Until they met Oscar Isaac, the Coen Brothers were pretty sure that their tragicomic Inside Llewyn Davis screenplay was unfilmable: Where would they find a crazy-talented singer-guitarist with movie-star presence and major comic acting chops? Isaac, a 33-year-old lifelong rock musician and Juilliard-trained actor who had a Miller's Crossing poster on his wall as a teen in Florida, saw his chance. "I heard they were making it," he says, "and was like, 'This is me, man!'" Thinner, with close-cropped hair and light stubble instead of Llewyn's beatnik beard, Isaac was almost unrecognizable when he arrived in a East Village coffee shop to discuss the morose-folksinger role that's instantly transformed his career – and scored him a Golden Globe nomination for best actor. [Warning: Some plot spoilers ahead.]
What was your first audition for Llewyn Davis like?
Well, I knew that it was loosely based on Dave Van Ronk [and his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street], and he was like a six-foot-five, 250 pound Swede. So I came in, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a photograph of a very well-known musician – and I was encouraged because it was a guy who was a little smaller and a dark haired and had a beard. I was like, "So you guys have that picture as kind of a reference?" And they're like, "Oh yeah. He came in. He killed it." The blood just drained out of my face. But then I did the audition and it went well and they called me back.
How did you prepare to go in front of the Coens?
When I was getting ready to audition for the two of them, I was finishing up a really small little movie. We were doing a scene at the bar and there was this guy that was basically an extra playing an old drunk guy. In between takes there was a guitar laying around and he picked it up and started playing. And he was incredible. I was like, "Dude, hey, what's your story, man?" He was like, "Oh, I've been playing for a long time." I was like "Oh, wow! You know I'm gonna audition for this thing. It's kind of based on Dave Van Ronk." And he's like "Yeah, I played with Dave." I was like "Really?" And he was like "Yeah yeah! Why don't you come to my place?" I was like "Where you do you live?" "I live on McDougal Street."
"Right above the Gaslight." His name's Erik Franzen. He's been there since, like, 1970, and he just started playing me all these old records and playing and some recordings with him and Dave Van Ronk playing. He started teaching me this Travis-style picking, which I was not aware of – didn't know how to do it. It's this crazy syncopation. We'd play and I paid him for lessons and then we started playing in the Village. I opened for him a couple times at these open mics. He was like a trainer – the last day before the audition I played for him and then he looked at me and goes "I see the big guy behind you giving the thumb's up." [Laughs]
That's incredibly fortuitous.
I mean it's insane, man! So I showed up and played the songs and did the scenes. The Coens are incredibly generous and they love actors, and apart from actors, they love anyone that attempts humor. Like, they're quick to laugh. They're generous with, like, "I appreciate that you're attempting humor."
There's two kinds of professional funny people. The ones that never laugh and the ones that are pretty generous with the laughter.
That's how they are for sure. But the thing is you're never really sure how you're doing in the audition, because lots of friends I've talked to that have auditioned for them say, "It was the best audition of my life. Like they were literally rolling on the floor, crying, and then I didn't get it." [Laughs] So people were like 'How did it go?' I'm like, "It seemed like it went well! But you never know."
Did you grow a beard for the audition?
I had one. Yeah. I had a beard for it.
That's a very specific beard to end up with. No one would quite trim it that way now.
It helped to droop the face a little bit [laughs].
Yeah, it's not the most flattering.
Yeah. Thanks, bro [laughs].
So basically they loved it and the next thing was, "You got this."
So I got the part, and they were like "Okay, so in a week you're gonna have to fly out to meet T Bone Burnett." So they fly me out to L.A.. and in the morning, a beautiful car rolls up, and T Bone steps out. He's just like this tall, huge Texas gentleman. He's like, "We're gonna go get you your guitar." So we drive out to Tarzana to Norman's Rare Guitars and I just start to play these amazing instruments, figuring out what Llewyn's guitar is gonna be, and then I picked up this L1, this Gibson L1 from like 1925, which is Robert Johnson's guitar – like, what rock and roll was invented on. And I start playing it. It's hard to play but it just sounds evil.
Exactly. And the reason I loved it so much is because whenever you look at Dave Van Ronk he had those huge guitars, but he's so big that he just looks like he's swallowing the thing! So I liked that idea, even though at this point it's obvious that it wasn't - although there wasn't a conversation to say, "It's not Dave. Don't try to do the growl." It was just. . . it's very amazing how they work, T Bone and the Coens. Nothing is every really told to you one way or the other in a very direct way as far as the bigger-picture goes. Anyway, I start playing this L1. He hears it and he's like, "You're making music with that thing." Ironically it's the same guitar used in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou by the musician who played the Robert Johnson character.
