Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize 2013 and nominated for two Academy Awards, critics are universally hailing Inside Llewyn Davis as the Coen brothers’s latest triumph. But before you get too carried away, Oscar Isaac—who stars as the eponymous, down-at-the-heels folk singer of 1961—would like to set the record straight. As tempting it might be to liken Inside Llewyn Davis to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man or wax rhapsodic about what Ulysses the cat symbolizes in the film, Isaac affirms that the Coens just “don’t talk about that shit.”
Llewyn’s looping, nightmarish plot is tempered by heartfelt and gorgeously-executed songs arranged and performed by Isaac himself, who prepped for the starring role by performing in NYC Village cafes and bars. Isaac will be the first to admit that the starring role was a dream come true, not only for him as a die-hard Coens fan and actor, but as a musician of some twenty years. Plagued by what he describes as “a mixture of self-destructiveness and really shitty luck,” Llewyn’s journey isn’t just a homage to the unsung struggling folk artists of America, but inevitably reminds you of a defiantly anti-heroic, counter-culture answer to On The Road. (Garrett Hedlund even pops up in a cameo appearance as a struggling Beat poet chauffeuring around a dying jazz junkie, portrayed by John Goodman.)
Isaac elaborated on why he wasn’t at all concerned with Llewyn being a “likeable” character, what it was like working with Carey Mulligan again, and how—by an easy twist of fate—Llewyn’s story could have been his own.
GFW: How closely does Llewyn's experience as a ”struggling artist” mirror your own—is he a kind of alter ego?
Oscar Isaac: He’s another version of myself. If I’d been born at that time and lived in Queens, then that’s probably the way I’d act. Whenever you do a character, you try to find ways to relate emotionally. But practically, I’m on the flipside of the coin. I’ve actually been very lucky. Ever since I started acting in high school I’ve always had opportunities come my way. The movie’s about luck to a certain extent. How hard work and talent is one thing, but mostly you need a lot of luck. The Coens recognise that. It could have just as easily gone the other way. I’ve got friends who are incredibly talented—much more so than I am—who have worked hard and didn’t get the same breaks.
Were you at all concerned that the audience wouldn’t warm to Llewyn, since he’s a rather unlikeable character?
I don’t know why we’ve been so conditioned by movies that you’re supposed to like everybody. In plays that doesn’t happen. You don’t go and see Richard III and say, ”I wish he was more sympathetic. ” Maybe it's because there’s so much money in movies. The Coens and I never talked about Llewyn having to be warmer. That’s what the songs are for: he does have something beautiful that he’s trying to make. The contradiction is that his life isn’t.
As a musician yourself, this role must have been a dream come true.
Yeah, it was. I couldn’t think of a better film for myself. The Coens are my favorite directors, I’ve been making music for twenty years—and the fact that it all came together is pretty wild.
What was it like collaborating musically with T Bone Burnett?
He’s a revolutionary. He’s so wise and gentle, and you just have to be quick enough to pick it up. It was about stripping away artifice and getting down to a real honest sound.
Did you collaborate on the Llewyn Davis soundtrack with him?
Yeah, completely. I came in with these ideas for the arrangement and he would listen, give it a few tweaks here and there. But I was never told how I needed to sound, or what exactly I needed to play. I was given a lot of room.
What was it like working with both Coen brothers simultaneously?
The Coens are just these two genius filmmakers making the exact same movie. It's double the horsepower. They get along and know exactly what they want to do, but they’re also very open to suggestions and trying new things. It was really amazing. Occasionally they’ll disagree, and whoever feels the most strongly wins.
What’s Llewyn’s relationship to the runaway cat, Ulysses, who keeps popping up during the film?
It's a cat that got out from his friend’s place, where he’s crashing on the couch. He doesn’t want to be an asshole, so he wants to try and take care of it until he can give it back.
Did the Coens ever discuss trying to make Llewyn a modern anti-heroic myth?
No, they don’t talk about that kind of shit. I think what makes the Coens geniuses is that they don’t start with what’s the most meaningful thing they can put in. They start with an idea that appeals to their instinct: 'We need a plot. Wouldn’t it be funny to have a cat?' The cat could be Llewyn’s spirit animal, a symbol of his responsibilities and humanity, and it obviously undercuts the seriousness of the film. Immediately he has this vulnerable thing he has to take care of.
What was it like working with Carey Mulligan and John Goodman?
Carey and I had a comfort and trust with each other from Drive that helped. I think she’s such a great actress and comedian. This was such a different role for her, so twitchy and really angry. Working with John Goodman was completely surreal. If I ever had any doubt that I was in a Coen brothers movie, all I had to do was look in the backseat and see that he was back there. His was a very challenging role, with a lot of stream-of-consciousness monologues directed at the back of my head. He was great.
The ending is rather ambiguous – does Llewyn give up music in the end or does he persist?
I think that he doesn’t give up. I think he keeps on playing. That’s why there’s a slight hopefulness at the end. He gets the joke, and finds a way to continue to play, as a lot of these guys did.
'Inside Llewyn Davis' is released in UK cinemas on 24 January.
All images courtesy of Studio Canal