An epic interview with 'Inside Llewyn Davis' star Oscar Isaac

Posted by · 2:25 pm · November 26th, 2013

CULVER CITY, Calif. – A few weeks ago we ran an interview with the Coen Bros. about their latest film, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I put it up in a Q&A format rather than the usual prose kind of thing because the back and forth was so interesting to me. And for a pragmatic pair whose answers almost have more power in the context of the question, it made a lot of sense.

As I sat down to write up a lunch interview with star (and recent Spirit Award nominee) Oscar Isaac, it became apparent to me that it would benefit just as much from that treatment. The discussion has a natural flow and Isaac is so thoughtful in all of his responses that it would seem wrong to pick and choose the quotes that work best for a piece about the themes and character-building that went into the film.

Which brings me to another point about why a simple Q&A made a lot of sense. Just like the Coens, Isaac – as you'll plainly see in his answers – isn't too caught up in affectation and applying meaning to art. The existence of the thing is the thing. So the conversation, then, is the conversation. No fluffy piece built around choice excerpts. Just an hour-long chat about nostalgia, the life of a nomad, the impact of artists on community, music as an outlet, the inspiration of Buster Keaton and the danger of an actor's personality becoming bigger than the work itself.

Check it all out below, and be forewarned: it's LONG. But it'll make a great piece of reading during the holiday. So feel free to bookmark and dive in later this week.


HitFix: So have you ever done this much press for a movie in your life?

Oscar Isaac: No, sir. Nope. No, I have not.

Well it's a fun one. You get to do all these concerts and stuff.

Yeah, that part's really cool. I just came from seeing the film, the concert film.

Oh, the New York thing. I really wanted to go to that but I couldn't make it, so I'm glad they made a film out of it.

Yeah, the movie's good, because everything they do is so – they just have really good taste so they just – they even make that a little bit of a story. They're just great storytellers. But a lot of it I was backstage, actually. I didn't get to see a lot of the performances. There were a few of them that I saw that were just amazing, man. That Marcus Mumford. He's a motherfucker. He is a motherfucker, man.

Speaking of New York, you live in Brooklyn. Are you going be bi-coastal, you think?

I basically am now. I've been living at The London for a month. But I'm gonna stay out there, as far as, like, living.

How long have you been there?

Almost 12 years now. I actually just bought an apartment. Because I moved around so much when I was a kid. I was like, “I'm gonna go for it. Some roots,” you know? A little apartment. But it's nice and I do like it out there a lot. I just feel a little calmer out there. I know it's strange because it's New York, but there's something about it.

Well, it's not, like, an industry town.

Yeah, so it's not overly saturated. People are kind of doing their own thing.

Why did you move around when you were a kid?

My dad was a doctor but he was just always, like, going from hospital to hospital for some reason. I lived in Baltimore and then Louisiana – a couple of different places in Louisiana and then Miami – a couple of different places in Miami, then up to the kind of Palm Beach area – a couple of different places there, and back down to Miami.

So you were bouncing around. I was kind of the same way. My dad was transferred a lot. It was always North Carolina or Virginia, but I was always on the move, always a different school. It makes it hard because you don't have a real sense of home.

Yeah, exactly. Like home – I think that maybe – I don't know if you feel that way but – and not to be over dramatic about it but like having to deal with missing a place – because that's not usually an emotion that a kid feels until later. Having to be confronted with that, like, nostalgia already for, like, “Oh, that was that place. Oh, that city or that.” It probably does an interesting thing to you.

It's funny, I do a lot of my own original writing and I find that nostalgia is something I'm always invested in. I think you just cracked it!

Maybe that's what it is! It's like from moving around so much, you know? Yeah. And my mom would always talk about things in a nostalgic way, too, but I think, you know, she was in Guatemala and she left to follow my dad and she was always going from place to place as well. And they got divorced and everything, but, yeah. It's a frustrating feeling, actually.

Especially when you get later in life. You don't have that place you can come back to.

