Oscar Isaac Cat Inside Llewyn Davis
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Interview: Oscar Isaac for “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Over the past few years, Oscar Isaac has been on my radar after bringing his enormous talent to supporting characters in such movies as Drive, 1o Years, and Robin Hood (to name a few). Now it’s time for Oscar to break out on his own with a starring role in the Coen brothers‘ new Golden Globe nominated film,  Inside Llewyn Davis. In the movie, Oscar plays the titular role of Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk-singer in the 1960’s, who is trying to make a name for himself in the music industry. However, this quest for a record deal is not the only conflict the character faces.  Over the course of the film, Llewyn must find and take care of his friend’s cat, which escaped from an apartment while he was looking after it, and he learns that he got his best friend’s wife (Carey Mulligan) pregnant.

While Oscar is a friendly, charming, welcoming man, Llewyn is at times the opposite. It is obvious that Llewyn has many internal demons, which present themselves often in the film through short, passionate bursts of frustration. This ability to be two completely different people goes to show what an amazing talent Oscar brings to the film. No wonder he was recently nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best Actor category!

I had the opportunity to conduct a roundtable interview with the delightful Oscar Isaac, where we talked extensively about  Inside Llewyn Davis. I was really interested in hearing him speak about his time at Juilliard and how that experience prepared him for this break-out leading role. Additionally, he spoke about the fantastic music in the film and how challenging his performance was, since most of his characters’ emotions were not shown externally. Hopefully Oscar will not only get recognition at the Golden Globes for his amazing work in this film, but will also get nominated for an award that sounds like his name.

Don’t forget to check out Inside Llewyn Davis, which opens in theaters this Friday, December 20 in theaters near you!

Oscar Isaac playing guitar in Inside Llewyn Davis
Courtesy of CBS Films

Lauren Bradshaw (Cloture Club.com): I was reading an article with Jessica Chastain earlier and she was saying you guys went to Juilliard together. She called you a “young Al Pacino” and said she always loved watching you. I was wondering how your experience at Juilliard maybe prepared you for this role. Were you able to act and do the singing thing or did you just focus on acting?

Oscar: Well, I thought I was going there to focus on acting, but it was there that I learned to sing. I sung badly for many years but that was the first time that I actually learned to use what I have, which is my diaphragm and my voice and my face and how to make the most sound I can in this head of mine. I had a teacher named Deb Lapidus and that’s what she taught me to do. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I started to find what my actual voice is and not trying just to sound like Robert Smith or somebody… so that totally prepared me. Everything [prepared me]. In fact, my dialect coach [for this movie] was my voice teacher at Juilliard.

Before I started [filming] I met with Moni Yakim, who has been there since the beginning. He is the movement teacher. He’s this tough Israeli guy and we got together and worked on how Llewyn moves, how Llewyn walks. He had this, and he talked about this when we were in school, he always tells the story about when he was down in New Orleans and this amazing jazz band (they were waiting for them to come in)… and when they finally came in they were ancient, really old. When they walked in, you could immediately tell what each of them played because of the way they stood… so the piano player came in like this [acts like he’s hunched over a piano], and the sax player came in like this [acts like an old man playing the sax], and the bass player came in like this [acts like he’s holding a bass] and they just had to drop them onto the instrument to play. So that incorporated some of that and some of what was happening emotionally. Walking up hill… literally. [Llewyn] always walks uphill even when he’s walking downhill. I thought of all different kinds of ways to express him physically and the shoes were a big, big part of it. They’re the saddest little shoes you could ever see. They’re basically just a piece of leather with some rubber glued to the bottom.

Lauren B.: When they got wet I was like “Oh no!”

Oscar: [laughs] Yeah, terrible, right? So I just got those a good month before shooting and wore them everywhere.

