Folk Hero: Oscar Isaac Talks ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ Working With the Coen Brothers and Finding Success
If ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a film about being chosen for success, Oscar Issac is Hollywood’s latest choice. The young actor has distinguished himself in a wide variety of roles over the past few years, including turns in ‘Nativity Story,’ ‘Robin Hood,’ ‘Sucker Punch’ and ‘Drive’ among many others, but taking the title role in the Coen brothers’ latest film catapults him to a new level of opportunity, offering new challenges, and of course, bigger rewards. And in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ he plays the role to the hilt, utilizing the Coens’ idiosyncratic creativity to create a portrait of a struggling musician that is at once blindingly specific and spectacularly universal.
Isaac sat down with us in Los Angeles to talk about the challenges of the role. In addition to discussing how the Coens complement his performance with a context that enriches the character, he explained what he felt like the film was about, for him, and finally revealed his thought process as he embarks on the next phase of a career that is growing exponentially with each new role he takes on.
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is much less an overview of the scene or the time period than a very literal week in this character’s life. What advantages are there in that sort of specificity?
That definitely happens beforehand, just kind of thinking, okay, I have to know exactly where I am in his trajectory at any given moment. And yes, there’s a circular structure to the whole thing, but Llewyn’s not aware he’s in a hamster wheel. And it’s in increments, because he’s not the most expressive of people so it all has to be with the thought process of where he’s at at any given moment. So that I have to know beforehand, but once I’m in it, it really is just about the moment and whatever’s happening in that particular scene, and the circumstances of where I’m at at that point in the story.
I was a big fan of ‘Drive,’ which offered a lot more ambiguity than this film. How does working in a more impressionistic environment help when you come onto a project that’s more literal or specific like this one? You may not even seen the movie that way, I guess.
Yeah, I don’t think I do. This one for me felt much more ambiguous. Definitely the character in ‘Drive’ was not written with any ambiguity whatsoever. He was written as a device to create sympathy for the woman and for the audience to appeal to their bloodlust. And I wasn’t going to do the part, and so I had to sit with [Nicolas Winding Refn] and rewrite the part to make him actually a human being, and someone that was dramatically interesting. But yeah, that process of always being the character’s lawyer and defending and empathizing with him and making him real, every time that’s what I do.
It seems almost as if you’re doing the opposite in this movie – not at all trying to court the audience’s sympathy where maybe you were in that film.
Right. Well, no, he’s not a character that looks to gain anyone’s sympathy. It’s a little bit different and I know what you’re saying, but with that one it wasn’t so much about making him overly sympathetic, it was about making him like a three-dimensional person and a real person. But with this one, it was different, because he’s in every single scene, and he’s not someone who tries to ingratiate himself or to create sympathy with anybody. And it was kind of freeing to lean into that and not to try to use charm or any of those kinds of things, and let the context dictate that.
There a great little scene between your character and his dad. How important is a scene like that in unlocking the character in the rest of the film, since he’s not especially expressive?
It’s important. Those are big markers – that one for me, two of the big ones for me were, you know, obviously the one with F. Murray Abraham, but that one with his father, and when he finds out about Akron, about him having a kid there. Those are big emotional shifts in him and so it’s very important to nail those down, not necessarily what I’m going to feel, but that okay, the plates underneath him completely shift in these moments. Whatever that means – I don’t know how it will affect the end result, but just to know that.
How easy is it to create a pathology for a character’s behavior? He seems to keep encountering moments where he’s made responsible for something, and then chooses not to be.
I have to know where his thoughts are, and the Coens write thought in just by implication and by rhythm so you can find it. But that has to be there, the what’s he thinking – he sees Akron and what is that feeling? But the thing is though to never be ahead of him. As an actor, the most important thing for me while I played Llewyn was not to be ahead and think, oh, this is where he feels blah blah blah. Because that’s not how Llewyn works. If he did, maybe he would take more action. But the point is that I think he gets overwhelmed by things, and he doesn’t know what to do, and that causes inaction. It’s very Hamlet. He sees and feels, but he doesn’t even judge the moment, so for me it was very important not to do that.
To see Akron, know what it meant to me, know what’s there, and that’s it – and to move forward. See it in the rear-view mirror and just to keep going, and have that feeling be there. And then the Coens, they provide the context for those feelings. They provide it because they’ve told you what Akron means to me. I don’t have to tell you what Akron means to me, I just have to know it. They let the audience know what every little thing is, and that’s what was amazing about it. Because it gave me the freedom to just think, and I think that’s why so many actors come off so great in their films – because they provide all of the context you need to know. So the actor doesn’t have to bend over backwards trying to create sympathy in you, or get you to like them, or convey any particular aspect. They’re able to be slightly more enigmatic, more like a real person.
With them providing that context, what is this story about for you?
What’s it about… um, that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Other people have talked about the idea of being “chosen” for success. How often have you felt that way?
I’ve felt very lucky that things have played out in exactly this way. Had they played out in a different way I don’t think I’d be sitting here – I know I wouldn’t. The fact that it did take me a bit of time to get that first lead role. But what was great about that is I got to experiment and learn and educate myself on what it means to be in front of the camera, and how to find the most effective way to portray characters in a small amount of time or in the most economical way. And seeing stuff and being, okay, that didn’t work, but I know what I was trying – so next time I’ve got to do this. And then seeing that and going, okay, I got that, but this doesn’t quite work. And talking to people and working with filmmakers, and so all of that was school to prepare me for this. So it’s all happened in a really, really fortunate way – and for the Coens too. I think yes, they’re geniuses, but they’re lucky geniuses. They’ve been fortunate that they’ve had a career where they’ve never had to compromise, and that’s not normal.
It’s interesting then that this film focuses on a character who is being forced to do so.
That’s the thing – he’s not having the luck. He’s not having that thing where it’s like, oh, you mean I can’t do my thing and be successful? Then what do I do? That’s his dilemma. And some people might think, well now if he’s so rigid, he’s going to turn into Roland Turner, the [John] Goodman character. But he’s true to himself, and that’s a victory. Even if he fails, at least doing it on his terms is, I think if there’s anything really admirable about Llewyn, about his personality, at least it’s that. At least he does it on his own terms. And he’s probably going to be able to continue to play music until the end.
What perspective do you think the Coens have about that notion, from the outside?
Well, completely I think they realize it just easily could have gone the other way for them, that they have been fortunate that thing have just [come together] every time.
How difficult has it been to find roles that are so different from one another, and how calculating do you have to be about your career to find those opportunities?
There can’t be too much calculation. It has to be a gut thing. And it just has to be about, alright, will this allow me to maintain interest in the project for the amount of time that it takes to do it? Is this good enough that I’ll remain curious in investigating it for as long as it takes to do it? And if it is, then it’s worth doing.