LOS ANGELES - When Oscar Isaac landed the role of a New York heating oil entrepreneur in "A Most Violent Year," he was concerned he would lacked the right sensibility to play the character.
"I hate business and I'm not good with money, and heating oil sounds like the most boring thing in the world," the actor said with a laugh.
"There was nothing about the character that immediately I thought I would love," he added.
In the indie crime drama, which debuts in US theatres on Wednesday, Isaac plays Abel Morales, a Hispanic immigrant who with his wife Anna builds a company against the backdrop of the urban decay and violence of New York in 1981.
In a crumbling economy where crime has forced people to the suburbs, Abel's determination to succeed in the heating oil business is challenged by ruthless competitors.
"None of his secrets come out right away. You don't get a sense of where's he's from, what his past was," Isaac said about his character.
"It was really starting from a place of the complete unknown, which I now realise is the most exciting place to start from."
The role has already earned Isaac a best actor accolade from the National Board of Review and early buzz in the Hollywood awards race, topping a year in which the actor has landed roles in upcoming "Star Wars" and "X-Men" blockbusters.
Handsome, clean-cut and well dressed, Isaac's Abel charms those around him with good manners, masking his cutthroat strategies. He's the epitome of the American dream, said writer-director J.C. Chandor.
"These two main characters are insanely optimistic; everybody's running out of the burning building that is New York City, and they saved up money for 10 years and they're deciding to plant their flag. That is capitalism," Chandor said.
But at the core of the story is the complex marriage between Abel and Anna, played by Jessica Chastain, who has known Isaac since their days at the Juilliard School.
Initially modeled as a mob wife, Anna is Abel's risk-taker, willing to push the lines of ethics and morals further than her husband. Chastain scored a Golden Globe best supporting actress nomination for her role.
Chandor said Chastain and Isaac's shared history helped bring "this wonderful intimacy where you believe the marriage and you believe they love each other, even though they can switch and be very confrontational in a business way."