The director and star of the HBO miniseries wound up bonding during a trying four-month shoot in Yonkers, N.Y., that was unlike anything either had tackled before.
The subject matter of “Hero,” written and produced by “The Wire’s” David Simon and William Zorzi, was highly unusual in its ordinariness. The six-hour mini tells the story of a racially charged fight over the construction of a public housing project in the city of about 200,000 that lies about 15 miles north of Manhattan. It was adapted from Lisa Belkin’s 1999 book of the same name.
Isaac plays the central figure, Nick Wasicsko, the 28-year-old wunderkind mayor who bravely faces a test of will, law and principle as the debate over where to build the federally mandated housing project becomes all-consuming for the city.
There are no car chases, no heists, little actual violence, a small thread of romance and [spoiler alert] only one gunshot at the very end. “Hero” turns on the stuff of real life — local officials grappling with dictates from the federal government, the tensions caused by de facto segregation and the exploitation of us-versus-them fears by politicians with limited career horizons.
Haggis loved the scripts for the first two hours so much he persuaded Simon and Zorzi to let him direct all six hours. “They kind of stared at me,” Haggis recalls. “I said I really wanted to do it. They said ‘OK.’”
Isaac had just wrapped his work on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in fall 2014 when he was approached to star in “Hero.” He admits to having some doubts about the six-hour format. He found the story “fascinating” but “a little impenetrable.” He wondered whether he could really get under the skin of Wasicsko.
Isaac took to Google to do some research on the character and the housing battle. He was sold after he came across news footage of various Yonkers officials addressing the media outside a courthouse after a ruling.
“You see the lawyers and [officials] come out and they start this impromptu briefing. And then off in a corner you see Nick, this diminutive figure, come running up to the group. He’s upset that they started without him,” Isaac says. “He elbows his way in to get closer to the microphones. You can tell that he’s conscious about how his hair looks. And then he starts speaking rationally about the truth of the city’s situation with the housing. I immediately fell in love with him.”
|“I’d never directed anything six hours long that shot back-to-back. Thank god I didn’t know how hard it would be.”|
Moreover, Isaac says the dynamics that drove the race- and class-baiting battle in Yonkers more than 25 years ago are just as evident in today’s political landscape. Which makes Wasicsko’s success in getting the project built that much more admirable.
“We’re seeing that right now — how easy it is to rile up the prejudices and fears of people who are feeling marginalized,” Isaac says. “That’s not leading. That’s being a mouthpiece for anger and division in order to gain power.”
“Hero” lensed from October 2014 through the end of January 2015 in Yonkers — often in the actual locations of the events depicted. Haggis praises Isaac as a consummate pro who endured a grueling schedule with determination and good humor.
“I’d never directed anything six hours long that shot back-to-back,” Haggis says. “Thank god I didn’t know how hard it would be. We were shooting seven to 10 pages a day. Oscar had usually three to four costume changes a day. There was nothing we asked of him that he wouldn’t do.”
Haggis adds that even with the production running on a super-tight schedule, Isaac worked with Haggis to suggest a few improvised moments for his character. One scene of Wasicsko getting emotional as he looks over items stored in his attic was added to help ease the audience into the surprise at the end, when a despondent Wasicsko takes his own life after visiting his father’s grave.
Shooting those scenes in the cemetery where Wasicsko is buried “was very heavy,” Isaac says.
The character moments between Wasicsko and his wife, Nay [played by Carla Quevedo], and his nemesis on the City Council, Hank Spallone [Alfred Molina] were important to offsetting the plot details about the legal fight over the housing mandate and the decision by Wasicsko to forge ahead with construction of townhouses in a largely white, middle-class neighborhood.
“I knew all of that detail exposition had to come out, and yet I’d wake up in the morning and think, ‘I don’t know how this is going to work,’” Haggis admits. “And then I’d watch Oscar start to work and I’d be in awe. He made it come to life. Oscar is a great actor for many reasons, but one of them is that he isn’t afraid to show the frailty and pettiness of a person. It makes them ultimately more heroic when they come around to doing the right thing. Oscar is not one of those actors who says, ‘I need to look a certain way.’”
And the combo of Isaac and Molina was money in every scene. “To watch Alfred and Oscar in their small moments was just a delight for me,” Haggis says. “Every time the two of them walked on the set I knew something great would happen.”
Re-creating the late 1980s period was also harder than Haggis expected. For one thing, it’s tough to find workaday cars from that era.
“People don’t really keep their cars from the 1980s, and if they do they’re all Cadillacs,” he says. “Trying to find a Pinto or something that a normal working person would be driving was hard. We ended up using the same cars over and over.”
Both Haggis and Isaac had some trepidation early on about the fact that Wasicsko’s widow, now Nay Wasicsko-McLaughlin, had a presence on the set. They feared she would try to steer them to a rose-colored portrayal of her husband, who was 34 when he died in 1993. In fact, she embraced the effort to bring her late husband to life, warts and all, because she realized an honest depiction would give him credit for the courageous stand he took on integration and the need for affordable housing, even though it cost him his job.
“Nay was very moved by the [miniseries],” Isaac says. “She felt there was some justice that people would understand what he went through, and that he fought for something that was fundamentally good.”