The actor's side job as a musician came in handy when the Coens were trying to cast the uncastable title role
A version of this story first ran in OscarWrap: Actors Issue.
“I always joked with my parents,” said Oscar Isaac with a grin. “I told them, ‘If I don’t make it as an actor, my fallback is musician.’”
Those dual career paths may not have reassured his parents, but Isaac has somehow made them work — and he’s merged them in his quiet performance as the titular folk singer in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
The black comedy — or maybe it’s a twisted drama — was inspired by the life of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, and stars Isaac as a skilled but self-destructive singer who makes a mess of his life except when he’s onstage singing old folk and blues tunes. Typically for the Coens, the film is dark and occasionally mean, but it also has heart.
And Isaac carries it as a melancholy songsmith who has the bad luck to be a decent folk singer in a Greenwich Village scene that is about to be upended by a titanic new arrival, Bob Dylan.
“He’s a blue-collar workman, not a poet,” Isaac told TheWrap of his character. “It was an interesting challenge, because you had to develop a character who really only shows his soul in his songs. He doesn’t try to smile or charm or bullshit people.
“Once I got the part, I kept developing it, changing things, figuring out where his motor was, and thinking a lot about the comedy of resilience.”
To land the role, the Guatemalan-born, Miami-raised Isaac needed the kind of good luck that stands as the exact opposite of his character’s string of misfortune and bad timing. A Juilliard-trained actor and part-time musician who’d played in bands for years, he found himself doing solo acoustic gigs in a local hangout to pass the time on the Pittsburgh shoot of “Won’t Back Down,” in which he had a small role.
Then, while filming a tiny movie in a New York bar, he ran into an extra, a musician and guitar teacher named Eric Franzen who had played with Dave Van Ronk, lived in the neighborhood where Llewyn Davis is set and introduced him to Van Ronk’s widow. “He started playing me these old recordings, and taught me finger-picking stuff,” Isaac said.
“The fact that I happened to find this guy before the audition is wild. That’s kind of the whole point of the movie, how much of a role chance and serendipity plays.”
Then again, chance and serendipity goes the wrong way for Llewyn Davis – as the old blues song has it, if it wasn’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. “I thought about Buster Keaton a lot,” Isaac said. “He has this nearly immobile face and he’s always sort of melancholy, but somehow that works.”
To land the part, though Isaac first zeroed in on the Van Ronk repertoire, learning three songs for his audition—“what I lack in talent I make up for in obsessiveness,” he said—and impressing the Coens and musical director T Bone Burnett.
“It’s about somebody who’s got musical chops, and you want to actually watch them perform,” Ethan Coen told TheWrap. “We knew we didn’t want to fake it, we wanted to shoot live performances. But also, it’s about this very complicated, difficult character, and the whole movie’s about him, and it’s got to be an actor who can do that.
“Thinking about those two things in combination, I don’t know why we assumed we would find that person, or that that person existed. But he did, and it was Oscar.”
When Isaac got the role, he learned an entire new style of guitar playing, Travis picking, so that he could perform the folk/blues repertoire, and then headed for Burnett’s studio for what he figured would be “music boot camp.”
“I thought they were going to have experts teaching me how to sing and play this particular style,” he said. “But I showed up and it was none of that. We’d sit for a little bit, and he’d say, ‘Have you heard the new Tom Waits record?’ He’d put it on, leave the room for an hour, come back, say, ‘Play me something.’
“He kind helped me to strip away a little bit. He said, ‘Quiet it down. Just sing it like you’re singing it to yourself.’ And I took that into the character as well.”
But it was important, he said, to blur some of the lines between Oscar Isaac the musician and Llewyn Davis the character. “I wanted my authentic voice to come through as well, because that will be the most truthful thing,” he said.
“That’s why they were looking for musicians at first. It’s not musical theater – it’s a window, as opposed to an expression of the character. The overlap between me as a musician and Llewyn as a musician had to be there as well.”
Isaac even let the overlap go the other direction, try out certain aspects of LLewyn’s character in his own life. “He doesn’t do the regular things like smiling or charming people,” he said. “But at the same time he’s not cool. He’s just very direct and open.
“I would go to parties, and I would try to talk to people and be warm, but not smile. And there would either be zero connection, or there would be a sudden intimacy. And just like in the movie, there would be people saying, ‘This guy’s a dick.’”
While he didn’t share his experiment with the Coen brothers, Isaac said he let Ethan in on his approach after shooting had finished. “Not that long ago I was talking to Ethan about it, and I kind of mentioned this stuff,” he said, grinning. “And he was like, ‘Oh, so that’s what you were doing. Huh. I wish I would have known that.’”