Oscar Isaac has just flown in from New York, where the Scenes From a Marriage and Moon Knight star was enjoying some much-deserved time off, and Succession’s Brian Cox will soon head to Miami for a documentary shoot. Loki’s Tom Hiddleston is about to go back into production, and The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’s Samuel L. Jackson has just wrapped a film shoot. But for a few hours on a Sunday in late May, six of Hollywood’s leading men — an esteemed group that also included Dopesick’s Michael Keaton and Winning Time breakout Quincy Isaiah — convened in Los Angeles for The Hollywood Reporter’s Drama Actor Emmy Roundtable. The conversation whipped from deeply funny to deadly serious, as the sextet doled out a mix of stories and advice.
Let’s start easy: When a fan comes up to you on the street, what do they typically recognize you from, and what do they usually say?
OSCAR ISAAC On the plane here, I felt a little letter fall on my seat and then someone walked away. I looked at it and it was in this blue highlighter with the little moon on it for the Moon Knight show that I’d just done. It was like, “My mother would’ve disowned me if I didn’t say something, as a person of color, about how much it means to me that you’re out there doing these things.” It was really sweet.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON You were on a regular plane with other people?
ISAAC Oh, yeah. I mean (nods to Jackson), one day … (Laughter.)
MICHAEL KEATON What a nice thing for somebody to lay that on you. Have you ever done that? If I see somebody I like, other actors, I’ll slide them [a note]. I’ll know a thing someone did and I’ll say, “Killed me. Unbelievable,” and then I’ll just [vanish]. I don’t want to be around when they read it. I’ve done it a few times because people have done it [to me], and you feel so grateful. Also, I think you tell people, man. If you see somebody do something great, just tell them.
Who have you done that to?
(Jackson lifts up his hand, points to himself and smiles.)
KEATON I think Maggie Gyllenhaal was the last one.
ISAAC But it is nice, just to give something and not be asking for anything.
KEATON Right. A woman came up to me the other day and she was so cool about Dopesick. She was on her way out and she just stopped and said, “Thanks for doing that.” Boom. End of it.
TOM HIDDLESTON Well, I’ll say this, Quincy and Oscar, I don’t know how you guys feel, but sitting with you three gents (to Keaton, Jackson and Cox), I grew up watching you, so it’s an honor to be at the same table.
BRIAN COX I grew up watching Sam.
JACKSON It’s easy to do. I do way too much.
KEATON And I haven’t grown up yet.
COX My thing [since Succession began] is people ask me to tell them to fuck off all the time.
Does that get awkward?
COX Well, it’s not the easiest thing to say to people. I mean, it started when I was playing L.B.J. in one of those theaters in New York. I came out one night and there was this young couple, very sweet, about 17, and they had a video and they said, “Could you tell us to fuck off, please?” I mean, it’s unbelievable. But the worst was here in L.A. when I went to a meeting for Ronan Farrow, a #MeToo thing. He was launching the book and all these Hollywood women were there and it was very intense. And I was standing at the back and then [the women] all turned around and saw me and they [pointed a] camera and said, “Can you tell us to fuck off?” I was like, “This is a #MeToo meeting, is this really proper to be asking me to tell you to fuck off? And does that mean that I get canceled?” (Laughter.)
What do you get, Sam?
JACKSON These days, “What’s in your wallet?”
And how do you respond?
JACKSON “My wife’s hand.”
KEATON What does that mean?
JACKSON My wife’s hand is in my wallet. (Laughter.)
I assumed you’d be asked to deliver a profanity too.
JACKSON People ask me to call them motherfucker all the time. Or they’ll ask me to put it on their answering machine. They’ll literally say, “Would you do my answering machine? ‘This motherfucker’s not home right now. And the motherfucker will call you back.’ ” (Laughter.)
COX You know, you can charge them.
JACKSON I don’t want to gouge the public. I charge them enough to come to my movies.
KEATON You could say, “That’s $50, motherfucker.”
JACKSON Yeah, exactly, they’d be like, “Huh?” But the people who want to make videos [with me, I tell them], “I’ll take a photo with you, but I get paid to make movies. So, we’re not making videos.”
