Not unlike his title character in Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ ode to a down-on-his-luck folk guitarist in 1961 Greenwich Village struggling to make a go of it, actor Oscar Isaac has spent years doing solid supporting work in movies, looking for his big break.
He got it.
In his first lead role, the 33-year-old Guatemalan-born, Julliard-trained star turns in a bravura performance of great sensitivity, humor and musicianship, a melancholy portrait of a dreamer on the skids, an artistic idealist unable to reconcile his obvious talent with the many closed doors. Still, he plugs away, and Isaac, in every scene of the film, works hard to win us without a trace of sentimentality.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an intensely personal film from the Coens, amongst our greatest living filmmakers, about the persecution of the artist and tug of war between art and commerce. The picture is an offbeat, gorgeously photographed period piece with haunting, surrealist flourishes, piqued by a wall-to-wall folk soundtrack where the soulful Isaac, in strong voice, is joined by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and others, under the tutelage of the film’s music producer, legendary T-Bone Burnett. It’s a film that looks, sounds and feels near perfect.
Llewyn, with his puppy dog eyes, shaggy mane and perpetually disappointed face, is played by Isaac with so much heart—he’s in every scene of the movie hoping against hope for someone to believe in him—that it’s fair to say the former supporting star of such peek-a-boo eye candy as Sucker Punch and the nocturnal fever dream Drive, has truly arrived as a leading man.
I caught up with Oscar Isaac recently to discuss Llewyn Davis’s struggles in the music business and the actor’s own take on the challenges of today’s film business, Llewyn’s personal and professional hurdles and the merits of the folk music scene at the dawn of Dylan.
Llewyn Davis is a fascinating creation. On the one hand, he cannot get a decent break. On the other, many of his issues seem self-created. Did you feel that way at all?
Yes. I think a lot of it is self-created, but because of external reasons! There isn’t really a difference. Something bad happens and he responds badly to it, which creates another terrible thing that happens which he responds badly to and so on. So a bit of both I think.
The era in Inside Llewyn Davis is ripe for a musical revolution that we know is coming. Are we due for one today?
I guess these musical vacuums get created; we are kind of in one now. T-Bone (Burnett) says the middle class of musicians has kind of been wiped out—as has been the middle class in a lot of areas of life. But you have got this sea of amateurs; and nothing wrong with amateurs. They come from people who do it for the love of it. But you are inundated. And then there is the open mic, which is the Internet. And then at the top echelon are the guys who are making millions and filling up stadiums. When I was in bands, we used to go to little studios with producers who would be doing their thing. That doesn’t exist anymore. You don’t have that middle class position. In the movie, the old has not quite died and the new has not been born yet. I think in those vacuums, someone comes and lights a fire there. What is interesting, and what Dylan did, was synthesize what the poets and folks musicians were doing and made something new.
Though fictional, certainly Llewyn Davis bears resemblance to Dave van Ronk. Perhaps it was more freeing to not be playing an actual historical character?
You are shackled less by historical accuracy; you have all sorts of room to do what Dylan would do, which was take all sorts of stuff and make something new with it.Obviously I didn’t sing the way Dave sang, but I did watch videos and (research) to capture the type of person that he was; the essence of someone who wasn’t trying to reinvent himself, but was very direct about who he was. He was a blue-collar guy and he jumped boxcars. And then it turned into something else when they cast me.I was never told how to sing or how to play. So I thought I was going to learn how to play like Dave, yet sing like me. They went with that, rather than strip away and tell me what to do.
LLewyn is true to his artistic ideals though tempted to sell out. You must have felt something similar during your career up.
In Llewyn, I think you do see someone that for better or worse stays true to himself and sacrifices himself to an ideal, although he’s not above being a hypocrite because he will go and do the pop song for money. (Inside Llewyn Davis) is exactly the thing that I dreamed of; doing something like this. The movie for me that has been just as much a conservatory for acting as Julliard is Dog Day Afternoon, and I am always bemoaning the fact that those movies don’t get made that often anymore. There is a robust indie world of film. But even getting lead roles in those movies is difficult unless you mean something in the financing or foreign market. So the fact that this came along and they were able to cast whoever the hell they wanted because it was not about the money—they already had the money regardless of who was going to be the main person, though obviously they could have gotten more if they hired a star—is exactly more than I could have wished for as the first leading role that I got. These are exactly the kind of roles that I love and the Coen Brothers as filmmakers were a dream. It’s actually the opposite of LLewyn—exactly the right thing at the right time, falling in my favor.
The film has a very offbeat sense of humor, much of which comes from Llewyn himself.
Yes, when I was thinking about it in comedic terms, it would not work. But when I played it with absolute pain, (the Coen Brothers) would laugh. When I would feel at my breaking point emotionally was when they would cackle.
In the film, Stark Sands plays a milquetoast musician on the verge of skyrocketing. Yet Llewn, vastly more talented, gets a lukewarm reception and toils on the outskirts. You’ve had a long enough career in supporting roles that you must have felt that way; that some who make it just happen into it while others work so hard.
Yeah, you do see some people sometimes and you are like, ‘How is this happening?’ And I think that is what Llewyn is feeling. Although I think he does see that he is a good musician. I’ve seen some reactions that tend to be more negative to Llewyn and they follow precisely the thing that Llewyn sees. For example, ‘Yeah, that song that Stark sings is so much better than Llewyn’s…’ ‘Llewyn is such as asshole.’ ‘He is so unlikable.’ ‘These people uptown are so kind to him. How can he be so mean?’ But then other people see that they are condescending, pulling him out like some sort of freak show with their friends, even though they are well intentioned. I went off the question a bit, but that is the nature of a business completely based on peoples’ subjective opinions. That’s why luck has so much to do with it. I recognize that I have been able to be so lucky to do the thing that I want to do. Often you are at the mercy of people that are in control and their arbitrary opinions.
I know you have an affinity for folk music. Why?
There’s a directness and simplicity that makes it particularly suited for protest music. There has never been anything like that. The truth of folk music is that they meek shall inherit the Earth. I think this aspect of American roots music is so important and so intertwined with American history.
I know that both Jessica Chastain and yourself went to Julliard together and are both experiencing incredible successes. Did you ever have an idea during those school days that this would come your way, at the perfect time?
That is the goal—that you are going to get to do what you have been working at this school twelve hours a day, night after night and hoping it will give you the tools to excel. At the same time, you are also assuming that none of it is going to happen. That’s why it’s such a high-pressure situation.
Did you have a backup plan, just in case?
To be a musician. (laughs)