A rootless kind of thing, yeah, or the idea of like a hometown. Especially as you, you know, this industry and all that. The idea of like, “Alright, where am I from? Where are the roots?” And, you know, there is no place. My mom is back in Miami but it's like in a vastly different place as well. She keeps moving around all over the thing. And I guess that “grass is always greener” thing – because I know people that have always lived in a small town are like, “This sucks. I want to go out all over the place.” But, you know, I think by nature we are kind of a – you know, we weren't meant to trot the globe as an animal, you know? The circle of how far we go – although I guess fuckin' people decided to take off from China and cross a land bridge and, you know, that was kind of a long trek, too! That was extreme.

Yeah. I think community is something that's natural. It's why society happened, after all.

Yeah. Yeah, that's true. That's true. And there is, yeah, you always seek – we're like tribal by nature, so you seek your tribes. It's like your family, your town, your city, your state, you know? Your country. It's all kind of a little bit arbitrary as well.

That's interesting, too, because it kind of feeds into the character that you're playing in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” He's a bit of a nomad.

Right, completely isolated. Doesn't really have any roots anywhere. The house is Mom and Dad's house, and it's obviously not even – you know, she says, “It's not even our house; it's their house,” which is a strange thing to say but I guess she just means financially speaking.

But that lack of, like, a sense of ownership is interesting.

Yeah. And even all his stuff's in a box and he could give a shit about it.

Did you do much in the way of really nailing down a backstory and where this guy is coming from?

Not in an academic way, but of course I definitely thought about it. And I would say, like, you know, [Dave] Van Ronk's life – since it's so documented – it was an interesting thing to draw from. His point of view, you know? And obviously I have to think about, “Okay, well, where did this go in a different way?” Like, for instance, when did he start learning music? Clearly he started learning when he was 8 years old, so who in his family was the person that did that? And, you know, mom clearly is a nonentity. She isn't even talked about. So it feels like that maybe she died very young or, you know, it was aunts, and there was an aunt that played music and taught him how to play some piano and he'd always go and listen to her sing and, you know, “My father's sister played me all these old Welsh and Scottish and all these old songs and sing them.” So he cut a little record when he was, what, 9 years old.

Were you aware of him? Were you all that knowledgeable, I guess, about his life before you did this?

No. I'd just seen him in “No Direction Home.” That was my first introduction to him. But no, man, there was like a whole repertoire of music that I didn't know and really just the scene down there – reading about the scene and what it was like. I mean, I grew up listening to a lot of Dylan but never really – he was always just disembodied from a time, his music, you know? I think kind of in a good way. In a way that a kid that was, like, 12 in Miami in 1992 could be like, “Wow, this speaks to me.” But then actually investigating, “Oh, well, he didn't just come out of a vacuum.” There was a whole – talk about community, I mean, that's exactly what that was. It was actually really small. And nobody was really searching for fame. They just wanted their little area in the park, in Washington Square Park, you know? Like, the bluegrass guys and the folk guys and the drum circle guys and the jazz guys, and all of them hated each other and wanted their own little – you know, even within that they were tribal. And so it was like this cult, really. I mean in “Folksinger,” Dave Van Ronk talks about – everybody was coming down there at that time to see the poets and there would be lines out the door to see the poets, Allen Ginsberg and all those guys. And then in between sets, you know, they wanted turnover because the clubs were really small, so they would have a folk singer get up and clear the room. You know, they'd have two songs to do it and if after two songs you didn't clear the room you weren't hired again.

That's ironic. So if you were good enough to keep people sticking around you weren't brought back.

Exactly. They wouldn't hire you for that gig, at least. Maybe you could come back on the Wednesday when some people come to see folk songs. But, “We need someone that does crazier shit.”

Well, talk about nostalgia, I mean, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” – you walk down MacDougal Street now and it's been so co-opted and the artifice of it all is kind of unfortunate.

I mean, it's like that in Williamsburg, too. That's where I got my place but it's a similar thing. There's still really great, interesting, cool stuff and the area is nice, but you could see the influx and the artists move out even further away. And then that place grows and the artists move to the next place.

It always starts with the artists, doesn't it? That's why I have hope for a place like Detroit because artists typically can't afford to live “well,” so they move into an area and grow it from within.

