After a series of not-particularly memorable roles in the early part of the 2000s, Oscar Isaac was probably most recognized for a time as playing Joseph in Catherine Hardwicke's THE NATIVITY STORY. I'm not sure it's the role Isaac is most proud of, but it did seem to get him noticed and began a trend of him working steady with some solid directors, such as Steven Soderbergh (CHE: PART ONE), Alejandro Amenábar (AGORA), Ridley Scott (BODY OF LIES; ROBIN HOOD); Zack Snyder (SUCKER PUNCH), and even Madonna (W.E.). I'm not saying these are all classics, but work as a steady actor mean something.
But it was Isaac's work as Carey Mulligan's trouble-making husband in Nicolas Winding Refn's DRIVE that got him significant attention, followed by the ensemble reunion drama 10 YEARS, in which Isaac got to do something on film he'd been doing longer than acting: playing music. In 10 YEARS he plays a man who went one from high school to become a successful popular singer, and he even gets to play a song in the film (one Isaac actually wrote himself).
In 2012, Isaac was given sizable roles in THE BOURNE LEGACY (if the stories are to be believed, Isaac was selected by director Tony Gilroy to play the lead role, but he was overruled by the powers that be; Isaac was still able to play a different part in the film) and the drama about teachers, WON'T BACK DOWN, and then spent a significant amount of time lobbying, rallying and prepping to play the title character in Joel and Ethan Coen's INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, a folk singer in the early 1960s on the verge of some degree of success that never quite materializes. The remarkable film follows Davis as he bounces from crash pad to crash pan, looking for places to play and labels that will let him play what he wants to play. It's a fascinating examination of a time before singer-songwriters (such as Bob Dylan) became the preferred norm.
And although we only saw him in one film in 2013, he's got many more on deck for the coming year, including the Toronto Film Festival debut IN SECRET (due in February 2014), with Elizabeth Olsen; writer-director William Monahan's MOJAVE, with Garrett Hedlund; THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY w/ Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst; and, in pre-production for 2015, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, written and directed by J.C. Chandor (MARGIN CALL; ALL IS LOST), co-starring Stanley Tucci and Jessica Chastain. I sat down with Isaac a couple months back during the Chicago International Film Festival. His voice was shot, but his spirits were high; and he even rallied later that evening to do a post-screening Q&A with me for LLEWYN DAVIS. Please enjoy my interview with Oscar Isaac…
Capone: Having this role come close on the heals to what you did in 10 YEARS, in which you also got to play a musician, have you found that being able to incorporate your other great love along with acting has made these roles mean a little bit more to you?
Oscar Isaac: Completely serendipitously too. It's not like I sought out a movie that had music in it. SUCKER PUNCH came my way and 10 YEARS, where I actually had the opportunity to write the song for the movie. So yeah, there’s something that’s pretty special about the fact that this thing that I had to let go of for a little while [music], while I studied theater and committed myself to acting, is coming full circle, culminating in this.
Capone: I know you guys did that big concert in New York [ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER TIME, which featured the music of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS]. How was that for you, just to be on stage with those people in front of an audience rather than just shooting a movie?
OI: It was a total mind fuck. Oh my god man, it was just the most terrifying, wild experience of my life. I couldn’t believe it. Backstage was even crazier; there were like these spontaneous bursts of music. It was a tiny corridor. It was no bigger, I’d say, than a third the size of this room, and people were just like jamming. Patti Smith, Jack White, the Punch Brothers were all jamming together at one moment. Joan Baez, Elvis Costello and, yeah, all these people.
Capone: So what did you get to do there? I know they're playing it on Showtime in like December [it debuted this past Friday], but what did you specifically do?
OI: I played “Please, Mr. Kennedy” with Elvis Costello, and that was wild. And then I did “Hang Me” with the Punch Brothers, and then I played “Green Rocky Road” by myself. And then “Fare Thee Well” with Marcus [Mumford].
Capone: You were a full-time musician for a while. Was there a specific moment when you decided that it was okay to set that aside for a while? And did you make yourself a promise that you’d come back to it eventually?
OI: Well, I never totally set it aside. I set it aside as far as a career path. I continued to write and play the entire time I was at school until now, so now I have a huge library of songs. But, yeah, I think I always assumed that I would find a moment to get into a studio and to put some songs together and tour around and play them.
Capone: Were you playing live too during downtime in the last few years?
OI: Yeah, I’ve been playing live a lot in cafes and open mics.
Capone: By yourself?
OI: By myself and also with a band, yeah.
Capone: I know you were in a punk-ish band initially.
OI: Back in the day, but I’m part of a duo called Night Lab as well. Me and my friend Bruce [Ferguson], we’ve been writing music since we were 12 years old, so we continue to do that.
Capone: It seems like two completely different experiences--playing music in front of people versus acting in front of a crew. Not everyone applauds after every take, I'm guessing.
OI: They do applaud after ever take for me [laughs].
Capone: Especially when you’re singing, yeah. Compare the experiences even viscerally, how does that feel for you?
OI: Well, it’s more terrifying to play music in front of people live because if you fuck it up, that’s it. I guess you could stop and start again--people do that. But in a movie you have a lot of chances to get it right.
Capone: With LLEWYN DAVIS, it would seem there are a few intersections in your two lives to a degree. Where do you see them? And what was it about this story that just grabbed you by the collar and shook you violently?