Quincy, Winning Time is your very first project. I’ve heard you say that before production began on the series, you went to therapy to “get your head straight” and brace for what was about to happen. What did that entail?
QUINCY ISAIAH Yeah, I knew being on HBO with Adam McKay and playing Magic [Johnson], a lot of eyeballs were going to be on me, so it was like, “OK, get everything out now and then come back and just be smart about the way you’re going to move through the world.”
KEATON That’s very smart.
ISAIAH Yeah, and just understand that people are going to be coming up to you. How is that going to make you feel? Are you going to be comfortable with that?
JACKSON You went to therapy for that?
ISAIAH Yeah, man.
ISAAC That’s very mindful.
JACKSON I didn’t even know that kind of shit was available. When it happened, it just happened.
KEATON Such a smart idea, though. Somebody tell you to do that?
KEATON Good for you, man.
ISAIAH I love to do the work, but I didn’t want to have people coming up to me. Then I started understanding that it’s part of the gig and also, people are excited about your work. It’s cool. So I just tried to flip my mindset on it.
JACKSON Have you separated them liking you and them liking your work?
KEATON Good question.
ISAIAH Yeah. I think even with all these meetings and stuff, I know that I’m there because of the work I’ve done. Everybody’s like, “They love you. We love you.” They don’t know me.
JACKSON Ordinary people do, though. Girls looking at you on social media like you. They don’t give a fuck about your work. (Laughter.)
Do the rest of you remember the project from which you went from anonymous to recognizable, and were you prepared for it?
HIDDLESTON For me, all the answers so far are Loki. That’s what people come up to me in the street and [reference], and absolutely that was the thing that changed everything.
What do they say when they do?
HIDDLESTON Oh, there was a hilarious one. I was walking the dog one Wednesday in a park in London. It was the summer after Avengers: Infinity War came out, and a group of school kids were playing nearby and there were heads turning, and I thought, “OK, well, they’ve seen the movie.” And then as they were walking away, I heard this shout: “Loki!” I was like, “Yep. Hi, that’s me.” “Are you really dead?” I was like, what an extraordinary existential question to be asked on a Wednesday morning. Am I really dead? Well, not right now.
How about the rest of you?
COX I valued my anonymity. People would say, “Were you …?” And I’d go, “No.” I mean, I used to get confused with Albert Finney all the time, but I loved the fact that people didn’t know who I was. Since I’ve been playing this role [on Succession], it’s been impossible. And I’ve been in this business for, Jesus Christ, I’ve been in this business since 1961.
KEATON Since Jesus Christ, actually. (Laughter.)
COX It’s very hard when you’ve prized yourself on bobbing and weaving with the profession. And back home in the theater, there was a certain reputation, but at the same time I shifted axis whenever I could, which I enjoyed. That’s what I like, reinvention, which I think is a key thing for actors, to reinvent themselves. And then suddenly you come up with a role like I’m playing at the moment and you go, “Well, OK, there’s no going back.”
JACKSON I’ve known Michael (to Keaton) forever because I’ve been watching his career forever. Before I was even this person who could say, “Hey, Mike, how you doing?” I felt like I knew him because I knew his characters. But he’s also been this person that doesn’t get stuck in that character. He can go from Beetlejuice to something else to something else to something else. And he’s very different, but he’s still Michael Keaton. But some people get stuck in a thing and they can’t break that, because they didn’t let themselves break it.
But Michael, you fought hard to have that versatility, and had to turn down a lot of things, no?
KEATON Yeah. And thanks, by the way.
COX You also went reclusive for a while there.
KEATON I’m a cake-and-eat-it-too guy. I want it all. I want to live a normal life, but then I want to work. And so everything that everyone was saying, that’s just what comes with it. In terms of the opportunities to play everything, yeah, I created it. I did, and I’m proud of the fact that I rode it out and said no to things. I set it up early on so I could possibly have the opportunity to play different things; and had I not, had somebody said, “You know what? Not for nothing, we really don’t care what else you want to play. We want you to be that guy.” I probably would’ve done that and made a living. I just don’t think I would have been very happy.
