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How Oscar Isaac Became Llewyn Davis

The Golden Globe nominee on blazing with T Bone, cracking up the Coens and why John Goodman is like Walter Sobchak

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in 'Inside Llewyn Davis.
Courtesy of CBS Films
December 12, 2013 3:55 PM ET

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's Real in Inside Llewyn Davis: Drawing the Facts Out From the Fiction

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."
 
Whoa.
"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.
 
Pretty small-bodied.
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.
 
It is.
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.

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