Oscar Isaac on ‘A Most Violent Year,’ ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ ‘Ex Machina,’ ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’
LatinPost.com — The last year has been quite the year for Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac. Isaac, who gained tremendous repute for his phenomenal turn in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” continued to establish himself as one of the most fiercely talented actors of his generation. In 2014 alone, he worked on the hotly anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” as Poe Dameron and then managed to land the part of the villain Apocalypse in the upcoming “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
But he also continued his work on smaller and more intimate pictures including the thriller “Two Faces of January” opposite Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst before jumping into awards discussion for his turn in “A Most Violent Year.” For that film he was awarded the National Board of Review’s award for Best Actor.
Recently, the actor spoke with Latin Post about working alongside his close friend Jessica Chastain (who did her utmost to help him land the lead role), why this film portrays Latin American men in a new light and how it feels to work on big action films such as “Star Wars” and “X-Men.”
You recently won the award for Best Actor from the National Board of Review. When did you hear the news and how did it make you feel? I heard the day that it was announced and it was great. It’s very nice to get recognized for your work, especially this year when there are so many fantastic performances out there.
What drew you most to “A Most Violent Year?” I really appreciated the character and the way that J.C. [Chandor] wrote it. It is rare that you see Latin American men presented this way. It is not cliché and very individual to this person. I cannot remember the last time I saw someone presented this way and I love that it was about this moderately wealthy man that completely buys into the American dream and the myth of the self-made man. And has severed all ties to his past and is committed to growing his business and put it all out on the line. I love how gray of a character he is. One side of the spectrum he is trying to be ethical and be proud of not cheating or being a gangster. But on the other hand, he is a red blooded capitalist and is not afraid of seeing people as commodities. He also has a bit of self delusion as well. I just thought that it was such a complex and complicated figure.
Why does he deny his past? He doesn’t really talk to his brother, who one would assume he would take care of, and he also refuses to speak Spanish with Julian in one scene. Because his strategy is one of other growths. I think he severs his past, just like many do, to recreate himself. He is not interested in meshing his culture. He left when he was a young boy and was probably was alone for most of his life. He started as a truck driver, quickly saw that it was a criminal organization but also realized that if you could do the business legitimately, you could make a ton of money. This is a very needed commodity. What is the last bill that people stop paying when it is cold out? Everyone needs heat.
J.C. told me this story from a documentary on Henry Ford. It was literally a big pot and people would wear their finest Sunday clothes. They would jump into the pot and would literally come out in business suits. And that was the new them. That was the new America. Your culture is capitalism.
Abel is someone that has that believe. It is strange and questionable. And that moment when he does speak Spanish, he is completely fluent. It is a strategy. Because in the world that they are living in, he is not just interested in servicing Queens, Brooklyn and Green Point. He wants to service Manhattan. He wants to go to every neighborhood. And to do that, guess who he hires? Blond hair, blue-eyed guys, because those are the neighborhoods he is going to. And for his drivers he wants them to speak English. Especially with Julian, I think he is trying to train him. He sees a bit of his past in that character. In a way that character represents who he was and who he could have turned into had he not made different choices. It is harsh because Julian is not a hustler. He is a sensitive and vulnerable guy. I love that it is a meditation on the system and it questions whether it is even possible to operate within the system with some sense of ethics and integrity.
One of the lines everyone repeats throughout the film to Abel is “I am sorry.” Do you think that anyone in the entire film is actually apologetic for his or her actions? Yes, I think sometimes they are. I think there are moments where Julian, right before he is about to run, and Elyes Gabel plays it so beautifully. You hear him say it a few times and he’s clearly not. And then all of a sudden he stops, he knows what is about to happen and he says “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I let you down.” And I think it is a truly powerful moment.
Were there any other characters or performances that you used for inspiration to create this character? No, I did not watch any other films. What I did was I read a few different things. Books by Marguerite Yourcenar such as “Memoires of Hadrian.” I though it was fascinating as a study in ambition and power and how to take the high road as a highly ambitious individual. I also read this book “Manhood,” which is ironically written by this woman in Paris in the ’50s. It’s an excellent study of being a man.
I also listened to a lot of Marvin Gaye. I did not want to lose the sensuality of the guy and just be a cold calculator. With his wife, I wanted that passion to come through. For some reason, it helped to be in that time. Even though I listened to a lot of his records that came before that, I think it is important. When people do period pieces they get so fixated on the specific year, but for me I was in a number of pieces from a bunch of eras so just having something to connect with the time was essential.
You just mentioned the sensuality of the character and I noticed that in many ways the relationship with his wife is defined by sex. Was that a creative decision developed by you and Jessica Chastain or was that in the script? That was not explicit in the script. It was something that Jessica and I wanted there because their relationship is a bit contentious and is always related around business. But we wanted to show a physical dimension.
So you spoke in Spanish in this film and then you also spoke Greek in your other film this year “Two Faces of January.” Are you fluent in either and what are the challenges of adding another language to the character? I am fluent in Spanish but it was the first time I acted in any substantial way in Spanish. I found it to be a lot of fun. It’s definitely challenging because it is not my first language but I enjoyed it. With “Two Faces,” it was so much fun. I got the Rosetta Stone and I tried to learn as much Greek as I could. I had a Greek tutor and it is another way of being like the character.
You were just cast as Apocalypse in “X-Men” and just wrapped on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Does the scale of such films demand a different kind of preparation or approach for you? Certainly more people will see it, but the job remains the same. It’s about creating a character and how do you embody the aspects that people were trying to express when they created them in the comics with “X-Men,” especially since it is an iconic villain. Apocalypse definitely needs to be fleshed out on film. And with “Star Wars” it was about creating a believable person in this massive fantastic universe.
What other future projects are you looking forward to? I have this film called “Ex Machina” coming out in the spring. It is an incredible film by Alex Garland. He is such an incredible filmmaker and I am really excited about it.