Photography by Peter Hapak
Styling by Dora Fung
"I wanted to play Dick Cheney," explains the actress Jessica Chastain. It seems like a strange ambition— to want to portray one of the least popular public figures in recent history. The 37 year-old actress is talking about how she envisioned her role in the new film A Most Violent Year, directed by J.C. Chandor. In it, Chastain plays Anna, the daughter of a small time mobster who is married to Abel, played by Oscar Isaac, a successful Hispanic immigrant who is trying to run her father's fuel company but also stay above the fray. But this is early eighties New York City and the streets are rough and the heating oil business is corrupt. As Abel tries to close a big deal and seal his fortune, husband and wife have different approaches to getting things done.
It's a brooding film that pays homage to American filmmaking in the seventies with all its small storytelling nuances. Isaac evokes Al Pacino's iconic Michael Corleone in The Godfather, with his soulful eyes and his push-pull struggle to do the right thing. But when Chastain is asked if she found inspiration for Anna in Diane Keaton's role as the wife, she shuts that notion down quickly. "Anna is not Kay," she says emphatically. "She has more authority. She knows what she is doing. She knows she's cooking the books." Watching The Godfather for inspiration would be too obvious for Chastain, who is known for her immersive approach to researching roles. The lady goes deep. Perhaps that's the reason that, in a relatively short career, Chastain has already earned two Oscar nominations— as a supporting actress for her role as the good-hearted Southern belle in The Help in 2011, and as the covert CIA operative who was instrumental in hunting down Osama bin Laden in the 2013 film Zero Dark Thirty. To prepare for that part she pasted up pictures of terrorists in her hotel room while filming. To play a 1950's Texas housewife in Terence Malick's Tree of Life, she spent time on a rural farm in Kansas, while she took Krav Magna lessons for her role as a Mossad agent in The Debt.
Chastain has been hailed as a director's darling, a chameleon-like talent who can shape shift into any character. So when Chandor was casting about for a male lead he solicited Chastain's help. She immediately suggested Isaac, a fellow Julliard School graduate who was a virtual unknown until he made his star turn in the Coen brothers' Llewyn Davis in 2013. "We had never acted together in school— he was a few years behind me— but I always wanted to do something with him," she says.
Their thespian chops are on full display in A Most Violent Year. The film may be subtle (the violence is mostly alluded to), but both give powerhouse performances. Chastain is razor sharp as the cigarette-smoking, ice queen while Isaac, who said it was hard to grasp the part ("I know nothing about business and the heating oil business seemed so boring…"), nails it as a conflicted man struggling to obtain the American Dream.
Even after the release of the film, the two can't stop talking about their characters' motivations. Listening to them discuss the film's allegory feels like an episode of James Lipton's Inside the Actor's Studio. "It's really about the hustle," says Isaac. "This country rewards the hustle— whether it's the banking industry or it's the fuel industry. Everyone is ripping each other off. So how do you navigate that?" Their conversation eventually turns to the film's indie, cinematic quality and how rare a film like this is in the age of superhero blockbusters. "It's like a seventies film when it was about the director's vision and not the star," says Isaac. Chastain jumps in: "Yes. I love all those films: Scarecrow, Dog Day Afternoon, French Connection…" Isaac nods enthusiastically.
A Most Violent Year has been earning accolades this awards season (The National Board of Review named it the best film and Isaac best actor; Chastain earned a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress, but the two stars are already occupied with their next projects. Chastain, who seems to be the hardest working girl in show business these days, is in Eastern Europe filming Ridley Scott's latest epic while Isaac has roles in the next franchises of both Star Wars and X-Men. But he seems most excited for his work in Show Me Hero, a new television series written by The Wire's David Simon. "It's about a public housing scandal in Yonkers in the eighties," explains Isaac. "Again it's like I'm coming from the unknown place with this, like I did with Abel, but it's a whole other era in New York and city politics. It's really interesting." Public housing, heating oil wars, if it's got Isaac in it, it certainly will be.
Click here to catch Chastain and others at this year's Golden Globes. Yahoo will be covering the ceremony, which kicks off on Sunday, Jan. 11 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.