BEVERLY HILLS – I love talking to Oscar Isaac about the craft of acting. He's never quick with a facile soundbite and always has something intriguing to chew on regarding his choices, if you're willing to get into it. And with his subtle, smoldering work as Abel – a man trying to build a business and a life in the middle of the cold and ruthless New York City of 1981 in J.C. Chandor's “A Most Violent Year” – there is plenty to chew on indeed.
I sat down with Isaac recently for a deep dive into all of this with Chandor alongside. The conversation was, I found, hugely enlightening, charting how the director and actor slowly but surely found each other's rhythm and how Isaac burrowed under the skin of his character, at times desperate to understand who he was and what his actions meant. Again, if that kind of thing is your cup of tea, then you'll devour this with joy, I have no doubt. It reads like a recollection of the step-by-step process to becoming the character.
So read through the back and forth below. I have a hunch Isaac will continue to deliver outrageously specific and brilliant performances that aren't fully appreciated in their time, but here's hoping.
“A Most Violent Year” hits theaters Dec. 31.
HitFix: Where did you start with the role, Oscar? Did you base it on somebody you knew in any way?
Oscar Isaac: The first thing was just to read it over and over again and to try and get some sense of continuity with it, because it is quite complex. Individually, the scenes would go from zero to 100. You'd see a clear arc in the scene itself, but you didn't necessarily see – because obviously no one was acting it yet – the accumulation of the experience throughout. It wasn't evident. It was there, but I hadn't found that yet. So I had to figure out what that was first. I had to figure out what the engine was, which is what I always go to. It's like, where is this person operating from emotionally? Because for me, money, real estate, business – the most boring things in the world. I could care less about any of those things. So I have to learn about heating oil. I have to learn about buildings in Williamsburg and, you know, it was like, how am I going to get interested in that? Because clearly J.C.'s interested in that. And what I'm being hired to do is inhabit a psyche for a period of time for however few months. And they'll film me inhabiting that and then, you know, he'll put it together. So how to do that? How to think the way this person would think or how I would think if I was living through these circumstances? How do you bridge that gap? So I was like, “OK, I need to learn about heating oil and tell me about this, that,” and J.C.'s like, “It doesn't matter. It could be anything.” At first I freaked out.
J.C. Chandor: Yeah, he was like, “What?!”
Oscar Isaac: I spit on the ground!
J.C. Chandor: [Laughs.] Because he's an actor, right? He wants to be so up in it. So I'm like, “I mean, do you really want to know about the heating oil? Because I do know about it all and I can tell you but, like, we'll get there. We've got three more months. Trust me, you're going to know more about it.” He's like, “What do you mean? The whole movie's about heating oil. I've got to know about heating oil!” I'm like, “It's a means to an end for this guy.”
Oscar Isaac: Which is so opposite from being an artist, right? Because an artist is about expressiveness and most artists are that because there's nothing else they could do. Whereas with this it's more about the gain and the kind of uber-picture and the way you get there. It could be any number of things, you know? Real estate, heating oil, whatever. It's sales, right? A salesman.
J.C. Chandor: And execution.
Oscar Isaac: Yeah, and execution. So the idea of sales, that I could get behind. And the idea of risking everything I could get behind. And the idea of being single-minded about a purpose…
And trying to be honest.
Oscar Isaac: Yeah, yeah. But I actually had to go the opposite way, because what I tend to do is if I see something that's saying, you know, “I'm trying to find the good way,” I usually think, “OK, so what is he hiding? What's he not saying?” For me all of those things about the moral high ground that he says, I just thought that was more bullshit. For me it was that it's the pragmatic thing to do. And that I could get behind. Like, “No, I'm not afraid of guns. I don't think guns are bad.” Abel escaped from Columbia, from the civil war and its violence and horrors. I mean, I didn't even talk to you about that, J.C. It was like they cut open pregnant women, did stuff to the fetus. I mean it was awful. So if Abel came from that, he's seen more violence than any of these people have. But he just knows that it doesn't create a society.
It gets in the way.
Oscar Isaac: It gets in the way of the bigger picture, and it's exactly what [Abel's tormentors] want him to do. So, you know, you think this is strength, but it's really not. It's just stupid. And that intellectual battle, that chess match I thought was really, really intriguing.
J.C. Chandor: Yeah, you got it then. That was pretty cool when you realized…
Oscar Isaac: The chess match of the whole thing.
