Oscar Isaac is having a pretty good year. The Juilliard-trained actor has been on a bit of a roll since being cast as the lead in Inside Llewyn Davis; the Coen brothers’ ’60s folk noir may not have gotten the awards traction that could have made Isaac’s breakout a truly golden ride, but it’s not like the lack of an Oscar nomination dimmed his prospects either. Not only did he score a choice role opposite Jessica Chastain in director J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, which recently received an awards-season friendly 2014 release date—he was also cast in Star Wars: Episode VII. But you already knew that one.
In his latest, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel The Two Faces of January, Isaac plays Rydal, a clean-shaven, fedora-sporting American abroad who’s been leading the life of a quiet, small time scam artist in Greece till he takes up with a beguiling American couple played by Kirsten Dunst (Colette) and Viggo Mortensen (Chester). When a symbol of Chester’s less-than-honest past pays him an unexpected visit, a violent incident tethers the three travelers for the remainder of the slow-burning thriller, directed and adapted by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove).
“He didn’t look, necessarily, like the part was described in the book, but he can do anything. He has this thing that my favorite kind of actors have in that they’re kind of edgy and dangerous, but he has this innocence as well,” said Amini, who met Isaac on Drive, which he wrote the screenplay for. “You can feel it when he’s flirting with Kirsten, and he looks over and sees Viggo and feels guilty and tries to include him in the conversation. He can switch moods so quickly. I don’t know many actors who can go toe-to-toe with Viggo.”
EW spoke to Isaac about The Two Faces of January (available now on VOD and in select theaters on Sept. 26), the game-changing moments of his career and even a bit about Star Wars, which he’s currently filming in London.
EW: I really enjoyed this movie. It’s a restrained, classical thriller that somehow feels fresh.
OSCAR ISAAC: I was really proud of it. I was really happy with how it turned out. I think Hoss is really a special guy.
Chester and Rydal have an interesting relationship throughout. Can you talk about how you developed that?
We talked about what each one is looking for and sees in the other person—particularly at the beginning of the relationship and how that evolves and shifts. For my character, he’s clearly running away from something. He’s this American living in Greece, kind of being a small time con man. His father has recently died and it’s clear that he didn’t have a very good relationship with him. He’s definitely in a place where he’s looking for some sort of role model and in comes this extravagant, handsome, seemingly intelligent well-to-do man with a beautiful young wife and I think he’s drawn to that. But things go on and he see’s that it’s a false façade. Patricia Highsmith is so good at that—writing people with secrets and then slowly revealing them.
This movie is really just the three of you. Did you and your co-stars get along on set?
I found that we did. I was really impressed with Kirsten. She’s so spontaneous and yet she does so much work. You look at her script and it’s filled with notes. She’s incredibly intelligent and at the same time she can let it all go and make it seem like it comes from the moment. She’s also so funny. I loved working with her. And Viggo as well, I was surprised to see how goofy he is. He was telling jokes all the time and making us laugh. We laughed so much during the making of the film. There’s actually a blooper reel that they released.
It’s on YouTube!
I was also excited to see A Most Violent Year get a 2014 release date. Are you possibly gearing up for an Oscar campaign?
Oh, well I don’t know. That’s so out of my hands, any of that stuff. But I think it’s good because it’s a winter movie in that it takes place in winter. I’m happy that it’s coming out sooner, but I’m always happy when things come out sooner, especially when I like them so much. I’m just excited to be able to see them. But yeah, I was happy to see that. I think it’s a really strong movie. J.C. [Chandor] is a very fascinating filmmaker and an interesting voice who continues to push himself and do vastly different projects from one movie to the next.
Your career has really taken a turn in this past year. Was there a moment or a role that you think really changed things for you?
Actually, there were two big moments. A personal game-changer was when Ridley Scott cast me as King John, the King of England, for Robin Hood. Being someone who grew up in Miami and had Latin origins? That, for me, was a big one. He was bold enough to cast me so against type in that way. That gave me a lot of confidence. It was a huge thing. And then for Joel and Ethan Coen to cast me in Llewyn Davis, which was my first lead role in something that I felt like I could do and felt like I’d been training for 30 years to play and that it all actually came together? It was night and day. Just for being cast, doors opened up. That was a big moment.
Is being in something as high-profile as Star Wars affecting the kinds of decisions you’re making about your own career going forward?
I’ve never been good at those kinds of calculations. It’s more like, if I get something and I read it and I think that there is something to do here or it’s different in some way or, like, that’s a psyche I’d like to inhabit—it’s more about that. It’s impossible to know what you’re going to get, you know? That’s how I look at it.
Have you had much interactions with the original trio of Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill on or off-screen?
Yeah, I have. Both. They’re such funny people. Carrie is hilarious and doing such cool work. Harrison is back. He went on hiatus for a little while, but he’s 150 percent back. It’s pretty amazing to see him bounce back. He looks incredible. Everyone’s having a really good time. J.J. sets that tone. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and it’s being done with a lot of heart. There’s nothing cynical about the way we’re doing this. Even in the way he’s shooting it—he’s shooting on film and actually building the sets, so you’ve got hundreds of Stormtroopers or whatever, and hundreds of extras and all the ships. You actually see it. It’s all real. Everyone can interact with the world.
What do you think of this culture of leaked photos from set and this insatiable hunger for specific details about this new installment?
People want to know all those special things and when those iconic moments are going to happen, but if all that gets revealed beforehand I feel like it robs people of that moment when they’re sitting there watching it for the first time.
The original Star Wars, of which you’ve said you’re a big fan, are filled with cheesy lines and dialogue which the actors have not shied away from criticizing over the years. How does this compare?
Yeah. [Laughs] I’m constantly looking for a cheesy line to say to harken back to the old ones. No, what they’re trying to do and what’s really great is J.J.’s been loosening it up a little bit and trying to make it alive and energized. It’s not formal. They’re messy, energized people. We’ve all intentionally tried to do that. Just make it a little more fiery and messy.
What’s the best advice that you’ve been given so far?
Advice? Look at your pay statements.