Interview with Oscar Isaac, Lead Actor of Inside Llewyn Davis

CBS FIlms: Oscar Isaac in "Inside Llewyn Davis"On his brief visit to Boston, I was able to sit down with Oscar Isaac and talk about Inside Llewyn Davis, a Coen Brothers film that he stars in as the lead character. During this interview, I was able to learn a few about his experience with working with the award-winning brothers, stepping into their world of film, his musical abilities, working with Carey Mulligan again and a whole lot more. Below is a rundown of the interview’s most fascinating quotes that he shared.

Working with actors more than once isn’t unusual. However, doing so with Carey Mulligan in another troubled relationship may lead people to believe that the two were cast together again on purpose, but apparently it wasn’t. “Clearly, we’re not good at relationships in film. I think honestly, it was a coincidence. I don’t think the Coen Brothers saw Drive and were like ‘That works. Let’s do that again.’I think they thought she just did a great job.”

Like Mulligan, Isaac had to go through the auditioning process, but his was a bit different.”I had to go and audition for the casting director, and she said go and record Hang Me, which was a part of the criteria for the audition. Everybody had to do a version of it. So, I went home and did thirty takes of it to find out which one I liked the best and sent the one that I liked the best. The Coens and T-Bone (Burnett) saw it and approved, so they brought me in for the second audition and I got the role.”

After being awarded the role of Llewyn Davis because of his acting and musical abilities, he was able to get a feel of what it’s like working for The Coen Brothers. “They don’t do a lot of takes, so it didn’t actually feel too grueling and we’d always finish on time. Actually, it was the most efficient set I’ve been on. There was very little room for chaos.”

He expanded on this topic and compared it to a few of his past experiences with other filmmakers. “That’s when you can tell the difference between directors who are experienced and directors who aren’t. Cause when sh*t goes wrong, you don’t really notice it as much when you have someone who knows what’s going on cause they know how to “roll with it” or adjust very quickly without too much screaming and yelling about it. It was incredibly relaxed; the whole environment. It was always just relaxed with people very happy to be there.”

He also brings up Tony Gilroy and a similarities between he and the brothers. “I remember Tony Gilroy doing this a lot too: They’re really good at including everybody. In the conversations and just by the simple fact of printing up the storyboards every morning for everyone to see as well. There’s a lot of directors who will have little, secret conversations with the DP in corners. Everybody’s like ‘What’s going on?’ Nobody knows. Production designer doesn’t know. Everybody in the crew, none of them are on the same page. That happens when there’s insecurity.”

Being a man with singing talents, making a movie where he has to sing wasn’t difficult, but there were some aspects that made it more complicated for him. “The playback and all that stuff is what makes it really complicated. But the fact that we were able to do it and not need anything: No earwigs, nothing in my ear, no lip-synching, no trying to match anything. The fact that I was able to stick to the tempo the whole time without any of that stuff meant that we could just film it like dialog.”

One memorable scene comes from when he, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver are in the studio recording a song about John F. Kennedy. His response on the scene shed a little light on how some of the scenes with singing and music went down.”It was about a half a day. It was about for or five set ups and about five or six takes max each. Sometimes it was just three takes.”

While watching Inside Llewyn Davis, you’ll see that it’s a film where the Coen Brothers do as they please. But according to Oscar Isaac, that’s a difficult thing for filmmakers to do these days, and there’s a couple of reasons behind that.”It’s hard to get movies made the way people want to make them, because fear drives so much of it. And the reason why fear drives so much of it is because money drives so much of it. Money and fear are completely intertwined. Working with them (The Coen Brothers), there’s zero fear. There’s just none, because there’s no reason for them. They haven’t been burned, you know? I mean surely they’ve had some more slightly more difficult situations than others, but they have always done things the way they wanted to do it. They’ve had the good fortune of being able to nourish their genius. I don’t usually use that term, but I think they’re geniuses. I think they’re lucky geniuses. They’ve been able to do their thing and always stay true to their view and not have to make movies by committee.”

There are also some differences between developing a character in a film set in the past or future compared to present day. According to Isaac, he sees working on period pieces as easier in a way. “I don’t know if it’s easier, but there’s something that’s an easy thing to go to. I always try to make a vastly different character and be very specific with their rhythm of speech and how they talk. When you have a particular period, I know where to go, I’m like ‘Okay, late fifties, early sixties. What’s that like? What’s that sound like?’ Sometimes when it’s now, it’s a little bit harder to have perspective. It’s like ‘Where do I start with how he speaks?’ In some ways, it allows you to get extra specific, but you just treat it like anything else. I don’t think we thought about it as a period piece.”

So, they didn’t see this film as a period piece, but Isaac does point out that there are aspects of it that they did look at from that perspective. “The only thing that I think we thought about as a period was speech and generosity of tone, because I think the modern way of speaking in the United States is very back of the throat, but back then, there was a bit more generosity. Even if you watch Marlon Brando; some people think that Marlon Brando was all the way back here (making gestures pointing back), but he was actually talking right out here (again making gestures going forward). He was very generous with not only his air, but his melody. There was a lot more melody back then. I think it may be some kind of overpopulation thing. That’s why people say “like” so much. Nobody wants to say anything definitively. Especially now since it can be fact checked right away.”

In spite of it being set in the sixties, the Coen Brothers films don’t restrict themselves to that era in terms of feel or tone, and there may be a reason for it. Well, I think that they’re (Coen Brothers) interested in not necessarily what life looks like, but what it feels like. So there’s something that’s more impressionistic about it. You know, it’s a stranger in a strange land. The characters often times in their films feel very isolated and alienated from the rest of the world. So, I never thought of it as a heightened state for myself, but the circumstances make it heightened, you know? And because it is an exploration of existence and how existence can really suck sometimes, a lot of sh*t has to go wrong in a small period of time. It’s not a hyper realistic thing, it’s not a cinéma vérité kind of thing. I remember I asked them that and they’re like ‘No, no! It’s not. definitely not that. That’s not what we do’

Heading into Inside Llewyn Davis, one may be caught off guard by how good Isaac is musically, but he has a long history of this stuff in his background outside of film. “I’ve been playing live for a long time. The last two years, before even starting this, I was playing in a lot of coffee shops and all over the place. It’s mostly been solo stuff, but I was also playing stuff with the band and writing music for the last twenty years.”

While it’s a part of his history, he’s also interested by the prospect of continuing and expanding on that part of his life by adding to it. “I’m definitely interested in touring, and I have been for a long time, but it is difficult with schedules. There’s a lot I want to do in the pictures (movies). I also don’t want it to be like an opportunistic thing. For me it’s about, ‘Okay well, do I have a repertoire of songs I feel I want to share with people.’ So, I think the first step would be getting in the studio, start recording and see what happens and how I feel about it.”

Hearing about his journey into the world of the Coen Brothers and into a week in the life of Llewyn Davis was cool, but what’s his perception of the character that he created? “I think that he’s probably a very generous, “happy-go-lucky,” kind guy, but just not this week. I think you’re just catching him in a really, really bad week. I think that he’s struggling and having this existential crisis where he doesn’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing anymore. And the thing that he is doing is just causing him so much pain and he’s trying to figure out if he’s going to quit. And even when he wants to quit, something drags him back in. He’s like a hamster on a wheel.”