On A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: When Homes Start to Look Like Their Owners

On A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: When Homes Start to Look Like Their Owners

nullThe places where we live shape us, and we shape the places
where we live to suit our temperaments. This truth is driven home repeatedly by
J.C. Chandor’s newest film, A Most
Violent Year
, which has been compared repeatedly to The Godfather but just as easily could be compared to On the Waterfront, Winter’s Bone, or The Truman
Show
as a study of the way inhabitants of an environment deal with and
modify their environment. Chandor has foregrounded setting to such an extent
that the two powerful performances at the film’s heart—Oscar Isaac’s as the manager of an oil trucking company, learning how to defend himself against the aggression of his semi-criminal colleagues, and Jessica Chastain’s as his
wife, who already knows and is desperate to teach him—seem to grow naturally
out of the milieu in which we receive them. However, these figures also shape
the settings in which they thrive.

The first sight we have of Abel shows him running, nimbly,
though a modest suburban New Jersey neighborhood. The setting is appropriate
for a character like his: contained, inwardly manicured, almost frustratingly
righteous and plodding when it comes to the moral shorthand those around him
employ for survival’s sake. There is something bleak about these streets,
comfortable as they might seem; there’s a notable lack of other people in
Abel’s surroundings, a visible emptiness, that suits the story, and suits also
the story he is writing with his actions here. After he makes the first payment
on his business, huddled in a cold-seeming trailer, his partner, played with
memorable paleness by Albert Brooks, encourages Abel to take a look around his
future headquarters, and so he does: down by the river, facing Manhattan from
the Jersey side, perhaps picturesque in one sense but at this moment, in the
middle of winter, standing behind oil tanks, it seems less like a view of
dreamland than a reminder of what obstructions lie ahead. The buildings are all
the same color, they’re all huge, and they’re all a long way off. When we see
Abel’s house for the first time, its sleekness is impressive but its coldness
is telling. The impression it makes is not that Abel is cold—for he isn’t. As
confidently portrayed here by Isaac, he’s a warm person, almost warm to a
fault, naïve in his trust of ethics, good faith, honesty, and the people in his employ. The house suggests,
though, the high-flown way he believes a man of his stature should live: high ceilings, pristine
surfaces, vast spaces, off-white walls, the perfect kitchen, the perfect
library. But it’s a borrowed idea of perfection. When we meet one of his
associates, played here with semi-beefy malevolence by Alessandro Nivola, it
appears that they share this same notion of coldness, the appearance of
perfection, as an aesthetic. The colleague has a racquetball court built into
his house, pinging opulence at us with the force of the ball itself. When the
two share a drink and discuss a loan which could push Abel into career
adulthood, they sit in a space-age interior, resembling something out of an
advertisement rather than a place where anyone might live. This is fitting,
though, because the people Chandor is filming here place little stock in homes,
in domesticity; for them life is work, and work is life. Work, further, is all about the rewards you reap, and the rewards you reap are, in essence, your life.

Chandor is smart about this dichotomy, though. When we see
the home of one of Abel’s employees, a vulnerable man who, after being beaten
up by the thugs whose aggression against Abel’s drivers propels the story, shoots his aggressors and then flees, the apartment’s modesty and hominess, with its inexpensive furniture, its drawn shades, and its
lived-in quality stand in stark contrast to the other interiors we’ve seen. It’s
clear hat the employee isn’t suffering under the same preconceived notions Abel
suffers under—but when he meets a sad fate, we wonder if such illusions might
have helped him. In an interview, Oscar Isaac
recounted how Chandor had stressed the importance of the suits Abel wears in
the film, and how their presence might dictate the character’s behavior, and in
fact his entire world view. This is a profound truth, when all is said and
done: outer trappings can shape the person to which they are attached, in
greater or lesser degrees. It’s the direction that shaping takes that makes all
the difference.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

Oscar Isaac Talks About Pragmatism, Morality and Putting Yourself On the Line in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and Beyond

Oscar Isaac Talks About Pragmatism, Morality and Putting Yourself On the Line

nullOscar 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. 

MA: 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?

OI: 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.

MA: 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?

OI: 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.

MA: He was
telling you to take the physical avenue in.

OI: 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.

MA: 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.

OI: 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.

MA: What about
with his wife?

OI: 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.

MA: 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?

OI: 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.

MA: None of it.

OI: 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?

MA: Why is he clinging
to his morality? That was my question.

OI: 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
.

MA: 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?

OI: 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.

MA: That’s stuff
you think Abel has had from the beginning?

OI: 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.

MA: 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?

OI: 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.

MA: You’re doing
that with your next projects. Do you have hopes and fears around risking your
personal life and privacy?

OI: 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.

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway