“I’ve always been such a cheerleader of who he is and his work,” says Jessica Chastain of her co-star and friend Oscar Isaac when we sat down with the two stars earlier this month to discuss their new film A Most Violent Year. “Even on set I felt like I was, and I was so happy to be in a scene and watch him soar in his character.” And for the Juilliard alums, who’ve known each other for over a decade now, their first on-screen partnership comes at the hands of filmmaker J.C. Chandor, whose directorial versatility and command of his subjects immediately attracted their attention. Echoing the supportive and firmly grounded friendship they share, in Chandor’s latest, Chastain and Isaac play Anna and Abel Morales, a mutually beneficial power couple doing everything they must to preserve the life they’ve built for themselves.
As the follow up to 2013’s All Is Lost, Chandor brings us into a chilly world of corruption, as seen through the eyes of a familial drama and set amongst the crime-infested oil industry in the 1980s. But for its quietly teeming undercurrent of violence and the looming threats overhead, the core of Chandor’s film lies in Abel and Anna’s struggle to stand their moral ground and defend what their personal honor, while navigating what that means for the dynamics of their marriage—and it’s the subtly powerful performances from Chastain and Isaac that give the film its vigor.
So with A Most Violent Year’s theatrical release tomorrow, I sat down for a roundtable discussion with Chastain and Isaac to discuss their intimate process of collaboration and the lack of competition between them, the dearth of equal marriages on screen, and the state of women in Hollywood.
Having had a long-time friendship prior to making this film, how did you two collaborate and work together to create the dynamic of your characters’ relationship?
Oscar Isaac: We got together before even meeting with J.C. and just went through every scene, every line, and talked about it. We started talking about possibilities of where this whole relationship started, when it started, how we met, what year we decided to get married, when we bought the business, how we bought the business from her father, and all these different possibilities just to create the context.
This way when we were doing those scenes we had that bedrock, and that was great because often you don’t get the chance to do that. Even if you have the time to do that, that’s not necessarily other actors’ process. Everybody has their own way of coming to things and some people don’t like talking about anything and that’s fine, but the fact that we have the same training and went to the same school and we’ve been friends for such a long time, we talked about everything. There was no fear that we were going to offend one another, we could ask each other anything and it just saved so much time and made it way more fun when we got on set.
Jessica Chastain: Even when going through a scene when we’d rehearse, it’s not like we say the lines of the scene and act it out over and over again. For example, the scene we had in the kitchen, it had in there that she hits him, so he and I talked and said, “Has that ever happened before, has she ever hit him before?” Because if we make that decision together, then when it does happen, we can both respond to it—is a normal thing or this is the first time she’s ever laid hands on him? And all of those choices, when you make them with a partner, it’s very clear, and here it’s very clear Anna and Abel are on the same team. It’s them against the world, and working with an actor who we have the same vocabulary, we have the same theater training forever, and have been cheerleaders of each other’s work, it gives you so much you don’t feel like you’re tip-toping around another actor trying to have them join you.
OI: It doesn’t matter if the viewers are like, “That’s the first time she hit him!” or “Oh, clearly she’s hit him before,” but for us, just the idiosyncratic little things that happen when we have that history. It just creates specificity and ultimately you just get the sense that there’s real intimacy.
What was your experience like working with J.C. Chandor?
OI: It’s pretty intense because the script itself was already quite dense and filled with so many details. But it’s also mysterious because it’s not filled with a lot of details about his past or even their past and how they got to where they are. In a very great way you learn by the action, by little hints that get thrown out, and by the cumulative effect of the whole film you get to know who he is and who they are together. But it was definitely challenging, and he’s not the most forthcoming—and purposely so I found out—with details, but he’s got such an incredible mind and he’s very quick.
He ping-pongs back and forth between so many things, and he’s just a little bit all over the place, but when it comes time for shooting, all that goes away. I ran into Robert Redford before we started shooting, and I said, “I’m about to shoot this thing with J.C. Chandor,” and he’s like, “Oh he’s great, he’s fantastic.” And I said, “Yeah, he talks a lot right,” and he goes, “Won’t shut up, but once you get on set it’ll be great, you’re going to love it.” Sure enough that’s exactly what happened. All of a sudden all that stuff just focuses in and concentrates and he bangs it out. I found that he was very gracious and gave us a lot of room to play.
JC: I really wanted to work with him because he’s so versatile. 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 those are your first two films, this is a filmmaker and a writer/director that’s versatile and takes risks, because he’s not repeating himself. He didn’t say, Okay I need to do the same thing I did when I had some success with my first film.
So he sent me the script and it was great. What 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’re writing, and to be honest, that’s only how they would act the role. So he wants to forget about it and we’ll ask questions, but sometimes he won’t even fully explain things to us because he doesn’t want to taint our natural instincts, and that’s what was exciting for me to work with.
