While he doesn’t create his own obstacles to success that Llewyn Davis might, Oscar Isaac likely related to being perpetually on the cusp of stardom before landing the lead role in the latest from the Coen brothers. With films like “Robin Hood,” “Drive,” “Che” and “The Bourne Legacy” filling his CV, and experience working with filmmakers like Ridley Scott (twice), Steven Soderbergh, Nicolas Winding Refn and more, it’s clear to anyone who caught those performances that it was just a matter of time until Isaac got the opportunity to show what he could do with a leading part. And luckily for him and us, the Coens did just that by putting him front and center of “Inside Llewyn Davis” (our review).
Wearied but never defeated, not always making the best choices but never unlikeable, folk singer Llewyn Davis spends a week trying to keep his personal life in order while looking to make the most of a few opportunities that could advance his career in the evolving ’60s music scene in New York City. But his stubbornness in refusing to bow to the demands of a more pop-oriented public and the poor treatment he occasionally gives those around him as he pursues his dreams help to create the portrait of a complex, uncompromising artist who will always have a song to sing, whether or not an audience is there. And in the hands of Isaac, Llewyn Davis is a beautifully rounded creation: comic, tragic, hopeful and despairing, someone whose journey instantly becomes recognizable to anyone who has pursued a passion wholeheartedly.
This week we had the pleasure of catching up with Oscar Isaac and talked with him about making “Inside Llewyn Davis,” his own musical chops and the movies coming up next for the actor.
Once you had the part of Llewyn Davis, what was your entry into the character? Once you had the script in your hand, what was it that helped you get into the head space you needed for that role?
There was a few things. First it was reading Dave Van Ronk‘s memoirs—although clearly I’m not playing Dave Van Ronk—but he had such a handle on the time, and such a specific point of view, which was dark but also very funny. And the fact that he was a guy from the boroughs, who knew exactly who he was and would have liked more success, all those things were really helpful. And then on a practical side, playing the music was really the way in. I started playing in little clubs and cafes in the village and standing up, one man with a guitar in front of a crowd, it’s intense. And to balance the emotional connection to the songs with the generous storytelling aspect of folk music and then again with the character, Charles Bukowski‘s “Bluebird” poem. A buddy of mine was a great teacher and gave that to me and that really was a mantra for me. The idea of a guy who has a bluebird in his heart but he doesn’t want anyone to see it. That was really helpful. And then the movies of Buster Keaton were another inspiration, someone that is dealing with all sorts of horrible things happening in his life from houses falling on him, to falling in and out of love to being in the front of a speeding train and yet his face is this melancholic empath, he’s clearly internalizing it all and we’re rooting for him. His only expression is really a physical one. Like Llewyn his only expression is a physical one too, as opposed to acrobatics or amazing physical feats, it’s playing the guitar.
You knew how to play a guitar and sing before you did the movie, but had you played live in front of crowds before?
Yeah, I was in bands, but they were punk bands and you plug in the guitars, you turn them up really loud, you’ve got four or five other people on stage with you, you’ve got some protection from when they throw lighters. You can always hide behind the lead singer or the bass player. But I hadn’t really done this solo stuff until really about a year or two before I even got the audition. I just decided I wanted to start doing that so I started to do open mics here and there and I was already starting to prepare a bit without knowing it.
So what was it like going from punk shows to doing your own solo thing and then working in the studio with T-Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake and Marcus Mumford? That must have been a trip.
It was a total trip, man. The truth is it’s like you’re always waiting for the moment when they’re going to look over and be like, “Wait a second, what is this dude doing here?” [Laughs] I was just, “I’m going to keep my head down until that happens, just going to keep going with it until they realize that I’m the interloper.” [These] people have dedicated their life to music and have reached the upper echelons of it and yet it was such a generous environment. Marcus was so wonderful throughout the whole process, just building my confidence and helping me out and just being a good guy, that really goes a long way.
I would imagine your singing and playing ability jumped up a few levels.
Oh yeah, I mean it’s impossible not to, just from the sheer virtue of having to do it so much and spending so many hours working on it and also being turned onto a whole repertoire of music that I didn’t know before, and connecting to American roots music which was the birth of modern music. The whole folk movement and blues and bluegrass, all of that. At the head of all that T-Bone who is a music revolutionary, he really is. You’ve got to hear him talk whenever you can. His ideas are so profound and yet so relevant to everything that’s happening right now with music and it’s all very positive. But he changed the way I play music, listen to music and think about music.
From doing the music to working with the Coens, what surprised you most when you started shooting the film about their approach?
I think how simple and direct they are. How unconcerned with manipulation they are. They have such a specific tone and yet it was never didactic, they never were imposing ideas on anything. It really was a situation where it created the environment for everyone involved to put all their ideas out on the table and to build this thing together. So there’s no ownership over anything, there’s no ownership over ideas. So on the flip side of that, they’re never going to say, “Hey that’s a great idea, good job,” because you don’t own it, as soon as you say the idea, it’s not yours anymore. So it’s actually a very freeing way of working.
