Imagine being Oscar Isaac. You're a 33-year-old actor and musician born in Guatemala and raised in Miami. You've appeared in a few movies, most prominently the crime drama Drive. You go to an audition and — holy smokes! — you land the starring role in the Coen brothers' film Inside Llewyn Davis, playing a talented folk singer with poor social skills in early '60s New York City. During a phone interview, the personable Isaac talked about his character, whose story was inspired by the memoir of folk singer Dave Van Ronk.
NUVO: I'm interested in how you first encountered the character of Llewyn Davis and prepared for the audition.
Oscar Isaac: Basically, all I got a couple of scenes from the audition, and there was a line at the bottom that said he is not Bob Dylan — he is a working-man, blue collar from the Boroughs. So that's what I had to go off of. And also the song "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." I found the arrangement of the song by Dave Van Ronk; I found his memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street; and I listened to a bunch of his music and used all that as inspiration and then just went from there, showed up for the audition. I did the two scenes, and I went home and recorded "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." They liked it enough to bring me back in. And when I had come back in I learned a couple more songs, and I'd gotten a chance to read the script.
NUVO: You said in an interview that you made a decision to avoid smiling at any time during the shooting.
Isaac: Yeah, that's a very simple way of how to describe it. But really it was about how to communicate warmth without the usual things — smiling or using your charm or ingratiating yourself or using physical contact. And one of the results is you don't smile as much. I thought about the comedy of resilience — you know, when we laugh at someone going through struggle and hardship. Why does that happen? Are we just laughing at them? Are we laughing in relief that it's not us? What is it?
So I thought of different performances that incorporate that, and that led me to Buster Keaton, an inspiration who is a physical genius just constantly having these near death experiences — and, yet, his face remains in this melancholic, impassive gaze whether he's in love, or a house is falling on him or he's on the front of a train. I like that as an inspiration because he doesn't ever come across as cool either, because I'm very against cool. I think there's too much cool in movies. Llewyn runs very hot, he just doesn't ... It's as if he's lost the means to express that to anyone around him, other than through his music.
NUVO: Did your interpretation of Llewyn change over the course of filming?
Isaac: Yeah, I think that's a natural thing. The longer I'm with it, the more ingrained it becomes in my bones — I don't think in any kind of overly evident way — but the character just sunk deeper and deeper as I went on.
NUVO: Was working with the Coen brothers notably different from your collaborations in previous films?
Isaac: Yes. It was my first time working with two directors, so I had double the horsepower. There were two genius brains making the same movie, driving the same car. So that's just another resource which was fantastic. And the complete and utter lack of vanity or neurosis, I think all of that was refreshing. The fact that they never compliment, or at least they're not given to a lot of hyperbole about how great a job someone is doing. It's all about the work, and what's great about that is that it takes away that variable, that need for approval.
NUVO: Did it ever just hit you that "I'm the lead in the Coen brothers new movie right now!?"
Isaac: Yeah, every few minutes I think that would come into my mind — and have to leave immediately. Because if not it could be paralyzing due to the enormity of it. But what was amazing was their way of being on set, their ease, their comfort, the fact that everyone was so happy to be there. It made it feel very small, to the point that when the first time we showed it for a lot of people, it felt strange as if I didn't realize it wasn't going to be seen by so many people. I know it sounds funny, but I guess you find ways of tricking yourself so that it doesn't feel so big. And I think I've done a pretty good job of doing that, because it felt like such a small intimate little movie we were making.
NUVO: One of the things that struck me was that the other characters were highly stylized, Carey Mulligan's character and John Goodman's character, in particular. And Llewyn is basically the most down to earth person in the film, even as his life is a mess. Were the big performances of Goodman and Mulligan as pronounced early in the rehearsal process or did they grow throughout the process?
Isaac: I think right off the bat those were the characters that they embodied. You know, that was their interpretation. And I think within the context it makes sense, because it taps into the whole feeling of a stranger in a strange land. I think the Coens have done that throughout all their movies to an extent. Not only do they make theater of a common man, as Barton Fink said, but it's a common man in a strange land. So he's a stranger that's passing through, looking at everything from the outside. And that feeling, the mystery and despair of existence, hyper-aware of his own existence to the point that's it alienating. I think that's definitely happening to Llewyn.
NUVO: Did you get a chance to hang with John Goodman?
Isaac: A bit, just a bit. That was the longest sequence that I had with another actor, because everyone else was coming in a few days at a time. But he had a very big challenge on his hands, which was the stream of consciousness monologues directed to the back of my head. He wasn't getting much back from anybody and it all had to be self-generated. He had to focus on learning that stuff, so there wasn't a whole lot of room to hang. Although on one particular night, I played a small set at the Gaslight on MacDougal Street. I asked John to come and he showed up. We played a rendition of Dave Van Ronk's "St. James Infirmary Blues" and John's such a funny guy, but he doesn't love a lot of attention his way. So as we finished and all the clapping started, he just walked off the stage and walked out the door. And I didn't see him again until the next day.
NUVO: As the person closest to Llewyn in the world, what do you think happened to him after the movie was over?
Isaac: I think that it's such a testament to the movie that that's a question I get a lot. And I think it's fantastic, because it's rare that people really care enough to think about what even happens after the movie. Because I think they've really cared enough that he feels like a real guy. And so I love to hear that question. I think maybe, just because I do love Dave Van Ronk so much and I know what he ended up doing, Llewyn maybe continued in the circle, kept trying, kept recording, played with different people, played with different bands, made a little bit of money here and there. Then he probably just starts teaching guitar and mentoring some younger people in his tough, brittle way.