Oscar, I’ve heard you say that saying no to projects is more stressful for you than waiting on yeses once was. What has that looked like?
ISAAC Yeah. My therapy sessions were more about that. It’s like, how do I get off the fix of work? And it’s connected with approval and wanting to be included. Also, the biggest window of my life as an actor has been wanting to get opportunities, wanting someone to say yes, and it’s been a very small window of being able to say no, having the luxury to say no. So it takes building those synapses to be able to say no in my brain and not feeling like I’m destroying my life in some way. And I’ve got young kids and this is the first time in 20 years that I’ve taken the year off, by not being on a set, and it’s weird. I’m also so happy to be able to do that.
JACKSON You can afford to take a year off. It’s a huge, huge deal to be able to do that. But the even harder thing, like, for you, Quincy, is going to be, what do you do next? All of a sudden you’ll have four scripts sitting on a desk and you have to make a choice. That’s when things get hard.
ISAAC They get really hard.
JACKSON That’s when things get difficult, because you can make a wrong choice and be like, “Oh. Shit.”
ISAAC And suddenly you’re getting outside of yourself and having to look at, “What do I want to be?”
How are you thinking about what’s next, Quincy? Do you want to do something that’s totally different?
ISAIAH Yeah, I can’t smile as much this next time. It’s so much smiling. (Laughter.)
JACKSON That’s who he is!
KEATON Two things. (To Isaac) Good for you for [taking time off] because you have kids. One of the reasons I laid low was that I always wanted to be a dad. And then I got the opportunity to be a dad, so I thought, “Man, if I lose money, I’m good with it.” I was having this conversation with Bill Hader the other day, he was going through something and I said, “Dude, trust me. Hang out with your kids as much as you can for as long as you can. You will never regret it. You’re going to lose some jobs. It’s OK. In the long run, that’s the thing [that matters].” And (to Jackson, off of his hard-choices comment) you’re right, man. In the old days, I remember I was in London with Jack Nicholson, we were doing Batman, and he was going somewhere, and he said, “Come along with me,” which is an experience in and of itself. (Laughter.)
I’d love that story, too.
KEATON Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, we’re in the car and he’s talking about the movie. And we all knew it was a huge risk, and if it goes down, [I’d be] going down in flames and that’s going to be a big, hard recovery. But I also knew if it worked, it could change my landscape. So Jack says, “Keats, if this thing’s a hit, you can go out and do four or five flops and not even worry about it.” And maybe it wasn’t four or five, but it used to be you got away with three and it didn’t matter. Not now, man. You’ve got one miss, which is fucked up.
Looking back, what felt, at the time, like the biggest risk?
ISAAC Moon Knight felt that way. Like, “Man, I’m going to go down hard with this thing.” Just the level of embarrassment that it would be, once you throw on a cape, you know what I mean? And you’re out in front of it. It’s like, “Holy shit, I’m really doing this thing.”
KEATON And you’d better commit.
ISAAC And commit totally to it.
JACKSON The interesting thing about all that, though, was that you had a little path from Star Wars to this next thing to Dune, which was fucking amazing, by the way.
ISAAC Little to do with me.
JACKSON Oh, it’s little to do with any of us. I was talking to Tom about that very same thing. When I signed that nine-picture deal to be Nick Fury, it was like, “How long do I got to stay alive to do nine pictures?” Not knowing they were going to make nine pictures in, like, a year and a half. But when you pick a path or you find a way to get into these franchise things that are huge successes, they give you the opportunity to do these other things that give you that artistic satisfaction while you’re doing that movie-star satisfaction thing, the big check, the take-care-of-the-family, the I-can-take-some-time-off-and-chill.
ISAAC And the trick with this one was, like, “Can I do both?” Can you smuggle in the thing that matters to me, the reason why I like doing it, so every morning when that alarm goes off, I could be excited to get to work and not just be like, “I’ve got to get through this to get that check or whatever.” And it seemed like this was an opportunity, maybe because of the TV landscape, where there seems to be a lot more risk-taking, to do this bizarre thing that happened to be in the case of a superhero genre film.
