The Guatemalan-born, Julliard trained actor and singer-songwriter Oscar Isaac (“Drive,” “Sucker Punch”) has been acting professionally for over a decade but chances are strong that only true film buffs know who the guy is. That’s all about to change over the next few weeks as Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” unspools nationwide months after winning the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival.
In the drama, Isaac plays the titular aspiring folk artist as he navigates the 1960s music scene in New York’s Greenwich Village with a friend’s cat in tow.
Indiewire called up Isaac to talk about his breakthrough year, working with the Coens, and what’s changed since Cannes. “Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in New York and Los Angeles Dec. 6 and expands Dec. 20.
You’ve been on a whirlwind promotional blitz following the film’s Cannes premiere. What’s been the number one highlight for you on this journey?
Having the Coens forced to be in a room with me because I love those dudes so much. They’re really great so it’s made all this stuff much easier.
Did you hit it off the bat with the Coens upon first meeting them?
They were immediately forthcoming and warm as soon as I walked into the audition. There’s not much vanity or ego there. There’s no pretense, so that was just completely refreshing. We live in a world of such constant pretension, especially in this business, so that was really nice. And the fact that there was no neuroses on set. They immediately just get rid of all that. Movie sets are petri dishes of neuroses.
Walk me through your audition.
I auditioned for the casting director, she sent a tape to them and they then saw me. I was told it’s probably going to be the best audition of your life; they’re incredibly receptive and quick to laugh. And then you probably won’t get it. And sure enough that’s how it was. They laughed, were completely with it, and you leave feeling great but it’s no indication of whether you got the part or not. And then a month later I got a call from Joel saying I got the part.
What went through your head?
After the audition I spent many a night screaming to the heavens, literally screaming, to give me this because I wanted it so badly. The Coens are my favorite filmmakers. I’ve played music for over 20 years. I understood the character and what it was about. I just felt this was the thing for me. When I got the call from Joel it was utter relief.
Relief because you’d be struggling up to this point in your career?
No not at all. It was just relief that I got this part. Not so much any vindication or anything. I feel very fortunate. I’ve made almost 25 films up to this point. Getting to do the thing that I love to do and pay the bills doing it, that’s been fantastic. Also the fact that I’ve been able to play and experience and learn what this language of film is. My only motivation has been to get better.
So much of “Davis” deals with the theme of luck and how it shapes our lives. Your character is a very unlucky person. Do you feel that luck in any way played a role in your life?
A hundred percent. It’s better to be lucky than good. I’ve been lucky. Talent plays a huge role, and that’s what this film is about. The Coen brothers, they’re super lucky that they’ve been able to make the movies they make without any compromises. Yes, they also happen to be geniuses, but they’re lucky geniuses. A lot of things have to go your way for you to be just successful in life. Successful means not having to compromise your authentic form of expression. Very few people get the opportunity to do that. For me, the fact that this particular role came at this time when I could even get into the room; had this been eight years ago or less, I wouldn’t even had a chance at it. Timing is huge.
Have you noticed a shift post Cannes, audition wise, role wise?
Yeah, from the moment I was offered the part I saw a shift. As it’s gone on the shift’s continued. The Coens definitely opened doors for me.
About that shift, you’ve been mentioned a lot with regards to Oscar race. This year the actor’s race is so competitive with Redford, Dern and the lot; a lot of the media outlets are playing you up as the underdog, which in a funny way kind of mirror your character in the film. What do you make of that connection?
(Laughs.) The word underdog as far as the Oscars are concerned is funny. Even in the conversation, how can you be an underdog? It’s all pretty relative. Yeah, it’d be amazing to be nominated for an award like that but totally icing on the cake, for sure. The process of doing this movie, having a friendship with the Coens, getting to do more lead parts, has been so much of a reward already. Anything above and beyond can’t be taken too seriously.
The studio is pushing you in a certain direction, having you attend a slew of Academy functions. How have you been handling that side of the picture?
What’s fun is that we’ve been incorporating some musical performances with really amazing musicians. So that never feels like work. But yeah man, it’s a lot of energy and a lot of time for something that’s not really quantifiable. Usually you spend so much time and energy doing something, you have something to show for it, like a song or a sculpture, or a piece of theater. But to spend so much time and it just goes out into the ether, I think that can make it feel extra draining.
But at the same time it’s also a movie that I’m so proud and passionate about so it’s easy to talk about. I always find something new and interesting to talk about because I love the movie so much.
You earlier said the Coens are your favorite filmmakers. What was the first films of theirs you saw?
“Raising Arizona” was the first one I saw and it blew my little kid mind. It made me feel so weird, and funny and sad at the same time. The screaming man covered in blue paint…I was like, what is this? The whole tone of it I remember stuck with me in a such a vivid way.
And now you’re headlining a movie of theirs.
With John Goodman! The man covered in blue paint. Crazy.