With upcoming starring turns in both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and X-Men: Apocalypse, Oscar Isaac is poised to take over not only 2015, but the foreseeable future. However, the increasingly in-demand actor isn’t just conquering the Comic-Con set; he is also continuing to turn in critically acclaimed performances in films like last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis and, most recently, in J.C. Chandor’s excellent 1980s crime drama A Most Violent Year.
In the searing potboiler, Isaac plays Abel Morales, a fuel supplier on the rise in New York City who must navigate the moral morass of an increasingly corrupt industry during the most violent year in the city’s history. Isaac’s performance is understated yet commanding, breathing life into a man who is desperately trying to run a clean business in a dirty industry. Recently, I had the chance to catch up with Isaac at a press day in Los Angeles to discuss Abel’s moral compass, his impending geek superstardom, a foray into the world of artificial intelligence, and much more.
Nerdist: In A Most Violent Year, Abel is a very fascinating character because he sort of exists in this climate of fear that’s been created by all this violence and madness that’s surrounding him, but he refuses to sort of give in to this people who are trying to drag him down into the muck and the mire. Can you talk about that moral grayness within Abel?
Oscar Isaac: Yeah, well, it’s called A Most Violent Year, and the protagonist is anti-violence. He’s a non-violence advocate. What’s interesting is I didn’t find that, in itself, compelling. I didn’t understand it, actually. Maybe because I’m someone that has very loose morals [chuckles], but I didn’t really understand. Really? You’re living in the most violent time in New York City, and you’re out in the countryside, and you don’t want to get a gun to protect your family because why?
And so that was a hard thing to get into. I mean, I’m not like – I’m not into guns at all, but just from a practical level, I couldn’t really get it. Until I realized that he’s a hyper-capitalist sociopath. Then I thought, “Oh! Now I understand!” It’s just strategically not right. Then I could understand it. It’s like, as an actor, playing morality or someone that’s moral – I don’t even understand how you do it. But if it’s based on a strategy, and if he sees this particular strategy of getting a gun – if he sees that as detrimental to his goals, then I could totally understand it.
So when I started seeing it in those terms, I thought, OK. I’m a Latin immigrant. I have this heating oil company. I’m surrounded by gangsters. I have a DA that’s after me, they’re trying to shut me down. What would make it really easy for them to shut me down? If I shot somebody. Probably that would be a really easy way to be like, “You’re done!” So even if I got a gun legally, if someone broke into my house and I had a gun, I’m going to shoot them. And if I kill them, we’re done. And I don’t just want to be – even if there’s a way to say it was self-defense, do you think I’m going to be able to do the thing I want to do, which is I don’t just want to own a couple of heating oil companies in Queens and Brooklyn. I want to go into Manhattan. I want to be in bed with politicians. I want to be up there with the mayor.
I mean, I’m going all the way, right? So if I kill somebody, that’s never going to happen. So practically, it’s a stupid solution. So once that coalesced in my brain, I think I was able to really get behind his righteous stance.
N: Yeah, it’s sort of righteousness masked over with ruthless pragmatism. It’s just really single-minded in his goal.
OI: And if there’s any moral to the story, it’s like sometimes the most right thing is actually the smartest thing.
N: He has all these people around him — in particular, his wife Anna — who are like “Why aren’t we just going for the jugular? Why aren’t we striking while the iron’s hot?” But he sees the bigger picture.
OI: That’s exactly right. Something that Abel said early on is that he’s not particularly great at anything. He’s not like the best salesman. He’s not an inventor. He’s not, he doesn’t have a great sense of his offices or employees or any of that stuff. Any genius that he has would like in the fact that he has vision. He sees the long term.
I mean, this is 1981 in New York City. It was on the edge of bankruptcy, on the edge of total collapse. It was basically where Detroit is now. The federal government had said, “Sorry. You’re on your own.” There was a great white flight happening. Anybody white with money was getting the fuck out. And this guy says, “We’re going to build. Now we’re going to build. Now is when we make our move. Now is when we put all-in, and we risk everything.” So he’s an optimist, as well. And so, yeah. Yeah.
N: So how did filming something like this, which seems a little more quiet and a little more focused, compare to something on a larger scale, like Star Wars?
OI: Umm…yeah, well. That film is a lot bigger! [laughs]
N: [laughs] Understatement of the year!
OI: Yeah, it’s a lot bigger, it’s a much bigger machine. You know, this is a character study. You spend almost 2 hours – over 2 hours with this one man, seeing how he reacts to adversity, and slowly understanding who he is. By the end of it, I think you’ve got a sense of who this person was, but you had to go through this whole thing to even get that sense of him.