Typically, Marvel calls and actors say yes immediately. You were hesitant, presumably for all those reasons?
ISAAC Yeah, it was so much about, like, “Is this the stupidest thing? Is this a smart thing?” It was such mental torment just to make the decision.
COX But don’t you find that we all are in positions where we’ve constantly subsidized ourselves for the next job?
What does that mean to you?
COX That you earn a bit of money from one job and then you go off and do lunchtime theater. And in movies, you do the same: That one wasn’t so good, but I earned enough from that one so I can go on to that one. I think that happens more than we admit.
JACKSON The wonderful discovery for me was longform TV and the satisfaction of delving into a character in a way I didn’t have in an hour and a half. I sat home and I did it in my head, and there was stuff I wanted people to see about me that I couldn’t show them.
COX I think that’s [created a challenge for] movies. Because in movies, it’s three acts: first, second and third. Whereas in longform, it’s an endless second act, and you can do so much in the second act. As actors, it serves us brilliantly.
COX And American television has caught up. Tom and I are lucky because we come from a good tradition of television. The only time that television was bad in the U.K., and he was probably a nipper then, was in the ’90s, and it was really shit.
JACKSON Stop, my wife loved all that shit. What is that little town where people have died every week for the last 30 years?
HIDDLESTON Midsomer Murders.
COX That’s great, but that came at the end of the ’90s. There was a really bleak time. And that’s one of the reasons I thought, “If I’m going to get paid for crap, I’d rather get paid for crap in America than crap in the U.K.” And that was my decision, because I’d been a leading theater actor and all that. And I came and I did five movies, which were tough going. And I could observe how difficult it was for people like you (to Keaton) and Andy Garcia on the film that we did [Desperate Measures]. And we (to Jackson) were in a slightly better film together [The Long Kiss Goodnight]. But you could see how that opening weekend was marking people’s careers. And I just thought, “I don’t want anything to do with that. I don’t want to be in that situation where my whole life is depending on that opening weekend. So I’m going to stick to just coming on and doing two scenes and then buggering off,” you know what I mean?
KEATON I know exactly what you mean.
JACKSON I was trying to figure out how you kids (to Isaiah) are going to measure what your success is in terms of how you move the comma on your check in a streaming world, because we had a barometer: Asses in seats. What’s the barometer now?
ISAIAH It feels like social media is a big thing for our generation.
JACKSON See how many followers you got before you can get the job?
ISAIAH Before I booked this, every role that I went out for, it was like, “How many followers do you have?”
Between Loki and the upcoming Nick Fury series Secret Invasion, Tom and Sam, you’ve both gotten those Marvel calls. Did either of you have any of the same hesitation as Oscar? And what were you excited to explore with a show that you couldn’t do in the films?
JACKSON Well, I can have a whole life as Nick Fury that’s not Nick Fury at work. You know, we get to go home with me and see what happens with me at home or when I’m alone or when I’m not so strong and Nick Fury, or when I take off a back brace because Nick Fury is old. (Laughs.) Some things that you can do that you can’t normally do [in the films] because the character has to present this (trumpeting heroically) duh-dunna-duh kind of front, and that’s what the movies are for. And when you get to do it in longform, you get to show even superheroes have their down moments.
KEATON Not me. (Laughter.)
JACKSON A down moment for you is an up moment. But all those things are there and you have an opportunity to do it, and they give you that leeway to feel your way into that. Once they see you and know who you are, that gives everybody an opportunity to come and bring a personality. That was the thing about the Avengers movies, they all had different personalities and they were able to blossom once we got through the initial film. The initial film was to introduce these people to who they are and these are the things they can do. Now, this is how they interact and they’re not all nice. And I fussed at them, I still fuss at them, about Civil War because I’m like, “How could the kids fight and Nick Fury not show up?” Like, “What’s going on here? Everybody go to your room.” But they didn’t need me for that. They did, but they didn’t.
HIDDLESTON Loki wasn’t in that one, either.
COX But we’re also at the mercy of the director and the script. When you’ve got a great script, there’s no problem, that gives you all the mystery that you need to create the role that you want to create. When you have a piece of shit, and we’ve all done shit and we know what we have to do to make shit work, we have to compensate and it’s not very satisfying.
