Oscar Isaac talks Inside Llewyn Davis

We speak to Golden Globe nominee Oscar Isaac, star of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, about how he landed the role and ‘60s folk music.

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis


Joel and Ethan Coen are responsible for some of the most outstanding movies of the past 25 years, and their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, is a worthy addition to their canon. The film, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year, stars virtual unknown Oscar Isaac as a New York singer/songwriter struggling to find his place in the Greenwich village folk scene in 1961. He’s supported by an all-star cast (Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund and Justin Timberlake) and music produced by T. Bone Burnett.

posterKayla Marie Hillier: What appealed to you about the role of Llewyn Davis?
Oscar Isaac: Just the idea of someone who’s on the outside looking in. Even though he’s much more inside than a lot of the people — he’s from New York, he’s from the boroughs, and yet he’s on the outside. The feeling of a stranger in a strange land, of being isolated and frustrated because you have this thing you want to express but not really having the means to express it or the interest of those around you, and trying to remain resilient in the face of all that. All those things are just very relatable and a beautiful thing to explore within an artist.

KMH: What was the audition process like?
OI: I came in for an audition with a casting director, and then I sent in a song, which was “Hang Me.” I just sat at my computer and recorded it 30 times and then sent in take 27. The Coens saw all that and decided to bring me back in. And so I came in for them, and I had learned two extra songs, just in case, and did the scenes again and a couple songs. Then waited a month, an excruciating month, where I was just screaming to the heavens to give me this job. And finally, a month later I get a phone call and it’s Joel on the other end, and he said, “Hey, it’s Joel. I know it took a long time, but there was a process we had to go through,” blah blah blah, and he just starts talking for way too long. Finally he says, “But we would love for you to do it.” He may have only talked for a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity and then he finally said, “We’d love for you to do it if you want to be a part of it.”

Isaac with his feline companion

KMH: What was it like working with the Coen brothers?
OI: They are masters at what they do. They’re great American folk artists, that’s what they are. They don’t manipulate anything — not only in the movie, but with the people around them, actors, or anyone that’s working. It’s not about manipulation. It’s all about everyone putting as much as they can on the table and trying to build something together. And that’s what it was like. There’s very little ownership over anything. An idea’s an idea, regardless of where it comes from. I found it very freeing and very relaxed and comfortable and hilarious and generous.

KMH: Were you aware that this folk scene existed in New York prior to Bob Dylan in the early ‘60s?
OI: I had heard some Pete Seeger and some Woody Guthrie but not in any real way. And I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, but this strange time in between Woody Guthrie and Dylan, I wasn’t aware of.

KMH: Since you’re an actual musician, did the film influence your playing at all?
OI: Once I started investigating this music, I just went down the rabbit hole and fell in love with all of it. I cannot stop playing in this style because it just feels too good. It just feels real. I start playing other things and it just becomes less interesting. There’s a history within this music and the style of playing — travis picking — that I’ve never done before. It feels like surfing when you play it. I try to get away from it, but it’s too much fun to play.

I played guitar for a long time, but not like this. It was really this movie that completely changed the way I play. Especially after working with T-Bone Burnett, who is so wise and incredible. I mean, producer doesn’t even encompass what he does. He’s a revolutionary. He’s a musical revolutionary.

Isaac and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis

KMH: The subcultures in New York at the time were battling against each other, even though they seemed to have similar ideologies.
OI: I don’t think it’s so much an ideological thing, it’s just — you wanted your space. In Washington Square Park, it wasn’t just the beatniks — it was the bluegrass guys who hated the folk guys, who also hated the blues guys, who hated the jazz guys, who hated everybody who was just trying to get their square footage in Washington Square Park.

All these little clubs, these little cafés, in between the poets — y’know, there’d be lines outside. And so the one poet would go on, and then, in between the first and second set, they wanted turnover. They wanted to get rid of whoever was in there and get the new people in. So they’d have a folk musician come up and clear the room. Each musician had two songs to clear the room, and if you didn’t clear the room in those two songs, you weren’t hired again. So that’s how much respect folk musicians had at the time.

And then Dylan came in and synthesized what the beat poets were doing with what the folk musicians were doing and made something new. A lot of the folk musicians were preservationists. That’s exactly what Llewyn is — he’s a curator, looking back in time and finding all these beautiful songs and making them relevant to now. But then Dylan came in and he looked backward and forward at the same time. ■

We’re giving away another pair of tickets to see Another Day Another Time, a documentary that celebrates the music from Inside Llewyn Davis, at Cinéma du Parc. All you have to do is share this post on Facebook.

Inside Llewyn Davis opens on Wednesday, Dec. 25. 


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