Conor Oberst was up for the titular role of Inside Llewyn Davis – “and thank God for everyone that I didn’t get it,” he joked during a chat with the film’s actual star, Oscar Isaac. In a chat for Interview, Isaac and the Bright Eyes frontman spoke about Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, an homage to the early days of the Greenwich Village folk revival, in which Isaac plays a floundering musician. It was a role the brothers initially struggled to fill, wanting to find an actor who could also play music.
“But they auditioned a lot of musicians and actors for this part,” Oberst said, “to the point where I heard the Coen brothers and [music producer] T Bone Burnett say that they had more or less given up on the idea of finding someone.” It was Isaac, however, who broke the spell; during their chat the actor spoke about his own musical past, including the various bands he played in while growing up in Miami.
“My dad always played a lot of music, so I heard him playing all the time, and then I decided that I wanted to learn to play guitar, so I got an acoustic and started taking lessons,” Isaac said. “I wanted to be able to shred like Yngwie Malmsteen.” Isaac played in a handful of groups, dabbling in industrial, hardcore and punk and ska before turning his interests to acting in college.
Despite the shift, Isaac continued to play guitar and even wrote a little, a skill set that certainly came in handy while shooting Inside Llewyn Davis. During those performance scenes, Isaac worked closely not just with the Coens, but also Burnett, whom he called “a musical Mr. Miyagi.”
“Basically, you would do a song once, and T Bone might come over and say something like, ‘That one started to feel a little bit forced,’ or ‘Relax your hand a little bit,’ and that was it, man,” Isaac continued. “What was also interesting for me about playing those songs in those scenes was that, obviously, I needed to play this character, Llewyn Davis, who has a very particular voice and is playing a very particular style of music. But doing that was also an opportunity for me, Oscar, to be the musician that I’d always wanted to be as a kid – and to actually sing with that kind of honest voice that I’d always wanted to sing with. So I thought about that, too, in doing those scenes.”
Isaac and Oberst first met in September during Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis, a special benefit concert for the National Recording Preservation Foundation that aired on Showtime in December. The concert featured a stacked lineup, including Isaac’s co-star Carey Mulligan, Marcus Mumford (who also worked on the film), Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, the Decemberists‘ Colin Meloy and more. You can check out a clip of Jack White doing a folksy take on the White Stripes fan favorite “We’re Going to Be Friends” from 2001’s White Blood Cells.