Wearied but never defeated, not always making the best choices but never unlikeable, folk singer Llewyn Davis spends a week trying to keep his personal life in order while looking to make the most of a few opportunities that could advance his career in the evolving '60s music scene in New York City. But his stubbornness in refusing to bow to the demands of a more pop-oriented public and the poor treatment he occasionally gives those around him as he pursues his dreams help to create the portrait of a complex, uncompromising artist who will always have a song to sing, whether or not an audience is there. And in the hands of Isaac, Llewyn Davis is a beautifully rounded creation: comic, tragic, hopeful and despairing, someone whose journey instantly becomes recognizable to anyone who has pursued a passion wholeheartedly.
This week we had the pleasure of catching up with Oscar Isaac and talked with him about making "Inside Llewyn Davis," his own musical chops and the movies coming up next for the actor.
Once you had the part of Llewyn Davis, what was your entry into the character? Once you had the script in your hand, what was it that helped you get into the head space you needed for that role?
There was a few things. First it was reading Dave Van Ronk's memoirs—although clearly I'm not playing Dave Van Ronk—but he had such a handle on the time, and such a specific point of view, which was dark but also very funny. And the fact that he was a guy from the boroughs, who knew exactly who he was and would have liked more success, all those things were really helpful. And then on a practical side, playing the music was really the way in. I started playing in little clubs and cafes in the village and standing up, one man with a guitar in front of a crowd, it's intense. And to balance the emotional connection to the songs with the generous storytelling aspect of folk music and then again with the character, Charles Bukowski's "Bluebird" poem. A buddy of mine was a great teacher and gave that to me and that really was a mantra for me. The idea of a guy who has a bluebird in his heart but he doesn't want anyone to see it. That was really helpful. And then the movies of Buster Keaton were another inspiration, someone that is dealing with all sorts of horrible things happening in his life from houses falling on him, to falling in and out of love to being in the front of a speeding train and yet his face is this melancholic empath, he's clearly internalizing it all and we're rooting for him. His only expression is really a physical one. Like Llewyn his only expression is a physical one too, as opposed to acrobatics or amazing physical feats, it's playing the guitar.
You knew how to play a guitar and sing before you did the movie, but had you played live in front of crowds before?
Yeah, I was in bands, but they were punk bands and you plug in the guitars, you turn them up really loud, you've got four or five other people on stage with you, you've got some protection from when they throw lighters. You can always hide behind the lead singer or the bass player. But I hadn't really done this solo stuff until really about a year or two before I even got the audition. I just decided I wanted to start doing that so I started to do open mics here and there and I was already starting to prepare a bit without knowing it.
So what was it like going from punk shows to doing your own solo thing and then working in the studio with T-Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake and Marcus Mumford? That must have been a trip.
It was a total trip, man. The truth is it's like you're always waiting for the moment when they're going to look over and be like, "Wait a second, what is this dude doing here?" [Laughs] I was just, "I'm going to keep my head down until that happens, just going to keep going with it until they realize that I'm the interloper." [These] people have dedicated their life to music and have reached the upper echelons of it and yet it was such a generous environment. Marcus was so wonderful throughout the whole process, just building my confidence and helping me out and just being a good guy, that really goes a long way.
I would imagine your singing and playing ability jumped up a few levels.
Oh yeah, I mean it's impossible not to, just from the sheer virtue of having to do it so much and spending so many hours working on it and also being turned onto a whole repertoire of music that I didn't know before, and connecting to American roots music which was the birth of modern music. The whole folk movement and blues and bluegrass, all of that. At the head of all that T-Bone who is a music revolutionary, he really is. You've got to hear him talk whenever you can. His ideas are so profound and yet so relevant to everything that's happening right now with music and it's all very positive. But he changed the way I play music, listen to music and think about music.
From doing the music to working with the Coens, what surprised you most when you started shooting the film about their approach?
I think how simple and direct they are. How unconcerned with manipulation they are. They have such a specific tone and yet it was never didactic, they never were imposing ideas on anything. It really was a situation where it created the environment for everyone involved to put all their ideas out on the table and to build this thing together. So there's no ownership over anything, there's no ownership over ideas. So on the flip side of that, they're never going to say, "Hey that's a great idea, good job," because you don't own it, as soon as you say the idea, it's not yours anymore. So it's actually a very freeing way of working.
Do you think Llewyn is doomed to repeat his journey, to always be on the cusp of something great? Or do you think he has a brighter future ahead of him?
I love that I get asked about Llewyn's future because it's an indication that you see him as a person. He's not just a character, he's not just a device there for sympathy or for whatever. I think yes and no. I don't think that he is Rodriguez, where he's going to have that big sold out show. He's not that. I think that he will always play music. I think he'll always find a way to play music. He will never quit. And that's why it's not a tragic ending. That's why there is an uplifting element to it because this is someone who, regardless of whatever shitty things they did, he stays true to himself and true to the thing that he loves more than anything which is playing music. Just like Dave Van Ronk who says "I would have loved to have been a little more successful, had a little more money, but I got to play music my whole life." That's what I wanted to do ever since I was a child.
Did you have time with any of the other cast members beforehand or did they come and go as required?
People would come in and it was a bit of a revolving door. What was great was that week we had before shooting when we went up to Avatar Studios in New York, one of the last fully analog studios in the city, and everyone in the cast, including Marcus and The Punch Brothers, we all played the music, and we all got to hang out and talk about the characters and figure out who they were, and that was I think our one real moment to all connect as a little community.