OI: I think I understand the Coen’s tone. I’ve grown up watching the movies. Now granted, it shifts from movie to movie, but their basic thesis that they stated in BARTON FINK, which is making theater about the common man, I think that’s a striking thing, and the fact that they’ve done it, that’s what they’ve done. All their heroes are people that aren’t necessarily meant to be but they are and find themselves in a situation that is unfolding around them. And they’re not the nobles, they’re not the geniuses. And something about that I loved--the struggle. The idea that they are trying to make a movie to show you where the blues comes from. It comes from this desperation, and the fact that then to see that they did it with so much hear and quite a bit of sincerity, I thought that was a chance of a lifetime. And then to be able to play music and to do it live, to have such integrity about how to do it. Everything about it was screaming out to me.
Capone: It sounds like it’s the films that they’ve made about artists that you seem to have responded to the most. Or the fact that they even made films about artists at all was something you responded to.
OI: Yeah, but even with The Dude and these common guys, who are brilliant in their context, in their way.
Capone: Talk about recording, because if I’ve heard correctly, most of what we see and hear on the screen is live.
OI: It’s all live. It’s all sang and played live. Before we started shooting, we all went into the studio and we just played for about a week and tried out different arrangements and figured out what the songs were going to be. Then when it came time to shoot, I asked if I could do it live and have [the recorded version] there in case I choked for the playback, but I was doing it, and it worked, so we stayed with it, and everything that you see is played live.
Capone: Were there any singers that the Coens asked you to listen to to inform the way that the songs would sound in this movie?
OI: No. There was a CD that they had of all the songs, but not necessarily the arrangements that they were going to be. In some cases, not all the arrangements that they were going to be. So that happened completely organically. I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting like a panel of experts to modulate exactly how I needed to sound, but that wasn’t there.
Capone: And T-Bone Burnett was producing that recording session you were talking about?
OI: He orchestrated it.
Capone: That to me would be the scariest part of being in a room like that is having someone like him there.
OI: Yeah, but he, like the Coens, he’s completely cut form the same cloth. He’s so easy and sets the stage for you to do your best work. They never tell you what to do; they just tell you what to strip away.
Capone: There’s a real beautiful flow to this film. One scene just goes into the next, even though Llewyn's life is so scattered. You mentioned before about the Coen's tone, but what was the tone that you felt for this film, and is that something that you can actually feel when you’re shooting?
OI: It’s never an intellectual process; it’s always instinctual for them. It’s just what feels right, and whenever I was in my most desperate state is when they would laugh the loudest. [laughs]
Capone: When you were your most miserable?
Capone: I think the sequence in the recording studio [recording "Dear, Mr. Kennedy] is the one I laughed so hard during, especially in the moments that lead up to the actual recording. All I can remember is Adam Driver shouting out words that make no sense. Tell me about that day.
OI: The editing of that scene is brilliant; that thing is amazing. It was as joyful as it is to watch it. We just worked on it, and they were laughing their asses off, and it was just working.
Capone: Even though Carey [Mulligan] plays somebody that loathes you for the most part, was it easy to get through those scenes with her because you two had worked with her before?
OI: Yes, it creates a comfort. And when there’s that kind of trust, you can be even nastier.
Capone: The film is set right on the cusp of when it became more about the singer-songwriter and less about just being a vocalist. Did that era have any special meaning to you leading into this, or is that something you discovered while making the film?
OI: I discovered it working on the film, for sure. Yeah, I wasn’t aware of Dave Von Ronk and Karen Dalton and all these great artists. I hadn’t heard of them, and so it was such an interesting time because there was a real vacuum that was waiting to be filled, and Llewyn finds himself right in the middle of the old not quite dead yet and the new not quite being born.
Capone: The line that F. Murray Abraham tells you after that breathtaking song you play in--it’s supposed to be Chicago isn’t it? And he just says, “I don't hear any money there.” It’s nice to know somethings haven’t changed. Tell me about like that performance clip, because in my mind there’s not even any edit in there.
OI: There’s one. It stays on me, and halfway through the song it goes to him watching me, and it cuts back to me and I finish it, and it cuts back to him.
Capone: How many times did you have to play that song?
OI: I think probably, not that many. Maybe like five times maybe. Twice and then one wide.
Capone: I know people are probably asking you a lot about this cat and that he seems to care so much more about the fate of this cat than any of the people whose lives he is wrecking.
OI: [laughs] That’s not necessarily true. He signs away his royalties to try to get money for the abortion of a child that may or may not be his, because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. I think he desperately tries to take care of this cat, not because he loves the cat but because it’s a cat that belongs to the people that he stays with. He could have easily been like, "Sorry, your cat got away man." So, I think it’s more about not what he says but how he says it. The fact that he doesn’t try to ingratiate himself or charm himself or say sorry. He doesn’t do any of that shit. With his actions, he tries to do the right thing at everything.
Sure, with his sister he’s a little harsh, but she’s a little harsh with him too. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a couple that are getting into an argument, and sometimes you’re like "Man, why’s this guy being such a jerk to her?" But if you actually spend some time with them, you’d realize there’s all this pent-up stuff from him being demeaned or vice versa. I think it’s one of those situations where if you decide to not go with Llewyn, you can say he’s an asshole and selfish, but if you break down some of his actions, I find him to be quite selfless.
Capone: And when he puts his foot in the door and stops the cat from getting away a second time, that seems like growth. He’s actually thinking about consequences. We’ll see you in a few hours and we’ll have amplification, so hopefully that will help with the voice! Alright, take care!