This week sees the release of the new film from the Coen brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis. The film follows the eponymous folk singer as he strives to change his fortunes in 1961 Greenwich Village.
We sat down for an intimate roundtable chat with the star of the film, Oscar Isaac, who waxes lyrical on the experience of working with the Coen’s, cats and just what kind of music he listens to in private.
How closely does Llewyn’s story mirror your own as a struggling artist? Does he serve as a kind of alter-ego?
He is another version of myself if I had been born at that time and lived in Queens and had that life then that would probably be the way that I would act, which is why I did what I did in the movie. Whenever you do a character you try to find ways to relate to it at least emotionally.
Practically I’m on the flipside of what happens to Llewyn. I’ve actually been very lucky. Ever since I started doing it, since graduating high school, I’ve had opportunities that have come my way. I think the movie is about luck to a certain extent and how hard work and talent is one thing but mostly you need a lot of luck. The Coen’s recognise that and I recognise that for sure and it could’ve just as easily gone the other way. I’ve got friends that are incredibly talented, much more so than I am, and have worked hard and haven’t gotten the same kind of breaks [as me].
Llewyn’s in every scene and isn’t on the surface particularly likeable. Were you concerned that people wouldn’t warm to him?
I don’t understand why we’ve been so conditioned in movies that you’re supposed to like [the protagonist]. In plays no one talks that way. You don’t go and see Richard III and be like, ‘I wish he was more sympathetic.’ For some reason, maybe it’s because there’s so much money in movies that it’s all about like ‘Well he needs to be likeable so more people see it’, so you make more money off the movie. I don’t really get that. So no we never talked about him having to be warmer or likeable or anything like that. I think that’s what the songs are there for. He does have something beautiful that he’s trying to make and so because they’re so beautiful I think the contridiction is that his life is not very beautiful.
As a musician yourself this must’ve been a dream role for you. Plus you get to work with the Coens..
It was a dream come true. I couldn’t have dreamed a better thing for me. The Coens are my favourite filmmakers, I’ve been playing music for 20 years and the fact that all these things came together is pretty wild!
What was it like filming the scene with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver on ‘Hey Mr Kennedy’?
That was a very funny day. Beforehand I was definitely nervous about it and also with Marcus Mumford, all these people that have dedicated their lives to doing this music and it was great. They were very supportive and helped build my confidence.
What was it like working with T-Bone Burnett?
He’s a musical revolutionary. He really is. He’s so wise and and yet so gentle with his wisdom. You just have to be quick enough to pick it up. It was just about stripping away any artifice and just getting down to a really honest sound.
Was the process of the music itself particularly collaborative?
Yeah completely. I came in with these ideas for the arrangements and he would listen and give little tweakes here and there. I was never told how I needed to sound or what exactly I needed to play or the version I was needed to play. I was given a lot of room.
How does it work with both Coens directing?
You have these two genius filmmakers making the exact same movie. It’s wild. You have double the horsepower! It is these two amazing resources and they get along and they know exactly what they want to do but they’re also very open to suggestions and to try new things. It was really amazing and they don’t check in with each other so much. It’s like one person takes one foot and the other person goes when they wanna go and occasionally they’ll disagree and whoever feels the strongest about any one thing wins.
A symbiotic relationship between the two of them..
Yeah it really is.
Do you defer more to one or the other?
Whoever spoke to me last [laughs].
What’s Llewyn special relationship to the cat?
It’s a cat that got out from a place that he was staying - his friends house who was letting him crash on the couch - he doesn’t want to be an asshole, he wants to try and find the cat and take care of it until he can give it back to his friends.
Cats are notoriously unresponsive to direction so how was it working with the cats?
There were four or five of them because they can’t be trained! You have to have different cats to do the things you need them to do. Some of them were ok some of them were not. I don’t recommend trying to make movies with them.
You were actually hospitalised a few years ago from a cat bite. Did that make you reticent to acting alongside four or five cats?
I was not incredibly excited about that [laughs] but whatever the Coens want me to do I’ll do it.
You reunite with your Drive co-star Cary Mulligan in the film…
We have a comfort and trust with the other actor, it helps. You can go a little bit further. There was a real comfort there, I think she’s such a great actress. It’s such a different role for her, so twitchy and really angry.
Also John Goodman appears who is a Coen regular…
It was completely surreal. If there was any doubt I was in a Coen brothers movie I just had to look in the back seat and see he was right there. He did such a great job, it’s a very challenging role, stream of conciousness, monologues directed at the back of my head. He was great.
Llewyn is a folk singer but what kind of music do you listen to?
I grew up listening to Dylan but this pre-Dylan era was pretty new to me. I was a big fan of The Cure growing up. I’ve actually done some folk versions of some of their songs. I’ve recorded a cover of ‘From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea’ actually. TV on The Radio is another band I like, Marvin Gaye.
Did you do anything unusual to prepare for this role?
Every job that you do has it’s own specific things and for this one I played in a lot of clubs and cafes in the village actually.
Was there an audition process or was the role offered to you?
No, no they didn’t know who the heck I was! I auditioned for the casting director and then she sent that tape to the Coens and then they brought me in for them.
It was intense. I wanted it so badly I felt like I had the skill set to do it. I’ve been acting now for a good long while and I’ve been playing music for as long as I have and I thought, ‘This thing is for me, I’ve been preparing 32 years to do this thing.’
You played Prince John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. How do you feel about those larger scale movies compared with something more intimate like Inside Llewyn Davis?
As an actor you want to do different things and so that can be really fun. Especially when it’s Ridley Scott at the helm. Man what a general and what an incredible man. So I’m not a snob when it comes to that stuff, those movies can be really great too. Lawrence of Arabia was a huge movie. But they have to have integrity of some kind, they can’t just be only about getting butts in seats and getting in the dollars.
Would you like to continue recording music?
Yeah I think that what T-Bone has done and the Coens do too is they create a community of artists and so a lot of these guys that I’ve been playing with now were creating stuff and in maybe at some point I’ll share that with others.
What’s up next for you?
I’m doing a movie with JC Chandor (All is Lost, Margin Call), we’re shooting that in Brooklyn. It takes place in 1981 in New York which is statistically the most violent year in New York City and it’s about a guy who’s just trying to run a buisness and a lot of pressures come his way.
Inside Llewyn Davis is released in cinemas on Friday January 24th from Studiocanal.