How did T Bone actually train you?
So then I go back to T Bone's place, and I'm like, "Okay. Here we go. He's gonna really drill me and we're gonna get into what I'm supposed to sound like." I knew that T Bone had done Walk The Line – he told stories about how every day they would rehearse there and he'd set up the band. And you know I'm expecting all this kind of stuff. Instead, first thing he did was say, "Oh, have you heard the new Tom Waits record?" And he puts the record on and just leaves the room for like an hour. It was like totally Mr. Miyagi stuff, right? I'm like, "I'm gonna paint the fence next? What's happening?" So he comes back and I don't think he even realized that he was gone for an hour. He's just really kind of spacey. So I pick the guitar up and play a little bit and he would just listen, and he'd pick up a guitar and just play something else. I mean we'd talk about different things and take a walk and smoke some weed [laughs], and come back in and talk about some other stuff and that happened for like three or four days. And he'd be like, "Play like you're playing to yourself." And that really just kind of started shifting it, because suddenly, I said, "Well, if I'm singing to myself I would never do the howling." And from there it just kind of evolved.
There's not what you might call an arc for Llewyn.
Well, I'd be hard pressed to say he didn't learn anything [laughs] but you're right. This isn't Searching for Sugar Man. There's no good moment at the end when he comes out and makes it. Which I think is kind of the point. The farthest he gets is looking at that poster of The Incredible Journey and just taking that in for a moment. I think that's as close as he gets to "I guess that's what I've been on."
And he also forced that poor cat to go on.
[Laughs] Yeah, forced that cat to go on. That's why I think it's much more true to life. That's an easy thing to say. I think that's why at the end of the film you don't feel like it's an ending. You imagine this continues and it keeps going and maybe it goes dark, maybe it goes good.
That doesn't seem likely.
Yeah. But if you're going by the Dave Van Ronk thing, he did live a wonderful life. He wanted more monetary success, but, you know, he had his wife and he got a street named after him and he continued to the end of his days teaching and getting new musicians to fulfill their potential.
Hearing Dylan at the end is almost a moment of doom though, as far as everything he's known.
Well it's something dying and something else being born. Right? And being on the outside of it. That's for sure.
He's not even inside the club.
It's an amazing shot. For me, one of the most striking things is when Llewyn is going outside and you see that shot of this kid onstage, and there's these bars from the side of where the seats are that looks like a cell. Like, "That's not for you!' [Laughs] "This is not yours." And yet, and I don't know how this happens, but I think it comes off as a warm film.
And I remember when it first premiered at Cannes, people came out in the best mood. And it's crazy, because there's some heaviness in there and there isn't that triumphant moment. So I don't really know how that happens, but I know that it completely reflects their personalities, Joel and Ethan, which is this incredible mixture of warmth and despair and also of complete free accessibility and acute judgment [laughs]. There's this amazing, almost childlike wonder, and also this dark funny violence as well. Those two things are constantly happening, and what's also amazing is that it was so joyful to make. My biggest acting feat is looking like I'm really miserable, because in between takes I was just smiling ear to ear because I couldn't believe it. I really couldn't believe my fucking luck! And somehow I feel like that spirit comes through.
What was it like shooting the scenes with John Goodman in the car?
Yeah, that was so amazing, man. That's probably who I had most of my stuff with, those long chunks. You know, obviously it feels like there is a lot with Carey [Mulligan], but there's only really three scenes with her. John has got such a sweet generosity to him – he's just so kind and bashful and really mean to himself! You know, if he screws up on a line, he's like, "Fuck! God damn it!" He gets very Walter [laughs] from The Big Lebowski. But he's such a generous and sweet man. I remember we were shooting on the weekend and I got to play at the Gaslight. So I invited him to come over, and he got up on stage with me and we sang "St. James Infirmary." And before people had even finished clapping, he just flees the scene. He just, like, is out. He gets off stage and he's out the door. And I didn't see him again that night.
Did the Coens have anything to say along the way?