J.C. Chandor: And it was like, why would Abel put himself at risk in that stupid way?
Oscar Isaac: So suddenly I could have conviction about that, you know? And then at the same time, the idea of, you know – J.C. gave me this great note that Abel was obsessed with the hair and the clothes. And again, I got annoyed with him because I'm like, “Who cares about the hair and the clothes?”
J.C. Chandor: Oscar would say, “Tell me about where he's from.” And I'm like, “Well, you know, the coat he's going to be wearing…” And he's like, “Would you shut up?”
Oscar Isaac: “This guy sucks.”
J.C. Chandor: [Laughs.] There was that one call where you were sick as a dog in Miami visiting family and I was away. He had read the script for the 19th time, and I was, like, loving it, because I would no more read the script 19 times than fly it to the moon. I sort of like to write it and then kind of let it live. But it's so great because you know that your actor, he's in a dark place and he's like, “I've got to know who this character is!” He's like, “If we're actually going to make this movie in two months I've got to know…” And I was sitting there like, “Yes. All right. Now we've got him.” He was frustrated because he was starting to feel the character. All the things he just explained that were important, he had sort of just laid out, you know, just by learning who the guy was. And then we started the fun, classic stuff with backstory. And I was like, “Well, here is who he is. He came to the U.S. sometime between when he was 7 and he was 11.” And Oscar knows this stuff; his mom's from Guatemala and his dad's from Cuba. And I'm an idiot from New Jersey. I don' t know anything. But I'm like, “Go in there and work with me and let's find out exactly where he came from.” And Oscar found this amazing period in Colombia. What is it? “La Violencia.”
Oscar Isaac: Yeah, yeah. “The Violence.”
J.C. Chandor: Within the society the civil war is called “La Violencia.” He calls me and says Abel would have come to America in like the late-'50s. He probably would have left Colombia after that. And I was like, “Perfect.”
Oscar Isaac: And about the suit, so J.C. said, you know, it's like his armor. As an actor, I could get behind that, that it's not fashion. It's not about looking good. It's actually that it's a suit of armor, and so that informed the posture. It informed the way that he walks. It informed – J.C. said Abel is like a block of concrete, when you see that camel coat.
You and I talked a little bit about that, J.C. How Abel presents himself is a big part of who this guy is. And it's not fashion like you say, Oscar; it's very much about calculation.
J.C. Chandor: Yeah. I just got to finally talk to Oscar about that. [Cinematographer] Bradford [Young] and I would talk about wanting it to feel like Abel is kind of walking into a formally composed, you know, almost like Renaissance painting of like his own design. So when he comes in the room it's like boom, boom, boom. Like, he wants to be backlit.
He's concerned with composition and setting the scene, right.
Oscar Isaac: Within that it's interesting because, you know, it was shot very formally.
J.C. Chandor: But you didn't know that at the time.
Oscar Isaac: It's formal the way he speaks, the way he presents something. It's very formal in an interesting way. And he's also guarded with the way he speaks and what he chooses to show. So then the trick was, how do you let things eke out that he doesn't mean to show? Because that's what's more exciting, I think, when you watch performers. And you're like, “Oh, he didn't mean to show us that.” You feel like you're a voyeur or you feel like you're catching stuff. And so how to start laying that stuff in there? In particular it's in those scenes with Jessica [Chastain], where you really see that this guy cares almost too much. He's just so invested in this risk that he's taking. How to make it kind of volcanic so that it feels very grounded, but that there's the real hot core underneath there, when it feels like anything could happen?
You and Jessica obviously know each other going way back, but what was it like, her playing this kind of Lady Macbeth, you're sitting there opposite from her and take after take she's doing what she's doing?
