The HeyUGuys Interview: “It was literally dreams coming true”, Oscar Isaac talks Inside Llewyn Davis
HeyUGuys — Having been something of a journeyman in Hollywood, often taking on more supporting roles up until this point in his career – Oscar Isaac has been biding his time, waiting for that perfect role to come his way. Well, for the actor and musician to land the title role in the latest Coen brothers’ production, Inside Llewyn Davis – this is the part he’s been waiting for his whole life, as he tells us that the entire experience was a ‘dream come true’.
Isaac – who plays talented, yet vastly unrecognised folk musician Llewyn Davis, discusses how thrilled he was to work on this project, how he managed to control the various cats he was lumbered with, while he also draws comparisons between the character on screen, and himself as an actor – discussing how gaining self-promotion and the difficulties in making a name for yourself is something that resonates with him greatly.
Firstly, what was it like working with as unpredictable animal as a cat? I can’t get my cat to do anything I tell it, and you seemed to have it under quite good control. Yeah, we couldn’t get them to do what we wanted either. They’re untrainable, so we had like four or five different cats with different attitudes and personalities that did the one thing we needed it to do in a particular scene, then we had one that was a little bit more calm, and that’s the one that I liked the best. Then there were ones that were a little more agitated, and they had to tie those to me so they wouldn’t run off. And sometimes they would want to run off anyway, and they would scratch… I don’t advise it.
Llewyn would’ve fared a bit better if he tied the cat to himself. Probably, yeah (laughs). Although, the cat would probably find a way to escape – that’s what happened to me. Scratch me in my face, break the wire and then run off anyway.
So what was it about Llewyn that attracted you to the role? Everything. Everything, I mean – it’s like an actor’s dream. First of all, you’re in a Coen brothers movie already, so you’ve won. On top of that, there’s so much room, although it’s in a narrow bandwidth because he’s a very internalised character. But you get to just work on thoughts; it’s not about an expression of anything, it’s just about thinking and taking in what’s happening. And yeah, it’s a great challenge.
On stage when he’s performing, Llewyn is being quite charismatic, and is life he’s clearly quite a charismatic person who people are drawn to – but he does occasionally behave in not the nicest of ways. How do you navigate that sort of inherent contradiction in the character? Well, there’s actually a Charles Bukowski poem that actually helped a lot with that, called ‘Bluebird’, where he says ‘There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I’m too tough for him. And I say stay in there, I’m not going to let anybody see you’. And that was a bit of a mantra, where he has this thing, he has something that he wants to share that’s quite gentle and beautiful, but life is making him shut that down. Yet he still nurtures it quietly – you know, it’s his music. That’s what his bluebird is.
You come from quite a musical background – having been in punk bands yourself. Did that help you relate to the character of Llewyn a bit more, even though it’s quite a stark contrast? Yeah, music’s tough man. I remember I was in a hardcore band and I had written a song that I wanted to sing, though I was just the guitar player, and we had our singer – our screamer – and I was like, ‘I’ve got this song, it starts off real slow and then goes crazy’. And they’re like, ‘alright’ – so we started playing it and within thirty seconds they were throwing lighters at my face. Like, they didn’t want to wait for the hard part. So yeah, you have to, like, you get used to it. Luckily in that situation you can hide behind the bass player, but when it’s this kind of music and playing guitar in front of people, it’s pretty intense.
Given your whole image and the fact you’ve got this musical background, and your singing voice, did you just feel that this role was just right for you? Well, yeah, I felt that I had been preparing thirty-two years of my life to do it. And everything that I had done led me to that point. And yeah, it was literally dreams coming true; I dreamt of being able to work with the Coens, and to be able to use music to the extent that I was able to – I mean, I couldn’t even have dreamed of this thing. That’s how perfect it is.
This is the third film you’ve played a musician in, is that something that you’ve looked for, a way to combine the acting and the music? No, it’s just come my way. I haven’t sought out parts that have music in them. This is the only one that I sought out; I heard about it, and I was like ‘I gotta get in on that’. But the other ones have really just come my way, in a strange way.
What’s your favourite song from the film to perform? Erm… probably the easiest one (laughs) is Dink’s song, ‘Farewell’ – but the one at the end, the solo one – that one. But ‘Green Rocky Road’ is really fun. That one feels like surfing, it’s so syncopated and just resting on this one G, like a drone.
Did you stay away from finding out too much about Dave Van Ronk? No no no, I clung to David Van Ronk like a lifeline. I had listened, got everything that was recorded from him, I had spoke to people that knew him, I read his biography… I mean, no, I wasn’t playing Dave Van Ronk, but he’s such a window into that time and that book, if you get a chance to read it – The Mayor of McDougal Street – it’s so great, so funny. No, I found that really helpful.
It must be really fascinating to explore that whole period of music, because every time we think about folk music in our heads we think about Dylan, etc, but this kind of predates all of that. Yeah, I wasn’t aware at all of that stuff. And people like Karen Dalton, if you haven’t heard her she’s an incredible singer and has a really tragic story, but really amazing. I’ve heard some of these people, and I think, how did this person not become a huge star? It’s crazy. And that’s what the movie’s about. You look at somebody, and you wonder ‘how did this person make it?’ y’know? This person is clearly somebody who’s very talented, and luck is such a huge part of most things.
