Interview: Oscar Isaac, star of the Coen brothers folk dramedy Inside Llewyn Davis
Isaac sits down to talk about Greenwich Village, Charles Bukowski and Justin Timberlake
Oscar Isaac was born in Guatemala and raised in Miami, Florida. After a stint as a musician he turned to acting, eventually securing supporting roles in Drive and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Isaac now makes the leap to leading man in Inside Llewyn Davis for no less than the Coen brothers, playing a musician struggling to make it in the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
How did you come to be cast as Llewyn Davis?
The Coens didn't know who the heck I was! I first auditioned for the casting director who sent it to the Coens and to T-Bone Burnett, who produced the music, and they thought, alright this is someone that can do it.
Did you identify with Llewyn considering your own struggles as a musician?
Yes definitely, but that's the thing for anyone that's involved in the arts, you're dependent on the subjective opinions of others to continue your livelihood. It creates anxiety and insecurity and Llewyn is someone who's experiencing that. He knows what he wants to express but the scene around him is moving on and that's frustrating.
Were you familiar with the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 50s / early 60s before you signed up?
I grew up listening to Bob Dylan but I didn't know what came immediately before him, so making the film was a crash course in that particular scene.
Did you read Dave Van Ronk's memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which provided the inspiration for both the film and character?
I did. It's a great chronicle of that time, very funny and dark. Mostly what we took from that was Van Ronk's repertoire of songs, which Llewyn plays, but also the fact that he was a merchant marine and had an unsuccessful trip to Chicago.
Llewyn isn't always likeable but when he sings we see his true, soulful self.
My acting coach sent me this poem called 'Bluebird' by Charles Bukowski about a tough guy who keeps a bluebird in his heart that he doesn't let anyone else see. That's who Llewyn is: he's not going to let anybody see anything, except when he plays his songs and that's his bluebird. The only moments of real tenderness are when he plays.
The casting is interesting: Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake aren't obvious choices for their roles but both are terrific.
I think Carey is fantastic in the movie and just took it and ran with it and it's so different from anything we've seen her do. We'd worked together before [on Drive] so there was real comfort there, which allowed her to be even more nasty to me! And Justin is hilarious in the film.
How easy was it to get onboard with the Coens' style, that marriage of dark and light?
They were my favourite filmmakers growing up and it was easy to jump into that tone as that's the way that I see the world too: absurdity and tragedy happening on top of each other. Over the years they've gotten closer and closer not to what it looks like to be alive, but what it feels like. They create a community of artists, all throwing in ideas and they just help shape them. It was the most relaxed set I've ever been on.
Inside Llewyn Davis is on general release from Fri 24 Jan.