Most of us can only dream of the day we’ll reunite with a buddy from college to work together building cabins, fighting crime, launching a bagel empire or doing some other awesome thing. For former classmates turned Hollywood heavyweights Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, this fantasy became reality when they teamed up to star in J.C. Chandor’s critically acclaimed A Most Violent Year, which opens in select theaters this week.
Friends since their days at Juilliard, Chastain and Isaac portray power couple Anna and Abel Morales as they struggle to expand and then just sustain their New York heating oil business in 1981, one of the city’s most violent years.
We sat in on a roundtable interview with the cerebral stars to discuss the Oscar-buzzed film, working together, and of course, Star Wars.
“I have no competition with Oscar. If I am acting in a scene with someone who is soaring, it’s going to make me be even better. I don’t want to do a scene and have someone fail, because then I’m going to be terrible in the scene too.” —Jessica Chastain
How was your experience acting in this film different from other projects you’ve been in, and what was it like working with writer/director, J.C. Chandor?
Oscar: It was pretty intense. The script itself was very dense and filled with so many details, but it was also very mysterious because there’s not a lot description about the characters’ past and how they got to where they are. I think in a really great way you have to learn by the action, by little hints that get thrown out, and by the cumulative effect of the whole film who the characters are and who they are together. It was definitely challenging, and J.C. is not the most forthcoming—purposely so, I found out—with details. He’s got such an incredible mind, and ping-pongs back and forth between all these things. He’s a little bit all over the place, but then when it comes time to shooting all that goes away. He was very gracious and gave us a lot of room to play.
Jessica: I’d seen Margin Call, which is all about relationships and dialogue and then of course All Is Lost, which is the opposite. I thought, if these were J.C.’s first two films, this is a filmmaker who is versatile and takes risks. He didn’t say, “OK, I need to do the same thing when I had some success with my first film.” He sent me this script, and it was great. Like Oscar said, he really left it free for us to explore. Sometimes a writer/director wants you to do what they saw in their head when they were writing it, and to be honest, that’s only how they would act the role. Sometimes we’d ask J.C. questions, and he wouldn’t even fully explain something to us, because he didn’t want to taint our natural instincts. That’s what was exciting for me.
Behind the scenes, how did you work together to unravel the relationship between your two characters: Abel as an immigrant on the rise and Anna as the daughter of a mobster from the Bronx.
Oscar: We got together before we even met with J.C., and we just went through every scene and every line, and we started talking about possibilities: Where did this whole relationship start? How did we meet? What year did we get married? We considered all these different possibilities to create context so that when we were doing scenes we had that bedrock. It was great, because often you don’t get a chance to do that, and even if you have the time, that’s not necessarily the other actor’s process. The fact that Jessica and I have the same training—we went to the same school, we’ve been friends for such a long time—we could talk about everything, and there was no fear that we were going to offend one another. It just saved so much time and made it way more fun when we got on set.
Jessica: Even though we rehearse, it’s not like you say the lines of the scene and get to try it out over and over again. For example, for the scene we had together in the kitchen, it had in there that Anna hits Abel. And so Oscar and I talked and asked if that has ever happened before. If we answer this together then when it happens, we can both respond to this either as a normal thing or as the first time she’s ever laid hands on him. All those choices—when you make them with a partner—it becomes very clear the characters are on the same team. It’s them against the world, and working with an actor where you have the same vocabulary, it gives you so much. You don’t feel like you’re tiptoeing around another actor, trying to make them join you. It was great from the very beginning. We started full steam ahead.
What was the most challenging scene for you?
Oscar: The scene after Anna shoots the deer. That was the first scene we shot together, and so there was the pressure of it being the first. We can talk and rehearse, but then it comes time to actually do it and that’s always a scary thing. Everybody behind the camera is like, “Alright, we got them… Now, let’s see what happens.” I remember that scene in particular, and sometimes it’s like surfing. You’re surfing on this thing, and you want to stay on it as long as you can. Sometimes, you start to fall off, but then Jessica would do something, and it would get me back on. It’s amazing, like tandem surfing.
J.C. did mention that because you both have your training from Juilliard, there’s a little bit of competition and one-upmanship that goes on. Do you agree?
