Oscar Isaac was not an overnight success. He made sporadic appearances in movies from the mid 90s onward and the roles and films grew, slowly but surely. Moviegoers have discovered him piece by brilliant piece each time. There wasn't even one particular year that made him a star though Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is to date "the signature role". In contrast, his new character Abel Morales' rise to power isn't half as slow and steady. It's all compressed into one dramatic make-or-break year in J.C. Chandor's moody gripping 1981-set drama A Most Violent Year.
I spoke to Oscar about burrowing inside this guarded businessman, working with his schoolmate Jessica Chastain, what casting directors think of him, and his obsession with the mutant supervillain he'll be playing in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016). Our conversation is after the jump...
NATHANIEL R: Oscar, a lot of press coverage to date has mentioned that you and Jessica Chastain went to Juilliard together. Should we expect any of your other classmates to pop up?
OSCAR ISAAC: I hope so! I did a play with another classmate, also named Jessica. I gotta say it’s really very fun because you have a common language, you approach things in a similar way. It’s a lot of fun being able to be open and upfront and honest with each other. You usually get to that place with people you were work with but it takes awhile and you have to have be careful because every has a different process and different ways in.
NATHANIEL: I imagine shortcuts are helpful since films are notoriously short on rehearsal time.
OSCAR ISAAC: Yeah. And also Jessica and I would rehearse. We would get together and go over every single line of the script. We wouldn’t get up and perform it or do it but we talk about it all. We have lots and lots of conversations about who these people are and how did they meet and what’s their timeline and how do they usually operate? Something as simple as ‘she slaps him’… 'Was that the first time she’s slapped him? Does she usually slap him?' Is this a different escalation?
All these little questions we would talk about and bring some ideas to J.C. But the truth is all those things don’t even have to be agreed upon by everyone. It’s not a story point. It’s about an emotional history.
That definitely shows up onscreen - this marriage feels richly storied. I spoke with J.C. recently and we talked a little about whether or not Abel is like him in various ways. When you're working with a writer/director are you thinking 'I'm playing a version of him!' as you work?
Not at all. No. Every character in there is kind on extension of himself in the script. Once you have an actor there’s a whole other level that happens there because they’re bringing their own -- and they should be bringing their own whole personhood in. Also personality wise J.C. and Abel could not be more different. J.C. won’t shut up. Abel tries not to speak unless he absolutely needs to.
But some of the experiences in the movie have happened to him. It wasn’t until recently we were doing press and he was like 'I was in my house and I came downstairs and there was a man in my living room and I ran after him and halfway into running after him I looked down and I realized I was barefoot.'
'How could you not tell me that?!?' We even shot that exact scene and I even remember saying something to the effect of ‘he wouldn’t do that he would do this' with conviction.
I think that just goes to show his graciousness. Even though this happened to him, he didn't think this was the only way. He didn’t limit my imagination based on his experience which is pretty incredible. It takes restraint to let some dumb actor tell you they know how you'd respond.
NATHANIEL: Speaking of restraint, this role is quiet -- well, quiet is a weird word but Abel is intense in a still way. How difficult is that to be confident enough to do so little. He expects the energy to come to him in a way.
That’s interesting. That was the challenge of playing the character. How do you keep things very close to the chest? How do you work from a place of strategy and calculation at all time and yet show that he is incredibly attached to his goals? He is an emotional person. He is not coldblooded. And yet at the same time there’s this almost sociopathic quality to his ambition. That balance was very challenging but rewarding to play.
You seem to have two types of very different kind of scenes as Abel -- there's the interactive confrontations with Chastain but in other scenes it's like a solo performance. Like that sales lesson scene which is practically a monologue. How different are those modes for an actor?
What’s great about that scene with the sales students is that it’s the first time you really see his passion and joy. Up until then he’s a bit of mogul businessman behind the scenes. Suddenly there’s almost a blue collar aspect to him. It’s a reveal of who he is in a smart way, the way J.C. put that together.
And the scenes with his wife are a reveal of where his passion and love is. Suddenly everything that’s closed off and calculated gets opened up with her because she knows how to push his buttons. It feels -- as an actor you try to get a continuity with the character so it doesn’t feel like a different character. But I think you’re right that one has to be willing to not be afraid of showing a completely different side of the character. For some reason in movies we’ve gotten used to the idea that we know exactly who the character is within about 15 minutes of meeting them. So that we’re on their side or know they’re a bad guy. In life you can know someone for 20 years and they'll do something that surprises you. 'I thought I knew you!'
You also sing beautifully -- your voice was just 'WOW' in Inside Llewyn Davis -- would you do a full musical?
Thank you. Uh… I’d consider it. It’s not necessarily something I’m naturally inclined to do.
Nobody will be able to ask you this with a straight face in a year after Star Wars so I have to know now: What do you get recognized for the most?
I actually don't get recognized that often but probably Llewyn Davis. And Drive a bit as well.
By ancestry you're Guatemalan and Cuban with a little French thrown in from what I gather. But you've been basically cast as virtually everything.
Egyptian, Russian, British, Middle Eastern … It's like you're the new Ben Kingsley, anything ethnic or foreign, we give it to Oscar!
[Laughter] Also non-ethnic which is good. The King of England which is nice. I would probably describe the character in Star Wars as non-ethnic. But he's definitely an alien. [Rushes to add] As all characters in Star Wars are alien. They're not from earth. That was not a reveal!
It's not that kind of website, don't worry
It’s rewarding to melt into the fabric of a film and to morph into whatever different character I’m inhabiting at the time. It’s fun to play vastly different people from completely different backgrounds.
You know, casting, is not the most creative — not to denigrate casting directors at all — but in my experience as an actor, especially starting out, it takes a lot to get them to see you as something other than what they’ve already defined you as.
I’ve been very fortunate to be able to -- I'm not defined as one particular kind of actor which is important.
Now, you have a couple of huge mainstream blockbuster things coming up so you're moving to the land of the green screen.
I did Sucker Punch and Robin Hood and those were pretty big ones with CG effects. It's not a huge new thing.
But is this a strategy move after these intimate prestige dramas to go Star Wars and X-Men?
There's no strategy to it. It’s character based and world based and director based. JJ Abrams and Bryan Singer are incredible directors. As far as the X-Men, Apocalypse is a character I've loved since 1987. "X-Factor" is the first comic I collected. I was weirdly obsessed with the Second Coming and the end of the world. [Laughter] The fact that there was a character named Apocalypse with four horsemen. I was very freaked out and titillated by this character so get a chance to inhabit him onscreen and not only that but work with Simon Kinberg and Bryan Singer in developing what he could be.
Anything that’s made by humans is about being a human. I know that sounds like a silly thing to say but even if it’s a comic book it’s not about superheroes and aliens and robots. It's about something that's happening in the present now as human beings that we just try to find an outlet to express.
So for me it's interesting to try to walk it all the way back to 'What was the impulse to express this particular thing?' And then to get back to that thing and meditate on that feeling and from there make choices. The crazier and bigger the character and the world is, the more I try to go into that. You’re not always successful but that's what I try to do.