Gifted character actor with old school style star quality

One week. Two films. Same star. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw tags Oscar Isaac as an actor on the cusp of great things.

Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales and Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales.
Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales and Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales.

It’s merely an accident of distribution and release dates that sees Oscar Isaac in two very different films competing at the box office this week.

The movies are A Most Violent Year, charting the rollercoaster ride of a businessman on the make in the New York of 1981, and Ex Machina, a finger-wagging tale of the dangers of meddling with science.

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Isaac is at the heart of both. And in each film he delivers a performance of intensity, complexity and verve that instantly marks him out as one of the new breed of American star character players that already boasts the likes of Michael Shannon.

Except, of course, that Isaac – real name Oscar Isaac Hernandez – was born in Guatemala. But he grew up in Florida, graduated from Juilliard and is about to become one of the United States’ prime cinema exports.

Isaac’s breakthrough came courtesy of the Coen brothers in 2012’s Inside Llewyn Davis, playing a self-absorbed folk musician in the ’60s. After that the doors of opportunity were blasted from their hinges.

He is a hypnotic presence on screen. Possessed of deep, dark eyes, saturnine good looks (that can turn menacing in a heartbeat) and a talent reminiscent of a young Al Pacino, Isaac’s acting chops are of the old school variety. Put simply, he’s electric.

In JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year he’s the boss of a small-time company looking to expand to the big time. Isaac builds his characters like a bricklayer. He finds an accent and clothing that fits the man, then constructs. “The script’s like a crime scene and you’ve gotta get all these clues to figure out what happened,” he reveals.

“When I was starting out it was a very dense script. I was a little bit shaky at first thinking, ‘I don’t know how to get into this guy’. Business is so boring to me. Then I realised... it was about the game and strategy, the long view and having confidence. The long haul. He’s a long distance runner, quite literally. Everything’s about the end result.”

On Chandor’s film Isaac is paired with Jessica Chastain. The two were classmates at Juilliard, which meant there was no pussyfooting around as they used each other as sounding boards for their performances.

“Often when you work with actors everyone has their own process and their own way in. You have to be sensitive about that. You don’t wanna try and bully someone into your technique. But with Jessica we could bully each other the whole time! We were just very open. Nothing was out of bounds. It was a lot of fun.”

The 35-year-old has been around movies for a dozen years. He was Joseph in 2006’s The Nativity Story and Prince John in Ridley Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe.

As the Coens’ troubled troubadour, he emerged as a serious player in modern US filmmaking. Awards came thick and fast along with offers of choice Hollywood projects, which meant two franchises: X-Men and Star Wars.

In the meantime there are the twists and turns of A Most Violent Year to enjoy. Packed with character, subplots, and an air of tension and desperation it presents Isaac with a range of opportunities courtesy of some genuine, old-fashioned storytelling and fine acting. “I’m always interested in watching a performance where you’re getting to see things that the person’s not aware of, that they’re letting their secrets out... That kind of mystery is something I’m interested in.”

A Most Violent Year (15) and Ex-Machina (15) are out now.