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."

Kristopher Tapley has covered the film awards landscape for over a decade. He founded In Contention in 2005. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London and Variety. He begs you not to take any of this too seriously.