Tiffany Haddish and Oscar Isaac on sex scenes and COVID filming for ‘The Card Counter’

Tiffany Haddish and Oscar Isaac sit at a bar holding drinks
Tiffany Haddish stars as La Linda and Oscar Isaac as William Tell in Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter,” which had its world premiere at the 2021 Venice Film Festival.
(Focus Features)
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A man sits alone in a room. This image, suggesting intensity, focus and isolation, has become a key signifier of filmmaker Paul Schrader. Writer and director of films such as “Blue Collar,” “American Gigolo” and “Affliction,” Schrader received his first Academy Award nomination in 2019 for the screenplay of “First Reformed.”

Now he returns with “The Card Counter,” which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival today, is also expected to play at the Telluride Film Festival and will be released in theaters Sept. 10.

Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, the film reunites the “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” collaborators for the first time since Schrader wrote the screenplay for Scorsese’s 1999 film “Bringing Out the Dead.”

Oscar Isaac — soon to be seen in HBO’s limited series “Scenes From a Marriage” and the sci-fi epic “Dune” — takes the lead in Schrader’s latest tale of guilt, passion, trauma and striving for redemption. As the titular card counter, Isaac is a gambler who goes by the name William Tell. He is still haunted by his past as a torturer guard at Abu Ghraib — for which he served time in prison — and now drifts among low-stakes casinos on the Gulf Coast. That’s where he catches the eye of La Linda, a manager/backer played by Tiffany Haddish, who wants to push him to the World Series of Poker.

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Their burgeoning romance intersects with another lost soul — Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of a soldier Tell served with, who launches a plan to get revenge on a civilian contractor (Willem Dafoe) responsible for the torture program.

When the COVID-19 outbreak struck in March 2020, the film’s production was shut down with only a few days left, and ultimately finished in the summer of 2020. (According to Haddish, attentive viewers can tell when scenes were shot by looking at her nails, which were much longer when production resumed.)

Haddish and Isaac share electric screen chemistry. And Schrader used the unexpected break in production to rewrite some of their scenes, deepening the relationship between La Linda and William.

In different locations of the same luxury hotel chain — Haddish in Los Angeles and Isaac in Budapest, where he is shooting the Marvel series “Moon Knight” — the stars exhibited the same sense of easy connection that powers the film. They compared notes on hotel brunches before settling in to talk about the movie, noting that they expected the Venice premiere of “The Card Counter” to be their first time back in a movie theater since the start of the pandemic.

Oscar Isaac sits at a card table with stacks of chips in front of him.
Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell in “The Card Counter.”
(Focus Features)

Did the two of you feel you were connecting right from the start?

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Isaac: I fell in love with Tiffany pretty quickly, like right off the bat. I got very excited when I first heard from Paul that’s where it was going to go and that she was interested. Paul does have also a history of getting these amazing comic actors to come in and kind of break your heart a bit. And so I was really psyched about that. Then when Tiffany got there, we just started going.

And it started breaking my heart a bit because Paul can be super direct and really intense sometimes. And he would just give these really direct notes. And I know for me, even to get a note like that, it’d be like, “Uh…” and Tiffany would just take it in such stride and like a pro and just be like, “Yep, got it. OK. I hear what you’re saying. Yeah. All right. Let me try that ... You want me to say it that way? You don’t want to say it that way? All right.” I think it just drew me even closer to her and it made it feel like we were kind of together in this thing because it was a tiny little movie and we’re in Biloxi in these weird casinos.

It made it feel like we were kind of together in this thing, because it was a tiny little movie and we’re in Biloxi in these weird casinos.

Oscar Isaac on his connection with co-star Tiffany Haddish for “The Card Counter”

Tiffany, tell me more about your experience with Paul. Did you know about his history of working with comedians in more dramatic roles, such as Richard Pryor in “Blue Collar” and Cedric the Entertainer in “First Reformed?”

Haddish: I know Paul’s history very well. I’ve been following Paul since “Cat People” ... That’s my favorite. He don’t like talking about it for some reason. I don’t know why. I think the movie is f— amazing. I think it’s beautiful ...

He talked about everything else, but I want to talk about “Cat People.” I felt like he needed to make another “Cat People” movie. And I think that gets on his nerves when I keep bringing it up like that. I don’t care. I really love the movie. But I know that he loves working with comedians. I’ve seen his work with other comics ... but my whole thing was I wanted to try something different.

And once I’d read the script, I was like, “Oh, I know this guy.” I know this William Tell — [it’s] like he works in a comedy club. A lot of comedians are like this, they’re like, “Hey, I’m doing a show,” and then they come off stage and they’re very aloof. And you can’t figure them out ... So that really got me going.

But Paul, man, what I love about him is that he was so straight and direct. He wasn’t beating around the bush. It wasn’t like me being confused, trying to figure out, “What does he want?” I knew what he wanted. And that’s the best. Please just be direct with me, don’t spare my feelings. Look, I’ve been through enough s— in life that my feelings can handle some directness.

Director Paul Schrader needed five days to finish shooting “The Card Counter.” Plus a shave for Oscar Isaac, who stars with Tiffany Haddish. How he did it.

Does this performance feel different to you?