ISAIAH There’s not a world where you take it and you make it something where it feels more satisfactory?
JACKSON There is that world. But it’s more work.
COX Harder work.
JACKSON But you get to a point where if a director says some shit to you, you go, “I’m not going to do that because that’s not what you know I would do.” And that sounds like one of those, “Well, my character wouldn’t do that.” And it’s not that. It’s just that I don’t get to go to the editing room with you. I’ve done what I wanted to do and you go to the editing room and if you want me to do something different, you’re going to watch the thing you want to watch first, and if I don’t give it to you, you have to do what I did.
COX I think where we, as actors, get completely underestimated is our literate sense. We are really, surprisingly, intuitively literate. We know about subject, verb and object. We really do. We deal with that every day. And a lot of directors haven’t a fucking clue about that. They’re concerned about a visual thing, which is part of it.
JACKSON “Frame composition.”
COX But they don’t understand what the meat of the job is, and it’s in the script. If you don’t have a script, you’ve got nothing.
Tom, I wanted to get back to the original question about your comfort level when Marvel approached you about making a Loki series. What assurances did you need?
HIDDLESTON Having played Loki for six movies, doing the show, it was a risk in a way, like what you (to Isaac) were saying. I was like, “I just don’t want to break it.” But also, there was this extraordinary opportunity to break him open, take him away from all the things that people knew he was associated with, away from his brother, away from his father, away from his home, and put him through this kind of Kafkaesque nightmare where he’s confronted with all his cycles of terrible, destructive behavior. And to show this very together, controlled character who’s always thinking 10 steps ahead as completely vulnerable and full of doubt, and then build him back up through the story, was an amazing gift.
ISAIAH Do you approach each character the same? Like, a lot of you have played superheroes, is [the approach] different at all?
HIDDLESTON If you stood outside it for too long and thought about what it looks like in the world, I find it just too terrifying. You just ground it in what you know. So, when I first started playing Loki, I was like, “OK, he’s a son. I know what that is. He’s a brother. I know what that is. He’s got all this internal kind of pain but he’s masking it with something. I know what that is.” You find your own way through it. You build the mask, as it were, and then you fill the mask with life.
ISAIAH You find the human parts of it. I feel like that’s what I did for Magic. I couldn’t play this icon. I had to see how to play a kid at 20 years old and figure out what that looks like.
KEATON That’s very smart.
JACKSON Did you watch [Magic’s] Apple series?
ISAIAH Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
JACKSON It was kind of out there, right? (Laughter.) To be that big a personality when you’re that young.
ISAIAH Yeah, at 14, 15 you’ve got grown men coming up to you calling you Magic. That’s crazy.
JACKSON Or to have the principal of the school coming to you to tell you you’re in charge of the racial unrest at the school. Like, “Take care of it.”
ISAIAH And then be like, “Cool.” What confidence does that take in yourself to be like, “I got this? Or maybe I don’t, but I’m going to figure it out.” It’s a fun role.
Oscar, your Scenes From a Marriage co-star, Jessica Chastain, has said she doesn’t want to go to as dark a place as the show required ever again. Do you feel the same way? And have your own boundaries shifted over time?
ISAAC Before, I’d be like, “What limb do I have to cut off to make this scene 3 percent better? I’ll do it.” But I think that it’s about inspiration. The whole reason process exists is to inspire, and sometimes you don’t need a wild process to be inspired by something. Sometimes the words themselves will do it. Sometimes the character is enough. Sometimes the situation is so harrowing that that’s enough to inspire a whole history of a character. And sometimes you’ve got to go, “OK, what did he eat for breakfast?” in order to try to inspire some imagination and some sense of truth, or some emotional, interesting thing. But boundaries are becoming more important for me now. I have kids, and time is the most valuable commodity. And I think with Scenes From a Marriage, the scenes themselves, that was what was so harrowing about it, not so much the character. And I think I took it for granted a bit, and it did start to live in there a little too much.
What does that look like?