What was amazing about them was all the stories they would tell and all these thoughts about directing and films and people they've worked with. They told me a really funny story about Elia Kazan and Paul Newman that Paul told Joel. We were talking about character and characterization and "how much should an actor feel like they're a part of getting the story to work." Actors tend to feel like, "No, that's bullshit, you've gotta focus on the moment." So they told the story about Elia Kazan where he and Paul Newman were making a movie, and after months and months it got weirder and weirder and weirder, and by the end Elia goes, "Well congratulations Paul. You found the character but you fucked up the story." But again their direction wouldn't be like revelatory, big themes and emotions. It was all very practical. It would be a slight adjustment or modulation of a line or of an inflection of a rhythm. I think that's the thing that the three of us really locked in on was rhythm. That's also something that people who have been in theater are able to add to performances in films. In a play you dictate pace, you dictate rhythm, you dictate when people look at you, when people should be looking at something else. In film the editor does that. However I feel like it may have gone too much that way, I like the idea that you can actually work on pace.
It's called acting. That's right [laughs].
We still wind up liking Llewyn despite his behavior. Did you ever ponder how to make him sympathetic?
No [laughs]. But I was wondering how people were gonna understand what was happening to him, or what his thought process was. The performance was a complete act of faith, and particularly the choice that I made early on to not show any warmth through traditional means [laughs]. You know, which in a much simpler way is like, "What happens if you never smile at somebody?"
Does he smile the entire movie, ever?
Barely. I was thinking a lot about the comedy of resilience and why that's funny, and is it because we're like, "Oh thank God that's not me?" I thought about Buster Keaton a lot, and I'm like, "Why is that so funny?" His face never changes. Whereas Chaplin would run the gamut of emotion on his face. But I thought that was interesting, so I did some social experiments where I would go to parties and I would try not smiling. And even when he plays music, there's no cathartic moment. There's not a moment when he starts crying. There are a couple moments when he really gets frustrated, but even then it's always just kind of held in.
But there's an undercurrent of grief, always – for his dad, for his partner.
Oh completely. Yeah. All those things are inside, right? The grief over that, over his life, over his partner, over where he's at. But they can't be overly conscious. You know, it's there, but you shut that stuff off. When you're going through hard times you try not to think about it but the weight is on you. And so he's always walking uphill. If you watch him, no matter which way he's walking, it's always uphill. [Laughs.] And then the songs. The songs are the moment. That's the one moment when you see what he really feels.
Growing up, did you think you were going to be a musician or an actor?
I never thought about it in terms of what I'm going to be so much. I just started doing stuff that I liked doing and the only thing I was particularly good at was those things, music and making movies with my friends and doing plays and stuff like that. And I was doing both simultaneously. I had bands in high school and then I was also doing plays in Miami and making money that way – doing gigs in Miami regional theater. Even at Juilliard I still had a band going but obviously you have to make a choice at a certain point. I was like, "Well, I'm gonna focus on acting for a little bit."
You were born in Guatemala – when did your family come over?
I was five months old. My dad is Cuban, so he left right before the revolution and he grew in D.C. and he was a hippie. And he went down to study in Guatemala. That's where he met my mom and he brought us all over. I grew up in the States, in Florida.
Did you parents have artistic inclinations at all?
My dad definitely did. He's a doctor, but he was always playing music and recording. We had a video camera and he would make movies with us.
Was there any folk music playing in your house?
There was definitely a lot of Bob Dylan and then Cat Stevens, but really more Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and late Sixties rock.
Were you playing guitar early on?
I think I really started around 12.
And what kind of stuff were you playing?
Well I wanted to shred so I learned classical guitar.
So a lot of Yngwie Malmsteen?
Yngwie! [laughs] My dad listened to a lot of Yngwie and Steve Vai and those people. I watched Crossroads where Ralph Macchio beats the devil by playing classical music so I wanted to learn to play classical guitar! So I went in and I did it like three or four months. And then once I heard punk/ska music I was like, "That's it! That's what I want to do!" So I really started going down that avenue. What was cool about the punk/ska thing was that you could just have lots of your friends that weren't that good at playing music but had a trumpet or a saxophone so we had, like, a 10-piece band [laughs]. We actually played at the Warped Tour in south Florida.
What was the name of the ska band?
That's not as embarrassing as some.
I've had some bad ones. Right before that I had a hardcore band and that was called the Closet Heterosexuals.
So what's next for you?
I just finished shooting this film called Ex Machina. I build a robot to fuck it. Not just to fuck it, but I fuck it as part of building it.
And you never smile.
I smile the whole time! I smile the whole fucking time [laughs]. I mean I'm building fuckbots. How can I not be smiling?