Oscar Isaac: Oh, it was great. I mean she's hard core, you know? She's really intense and we went to the same schools. We had the same foundation of how we approach a script. There's a very thorough process of going through it and creating a backstory and just making all the connections so that you're able to think freely and feel like you have ownership. It's all about owning, feeling like you not only own the character but own everything in the room. You're not second-guessing any choice you make. So to have someone that operates in a very similar way was great. And then we would challenge each other. I mean, I remember even in the van rides up to set she would start kind of talking like her character, but like saying all this horrible shit, you know? And then I had to choose, you know, do I argue with her or do I… And I would just be like, “Oh, it's all right baby. It's OK. I know. I know. I know. Yes, you're emasculating me. Yes, you have my balls in a vice, baby. It's okay.” And the truth is, that's kind of how Abel operates. It's not the cliché of the Latin hotheaded man. It's like, “I don't need to dominate her to feel like I'm the strongest person in the room,” you know? She needs that. She needs to feel like she's got my balls, you know? And that's OK. But then when it was time to let her know what was up, then Abel would do that as well. And that could get her off guard. So the truth is we would do vastly different takes, and sometimes it would be not right. Sometimes it would be too much. Sometimes it would be not enough. And J.C. would let us know. But we trusted each other enough to allow ourselves to get dangerous.
J.C., I wanted to ask you about sort of the thematic ties between your work so far. I'm left wondering: Are you interested in the diminishing returns of capitalism?
J.C. Chandor: The funny thing about the movie is it's dark, right? Because you're seeing what he has to give up. Like you're seeing the compromises – I don't want to say morally, but, like, ethically. And the singularity of his vision. It's like a hawk. And most really, really rich people have that – unless you inherit it, and then you have other problems – but if you build a business the way this guy does, that doesn't just sort of happen by mistake, you know?
Oscar Isaac: I just remembered, J.C. said Abel is not particularly a genius at anything.
J.C. Chandor: That is true.
Oscar Isaac: His genius is that he's confident. His genius lies in his confidence and his singularity. So I mean imagine having that much confidence in your strategy that you don't really waver. I think that's maybe what makes him such an interesting figure is that, you know, it's rare that you find someone who can see that far ahead. But ambition is interesting – what you were saying about diminishing returns – because, you know, it's not until recent where suddenly ambition became a positive. I mean you look at Shakespeare. Why did they kill Caesar? Ambition. That's what Brutus' whole speech is about. “He was great, he was all this, he was this, but he was ambitious,” and that's why he killed him. “Macbeth” is all about ambition, right? And you get the sense at the end of this movie – I mean, at least I do – that I'm not sure how happy these people are going to be.
I sort of view the movie as a tragedy in that way, in terms of compromises made. Because I do think there's something thematically interesting and potent about the honesty angle.
J.C. Chandor: The counter to that is he's optimistic. That's the one thing I think some people aren't getting about the dude, is everybody else is running out of the burning building, right? Like, New York is a sinking fucking ship. There's no tax base. The city is never going to rebound. And so at least there's an optimism.
Oscar Isaac: He sees Disney coming in the time.
Do you see that as optimism or opportunism?
J.C. Chandor: Both. I think you've got to be optimistic, though, if you're going to take that opportunity, because no matter how cheap you're buying the building across the street, if you don't believe there are better times ahead, why the hell are you buying the building? Move to Miami.
Very true. Degradation always leads to growth eventually.
J.C. Chandor: So I think he does believe that, you know, people are cold, they need heating oil because there's no better way to heat yourself up right now. And that's a good business to be in, right? And “I'm going to warm people up, but they also are totally relying on me because no one in New York City likes to freeze their ass through winter.” Hopefully that's what makes him kind of interesting.
Oscar Isaac: And I think the bigger thing is – I read “Memoirs of Hadrian,” which is amazing, Marguerite Yourcenar. It's epistolary, in the form of letters, but she takes on the voice of Hadrian. It's a beautiful, beautiful book. And in it one of the most beautiful parts is the way he wraps the whole thing up. He's on his deathbed recounting his whole life and he says, “Men are cruel.” You know, basically., “People are cold.” It made me think of that when J.C. said that. Generally emperors are either tyrants or mediocrities. But all we can hope for is that a few likeminded people will, you know, come upon us throughout time and will steer the ship. Mostly it will be horrible times but every once in a while we'll have a few people that are likeminded that can actually get us on track, at least for a little while. And I like the idea that Abel, to a certain extent, represents the spirit of what the city became after it was on the edge of bankruptcy, on the edge of total demise. Because he was one of the few who was thinking, “No, there is a better way of doing this. We can still get where we want to go but there's a better, smarter way to get there.” And ultimately, that is what happened in the city. I think that there is something that is optimistic about it.
J.C. Chandor: But I'm not going to let you get away with all that bulllshit without doing some bad stuff.
Oscar Isaac: Yeah, well, he's also a sociopath.