Star Wars is a very different thing. You’re feeding excitement to a world. However, I think what JJ’s done with it is make it a very emotional story, and the spectacle is secondary to the emotion of it.
OI: And I think people are going to love it, just already, based on a tiny piece of trailer…
N: Yeah, there is already a guy who has a tattoo of the ball droid. The pace is incredible!
I feel like recently you’ve been taking more and more sci-fi leaning genre projects, between Star Wars and X-Men: Apocalypse and Ex Machina, which I’m very excited for. Do you find yourself drawn to those kinds of stories more?
OI: Whatever’s genre oriented, it was definitely about the character, and it’s something that I feel like I can work with, and is a space that I want to inhabit for however long – three or four or five months. That’s basically it. Because the job between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ is the same, no matter what it is. It really is. You have to be a living, breathing human being with thoughts, even if you’re playing an alien or a mutant, you have to be a human being with thoughts. That’s the job.
N: So sort of going along with this, now that you’re attached to some of these larger properties, are you prepared for the Comic-Cons and things like that?
OI: Uh, sure! I’ve never been. Look, it’s stuff that I love – stuff that I grew up with. The first movie I ever saw was Return of the Jedi in the theater. I mean, it’s totally part of my childhood, and the fact that all of us that have been fans for so long are now in a the position where we actually make the stuff is kind of amazing.
N: Yeah, it’s great. This is the world we live in now. I grew up reading all these comics, and it’s so crazy that all of this is taking over in such a big way. So how have things changed since you became attached to Star Wars? Has your public persona changed in any way? Has it been more difficult to go out and grab a cup of coffee?
OI: No, no. It’s been the same.
N: That’s good.
OI: Yeah, yeah. Also, I live in New York. There’s a little less – a little bit less of that.
N: A little too cold to flag people down.
OI: Yeah, exactly.
N: So what else do you have coming down the pipeline that you’re excited about?
OI: Well, the movie that I think is really good, and I think he’s an incredible film maker, is Alex Garland, Ex Machina. That one, I’m so excited about! I think it’s a really special movie, and I’m really proud of it. Yeah – that should be out next year.
N: And that’s all about artificial intelligence and the Turing test?
N: So tell me a little bit about that. What do you play? What do you hope people are going to take away from that?
OI: Yeah, well, I’m basically an employee of a company, not unlike Google, that wins a raffle, a lottery, to spend a week with the reclusive CEO of the company that no one has seen for a couple of years. Willy Wonka-style, right?
He gets the golden ticket; he gets flown into this man’s estate. No one is around. Everything is automated, beautiful – a strange landscape, and he comes in and he meets the CEO. That’s who I play. Domhnall Gleeson plays the lucky employee, and when he arrives he realizes that he’s there to test his newest invention, which is a robot that may have artificial intelligence, in the shape of a beautiful girl played by Alicia Vikander.
So he’s there to test this robot. What ends up happening is these people torture each other with their brains.
N: Oh no!
OI: [chuckling] And it’s a wild cat-and-mouse story that happens, and nothing is quite as it seems. It’s SO smart! When I got that script, you could pick it up and look at it from any angle, the thing holds together. There’s big, big ideas in it. Ultimately, like any good sci-fi, it’s an allegory. It’s an allegory to the human experience – the basic human experience being “I have no fucking clue what you’re thinking.” I can explain to you what it feels like to me to drink this water. I can define everything, I can write poems about it. But you’ll never know if my experience is anything like yours.
We can be completely alien. The only thing that comes close to expressing – that lets us know we actually are experiencing a very similar thing, is art, I think. That’s the only thing that even comes close.
N: Yeah, because you try to recreate that shared experience, or at least express that in a way that other people are like, “Yes! I recognize myself in this.”
OI: Exactly! That’s what I see. That’s been going on since the cave paintings in France – what do they call it? The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I was terrified when I saw that movie.
N: Yeah, well, Werner Herzog has a way of making nature look so horrifying.
OI: Of unsettling you, yeah! It is! It’s like “Oh my god. Same shit, different cave!”
N: Exactly. At least there’s no bears here. OK, last question. A bit of a non-sequitur, so bear with me. What would be inside your ideal burrito?
OI: A burrito. Oh, Jesus. That depends on the mood, you know? Umm…definitely some cheese in there. I’m a carnitas kind of guy – I like the marinated pork. Some guac. Chili, a little spice – like spicy carnitas burrito.