Do you think Llewyn is doomed to repeat his journey, to always be on the cusp of something great? Or do you think he has a brighter future ahead of him?
I love that I get asked about Llewyn’s future because it’s an indication that you see him as a person. He’s not just a character, he’s not just a device there for sympathy or for whatever. I think yes and no. I don’t think that he is Rodriguez, where he’s going to have that big sold out show. He’s not that. I think that he will always play music. I think he’ll always find a way to play music. He will never quit. And that’s why it’s not a tragic ending. That’s why there is an uplifting element to it because this is someone who, regardless of whatever shitty things they did, he stays true to himself and true to the thing that he loves more than anything which is playing music. Just like Dave Van Ronk who says “I would have loved to have been a little more successful, had a little more money, but I got to play music my whole life.” That’s what I wanted to do ever since I was a child.
Did you have time with any of the other cast members beforehand or did they come and go as required?
People would come in and it was a bit of a revolving door. What was great was that week we had before shooting when we went up to Avatar Studios in New York, one of the last fully analog studios in the city, and everyone in the cast, including Marcus and The Punch Brothers, we all played the music, and we all got to hang out and talk about the characters and figure out who they were, and that was I think our one real moment to all connect as a little community.
It was announced this week that you’ve been cast in “A Most Violent Year,” alongside your Julliard classmate Jessica Chastain. This will be your first time working with her since those early days.
Well, funny enough we never got to work with each other in school, she was two years ahead of me. But it’s a very tight group. So you’ve got four years basically, like high school, so I was a freshman when she was a junior. But I got to watch her work and even then you just knew this person’s really special.
Director J.C. Chandor told the trades that you are literally the character in that film and I’m wondering if you feel that same sort of connection to the role.
Well, I’m glad he feels that way. [Laughs] That’s good that the director sees it that way. That’s how it is, you start off with this gulf between you and the person you’re going to portray. So it’s being born again, so I’m completely in the dark right now. The veil is completely covered and there’s things I connect to, there’s things that resonate but it’s so amorphous at the moment. The part that I think is the most fun is the gulf between now and day one of filming, because this is when you just start putting everything into the pot figuring out what tastes good and what doesn’t, what you want to spit out right away. And this is when the creative energy sparks.
So you like having that element of the unknown.
Oh totally. It’s past the solar system and it’s a complete unknown, I have no direction yet and that’s the exciting time. It’s also the overwhelming time, when it could be anything. There’s nothing scarier than unlimited choices.
For “Inside Llewyn Davis” then, did you ask questions before you started?
I asked question after question. I would go to their offices and I would sit down with Joel and Ethan and just go though every scene, and quite explicitly say, “Where is he now? Okay, well where is he now?”
Do they provide any background to the story or characters?
It’s more specific and pragmatic to the moment. It’s funny, it’s the opposite of what you think. The screenwriter would say, “I have no idea why that’s the case, I have no idea what the backstory is, this is just what works for the story.” But the director is the one that helps me figure out how to act these things, and often to figure out how to act, you need to understand where you’re coming from and where you were, what you’ve been through, and that’s where they would help with some of that stuff. So it’s like, “Okay my idea is that he’s from Queens and this is the situation with the Dad,” and for them generally they’re like, “Yeah sure. We’ll let you know if it sucks.”[Laughs] Oftentimes you can bend over backwards, beating your head over these little details but they don’t necessarily affect what you do. It’s a process of showing them, “Well, if I think about it this way, this is probably the type of choices it would lead me to and if I think about it this way, it tends to take us more in this direction.” That’s where they would help guide me.
It seems like as writer/directors, once the script is done they’re sort of already in their director mode.
They’re always still listening, and there might be a cut here or there, or a little shift here or there, or if I have a thought that maybe we change this thing here. But it’s minimal, because the script is so thoughtful and they have such a way with rhythm that you don’t want to screw up the rhythm too much with improvising and all those kinds of things. Sometimes it could be helpful to loosen up the scene, but you don’t want to in this situation because they write thoughts and the thoughts come out of the rhythm.
Was there anything left out that was shot or was the script as you got it pretty much what ended up being made?
It was exactly as it was made.
That’s pretty rare.
It’s pretty amazing.
Before I go, I just wanted to ask about “Ex Machina” and how “sci-fi” the movie is.
Oh man, I’m so excited to see that movie. It’s [set] in the not-too-distant future—it actually could very well be the present, it’s a little bit undefined—and it all takes place in a house, or at least in a facility. I play a billionaire programmer who’s developing algorithms for the most popular search engine in the world and no one’s seen him or heard from him in quite a long time and one of his employees wins a raffle to come to his place in Alaska and test his newest invention, which happens to be a robot in the female form that may or may not have consciousness.
So it’s very allegorical to the human experience and how you will never know if the way you see the world or the way that I do. We can try to describe it to each other but we will never truly know and it’s pretty amazing. I think Alex [Garland] is an incredible talent and I remember “Sunshine” was the first script I read when I got out of school and I got so obsessed with that script and the chance to work with him was pretty amazing.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in limited release on Friday, December 6th.