For the past ten years or so, actor Oscar Issac has been on the edge of breaking out with memorable roles in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch and Nicolas Refn’s Drive as well as a brief appearance in The Bourne Legacy, making him one of those reliable go-to actors that can really bring a lot to a role. That may be why Joel and Ethan Coen chose him to play the title role in their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, a look at the life of a ’60s folk singer whose career is not going the way he hoped following the death of his musical partner.
Over the course of the movie, we watch as Isaac’s Llewyn travels from the West Village to the Upper West Side, learns he got his friend’s wife pregnant in a single night’s indiscretion and that a former girlfriend had kept his baby, all while chasing down a friend’s cat he was supposed to be looking after.
For fans of some of the Coens’ more somber work like Barton Fink and A Serious Man, as well as their musical offering O Brother Where Art Thou, it’s a welcome departure from their recent brush with the mainstream thanks to the success of their remake of True Grit.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Isaac a few weeks back for a brief interview on the movie and his other upcoming projects.
ComingSoon.net: I’ve been excited for this movie for a long time, partially because it’s from the Coen Brothers, but also because I got to see you play a couple songs at the “10 Years” event last year. I finally saw the movie the other day after waiting for a year.
Oscar Isaac: Oh, cool, man. I’m glad you got to see it.
CS: It’s an amazing role and you’re in every frame, which is sort of a Coen Brothers standard – they’ve done that in a few movies like “A Serious Man” and even “The Big Lebowski” for the most part.
Isaac: Yeah, they really go through the point of view of one character.
CS: How did you find out about this movie and this role and what was the audition process like, meeting the Coens?
Isaac: I saw online that they were going to be making a movie about the folk scene in the ’60s and that it involves a lot of music, so I knew that I had to be a part of it, and then when it came time for the casting process, I was able to go up to the casting director and I did a couple scenes and I played a song. She sent that video to the Coens and they thought it was worth bringing me in and I auditioned for them and months later I got the part.
CS: Did they give you the full script fairly soon after that and what was your impression of the character?
Isaac: Yes, I got the script after that and my impression was that I understood this guy. It was someone that was being compressed by life and somebody who has just alienated himself to the point where he’s adrift where he’s a stranger in a strange land. I thought a lot about the fact that it’s also comic and there’s this comic element to the whole thing, and I thought about the comedy of resilience and performances where I’ve seen someone that’s not overly expressive in any way, but someone we still root for, someone that a lot of bad things happen to them, and yet, we’re on their side, and that led me to Buster Keaton. It was someone who had this melancholic impasse on his face and yet is constantly in danger and horrible things are happening to him, and yet we root for him. I drew that as an inspiration.
CS: Llewyn is not very nice to people around him who obviously care for him
Isaac: See, I already disagree. I feel that people are not very nice to him. I know what you’re saying. I feel like he doesn’t try to charm himself, but he actually tries to do right by everybody. Now granted, he blows up at those people at the dinner party, but also, they’re being very condescending and he’s just found out he has a child somewhere, I mean, just a few hours before. He’s been running around this entire city trying to find the cat and take care of their cat and then he finally drops them off and these people don’t even ask how he’s doing, they just say “Hey, perform for my friends, perform for our friends” like you’re some sort of oddity or some sort of dancing monkey. I think he feels, just as much as people might think he’s an assh*le, he thinks they’re an assh*le, too. Cary Mulligan’s character doesn’t accept any responsibility for the fact they slept together.
CS: I thought it was interesting that later in the movie, when he’s driving by Akron, Ohio (where the mother of his child reportedly lives), he doesn’t stop. I thought that was an interesting choice that surprised me.
Isaac: Well, if you think about it, he can’t just kidnap that it’s in the car. It’s not his car. He’s been hitchhiking and someone picked him up and what is he going to do at 3 in the morning? Show up and say “Hey, it’s Daddy”? It just wouldn’t have but you’re right, that is on purpose, because the Coens, they set it up as if it’s going to be your typical biopic rags-to-riches thing and then they subvert that.
CS: You’ve been a musician for a long time as well so did you ever have that thing where someone hands you a guitar at a party and asks you to play something? Have you ever had that yourself?
Isaac: Yeah, yeah, it sucks. (Laughs) It sucks because sometimes you just don’t want to do it or it’s even worse: “Oh, you’re an actor. Act something.”
