynamic was expressed by the actor, speaking to past stories basing the villain’s conduct on mental illness, and how Moon Knight reverses this relationship, giving viewers something they haven’t seen before:
“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? … It’s especially interesting to take your hero and present him with a real source of pain in mental illness. It’s not a joke. He’s a guy who’s really struggling, and it’s very interesting to have a protagonist who’s in a tremendous amount of pain and who is not a classic hero…”
In order to maintain an authentic and sensitive approach to the series’ exploration of mental health themes, the production sought consultation from Dr. Paul Puri, a board-certified psychiatrist, who is an Assistant Clinical Professor at UCLA and past president of the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty Association. Particularly, this focused on dissociative identity disorder, helping the filmmakers and cast understand the disorder and its implications. This expertise allowed Diab to, from a director’s perspective, convey mental health themes visually:
“What got me excited about this opportunity is that this is a superhero that we haven’t seen before, someone who’s struggling with himself,” says Diab. “His inner conflict is actually visual. You can see his internal struggle. It’s a great room for character development.”
As we learn in the synopsis and throughout the show, Steven Grant’s dissociative identity disorder mentally divides him from his Marc Spector persona, resulting in a pair of characters with polar opposite natures, necessitating two vastly different performances from Isaac. When questioned on how he achieved such a feat, Isaac shared his approach; Isaac’s brother (Michael Hernandez) would play opposite him, accent, and all, to give Isaac something to play off of. Having to perform each scene numerous times, switch around, and give two separate performances, became taxing for Isaac:
“I really wanted to do a character study, a point of view experience, so you’re not sitting back and just watching the story unfold; you are within the eyes of Steven and experiencing this thing that’s happening to him. And it’s quite terrifying.”
As exciting news to the audience, directors Benson and Moorhead maintained only the highest possible praise for the cast: “The most fulfilling aspect of making ‘Moon Knight’ for us was working with Oscar Isaac, May Calamawy, and Ethan Hawke”, the pair assert. “To witness Oscar’s perfectionism firsthand was an honor, to see May bring so much heart and humanity to this story was inspiring, and to learn from the wisdom, work ethic and performance mastery of Ethan Hawke every day was an experience we’d only ever dreamed of.”