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Oscar Isaac On His 'Powerful, Flawed' Latino Character In 'A Most Violent Year'

At the height of his struggle to survive in the lucrative but cutthroat heating oil industry during the most violent year in New York City history, Abel Morales exclaims: “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster.”

Morales, the lead character in J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year,” is a Latino immigrant who makes the comment as his family life and business spiral out of control. Oscar Isaac, 35, (“Inside Llewyn Davis) portrays the righteous Morales, who faces the dark side of the American dream as his moral compass is set against his own ambition.

The Guatemalan-born, Miami-raised Isaac has been busy with a diverse array of roles, including X-wing pilot Poe Dameron in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” a young artificial intelligence programmer in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” and a powerful villain in “X-Men: Apocalypse.” “A Most Violent Year” is the first to hit theaters, with a nationwide release on Friday.

Isaac spoke with The Huffington Post this week about the importance of portraying emotionally complex Latinos on the big screen and how he thinks Star Wars fans will react to J.J. Abrams’ upcoming installment of the franchise.

‘A Most Violent Year’ starts without much context on the characters or what’s going on. For most of the film, I couldn’t really figure out if Abel was as righteous as he pretended to be or not. What are your thoughts on Abel? Is he truly the same man he sets out to be in the beginning?

I kind of don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s the kind of movie where you bring a lot to it as an audience member. In a way, I don’t want to limit it by interpretation of it. I think, that’s exactly the right question. That means I think the movie succeeded for you because that’s exactly what the whole movie is about. It’s about how do you navigate this system, this capitalist system. We’re all told, ‘In this country you gotta hustle to make it.’ So there’s hustling, cutting corners, doing things the other guy, your competitor, won’t do. And what you’re trying to do is navigate this crazy train particularly in a troubled time in New York’s history — it was one of most violent years on record. So he does have this sickening ethical dilemma, where he wants to do things in certain way. He doesn’t want to be seen as a gangster, but I think that you’re right to question whether it’s really a moral thing or whether it’s actually just pragmatic.

I also spoke with J.C. Chandor, who directed and wrote the film, about Abel and his American dream. He mentioned that Abel made it a point to “sand away” his heritage to achieve his dream. He perfected his accent and changed his clothes, for example.

That’s an interesting thing. I remember J.C. told me that with Henry Ford’s workers, one of the things that they would do is they would come in their Sunday’s finest, which was their ethnic clothes. They would come into this little melting pot and they would come out with a suit. And it was a way of [saying], ‘And now you are an American.’ You wear a suit and you go after the American dream.

I think it’s a very good thing and it’s a modern thing that we try now to incorporate our culture. We try to make that just as much a part of America, as opposed to totally hiding it or denying it or turning your back on it.

On that note, I recently saw in your interview with Vogue UK that you changed your last name from Hernández to Isaac because you wanted to avoid being typecast in stereotypical roles?

That was my given name: Oscar Isaac Hernández. I felt that was little long for the marquee. [laughs] In Miami, that is an incredibly common name, Oscar Hernández. There are like 10 pages of Oscar Hernándezs in the phone book. And I was starting off in theater, there were actually a couple of other Oscars auditioning for parts as well. That was more of a differentiation from the people that were down there.

At the same time, in Miami starting out it is difficult. You do get cast if you’re a Latin man, because you look a certain way. Casting directors, often — it’s easy just to see people of a certain ethnicity as just one thing. For me it was important to be an actor, first and foremost. To me it was the most important thing, I wanted to be able to play anybody, and where I’m actually from to be secondary.

There’s actually been a lot of contention in recent weeks in terms of diversity in Hollywood, and it was triggered by the fact that no actors of color were nominated for an Oscar this year. What are your thoughts on the subject?

As far as awards distribution and why people get some and why they don’t — for me, it’s just not something that I’m interested in pontificating about. I don’t really know or how you rectify that, other than people that make movies should make more of them. That’s one of the things that I loved about what J.C. did with this film, which is he made his hero an American of Latin American descent who is completely idiosyncratic, who is not a cliche, whose identity although much made up of where he comes from is just as much made up of who he is emotionally and psychologically and spiritually. The fact that he presented a Latin man not as a gangster, not as a sidekick, not as a villain, but as a powerful, flawed individual — that’s a great thing. That helps audiences look at Latinos as more than just one thing.

And switching gears completely, congratulations are in order. You’re going to have a huge role in the upcoming “X-Men: Apocalypse” and you’ll be playing an X-wing pilot Poe Dameron in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Thank you.

There is a lot of mystery surrounding the new Star Wars film. You’ve said you’ve “signed your organs away” and aren’t allowed to reveal any details.

[laughs] Yeah, I can’t.

So I won’t ask you details about the movie, but I will ask you one thing: The last three films weren’t received with as much fervor as the first three. So is ‘The Force Awakens’ a movie that fans of the original 1980s trilogy will be happy with?

Abso-frickin-lutely. Without question. I think particularly fans of the universe will just be in ecstasy. But I think that even people that haven’t — there are believe it or not still people that haven’t seen or are not fans. I think this will win a lot of new fans. I just think it’s been done with such love, such energy, that it’ll be really compelling for everybody.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.