J.C. mentioned that you that there was a competitiveness or a one-upsmanship on set between the two of you—
JC: That’s actually not true at all. J.C. has said this a couple times, but I no competition with Oscar. In fact, if I’m acting in a scene with someone who is soaring, it’s only going to make me be even better. I don’t want to do a scene and have someone fail because I’m acting terribly in the scene. I have been so supportive of Oscar, and I’ve always been such a cheerleader of who he is and his work. Even on set I felt like I was, and I was so happy to be in a scene and watch him soar in this character. I think in his mind he thinks it’s more fun if there is some competition like that, but I didn’t feel it.
OI: What he might be referring to is, for instance, we would push each other within the scene.
JC: As the characters.
OI: As the characters. And so he becomes a viewer—
JC: Oh Anna and Abel are fighting, so Jessica and Oscar are fighting.
OI: No, that’s acting!
Putting the word “violent” in the title of the film really fools the audience into thinking they’re going to be seeing a much different film. What you’re actually watching is a subdued character study about the struggle to maintain a marriage and an internal battle with morality.
OI: J.C. did say, in a slightly crass joking way, it’s a gag movie. The gag is that you think it’s a gangster movie and it ends up not being one, it actually ends up being about a pacifist.
JC: It’s a morality tale.
OI: So that is an interesting perspective, but that’s the overall thing. As an actor, I can know that, but that’s not really helpful necessarily in how you’re going to play each thing. So as far as me playing Abel, there was the idea that he doesn’t want to be a gangster and he has never wanted to be one and he’s afraid that if he starts down that path he will just be dismissed as one, and also possibly that if he starts down that path he will really like it. He has the propensity for violence, I think that maybe Anna wouldn’t be with him if she didn’t sense that maybe he had the potential to do those kinds of things as well. So the tension that J.C. creates by calling it A Most Violent Year, it plays with the audiences expectations.
JC: And their thirst for violence.
OI: The audience gets a little bloodthirsty, and it’s an interesting play that he does.
One of the best elements of the film is Abel and Anna’s relationship and the equal balance in their marriage. Jessica, how did you go about approaching the role as a woman unafraid to stand her ground and as a wife and mother?
JC: I’d known J.C. and we talked in Cannes about the film and then he sent the script to me. I read it and I had this very strong instinct for this one thing. So we sat down for a long lunch, and I said to him that, for me, she was Dick Cheney, that’s what I wanted to do with her. She is the person that does what she feels is best, and she’s doing the dirty work so he can remain clean and he can believe what he’s doing it is the easiest and the best, but she’s the one 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 this. I loved that he’s created this story where it’s 1981, and it’s a man’s world, and she is aligning herself with the most powerful man in the room. She wants to be with someone who’s like her father. She believes her husband is a king and anyone who disrespects them she will personally kill. That scene with the gun is really interesting because that’s when a lot of things start to bubble to the surface for her. She’s a girl who grew up in a household where her father was well-versed in criminal activity and she knows how to shoot a gun, so that’s when she starts to become more bold—with the cop, with the gun—and she now feels like she needs to step forward and take charge.
There’s been a lot of talk about your next project, working with Xavier Dolan’s on The Death And Life Of John F. Donovan. How did you meet him and had you been a fan of his films?
JC: I have a thing now whenever I go to a film festival, I always make it a point to see other movies, because the first year that I went to festivals I realized they don’t schedule that. They expect you to go and talk about your film and then you leave. So I will now I will only go to festivals if I can watch other people’s film, because that’s the reason I like to be in this business because I love films. Someone had told me about this 25-year-old filmmaker, Xavier Dolan, who was incredible, so I went to see his film and I was absolutely blown away by what he did.
I’m new to Twitter and all I wrote was like, “Mommy’s incredible, this film’s fantastic!” and I guess someone told him, “Did you know Jessica Chastain tweeted about your film?” And then he started tweeting at me, but like, “Will you be my beard?” and like sending me Justin Bieber music videos. I loved him immediately. I was like, we’re going to have a good time this guy and I. Then we had a conversation on the phone, he sent me a script, and we planned to meet for dinner. I opened the door and he was standing there with a huge bouquet of flowers in front of his face, and it was just love at first sight. I’m excited to work with him and I think he’s such an important new voice in cinema.
You’ve always been very vocal about women in Hollywood and the lack of opportunity for great roles. How do you see these challenges affecting others and what do you want to see change for women across the Hollywood landscape?
JC: When I speak about that, I don’t speak from a selfish point of view because I know I’m 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. There’s a collaboration there. I’m speaking as an audience member going to the movies and not seeing films about woman. I don’t see Asian American actors on screen, I don’t see women in their 60s on screen, and it’s a huge problem.
I find it absolutely disgusting, to be honest. It’s really upsetting to me. I love cinema, and I love European films because I love diversity and there’s more diversity for some reason in other countries. French cinema celebrates women of all ages. So I’m speaking for other actresses I want to see in films. I think Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson are such incredible actresses and I never see them in movies. We just need to get more characters going, and female characters are just as interesting as male characters.
In Interstellar my part was originally written for a man and Chris Nolan changed it to a woman. I don’t think he had to do anything different to change the part to a female character and it actually made me realize men and woman were not that different at the end of the day. [laughs] I’m going to start going through scripts and finding what male characters I can change to women.