Jessica: That’s actually not true at all. I have no competition with Oscar. In fact, if I am acting in a scene with someone who is soaring, it’s going to make me be even better. I don’t want to do a scene and have someone fail, because then I’m going to be terrible in the scene too. I have been so supportive of Oscar. I went to his premiere of The Nativity Story, and I have always been such a cheerleader of who he is and his work. On set, I felt like I was too. I was so happy to get to be in a scene and just watch him soar in his character. I think, in his mind, J.C. thinks it’s more fun if there is something like that, but I didn’t feel it.
Oscar: And what he might be referring to is, for instance, we would push each other within the scene… but as the characters. So J.C. becomes a viewer. He sees us fighting in a scene and thinks, “Oscar and Jessica are fighting again.” But that’s just acting!
“Honey, I think it’s time we had a serious talk… about your bangs.”
Taking place in New York City in 1981, this movie defies expectations some may have of a Scorsese-type mob film. Oscar, did that influence how you approached this character?
J.C. did say in a slightly joking way that it’s a gag movie. You think it’s a gangster movie, and it ends up not being one. It actually ends up being about a pacifist. As far as me playing Abel, I know he doesn’t want to be a gangster, he has never wanted to be one, and he’s afraid that if he starts down that path he will just be dismissed and also possibly that he will really like it. Abel does have the propensity for violence, clearly. At one point, he starts beating a guy’s head in. I think there’s a tension that’s created by calling the film A Most Violent Year. It plays with the audience’s expectations and thirst for violence. In one of the screenings we saw, when Anna shoots the deer, everyone started clapping, because it’s a moment of release. The audience gets a little bloodthirsty, so it’s an interesting play.
There isn’t normally such equality within a relationship in a film like this, with a strong female role alongside a husband who is also very strong. Jessica, how did you approach your character?
I read the script, and I had this very strong instinct for this one thing about Anna. J.C. and I sat down for a long lunch, and I told him, for me, she was Dick Cheney. And that’s what I wanted to do with her, because she’s doing the dirty work, so Abel can remain clean. He’s doing what he thinks is best, but she’s actually doing what they need to do to survive. I like that this is a character that you completely underestimate in the beginning. Most of the time, a female character doesn’t get to be like that. I love that J.C.’s created this story where it’s 1981, it’s a man’s world, and Anna is aligning herself with the most powerful man in the room.
You’re very vocal about women in Hollywood and a lack of opportunity for certain roles. How does this challenge affect you and others?
When I speak about that, I don’t speak from a selfish point-of-view, because I know I am in a very lucky position. I get sent scripts that are incredible, and I can work with the directors to make the characters even more interesting and rich. I’m speaking as an audience member who’s going to the movies, and I’m not seeing films about women. I think it’s a huge problem. I find it absolutely disgusting, and it’s really upsetting to me. I think we need to get more characters going that are just as interesting as the male ones. In Interstellar, my part was originally written for a man. I don’t think they had to do anything different to change the part to a female character, and it actually made me realize men and women are not that different at the end of the day. I’m going to start going through scripts and finding which male characters I can change to women.
Jessica, you are going to work with Mommy’s Xavier Dolan. How’d that happen?
Whenever I go to a film festival, I always make it a point to see other movies. The first year I went to a festival I realized they don’t schedule that, and they expect you to go and talk about your film to press and then you leave. So now, I will only go to festivals if I can also watch other people’s films, because that’s the reason I like to be in this business. I love films. Someone had told me about this 25-year-old filmmaker Xavier, so I decided to see his film, and I was absolutely blown away by what he did. I’m new to Twitter, but I wrote something like, “Mommy was incredible.” I guess someone told him Jessica Chastain tweeted about your film, and then he started tweeting me back… But like in front of everyone. He asked, “Will you be my beard?” and sent me Justin Bieber music videos. I loved him immediately. I’m excited to work with him. I think he’s such an important new voice in cinema.
Oscar, what can you tell us about Star Wars?
It’s coming out Christmas… I can’t really say anything. I’ve signed away my organs. I am in the trailer, so that was pretty wild to see, and J.J. Abrams is amazing. He’s got a lot of vision, and I think people will be surprised with what he does.