ISAAC I just got a little bit down, I think. Also, it mirrored a lot of things in my own life. Literal things, like I’d be reading a bedtime story to the young actress that’s a 5-year-old with a little bunny lamp and then go home, arrive just in time to sit in the bed with the same exact bunny lamp and read a story to my 5-year-old. And it just starts to fuck with your head. Going back, I probably would’ve been a little more mindful about [having] clearer boundaries. And the truth is, even if it wouldn’t have been quite as real or good, I’m OK with that. I’m getting better with that idea that I don’t have to cut off a limb just to make it slightly better.
KEATON But what you figure out is you don’t have a choice. You say, “I’m going to cruise on this one.” First of all, it’s impossible. You get there and the work’s the same, man. Even if you’re going to do a 15-second ad for Vaseline, you say, “OK, man, I’m all in.” Because for that minute, I don’t know how to not be all in, not because I’m so fucking groovy, because I probably have a fear of lying down, of going, “Well, don’t be a dick. Do the work.” You know what I mean? Every time I think I’m going to cruise on this one, I can’t. You can fight it all you want, but it’s in you somewhere.
JACKSON Yeah, you think, “Piece of cake. I got this.” Then you get there and before you know it, you’re pissed at the fucking director because it’s taking too long to do some shit and you’re like, “Goddammit, this is important.” (Laughs.)
ISAAC That’s like what the late, great Bill Hurt said to me. He was like, “Before every take, I tell myself, ‘You’re going to die.’” And then …
COX He did. (Laughter.)
ISAAC And eventually he did, but he knew it. He reminded himself before every take, “This is my chance to be alive. I have to be alive.”
Most of you are at points in your careers where you can be picky. What are the easy nos?
COX I’ve just done a thing where I had to be nude.
COX I had a body double.
COX I’m 76, for Christ’s sake. Mind you, the guy who was … oh, I shouldn’t say anything. (Laughs.) But that was something where I thought, “I don’t know.” I kept saying to the director, “Do I really have to be nude?” And not only am I supposed to be nude, but I’m also supposed to have an erection.
KEATON Oh, there you go. There’s some acting.
JACKSON On cue? Pow. (Laughter.)
COX I was working with Lisa Kudrow and Edie Falco, and I said, “Let their reaction tell you what happened.”
KEATON And if they’re weeping, then you know. (Laughter.)
JACKSON That’s where your experience comes in, on things like that. I think the biggest difference, at least in the movie business, [happened] once film stopped being used. It’s a whole other business. I work with kids now who have no idea how much it costs to make a movie, because they don’t have to send a film out to be processed every day or go to dailies the next day and hope that your picture came out all right because there’s no monitors.
HIDDLESTON Was there a greater sense of stakes when the camera was rolling?
KEATON That’s a really good question.
HIDDLESTON Because you know when it’s digital, you can keep the camera running, reset, do three in a row. But when there was film in the camera, did you feel that elevation of, like, “OK, we’re going now, we don’t have rolls and rolls of film out the back.”
COX Well, it depends on the director. I mean, if you work with somebody like David Fincher, who does 38 takes, he’s only noticed the acting by take 12, and by then the actors are saying, “What the fuck’s going on here?”
JACKSON “What’s actually wrong?”
COX Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards had that problem on Zodiac. They couldn’t believe it. We’d go through 38 takes and they kept saying, “What’s happening?” I’d say, “He doesn’t notice you until take 12.” And then he says, “What’s happened to the actors?” Well, they’re bored. (Laughter.)
Unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of our time, so here’s my final question: What’s the part that you haven’t yet played that you’d still really love to get a shot at?
ISAIAH I want to play a period king like Mansa Musa. I want to give a big speech to the entire kingdom.
KEATON I want to play a queen.
HIDDLESTON And I’ll play the fool. There’s always a fool in the king’s court.
ISAAC I think we’re making a movie right now.
COX I just want to laugh more. I’m fed up with drama. I really am. When I switch on the tube, I’m looking for a laugh, especially at my age, when the end is nearer than the beginning.
KEATON Can I say something?
KEATON Fuck off. (Laughter.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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