Leslie Combemale (Cinema Siren): I think that Llewyn suffers from grief and that it expresses itself in some of the actions and emotional choices that you make as an actor. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Oscar: Yeah, I think that a lot of those things… it’s funny because I have been accused of over-intellectualizing often in my… definitely in school that would happen a lot. That would be one of my critiques from my acting teachers and really getting in there a lot and over-thinking sometimes. Funny enough, with this one I tried to not do that as much, particularly because the cameras were always right here [motions right in front of his face]. The longest lens the Coens’ used was I think a 40 mm lens, which was maybe about here [laughs and motions close to his face]. So they were always there.  It was never going to be an act of expression; it was always just going to be an act of thinking it, and feeling it, and knowing they would provide the context for those feelings and those thoughts. So something like the grief, knowing what that is, understanding what that is, but never playing that. You know? In fact, playing against that… playing that “I’m not going to think about this [deceased] guy.” That thing is gone to me and somehow just saying that makes me more emotional about it because you’re not recognizing that thing. And so when he does recognize it, it really presents itself in a major way. I think that’s right on the money.

Lauren Veneziani (DCFilmGirl.com): I thought the film was lovely and I thought your performance was so moving and so incredible and very memorable from what we’ve all seen so far this year. You and Carey [Mulligan] have been onscreen before and have always had great chemistry. You’ve been in these love-hate relationships like this film and Drive. If Standard and Irene were to sit down and have a conversation with your character and Gene in Inside Llewyn Davis, what do you think would happen?

Oscar: I don’t think Standard would like Llewyn too much.

Lauren V.: Probably not.

Oscar: I don’t know. That’ s a really funny question. I don’t know. I’m not sure. I don’t even know how to answer that.

Lauren V.:  Standard would probably be like “get out of my face.” I think that just is a testament to how good you are as an actor that you can separate all of these characters and that we can see all of these characters and not Oscar Isaac.

Oscar: Well that’s important to me for sure.

Lauren V.: One of the characters in the film says to you, “singing is a joyous expression of the soul.” As an actor, do you feel that way about performing and when you’re singing?

Oscar: Not necessarily because it’s not always that. It’s not just the joyous expression; sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes it’s an expression of rage or deep hurt. She’s such a sweet lady. She’s reaching with that line but clearly a lot of that music, particularly folk music, comes from desperation. Life squeezes them and these are the noises they make. T-Bone [Burnett] calls that the single most democratizing act in the history of mankind, which is when those guys came down from DC, down into the South and recorded all of these field recordings of the poorest of the poor and then broadcast that to the entire planet. That’s where modern music comes from. That’s really a fulfillment of the prophesy “the meek shall inherit the Earth.” That’s what that is. There’s a reason that this music, folk music in particular, is protest music… because there is something so direct about it, so simple about it. That’s why it’s also very easy to mock.

John Nolan (PunchDrunkCritics.com): Llewyn, in this movie, doesn’t have a polar attitude. He doesn’t seem overly depressed or withdrawn and he doesn’t seem overly outgoing or happy and that seems to be a hard place to nail the entire time, the way you did in this movie. I was wondering how you prepared to be that kind of apathetic but still outgoing… depressed but still able to sing… how did you get ready to be in that mood?

Oscar:  Well, a lot of it is there in the script… but for me, I thought about, okay this is funny.  Why  is this funny? What makes the comedy of resilience work? Why are we laughing? Are we laughing at him? Is it sociopathic? Are we being sadistic? Are we laughing out of relief that it’s not us? Where is that coming from? So I just try to think of performances that elicited a similar thing for me. That’s when I came across Buster Keaton and I thought, that’s someone who is constantly having a near-death experience and we laugh but we root for him and we are excited when he makes it out somehow but horrible shit keeps happening to him. Yet, his face is this melancholic impasse; no matter if he is in love or if he’s on a speeding train or if a house is falling on him, he allows you to see inside. He doesn’t tell you what he’s feeling. He doesn’t dictate to you what’s going on emotionally. He just sees everything. So I was like maybe that’s the idea… to just see and don’t impose charm or don’t ingratiate. Don’t do any of those things. It’s a slightly heightened sense, even if it’s a small thing. It’s not that this is who he is (he never smiles) but that’s what it feels like. It’s an external expression of what it feels like inside. It’s a language for the movie.

John: That gave him a really relatable side that lets you root for him, even when you may not want to based on what he was doing. I think the way you did that was perfect.

Oscar: Thank you. Although I would say what he does, and of course I’m not objective, I’m going to always… I love him… but I think apart from maybe two things  (and even then they’re not justifiable but they’re explainable), his actual actions aren’t bad. In fact, he acts in a selfless way when he should act in a selfish way because it would be better for him and probably everybody if he [lived in] the whole “nouvea” psychological world we live in today. “I have to do this for me.” But he never does that. He signs away his royalties to pay for the abortion of a child that may or may not be his.

