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.
He was telling you to take the physical avenue in. Yeah, to a certain extent, and also he was saying I have to find my emotional way in. It can’t really be about what he wants me to express in this moment. You realize everything is about presentation. Everything is about calculation. This is war and this is his suit of armor. That influenced how I wore it. It wasn’t wearing a suit to look cool. It was wearing a suit because it was his armor and his way of defense against other people. Even the way he’d sit, come into a room. He wouldn’t really have angles. He always squared off at everyone.
I remember one of the only times Abel sits back is when he’s at the table with all of the gangsters. You’re trying to have power. Yea. Finding those moments of very calculated movement. He counts two not like this [Isaac hold up his pointer and middle finger], but counts it like this [he holds up his thumb and pointer] because that’s a much more aggressive form of two. Little things like that, building all those physical things.
What about with his wife? Then with her, not being afraid to soften it completely. Something that I didn’t even realize until I saw it all together, how often I grab her face with both hands. That happens a lot and I wasn’t even aware of it. You do so many different takes and there were some takes where I didn’t do that. But to see that that is a motif that runs throughout it. Everything else is so much about standing back and keeping everything close to the chest and not letting anybody in and then the moments that he’s with his wife it’s the opposite physicality. It’s those little things that subconsciously, when you’re watching it, stick.
I like that Abel exists in this gray area, where he’s not quite an upright citizen and he’s not quite a gangster, he vacillates between the two. When you looked at the script, especially now knowing it was super dense, did you navigate his emotions by when he dips into either side of the spectrum? Well first it was about constructing what the spectrum is. What are his extremes? Where is he coming from that gives him a sense of context? One of the early things was to build a backstory, because he doesn’t reveal any of that.
None of it. None of it. It’s only present and future. He says that toward the end: “You can only look forward, you can’t look backwards.” There is something about this immigrant story where you burn your past. You re-invent yourself. He’s definitely someone who ascribes to that. The idea that he’s so against violence, well, where does that come from? Why is that the case?
Why is he clinging to his morality? That was my question. Mine too until I realized it’s not morality. It’s pragmatism. I found out about Bogotá, Columbia in the late 50s, which is when he would have left. It was a time of the civil war. It was called La Violencia, the violence. Horrific violence was happening. Men, women children, it was mayhem. He fled from there. He has an incredibly intimate experience with violence. He comes to this country, reinvents himself, but finds that violence keeps coming after him. The idea of not getting a gun is not because I’m afraid of guns, it’s not because I think guns are wrong, it’s because it’s impractical, it’s stupid and it’s exactly what they want me to do. If I get a gun, even if I get one legally, and someone tries to break in, I’m going to shoot somebody. What happens if I kill somebody? Do you think that I’ll be able to get in bed with a politician down the road, with the DA? They’re after us for any little any thing. It’s the dumbest thing that you could do right now, to get a gun and kill somebody, even if its protecting someone, because it’s not the long view. That’s what he is. He’s someone that has very specific goals, very specific strategy and if he has any genius at all it’s that he has the confidence in that vision. Even though he’s scared shitless that it’s all going to fall apart, he thinks If I can manage these little disasters, I know this is going to get us to where we need to go.
At the end of the film, when something extremely tragic occurs, do you think that Abel admits to himself that power is worth the fatalities? What is happening for him? That’s the thing. The idea of pragmatism was helpful and the idea of shying away from the morality side was helpful in the way that I was able to get to that place. Those things weren’t active. I don’t know how you act morality. A strategy is actable, strategy I can get behind. What got me there was thinking about sociopathic behavior and sociopaths in business and how often great business men share those characteristics which is a lack of empathy and a lack of sincerity and seeing humans as commodities. I think you’re absolutely right. This [other character] is such a problem. He’s such a danger to [Abel’s] business. He’s completely expendable. To be able to shut off your emotions so drastically, I think that the only way you can do that is if you have some of these sociopathic qualities.
That’s stuff you think Abel has had from the beginning? I absolutely do. At the one end of the spectrum it’s, What do you do for me as far as attaining my goals? Do you help me attain my goals? If you do, then you’re a human. If not, you’re completely expendable. To the other end of the spectrum, which is, I will do things the right way. There’s a path that’s the higher, smarter path, and there’s the lesser one. That’s the other end of the spectrum.
That’s a spectrum you have to deal with as an actor. J.C. has described Abel as being this man that sees, in a moment of crisis, that when you’re the most scared is when you take the biggest risk and reap the greatest reward, or fail. Can you think of a specific moment as an actor where you’ve been in the same position as Abel? Really, you should be in that position every time they say, ‘Action.’ You’re willing to risk looking horrible and failing, failing big. You risk showing yourself too and really going there. That’s one of the hardest things to do in any art is to risk failure and put yourself out on the line.
You’re doing that with your next projects. Do you have hopes and fears around risking your personal life and privacy? Yeah, that definitely plays into it because I’m definitely someone that’s private. I’ve never been interested in celebrity. Sure, as these films are way more high profile, you become more visible. That’s definitely something that you are sacrificing to be able to, at least for me, do the thing that I love, which is to make movies and play characters, do these meditations on these lives.