How Oscar Isaac Became Llewyn Davis

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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?
The Worms.
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?

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