For years, Oscar Isaac has been carving out a career as one of those “that guy” character actors. You might not have known his name, but you were definitely starting to recognize his face as he popped up in titles like Drive, Robin Hood, Che, Sucker Punch and 10 Years. Then he was given a lead role by career-long character actor lovers, the Coen Brothers, and it’s safe to say that Isaac’s career will never be the same again.

As the titular star of Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac plays one of the many forgotten struggling Greenwich Village folk artists left behind after the explosion of Bob Dylan. The film doesn’t take place in a post-Dylan world though, instead finding Llewyn Davis dangling at the end of his rope, living a life of poverty as he struggles fruitlessly in the name of artistic integrity. With other filmmakers at the helm, that would be a recipe for a self-important weepy. But with the Coens, the film is a bleakly funny ode to failure where cruel fate deals out big laughs with emotional weight.

At the centre of it all is Oscar Isaac, delivering a heartbreakingly funny performance while also performing his own music to great acclaim. With the yearly film awards race about to kick off and Isaac in the middle of any and all Best Actor discussions, TORO got a chance to chat with him about his experience making the movie that changed the direction of his career.

How did you come to be cast in this film?

The casting process was pretty traditional. I heard about the casting call and went in for an audition. I was given a couple scenes to read and then I had to record a song. I did about 30 takes of the song and sent in take 27. The Coens saw that material and had me come into the room. I learned a few extra songs just in case and then a few months later they offered me the role.

How much involvement did you have in the selection of songs you performed in the film?

Once I had the role, there were about two or three songs that were already specified in the script, but there were many that weren’t. I quickly fell in love with Dave Van Ronk’s music in particular, so I started learning a lot of his music. I would bring in ideas and we would talk about them. Then T-Bone Burnett and I got together and started playing songs. I would arrange them and he would as well. It was a very collaborative process. The way that the Coens work with T-Bone is to create a community. So to be honest, you can’t remember who came up with what. As soon as you contributed your idea, you didn’t own it any more. It was just part of the raw materials to build the thing and I had an equal share in it.

How much research did the Coens encourage? Obviously the movie takes place in a very specific period of history, but at the same time their movies take place in their own universe and don’t necessarily conform to reality.

They said, “Do as much as you want or as little as you want.” I tend to be someone who does quite a bit anyways, so I immediately dove into research. I would bring them things I would find and we would discuss those. Nothing was dictated to me. It would just be a conversation. I would visit them and we would discuss each scene, but that was all coming from me and they were happy to do it.

What were some of the ingredients that you brought?

Well, I think part of the idea was to imitate people who exist. I think originality is just a lack of information. You steal from anywhere you can. Take a little of this and a little of that. Then you go into random places that people wouldn’t necessarily think of. Buster Keaton was a big inspiration for me. He was someone who was resilient in a comic way, someone who would strive and struggle with a melancholic look that we root for. I liked that idea. I also found a Charles Bukowski poem called “Bluebird” that was really inspirational.

How did your own experience with the music change after being a part of this film?

I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, but wasn’t really familiar with the rest of the era. So getting to hear all of Dave Van Ronk’s repertoire was incredible as well as the people he listened to. It’s an interesting question because the movie did expand my interest in that music. For example, in the sequence in Chicago all it said in the script, “he plays a song.” The song wasn’t specified. So I started researching all this stuff trying to find the right song. I would bring the Coens these songs and they would say, “Well, it’s not really a place for a blues song. We’re thinking of something more white.” [Laughs] I said, “OK, where are you at?” And they gave me “The Death Of Queen Jane,” which was a song about a medieval C-section. I just did not get it. I said, “Why is this the song?” And they said, “We just think it would be funny.” That was their explanation. So I spent a good month trying to wrap my mind around that song and why Llewyn chose it. I eventually had to surrender to instinct and it wasn’t until afterwards when I saw the movie that it suddenly dawned on me why that’s the song he would play. The job of a true folk artist is to look back and finds these old archaic songs that seemingly have no relevance and make them alive and present. That’s what Llewyn does in that scene. It was the most honest song he could play. It wasn’t the most commercial and it wasn’t the best choice for his career. But it was the truest thing he could play in that moment. It’s really interesting. The Coens don’t think about what the most meaningful thing could be, they go off of instinct. What makes them geniuses is that their instincts have so many layers to it.

Are the Coens big laughers on set? They seem so driven and focused in their work, yet their films are so playful that I wonder if that extends to the set.

Oh yeah. Constant, constant laughter. They are the easiest people to make laugh. They laugh at even the attempt of humour if the joke doesn’t work. They’re very generous that way. It was one of the most joyful sets that I’ve ever been on despite what you might expect. The way they run their set is so relaxed and off-handed that you don’t even notice that something has happened until it happened. Everything was part of a larger conversation. You’d be having a conversation and then you’d hear an off-hand remark that would change everything about your performance. We went through every scene together and discussed every moment. They always spoke in terms of very pragmatic adjustments. They never really speak in terms of themes or symbolism or any of that stuff. That’s not really how they work. They don’t tell you to “watch this” or “read this” or any of that. It’s really all about the vibe and the feeling that’s being created in the moment. Then of course I brought a lot of ideas and they would tell me if I was on the right direction or not. But that would always come from me.

Did working with the Coens change your perspective on their films at all?

Hmmm…Tone is the big thing that pops up for me in their work. I think that’s what I’ve always appreciated the most. They’ve always been masters of tone and I think that’s why they get along so well with T-Bone because he works in tone as well. That’s at the top of the pyramid. Everything else is about managing that. The first movie of theirs that I saw was Raising Arizona as a kid. I didn’t know anything about them, but I remember that it stuck with me in such a strange way. It was so funny and yet so sad and made me feel weird. They’ve been doing that ever since. [Laughs] There is something about the way that they examine existence and layer tragedy and absurdity that just speaks to the way I look at the world. So getting to be a part of that universe was more than I would have hoped for because they are so generous, not only with their laughter, but their thoughts on life and music and art. Everything. They created a community of artists, which is an incredible thing. So, they’re movies are enriched for me after that experience.

Would you ever consider working with a cat in a movie again or will this be the last time?

[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know man. If I can help it, I’ll try to never work with a cat again. They have real advantage on set. I guess it’ll depend on the offers [Laughs]. 

How has your experience been performing these songs in front of a live audience as part of T-Bone’s Inside Llewyn Davis concerts?

I’d much rather do them on set because if you fuck up you get a chance to do it again. [Laughs] Live is much scarier because you only get the one shot and it’s a terrifying thing. To stand up there with just a guitar in front of a crowd of people is a terrifying thing.


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