You played the music live… How was that for you? Because you learned the Travis picking technique. Was that quite difficult? Well, what I don’t have in talent I make up for in obsessiveness. I drilled this stuff so much that when it finally came time to do it, I felt pretty confident. And also since I’d been in the studio before when they were recording something, it felt a lot more like that. Y’know, as opposed to a live performance where if you fuck up, that’s it – just like once chance. Whereas here, if you screw up you get another take.
The film really benefits from the fact that there are some genuinely live performances. Oh, it’s crucial. I mean, if it’s a movie where he’s talking about authenticity as a folk singer and all of a sudden I’m lip-syncing, and not really playing, that would be bullshit, y’know.
Has it inspired you at all to go back and do another record, or get back into music? Well, I’ve never let it go. I’ve always played and recorded, but, definitely this style of music has infected all of the music that I play, and particularly the community of artists that the Coens and T Bone create, these guys that have been playing now a lot, and out of that comes music. And maybe one day, we’ll share some of that.
With several of their films, the Coens have a reputation of putting their lead character through hell for most of it, and the odds are always against them. How was it to play one of these wonderful kind of failures? Yeah, it was great. I did ask at one point, ‘are we making The Passion of The Folk Singer?’ But that’s just inherently more dramatic conflict, right? That’s just what drama’s about; it’s about conflict, and so they’re just particularly good at that.
I think it was Joel who said that there wasn’t a particular linear path to this film, or structure – a plot, you could say. That’s something that I found charming about the film – but from a production point of view, when you first received the script, what did you make of that? What did you make of the kind of lack of direction? You know, I didn’t see that. Maybe just because I knew it’s Llewyn, so it had an arc to me, I know that it comes back around, because he’s a hamster in a wheel. But it made sense to me – it actually reminded me of a folk song. In a folk song, you have first first verse, chorus, second verse, chorus, third verse, chorus, and then back to the first verse. And the first verse now means something different now that you’ve gone through the journey of the song. And the movie struck me as that. I also come from the theatre, and I guess we tend to be a lot more open-minded when it comes to theatre, not only with structure but also with the characters; for some reason we’ve been conditioned in movies where like, characters have to be ‘sympathetic’ and ‘likeable’ and all this shit, whereas when you go to the theatre, I’ve never heard anybody talk about characters in the play, and be like, ‘I wish he was more sympathetic’. You know? That’s not the story. I don’t know why in movies we’ve been conditioned that’s all how it has to be. It’s about bigger things than that. So yeah, it never struck me as strange as it should have; but I didn’t know any better I guess.
Have you had any similar experiences to Llewyn, where you’ve, perhaps not sold out as such, but had to get your head around what it means to play the game? Uh, yeah, you know, as any creative person that’s trying to make a living, has to come up against that. Because it’s a completely subjective… You’re at the whim of people’s opinions, really. So that is a difficult thing. And also, as you get more opportunities you have more opportunity to do bad stuff. If they’re going to pay you more for it, that’s how it goes – the worse it is, the more they want to pay you, because they know it’s bad. So that yeah, you have to manage that and figure out what’s important to you. Y’know, longevity and doing something that’s actually of interest to you, and figuring out what that is.
So were you able to draw a lot on your own experiences from the beginning of your career, in terms of trying to just make yourself known and get your name out there? Yeah, but I’m on the flip-side of it. I’ve always been very fortunate when I’ve got something, and even when I wasn’t trying to push myself out there, on a whim I auditioned to Juilliard and I got into there, so things have lined up in a great way. And this movie’s an acknowledgement of that to a certain extent, that luck plays such a huge role in the life of the artist; the right time, the right moment, and seizing that moment, that’s a lot of it. But the idea of being frustrated that you have to express but just, it’s not getting out there or people aren’t interested.
Obviously Llewyn is a musician – but can this then be translated into acting? Yeah, yeah, definitely, and I don’t think it definitely has to be about the artist, y’know, it’s that idea that the struggle of getting through existence. It can be really rough sometimes. And feeling like you’re on the outside looking in; sometimes the loneliest you can feel is in a crowd.
This film looks at Llewyn in just this one, small period. What do you think he did the week before this, or the week after? Do you think this is a representation of him all the time? I think it’s probably been rough for a little while. I think ever since his partner jumped off the bridge… he’s a man in grief. That’s also a big thing that’s going through it. He’s grieving the loss of his partner, and also where he’s at in his life, and the pressures have built up, and this one week is where it really just comes to a head. I guess one could describe it as being an asshole, but if I was going through the same shit, I think I’d be far worse – or not alive. I’d probably be headed to the nearest bridge myself.
That being said, when you play roles, do you often think about where the future lies for them after the script ends, or is the film definitive for you? It’s pretty definitive. For me, the end is about what came before. There’s an amount of energy you have, and figuring out where he came from tends to be more indicative of present behaviour or future behaviour, but it’s fun to sometimes think about what happens after.
So what’s next for you now? Are you working on anything at the moment? Yeah, starting at the end of January I’ll be doing J.C. Chandor’s new movie, we’ll be shooting that in Brooklyn.
Chandor’s first film Margin Call was nominated for the Oscar for Best Screenplay, because it was dialogue-heavy and his second movie, All is Lost, has barely any has dialogue at all. What’s this one like? This one takes place in 1981 in New York, which is statistically the most violent year in New York City on record, and it’s a guy that’s trying to start a business or run his business. There’s heat on, and there’s a lot of pressure around him to gangsterise and he doesn’t want to do that.
And you’re that guy? Yeah.