Yeah. As T Bone would say, you know, not to overstate it but, you know, we have gotten to a place where technology seems to lead ahead of the artist. And that's not usually a great set-up. You know, they should really push – technology should catch up. Tools should catch up. Particularly with the whole MP3 and…

Oh, I love hearing T Bone talk about that. He goes off.

He goes off! He does. He's something else. He's really – in this movie, you've got to watch the documentary when it comes out because I don't think he even really says anything but he's just floating around. I mean, literally, sometimes he just walks up behind someone that's playing and just stands there, feeds the mojo, and walks away. It's really…

Just being in the shot made it cooler!

Yeah, exactly! Exactly.

Let's talk about working with the Coens. I asked the question about backstory, but do they deal in that kind of depth at all with you or do they just work in the moment?

We sat beforehand and I went over to their place and we went pretty explicitly through every single scene. And I said, “Okay, is this what's happening – is this basically what's happening? The story of this scene. What's the story of this scene and how does that all come together?” But it was in a bit more practical terms. It wasn't in huge, overarching ones. It was just kind of like, “Okay, he's kind of coming from here, this is what's happened. The engine of this scene is this.” And then when it came time, you know – thinking about it that way I'd come in with ideas. I'd be like, “Oh, I'm getting inspired by this,” or, “What do you think of that?” And then, yeah, it was just about trying stuff out on set. But it never varied much, I've got to say. And that's a little bit different for me because I tend to, you know, just kind of try to really mix it up for myself, not feel too reverent about anything. But it was scary because any time I started to feel like, “Oh, maybe I should do something a little more dynamic,” you know, “Why don't I just grab the phone and start breaking it on the thing?” – there would be little impulses. But any time I would start to edge in that way it would feel like an affectation, you know? It wouldn't really feel – like, “No, this is not who this guy is.” If he did that he wouldn't need the songs, you know, for this guy.

He has a different outlet.

He has a different outlet, yeah. It's not that stuff. It's not that kind of stuff, you know, and even the – you know, you make choices and you see where they take you and sometimes you have to just run on instinct. And so there was an instinct of, for me – it wasn't something we talked about too much – but this guy just doesn't ever really use charm in any kind of way. Do you know what I mean? That wasn't overly explicit in the thing. I was watching a lot of Buster Keaton because I was thinking about someone that doesn't really use words much and seems impenetrable by his face. Yet such a rich inner life is in there. And also he's struggling and we think it's really funny. But why? Because a lot of horrible things are almost happening to him. But he keeps pushing forward and so that's why that guy was an inspiration. But that idea of, like, not doing that – because I don't think I did that in the audition – but it just developed in a kind of organic way. That's why T Bone is so perfect for them, too. It's the same with the music. These ideas, they just develop. Nothing is really imposed. That's how they direct.

I'm always curious about how they direct because they're two of the most pragmatic dudes I've ever met in my life. Even as a journalist, they won't let you get away with a bullshit question or be too heady with them. I was talking to them recently about how I felt they got the authenticity of the environment right, but I also picked up on just a sense of nostalgia and a bit of fantasy, even, for New York. And Ethan just laughed, “Okay. I guess I wouldn't disavow that.”

Yeah, I think what that's about is, in a way, just always undercutting their own seriousness, you know? I think that it makes them a little uncomfortable to talk thematically because it is such a just – it is in a way instinctual, at the same time a highly acute sense of rhythm, timing, meaning – “Oh, you want the symmetry of this joke if it starts here and ends there,” you know? Just a hyperawareness of that language. But in the way the best artists are, they don't want to impose an idea on people. So it's, yeah, you said fantasy. It was a romanticism to it. And yeah, they wouldn't admit to that. But that is something I thought about because that “Freewheelin'” cover…

Joel eventually did admit to it later in the interview, actually. He was like, “Well, now that I think about it, it gets back to what you said about romanticism,” and I was like, “See?”

[Laughs.] Yeah, it's true. But their initial instinct is not to impose too much meaning on it. Or opinion.

Yeah, I get that. I've even asked them about other movies in the past and Joel is like, “Yeah, it's great, but I don't want to really get into reviewing someone else's movie.” They don't want to impose that opinion. You're right.

Yeah, I mean, that's – I worked with a really great – I mean I guess he's a dialect coach but he's an acting coach, he's – coach is a weird word. It's very square. He's just this amazing guy, creative force. And really helpful to actors. I think he worked with Heath on The Joker a lot. He worked with Johnny Depp a lot. His name is Gerry Grennell. A really funny, Irish guy, plays beautiful classical guitar as well. And he focuses a lot on the Alexander technique, which is something that at Julliard we had to learn a lot. The really crude distillation of it is posture. But it's actually how you relate to space in the world, and dancers and classical musicians take it a lot.

Jeff Bridges has talked to me about this, I think, when we were discussing his performance in “Starman” a few years back.

Yeah. It's about – in a way it's about stopping the initial impulse to move, waiting a second and then deciding to do it. And even that sounds weird. It's about – it's just a way that you relate to space. It's slightly different. It's a little bit solipsistic, which is, you know, “Nothing exists outside of me. And therefore I will always have compassion to everything because everything is me.” You know, it's all happening here. I'm taking you in but there's – you have no meaning until I put meaning onto what I'm seeing in this, that – so you relate to space a little bit different. And it's something as simple as next time you walk, imagine that you're walking backwards and what that does to your body. You know, next time you're driving, as opposed to when you press the gas, you move forward, imagine that when you press the gas, it releases the road towards you. And it's a way of thinking and it's actually – it's the same muscles that when you go into a dark room and your eyes start to adjust and they open to let light in – it's this process of taking things in in a different way. And it helps with tension and things like that from a practical standpoint. And relaxation. Anyway he – Gerry was helping me with that.

So what does that do for you as an actor, though? Does it help you to just be, as opposed to “acting.”

Well, so, for instance, Gerry would talk about “the camera sees.” That's all it does. It doesn't judge anything. It doesn't impose anything. It just sees what's happening. It sees everything that's happening. And what it wants to see – already I'm putting a position on it – but what's interesting is when you see a camera that sees someone that is seeing, not judging, not imposing anything. Because as soon as I try to tell the camera, and therefore you, what you should think about this thing, there's a layer of artifice that immediately goes on there. So it was a process of learning to see, I think. It wasn't a process of an idea. Even this not smiling thing, that wasn't because I didn't want to smile. It was about the way that you take in information and don't judge it. You know that I'm not – I don't even have – maybe it's just that he's slow, you know? It was about never being ahead of him. So he doesn't even have a chance to process what he's seeing and he's on to the next thing.

So kind of just reacting as opposed to acting.

Yeah, or not even – he doesn't even have a moment to react. It's just about a process of taking in the information. He looks at Akron, it's coming in. That's what was required. It needed to arrive. You just needed to see the information arrive and not what he thought about it. That's less interesting. You know, he sees Akron – you know that I know what Akron means and that's it. And you're like, “What's he gonna do? Is he gonna turn? Is he gonna not turn?” He doesn't know what the fuck he's gonna do until he's way past it. The same thing with when he's watching Jean and Jim and Troy Nelson sing and he's watching it happen and everybody else starts singing around him. He's not saying, “Oh, you guys are idiots. This music is bad.” It's – he's not even ahead. This is all ahead of him. Everybody's ahead of him. You know, “I don't even understand what this is that's happening. I don't know how I feel about this.” It's just a matter of receiving the information, and I think it's because the cameras were that close, you know? They don't shoot with very long lenses.

Oh yeah?

Yeah, it's like all 40 millimeters long is the ones they use so the cameras are always like [mimics a camera very close to my face]. So I knew that that and the way that they cut it and the way they put it together and the way they built everything, that would add the context to the receiving of information. Because in other movies that wouldn't be enough, you know? You do have to, to a certain extent, create the character more. But it was a weird thing because it's almost the opposite of what you think. You think, “Okay, well it's inside all the time so you really have to generate all this stuff because we're gonna be with you for such a long time you better keep entertaining us.” But in a way it was the opposite. It was thinking, “Oh, this is literally just about really seeing,” and that's half of the character. Usually you have to come up with the whole character within the plot of the story. But what I did was just do half of it. They actually – the movie is the character. That's why it's different from other movies. The movie is the character. So they actually have to create the other half of the character, which is the context and the meaning. Does that make sense at all or is it getting a little too…

Yeah, no, I'm taking it all in. I'm using the Alexander Technique and taking it all in!

[Laughs.] You know, that's something that, you know, I don't always succeed. I still see it now and I'm like, “Oh, you're ahead of it there. You're ahead of it there.” But I remember William Hurt had said that, too, in talking about, you know, when they asked Picasso, how does he make – “How do you do it? How do you do what you do?” And he said, “I just paint what I see,” which seems like such an almost Coen-like answer, right? It's like, “Come on, man.” But if you kind of think about it in that way that he receives the information, it's not – he wasn't painting his judgment of a face. He was just seeing the light and the negative space. I don't see a head. I don't see Kris. I just see a figure and light and these things reacting in a way and I just paint what I see – literally, just what I see. It's a very practical thing. And with the Coens, they work in a similar way. It's just practical. It's pragmatic. It's, “Don't get ahead of it. Don't impose a bunch of shit and meaning and all that kind of stuff.” It's just, “Do the thing that's before you and see it.”

And yet, they're one of the most vital voices in American art. So it leaves you to wonder how much extrapolating critics do to their work or what their response to that would be, even. Their movies can be very thematically potent. That's something people work at doing, especially writers, to develop theme and be concentrated on that.

Yeah, I mean, look, I'm not saying it's accidental. Like, it's not – they're – Joel called it “tone management.” That's what directing is. So what they've been able to do is they've been able to really, for themselves, define tone. And for each specific project, really from its inception, they know how to craft it so it is this thing. It's this – this is the tone of it. It's very round. It's not… [Mimics the jagged line of, say, a heartbeat or, more to the point, a WAV file]. It's analog. And that's the tone of the thing. The way they view it is how to stay really aware of what that thing is through the entire process, up until even this whole thing with the press and the distribution and the release and all that stuff. But yes, of course, I think they understand the meaning. They know – but I think what their genius is – their genius is that they don't start with, “What is the most meaningful thing and how can we put that in?” They go off of instinct and their instinct happens to have all this meaning in it. You know, they say, “Well, we need a plot. Why don't we give him a cat he has to take care of because if not, nothing happens.” And yet the way they implement it, it's not just a plot device, clearly. It has so much more representation than just that. But it comes from a place of just seeing it for what it is.

Well, that's just that intangible thing, right? About genius. It's how you get Orson Welles making “Citizen Kane” when he's 25.

Right. By just doing the thing – doing your version of that thing, you know? T Bone talks about, like, these guys, they were doing their best version of what came before, you know? That's what Elvis was trying to do. That's what The Beatles were trying to do. Just like do their version of it. And yeah, man, they just – the relaxation of those guys [the Coens] is amazing.

I imagine that's a big help on the set, too, as an actor. To not feel like you've got a manic director.

Yeah. There's none of that. Some people need that, you know? A little chaos and stuff. That's less interesting to me. It seems just tiring to work that way.

You've probably been asked this a million times but what's your musical background?

I started playing guitar at, like, 12 or 13 and just rock bands mostly. I had a punk rock band and hard core bands and all that. Jumped around from the genres but it was mostly just rock and roll.

I imagine they needed someone who could take to that pretty quickly.

Yeah, but I've never been much of a guitarist. I mean, I've played forever, but I was always more of a rhythm kind of guy. I don't read music. I don't really know what the hell I'm playing. I just have a good ear and that's basically it. And I can get very obsessive about learning something, so I'm – I can remember, you know, where to put my fingers, what that sound's gonna be. So yeah, so I did have to learn a whole different style, this Travis picking thing.

Was that fun or hard work? I guess it was both.

It was all fun. Like the most fun version of work. I obsessed over learning it. I can't stop playing it either. It just feels really good.

I put the record on all the time, actually.

You have the vinyl? Oh, killer, man. Nothing like that sound of a record.

It's funny. People say that a lot, and I get what they mean, but it's not really that for me, as far as, like, preferring playing a vinyl over something else. To me it's the physicality of it. Like I'm putting something on a record player and there's this big thing…

There's an interaction.


But just because you're not overly conscious of the difference between an MP3 and the sound of a record doesn't mean that your brain doesn't know what's going on.


You know, sight, what is it – you take in – 90 percent of our senses is sight, right? I'm not sure that's exactly right but something like that. There's a lot – mostly it's sight but it's not necessarily the strongest of the senses, too. And that's why it's easier to be like, “Okay, I can see why this DVD is better than this VHS, I guess, as far as resolution,” but the information on an MP3 – I mean MP3 was made for dial-up modem. I mean that's the technology. It's so compressed you don't have any of the dynamism. It's just not there. The information isn't in there. So it's a quantifiably different experience.

Yeah, and the way it's recorded on there, too. When you put a record on it's like you're going back in time to when that was recorded because it's on the disc, the grooves of it, when the needle hits – it seems like a more sci-fi technology to me than even digital.

Yeah, like, “How does it get there??”

I was just thinking recently how much I love Dave Van Ronk's voice in “Green Green Rocky Road,” but I kind of like your guitar playing better. I'd love to kind of transpose and hear that mixture.

Thanks, man.

The voice is…

I mean the voice is just, like, awesome. [Mimics Van Rock] “Ooooh, aaaaahhh.”

You kind of channeled him a bit at the Santa Monica concert recently.

[Laughs.] I channeled a little bit. Yeah, yeah. That's one where T Bone's like, “It's good. It's good. Let's start finding your version of it now.” I'm like, “Alright. Okay.”

It's fun to do the voice, man.

It's just fun to do it!

I asked when you sat down about the amount of press you're doing. How are you holding up? Especially to go all the way from Cannes to this?

I'm doing all right. You know, it's a lot, man. I'm grateful that it's this movie that I have – it's the first time I'm doing this and it's something that I love so very much and I always discover something new talking about it. Sometimes it's tiring and a little bit weird. It's like you did the thing and then it's like, “Alright.” You can talk about it so much, but…

And you did this one so long ago. It's been completed for so long. That's got to be kind of painful, like you're ready for more people to see it already.

It's two years ago, yeah. But it's coming up, man. It's just like a couple of weeks left and it'll be out.

I caught the film for the first time in Telluride.

Oh it was in Telluride you saw it for the first time? I love that festival. I really like that. That was my first time and I actually got to see other movies, you know? [You do a little bit of press] in between seeing some movies here and there and being in that beautiful area. I would say, definitely, that's the ideal version of it all. It's definitely not usually like that, in my experience, at least.

I'm sure you learned a lot on this movie but what did you learn from the Coens that you think you'll take with you into the next role?

[Long pause.] What did I learn from those dudes? [Another pause.] I really like the lack of vanity on their sets and how relaxed it is. But that, you know – how inclusive they are. They're just – nothing is secret. There's no power plays. Just the idea that everybody puts their ideas and thoughts on the table and no one has ownership over anything. And that's, I think – it's that impulse that like, “Hey, man, let's all just build this thing, all right? So throw all the stuff in here.” There's no time for, like, “Oh, thank you for that thing. That thing is great,” you know? It's just like, “We have to make this thing. Let's make it. Yeah, we shouldn't use that. Yeah, this is what we need to use.” And so it doesn't – I mean they create community. They create a community of artists making something together. That's what their movies are. That's why there aren't assholes around. Everybody's too busy making the thing to be patting each other on the back or playing mind games or doing any of that bullshit.

And you deal with that sometimes?

Well, yeah. I mean, you know, a movie set is like a petri dish for neuroses, you know? It's just like egos and weird personalities and, more than anything, fear. So they just know how to neutralize that. And a lot of that has to do with the people that they attract and the people that they decide to spend lots of time with.

Yeah, I always enjoy speaking to their crew. Like production designer Jess Gonchor. His work here is great.

Yeah. It's so detailed. It's so detailed.

And I keep seeing these shots on the net of you and like a green screen and I never stopped to think, “Oh, I guess there would have been an effects shot there.” I mean it makes sense…

New York. I mean it's like – it doesn't look anything like that anymore.

Yeah. Was there a lot of that?

Not a ton, but, you know – I mean that was around Christopher Street, so you had to. And the subway cars. That's all CG. Then when I come down into the train station or even up on the top train station.

It's seamless. And I love cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel's work, too. To step in for Roger Deakins must be a scary thing.

It's funny, man. A couple of things that you've already mentioned that you talked to them about, I think it stuck with them, because at some of the Q&A's – like, for instance, I feel like Joel says the fact that it is a romantic view a lot now. And also how frightening it probably is for, you know, these DPs that were stepping in for Roger Deakins. But I agree. He's a truly great man, Bruno. He's one of the kindest people I've ever met. Especially for someone that's that massively talented, too. He's just a kind person.

And costume designer Mary Zophres. I guess if you interacted with anyone the most below the line it might have been her.

Yeah, Mary – early on it was me and Mary figuring it out. You know, for sure, the Coens came in and gave their thoughts, but we found it pretty quickly.

How did the costumes help you get into character?

I took the costume with me a month before we started shooting.

Oh really? And started wearing it?

All the time. Particularly the shoes. The shoes are the saddest little shoes you've ever seen on a human body. They're just, like, basically a foot wrapped in leather with some rubber glued to the bottom. And I just walked around in the winter – well it was December, right? We started shooting in January, so end of December, all of January, I just wore these things all the time no matter where I went. And it completely – it just makes you so vulnerable but also like…


Yeah, it hardens you, because you have to. Because it hurts a little bit. I mean, it's cold, you know? And those lyrics, “Farewell,” that Dylan sings, if you listen – it's on the thing. I mean it describes so well what's happening to Llewyn, you know, “With my hands in my pocket and my coat collar high I go unnoticed and unknown.”

That's, like, countless shots in the movie of him walking down the street right there.

Right? Yeah.

Well, congratulations. I'm looking forward to seeing it again. What immediately popped for me was you, though, your performance. It was such a lived-in piece of work. No one else this year has just been the character as much as that. And then add to that the fact that you're playing guitar and the singing, it just makes for such a full-bodied, awesome performance.

Thanks, Kris.

Part of that, and not that I obviously wasn't aware of you in “Drive” and other movies, but you're a bit of an unknown. And so I'm not bringing a lot to it. For instance, Christian Bale is amazing in “Out of the Furnace.” It's his best performance. But in a way, it's like, I'm still watching the guy who played Batman play this character.


So you bring your own kind of memory of the actor.

Do you think that's inevitable? Just that when you do more stuff, more people know you so they know what to expect?

I don't know. I guess it depends on career choices.

I guess you did say Batman, because it's such a…

Yeah. But you look at a guy like John Goodman. Somehow I don't think people bring much baggage to him when they see him in a film, but he's had a huge career. I mean people grew up watching him on “Roseanne.”


You look at “Barton Fink” or something. That's my favorite Coen movie, actually.

And you know what Turturro says at the beginning of that, right? Well, not the beginning. He states their thesis. He states what the Coens have always done, which is, “I want to make the theater of the common man!” I remember I saw that and was like, “That's what they do!” I mean every single movie is exactly that.

Yeah, totally. Speaking of which, more recently, I also loved “A Serious Man.”

I was just thinking about it this morning. The Japanese student…

I love the teeth story. “Helping others…couldn't hurt.” Because his teeth said, “Help me!” It's like, really? That seems like them to a T. Just intensely pragmatic.

[Laughs] Yeah. Yeah, man. But it's funny, that thing. I do think it's tough when, like, the actor's personality becomes bigger than their work. It's a very – it's what I would never want to happen.

What kind of stuff are you interested in doing otherwise? Just stuff like this? Like if they offered you a part in “Avengers 2,” would you think hard about it or – do you think strategically?

I mean, not really. It's just about, like, interest, you know? I mean if there was an amazing role and the story was good, you know? I'm not like a genre snob or anything like that, you know? But I don't really think of a movie in strategic terms. I try not to be too careerist.

I bet you're getting some interesting offers now, though.

Yeah, there's been some good things here and there. But yeah, it's a difficult thing because as an actor I've always been like, “Work, work, let's do it. What's next? What's next?” And then also replenishing the well is important, too. It's like, there's not endless just inspiration. You know, sometimes you have to kind of settle back and say, “Okay, what is it that I do? Why am I doing it?” Check in again. Live life so you actually have something to say with your work.

There's a lot of that stripping away of affectation going on with some of the best work this year. Like I mentioned Bale but also Bruce Dern in “Nebraska,” which is an interesting story considering it's all he ever wanted to do with his career but he had to stand out in supporting roles his entire life.

Yeah, manufacture something. You've got like three scenes. You've got to make a life in those three scenes as opposed to a slight, more minimalist approach to certain things. But you're right. And also this idea of the man isolated, existential crisis. I mean, you could even, you know – obviously in “Nebraska” and “Llewyn Davis,” “All is Lost” and “Gravity.” And you could say even “Captain Phillips,” to a certain extent. A man that's been literally dislocated out to sea. And yeah, they all are minimal versions.

I hope movies like that can really take off again. I mean this is a market of “The Avengers” making $600 million and Disney buying up things and everyone really cranking out brand appeal. But it happened in the late-1960s/early-1970s. I guess it's just a matter of the audience's interest in coming out.

Yeah. Yeah, that's true. But what about you watching all these movies? This whole idea of like all the good movies, you've got to wait to put them all out at the same time because you want to get an award because then that's the way you get the movie noticed and more people come see it because otherwise maybe people wouldn't necessarily come see it because they'd rather go see the big ones. But if someone says, “No, this is worth checking out, so much so that we're going to give them shiny things,” then you should go see it. Do you feel like you're not able to watch movies like a movie? Like you're just watching like “American Idol” – Hollywood-style – movies? Are you watching them like a competition?

I think for my part I've been able to dictate how I'm going to cover the race. A certain breed of coverage isn't necessarily exacted upon me so I'm able to do what's natural to me, meaning I'm able to just watch them as movies.

Yeah. It's a funny system.

Is it off-putting to you?

I'm like Llewyn. I'm not really like throwing a judgment on it. It's just like, “Is that what I'm seeing? What am I seeing?” It's interesting how this has to happen because really it's about butts in seats.

Yeah, at the end of the day, that's a huge part of it. I asked my friend who's an Oscar-nominated director about this recently. I said, “Do awards really matter to you?” And he's like, “To me, awards just mean I get to keep making the movies that I want to make.” So if a movie is recognized with an Oscar, that means…

…it's okay that it didn't make billions of dollars.

Right. So I get that perspective. Sometimes you see people being really desperate about wanting an award. But if you couch it in those terms, well, that just means they want to keep doing what they love. And unfortunately this is a system by which they can keep doing what they love.

Yeah, at the same time, Ethan has a great phrase called “hyper-trophied.” He says, “Let's not get too hyper-trophied about the whole thing.” I think that's amazing. I love that. [Laughs.]

Frankly I sometimes wonder, if I were on the other side of this thing, in the midst of an awards race or whatever. I've so seen how that sausage is made that, I don't know. Maybe I wouldn't sit here and talk to someone like me!

[Laughs.] Yeah. It is, man, but, you know – at the same time you're just like, “Alright, I'm part of the team. What do you want me to do, Coach?”

Totally. You've got to support the movie.

And not be ungrateful and not be, you know…

And you definitely seem to have the right attitude about it. It's refreshing to see that this time of year.

It's also the process of like being, “Okay, this is what that is. We probably don't want to do that again. Okay, seeing what's going on here, okay. If I'm gonna do it, this is the way next time I would want to do it.” Sometimes you kind of have to throw yourself in.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in limited release on Dec. 6. It expands wider on Dec. 20.

Comments Off on An epic interview with 'Inside Llewyn Davis' star Oscar Isaac Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: HitFix · In Contention · Interviews