Justin Timberlake and Oscar Isaac playing guitar in Inside Llewyn Davis
Courtesy of CBS Films

Nell Minow (The Movie Mom): Absolutely. I think the character won me over completely when he picked up the cat because that was where I knew that he was not going to be completely about himself and that he had some sense of responsibility.  He not only picked up the cat but called and said, “I have the cat.” So actually I was on the character’s side the whole way. Now, my favorite scene remains the one where you’re talking to the doctor and you don’t say anything but you have to show this incredible avalanche of feelings that hit you when you find out that Diane did not have the abortion. So you said the camera was right in your face?

Oscar: Oh yeah!

Nell: Wow! So talk to me a little… you know, I’m just so blown away by how much you were able to convey without words so talk a little about that.

Oscar: Well that was… that was an interesting moment when he first says that. He says, “You didn’t know?” and I say, “No.” We tried it a couple of different ways and that was on Joel [Coen]. He came up and said, “I think maybe don’t move at all and say no very simply. Don’t show that it’s too hard or anything. Just try to be as direct as possible.” That was the one moment there… that was the take they ended up using where I don’t move away from him. I keep staring at him and I just say “no” very simply to him. It’s just amazing how that works. That shows so much more than any kind of sigh or look away or anything like that. It’s that kind of simplicity. Yeah, for me too, I think [that scene] and the scene with his father for me are similar in that way, where the restraint ends up being much more impactful for the person watching.

Leslie: You said you sung [many] of the songs that were shot five times? You played them on camera five times? The last one you did at the end of the movie was gut-wrenching. Could you feel it when you were singing it, that it was the one? Did everyone know? Were you like, “Well I’ll just do a few,” or did you do that one and they go “okay”?

Oscar: Funny enough, that wasn’t supposed to be in the [movie], that song. It starts with “Hang Me” and ends with “Hang Me.” In the script there was “Dink’s Song” at the beginning and so what I did was, I latched onto Van Ronk very quickly, even though that wasn’t their intention. They had just sent “Hang Me” as the audition piece, but when I found “Hang Me” I was like, “That’s where I’m going. I’m going Van Ronk all the way. Full Ronk.” So, I just started learning all of his repertoire and I saw that it said “Dink’s Song” so I found every version that he recorded of “Dink’s Song.” First they did a CD of all the possible songs for me. They had a very white folky version of it and I was like, “that’s interesting… not really interested in that one but whatever.”

Then Marcus [Mumford] came in and he had an arrangement very much along the side of that one and it was beautiful.  We just started working on that one and I kept playing mine and we recorded that one and it ended up being really nice. Then, I think it was a week into shooting, Joel and Ethan were like, “We have an idea… we think maybe we want you to play one more at the end and maybe you should do your solo of ‘Dink’s Song’.” I was like, “Yeah, great! I’ve been playing it nonstop in cafes around the Village.” It’s just one of those things where I don’t think it was overly thought out on their part. I think that’s what makes them such geniuses. They don’t think about what has the most meaning. Their instinct is always something that ends up having so much weight.  Suddenly this beautiful duet ends up becoming this dirge at the end.  It’s this funeral song. For me, I can’t give away all of my secrets, but it definitely went to an incredibly personal place of saying goodbye.

Leslie: … at the end it felt like it was about anger and letting go.

Oscar: Exactly, and to acknowledge it exists even and to say goodbye with that. [Music] is a weird thing… to get up and make that much noise in front of people in such a strange way. I think…

Leslie: It’s very vulnerable.

Oscar: Yeah, and we understand it. I think we’re wired in a way that it brings out that primal… we’re “the collective”, like birds, that all know when to move at the same time. I remember reading this amazing study that they monitored the breathing of an audience and the performer and then talked to the audience afterwards. They found that the moments when the audience was in agreement the strongest was when their breathing was in sync with the performer. Everyone was breathing in sync. I think film is able to capture that too, which is a wild thing because it’s dead. You can watch something where everyone involved is long gone and yet you can still be breathing at the same time with what’s happening onscreen.

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