CS: I’ve never heard of that before, but that would be a pretty strange request.
CS: Was it hard learning the songs and that style of singing and guitar playing? It is a very specific way of playing acoustic guitar.
Isaac: It’s a style called “Travis picking” which is very syncopated, very similar to stride piano or ragtime piano where there’s a bass line and then I’m playing at the same time. I’m doing that with what seems like independence in your right hand, so the thumb is playing the bass and the fingers are playing the melody. I had to rewire my brain to figure out how to play that way.
CS: Did you work with T. Bone Burnett on that aspect of the music?
Isaac: A bunch. I worked T. Bone a whole bunch. He was completely integral for the whole process of figuring out how to find Llewyn’s authentic sound and make it intimate and direct and real. So I got together with T. Bone and together, we picked out his guitar and figured out all the arrangements of the songs.
CS: One thing that amazed me about the movie is that it was clearly shot in New York City but it’s a New York City from 40 years ago that no longer exists. Some of the venues are still on MacDougal Street, but it was amazing how they turned the clock back so what was involved with that?
Isaac: We actually shot on East 6th Street and we made that look like MacDougal Street, because yeah, MacDougal looks nothing like that anymore, but we actually shot at the Café Reggio, and the art direction on that was just right on. You realize quickly that it’s more than just the street. Even the locks looked different back then, the window locks, the door knobs. Everything has to be researched and make sure that it fits and they did all that.
CS: The production design is fairly impressive. Normally you notice that in bigger, flashier movies but for someone who has lived in that area of New York, I was even wondering, “How did they do that? That’s not possible unless they went back in time.”
Isaac: Yeah, exactly. It’s pretty amazing. (chuckles)
CS: I spoke with John Goodman earlier and he had an interesting theory about his character Roland. Have you heard the theory already?
Isaac: I’m not sure. No, I don’t think I have.
CS: He thought that Roland was almost like a time machine where Roland is what Llewyn would become if he stayed on the path he was on.
Isaac: It’s funny, it’s true. You could see that as the Ghost of Christmas Future, but I don’t know if I totally agree. I know what he’s saying about the rigidity of Roland’s all about jazz and folk sucks and Llewyn is all about folk and he’s going to think whatever comes next, the electric stuff, is going to suck, but I don’t know if it’s the same thing because Roland was evil (laughs) and I don’t know if Llewyn is really in that same place. I think he is very clearly frustrated, but it’s an interesting theory.
CS: You mentioned the cat earlier and while there are a lot of really fun characters you interact with, the cat is probably your most prevalent co-star since you’re always carrying it around. Was that awkward at all and are you generally a cat person?
Isaac: Not that much of a cat person, but they had a few different cats and they had a cat wrangler and I guess it’s very hard to train cats, so they had different cats with different personalities, depending on what the scene needed, and it was fine. Every once in a while, the cats would get agitated and scratch me in the face, but I guess that was just par for the course.
CS: You’ve shot a couple interesting projects or are filming them soon, including movies with Alex Garland and Hossein Amini, who wrote “Drive,” both amazing screenwriters making their directorial debuts. How were those experiences working with those guys? I know Alex has been directing movies uncredited for a while.
Isaac: Yeah. (laughs) Yeah, he’s great, man. I’m so excited to see that movie. It was really fun to make and I really like the character and he’s just so intelligent, and I haven’t done anything like that before, so I’m very excited to see how that one turned out. I think he’s got a real voice and I think he’s going to turn out to be a heck of a director. And “Two Faces of January” was great, too. I loved working with Viggo (Mortensen) and Kirsten (Dunst) and again, it’s 1960s, which is fun.
CS: Did you get to spend much time with Hossein while making “Drive”?
Isaac: No, not really. I think I met him one time, but we talked a lot on the phone beforehand while working on the script.
CS: It’s great seeing a movie like “Llewyn Davis” where we get to see you in every frame. Over the years, I feel like you’ve had these great moments in movies like “Drive” and I’m glad you’re graduating to more leading man roles and I hope we’ll see more of that in the future.
Isaac: Me, too, man, but thanks for saying that. It’s nice to create a character, not just within two scenes, but within the journey of a whole movie. It’s fun to do that.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 6. Look for our interview with the one and only John Goodman before the movie’s wider expansion on December 20.