IndieWire.com — Oscar Isaac is perhaps one of the most exciting men in film right now. After showcasing both his singing and acting chops in Inside Llewyn Davis, he’s since landed roles in Mojave opposite Mark Wahlberg and Garrett Hedlund, Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse and then of course that tiny movie no one is excited about: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
But meanwhile Isaac has also been making quieter, if not more in-depth movies. J.C. Chandor’s (All is Lost) A Most Violent Year showcases Isaac in the title role, playing Abel, an ambitious businessman in 1981 New York City. Jessica Chastain, with whom Isaac attended Juilliard years back, plays his wife Anna, the daughter of a gangster and the Bonnie to Abel’s Clyde. Isaac plays Abel with a precision far different than messy Llewyn who loved cats and twiddled on his guitar. Abel is pristine, determined, and elusive in his motivations.
Press Play had a chance to sit down with Isaac in LA this week, just a few days after the Star Wars trailer set out to take down computer servers across the planet. But we were interested in getting into the details of Isaac’s incredibly crafted performance in A Most Violent Year. Sporting a mustache, with the charm of Llewyn and the introspection of Abel, Isaac chatted building character and the fine line between morality and pragmatism.
The last thing I saw you in was Inside Llewyn Davis, where you’re playing a character always asking other people for help. Abel is always fighting against that. Are you more like Abel or a bit of both characters? The thing with Llewyn was that he was not happy asking for help. But he’s in a What the hell else am I gonna do? Can I bum a cigarette? kind of situation. With Abel, yes, he’s going to do things on his own, but there’s that constant fear that all of ithis could fall apart at any moment as well. When you’re playing somebody, the guy’s a millionaire, clearly he’s affluent, he’s doing great, got a great little family, moving to a bigger house, it’s kind of hard to find a reason to root for the guy. J.C. said that often, with a lot of these dudes who end up growing so much, there’s at least two or three moments in their life when they just go all in. They risk everything. This movie starts with Abel being like, ‘We’re risking everything right now.’ That intensity, the pull between I’m risking everything, I could lose everything at any minute and at the same time the singularity of vision, I know what our goal is and I know how we can get there, being unflappable. Those two things happening at the same time.
Playing a character with that constant conflict must have required physical work. This man has this anxiety in his gut the entire time. His goal is not to show people that. How did you start building Abel? Did you manifest that anxiety and build on top of that? It was a very dense script. Obviously he’s very formal. He doesn’t use contractions. He speaks very formally. As an actor you have a choice, you’re like I want to make it more human and talk like I do. I chose to lean into the formality in a way almost like a memory of your grandfather. I would ask [J.C.] all these questions–“What’s he feeling here, what’s he going through?”–and he would say, “The hair’s going to be amazing.” And I’d be like, “What?” [Laughs] Then, “What’s going on inside…?” He’s like, “The suits, you got to take a look at the suits!” I would get so frustrated! I even wrote him, “I don’t care about suits. I don’t care about the hair! I need to know what’s going on inside!” And then at one point he said, “The suits are not about fashion, it’s a suit of armor.” Suddenly that hit me in a much different way. As an actor, that’s completely actable.