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Haddish: It feels very different. Because I had to learn how to be still. Working with Oscar, I was watching him in his stillness. He’s doing it right now — he’s saying a thousand things without saying anything. And I’ve always been so used to having to turn on, like turn it on. And in doing this movie, I learned that I don’t have to turn anything on. I could just be. And it’s okay.

Oscar, for you, Paul talks about this kind of self-invented genre of “the man in the room.” Did you go back and watch “Taxi Driver” and “Light Sleeper” and “First Reformed,” or did you already know those movies well?

Isaac: “Taxi Driver” is in my DNA, as for so many actors. When I first got out of drama school, one of my earliest auditions was for Paul Schrader. They drove me out to some strip mall in Tarzana somewhere and Paul had taken over this little black box theater and he was doing these auditions for a movie called “The Jesuit.” ... I got the part and he sent me the DVD of everybody that had auditioned, including mine, which was a weird thing to do, but that’s Paul. The movie never ended up happening, but every once in a while I would reach out to him.

When “First Reformed” came out, I loved it so much. I wrote to him to say how moved I was by it. And then about a year later, he wrote to me saying, “I have this script that I wrote for you. Well, not for you, but you’re the first person I’m going to. And would you want to do it?” He said it’s very much in the long line of men alone in their room and going through this kind of existential change in their life.

Tiffany, the first scene that you and Oscar have together when you first meet in a casino, has a great energy. The two of you are really sizing each other up. What do they see in each other?

Haddish: I think she sees money and somebody that can play really well — that can count cards, but is good at it where it’s not so obvious — and she sees opportunity ... And then she sees a sexy man. So might as well go ahead and woo him, charm him.

Is La Linda hustling William? In a lot of ways, she is treating him the way a pimp would treat someone who works for them. In your mind is that what she’s doing?

Haddish: In my mind, she’s a pimp. Like an agent, you know, “I see you got a lot of potential. My clients can work with you. We can make a lot of money. You should be in my stable. You should be with me, let me take care of it. I’m gonna make sure you got the best of the best.” That’s how I feel she would approach it. And then she starts to be like, “Well, damn, he is sexy. Maybe I could? And he’s so standoffish. I don’t know. I gotta figure him out and get up in there.”

Tiffany Haddish sitting with her legs crossed while wearing sunglasses
Tiffany Haddish stars as La Linda in “The Card Counter.”
(Focus Features)

Oscar, what do you see as the connection between them?

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Isaac: I think he knows the type as far as people that run stables, and it’s something that he’s avoided ‘cause he’s not interested in making a lot of money. He’s interested in just keeping the line, making a small amount, not getting caught, just enough so that he can live this kind of meaningless existence. And I think he also finds her incredibly attractive and the kind of person that he would want to be with if he was a normal human being, but he’s not.

And when the door opens up for that possibility, I think he sees an opportunity — one to do something good for this young kid, but also to feel like a regular person again, and to allow himself to feel some feelings of real attraction and connection and intimacy.

The production shut down because of COVID and then you all had to come back. What was that like? As performers, the energy of this movie is so focused and dialed-in, I think it would be hard.

Isaac: That was really tough because we only had a few days left. And I think both Paul and I were just holding on for dear life and being like, “Please, please, let’s just finish it. Come on. We can do it, we can do it.” But we couldn’t. And stuff got shut down. There was a fear because it’s such a tiny movie that we weren’t going to ever be able to finish it. But luckily we could.

Tiffany, what was it like for you?

Haddish: I was fine with coming back. I mean, we did have to have a few rehearsals, to get back into the swing of things. I was happy to come back, happy to get out of the house.

And not to be impolite, but the love scene with the two of you, was that done before the break or after the break? Were there COVID protocols involved?

Isaac: That was before.

Haddish: And I’ll never forget it. Oscar took my movie love-making-scene virginity.

Isaac: I did. I was her first.

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I’m telling you that I’m gonna hump. We gonna hump. He gonna get humped, I know that much.

Tiffany Haddish on her first sex scene in “The Card Counter”

People always talk about how it’s a more technical process than they expect.

Haddish: It was amazing. It was super fun. I want to do it all the time.

Isaac: You had your whole crew there, you had your hair and makeup.

Haddish: I just remember, we was all like, “What do you think Oscar will come out in? I don’t know, but it’ll be good.” I ain’t taking my bra off, I know that. I’m keeping my drawers on as well. But I’m gonna hump him back. I’m telling you that I’m gonna hump. We gonna hump. He gonna get humped, I know that much.

Isaac: Three takes. I think we did three takes.

A bearded OSCAR ISAAC in “DUNE”
Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides in “Dune,” which also premieres at the Venice Film Festival this year.
(Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures)

Oscar, I heard Paul say that when you came back to finish shooting that there was an issue that you had to shave off the beard you had grown for “Dune.”

Isaac: It was a big scheduling thing. We still had two weeks of reshoots to do, or even a little bit more, for “Dune.” And I had grown the beard out already and I was ready to do it, but then that kept getting postponed. I really was trying to get that done before I had to go back to do “Card Counter,” but I couldn’t do it. So I had to shave it off and then just, like, squeeze out the beard for “Dune.”

How long does it take you to grow that beard?

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Isaac: It depends on how virile I am that month. A couple of months.