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The world is failing Llweyn Davis, the titular hero of the latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Set primarily in Greenwich Village during the early 1960s, Inside Llewyn Davis shows a week in the life of a folk musician struggling to maintain his notion of authenticity in a world that’s indifferent to it. He’s clearly talented—-there’s genuine heartbreak when he performs, even if few recognize it—-but his adversarial personality does not help his career, especially since his longtime writing partner committed suicide. Despite calling on favors from all his friends, including Jean, (Carey Mulligan) who does not suffer him gladly, Llewyn seems to be doomed to obscurity. Still, the film is too observant to be a downer, and that’s largely in part to the terrific lead performance from Oscar Isaac, who also sings several songs in the movie. I recently spoke Isaac about his role, his punk-rock roots, and what music he’s listening to these days.
Washington City Paper: How is working with the Coen brothers different from working with other filmmakers?
Oscar Isaac: There’s two of them, first of all, and I’ve never done that before. You have these two brains that are so in sync, but you’ve got double the power, so there are two resources. I think their lack of pretension was what struck me so strongly. There’s no vanity whatsoever, no sense of power. They’re in a position where they can do whatever they want, but they’re interested in a good time, having fun. They don’t want things like neuroses to corrupt the set.
WCP: Was there ever a time where Joel would tell you one thing and Ethan would say something different, or vice versa?
OI: I don’t know if there’s a complete example. I’d ask one of them, “Should I pick up the glass here?” and they’d say, “Sure,” then the other would say, “Hey, uh, don’t pick up the glass there.” Stuff like that.
WCP: When you’re performing a song in the movie, where does Oscar end and Llewyn start?
OI: [When I was singing] it was always in between. It was like brackish water, a mix of salt and fresh water. I thought about my favorite musicians and what would happen if they were cast in this role. Let’s say if Thom Yorke was cast as Llewyn, would I want him to be a whole different character with his voice? No, I’d also want to hear him because I love his music so much. I thought, “If I’m going to do this and I’m a musician with a particular voice, how can I find the middle ground?” But I’m also creating a character who’s quite different from me, so my voice could bleed through, but it had be through the prism of this character and these circumstances.
WCP: How is Llweyn different from you?
OI: He’s from the boroughs, he’s a motherless child, and he has a senile father. We walk differently, we talk differently.
WCP: You mentioned imagining other musicians for this role. Did your work on this film change your musical preferences at all?
OI: Absolutely. I didn’t know Dave Van Ronk, I didn’t know Karen Dalton, Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Reverend Gary Davis. I didn’t know all these amazing artists, and not just from the ’60s. I didn’t know contemporary ones like The Punch Brothers. It just opened up a whole world of music to me.
WCP: Do you still listen to them?
OI: Nonstop. I play them nonstop. I’ve still got the nails to show for it. [Oscar shows me his fingernails, which are shaped like mini guitar picks.]
WCP: You still play? Cool. Are you going to do a tour?
OI: I don’t know. It’s possible we might do a tour in conjunction with the movie. I know, for me, I plan to continue playing and recording.
WCP: What kind of music did you play prior to this movie?
OI: When I started, I was in a few punk/ska bands. I was in one called The Worms, and other called The Blinking Underdogs. I was also in a hardcore band called Closested Heterosexuals. I was in a band called The Naked Parents. I played both bass and guitar.
WCP: In the movie, we hear the song “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” twice, and the versions sound very different. What kind of instructions were you given for each version? What were you thinking about when you performed parallel version of the same song?
OI: It wasn’t indicated in the script. In the beginning, it said, “Dink’s Song,” so I learned Dave Van Ronk’s arrangement, which is in 3/4 and it’s this soulful, almost R&B version of it. Then Marcus [Mumford], and he learned a different version, which was in a major key and a little happier. It happened organically, but it was perfect. The funny thing is I was never meant to play “Dink’s Song” in the script. It starts with “Hang Me” and it ends with “Hang Me,” but through filming Joeland Ethan heard my version and said, “We’re thinking maybe you do one more song at the end, and we’re thinking the Dink song.” What ends happening, emotionally, it’s a farewell to [Llweyn’s writing partner]. When I sing it by myself, it’s a big of a dirge; it’s G to E-minor, as opposed to this nice thing in D. [The Coens] don’t dictate what I’m supposed to think or feel. They don’t talk in those emotional terms. They talk in practical, pragmatic ways.
WCP: What’s an example of something pragmatic they’d say?
OI: “Maybe make that word sound a little different. Your inflection is kind of going up here. How about you make it go down instead?” That kinda stuff.
WCP: When you were talking with the Coens and the other actors, did you talk about Llweyn’s partner and what he meant to everyone?
OI: Not really. There had to be a little bit of talk, but they write in such a specific way that it’s easy to intimate clearly that he was the more outgoing, extroverted, nicer of the two. There’s even a sense from the other characters that they were thinking, “Why’d he have to be the one to die?”
WCP: Were you all to glean all this nuance from the script alone, or is it something you got more comfortable with as you continued filming?
OI: As you continue, it deepens. Exactly. And now that I’ve seen the movie, there are scenes that resonate and I think, “Oh! That’s what it meant! I wonder if I would have played it differently.”
WCP: What’s an example of a scene where you thought that?
OI: It’s kind of embarrassing now since it’s so obvious, but there’s the Troy Nelson character and Llewyn makes jokes about how he’s an automaton, or some kind of robot. Those lines didn’t make sense when I was filming, but now that I’ve seen it I think, “Of course. It makes perfect sense.” The Coens are so thoughtful about the subtle ways their movies come together.
WCP: One thing I really liked about Llewyn was his constant desire to be authentic.
OI: Yeah, definitely. There was always that in my experience with punk. Everyone questions, “Who means it more?” In hip-hop, in rock ‘n’ roll, there’s always the question of who’s doing it for real and who is a poser. The same applies to the folk scene.
WCP: Do you think Jean was giving Llewyn too hard of a time?
OI: Yeah, I think she was a bit harsh. She takes zero responsibility [for her pregnancy], and he has a point when he says, “It takes two to tango.” It’s not like it was forcible rape. She also doesn’t take responsibility, so she unleashes on him because she knows he’ll take it.
WCP: Did you talk to Carey and the Coens about Llewyn’s relationship with Jean?
OI: No, not really.
WCP: Oh, OK. I had a disagreement with my girlfriend about it. She thought they fucked once, whereas I thought they may have dated for a while.
OI: That’s interesting! So she thought they fucked once, huh? I wonder if that disagreement is common along gender lines.
WCP: Now that you’ve worked with these filmmakers who lack pretense and let you do your thing, do you crave that from future filmmakers?
OI: No no no. I loved it, it was fantastic, but you can’t go in expecting [all directors] to work the same way. All I know is that I want to work with them as much as I can, and that in the future I hope I get the chance.