Category: Interviews

Oscar Isaac on the “screwball tragedy” of Inside Llewyn Davis — Three types of artists hinge on authenticity: punk bands, folk singers, and rappers. Actors, like Oscar Isaac, are by definition phonies. But the star of Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film,Inside Llewyn Davis, gets that pressure to keep it real. In high school, he was a straight-edge punk frontman in bands like The Worms and The Blinking Underdogs. And to playLlewyn Davis, the cheerful Guatemala-born, Miami-raised performer sank into the self-sanctified life of a homeless singer-songwriter in 1961 New York who’d rather starve to death — or, really, rather mooch off his friends — than sell out. (As for rapping, maybe he’ll make that movie later.)

“You’re always looking for who means it more,” says Isaac. “That’s why you have artists who end up killing themselves, so you knew they meant it — so it wasn’t some affectation.”

He couldn’t fake it, either. For chunks of the film, the Coens plant their camera to watch Isaac strum and sing old songs about fishing and lynching that neither he nor his character wrote, but that both have to channel through their soul.

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Inside Llewyn Davis: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan interview — The Coen brothers’ blackly comic drama Inside Llewyn Davis follows a week in the life of struggling folk musician Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) in 1960s New York.

Digital Spy sat down with Isaac and Carey Mulligan, who co-stars as a fellow singer with whom Llewyn shares a complicated past, to discuss how they developed their characters with the Coens.

“I thought a lot about the comedy of resilience, and why that’s funny,” Isaac explained of Llewyn. “I thought of people like Buster Keaton who always has this impassive face, this slightly melancholic face, even though all this crazy stuff is happening around him.

“In our version, instead of buildings falling down or near-death experiences, it’s the music. That’s the major feat, and that’s your key into him.”

Isaac and Mulligan also discussed the cathartic tone of the songs in the film, which were performed by the cast and produced by T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, and the Coens’ deceptively “casual” approach to filmmaking.

Inside Llewyn Davis will be released in the UK on January 24.

Oscar Isaac Q&A: The ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Star on Finding Folk Music, the Coen Brothers — Of all the films in contention for the Academy Awards, none is pushing its musical element stronger than CBS Films’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Commercials for the Coen brothers’ tale of a fictional folk singer knocking around Greenwich Village in 1961 have focused on executive music producer T Bone Burnett, the inspiration found in the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin'” and the music performed by the film’s star Oscar Isaac, Marcus Mumford and others.

Isaac, in his first starring role, portrays Davis, whose musical style is based on folk legend Dave Van Ronk. It helped that he had been in bands prior to getting the role, but he tells Billboard he had never ventured into folk music prior to the film.

“I grew up listening to Dylan but I didn’t know this particular kind of music,” he tells Billboard. “So I had to find my way in.” He discussed the role, the Coen brothers and his entry points into the folk music that came before “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

If the music was unfamiliar to you where did you start to try to learn? In the initial audition, everyone had to play ‘Hang Me’ and they sent Dave Van Ronk’s version. Since that was the only thing I had to go on, I listened to everything he had ever recorded and tried to play those songs. I really fell in love with his style of playing and the songs he would sing. He would find old songs and rearrange them.

Like so many of his contemporaries they would dig into something like Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” and learn from those recordings from the ’20s and 30s. Did you reach back to Van Ronk’s influences?  Absolutely. I actually learned a lot of songs not used in the film. “Green Rocky Road” I learned on my own and we wound up putting it in the film. “Cocaine” by Rev. Gary Davis was another one. (Mississippi John Hurt’s) “Candy Man,” “St James Infirmary” –  Van Ronk’s version. I learned his arrangement of “Mack the Knife,” which is very aggressive and he actually uses a verse rarely used that was in the original Kurt Weill verses. “Kentucky Moonshiner” was another one.

You finished the film nearly a year ago but in nearly all of the promotion for it you’ve been brought back in as your character. Being around this music now and performing it live, do you look at it differently than when you shot the film? There’s a reason (folk music) is protest music. It’s so direct when it’s done honestly. It can be so simple yet so effective. And the idea that it carries history with it; it’s music that springs from a place of desperation. What I like about the movie is that it is a song. The movie is not a representation of 1961 Greenwich Village, it’s not a re-creation. The Coens did what folk musicians would do — they took an old thing that has been passed down and they add their imagination and fill it and make it something new.

When did you become aware that you would be playing this character onstage alongside other musicians? I don’t think anybody knew going in, but I thought it was cool. I love playing music [and] T Bone and the Coens don’t get squares — they get amazing people to perform. It’s funny. They’ve taken the idea of promotion and made something beautiful.

You’re obviously referring to music-driven events in New York and Los Angeles and the Telluride Film festival. What has been the highlight? Being backstage at the Town Hall in New York. To be next to Patti Smith, Joan Baez and Jack White and the Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, everyone playing and communing together just for ourselves. The fact that I could be there and contribute, I think that was a real profound moment for me.

Oscar Isaac on ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ Working With the Coen Brothers, and Making Music — The latest film by the Coen Brothers, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is a funny little flick. During their press tours for the film, the always-sardonic filmmakers have joked that the story is plotless, which is why they shoehorned a cat into the movie — to keep the audience happy.

Of course, this is another of their trademark defections from the depths of their own art; naturally, there’s a lot going on in this film, a deceptively simple tale of a hapless folksinger making his way during the early 1960s. The Greenwich Village setting, austere palate and wonderful and rich soundtrack hearken back to the kind of neighbourhood depicted on the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin'” album. The character of Llewyn is based in part on a number of yeoman folkies, including the likes of Dave Van Ronk, the so-called Mayor of MacDougal Street.

Even more than any historical figure, it’s the film’s star Oscar Isaac that really brings the character to life, bringing both a sensitivity of performance and a deep musical understanding to the role. The casting is impeccable, and from the opening shots of the film where we hear him singing to a smoke-filled room, we’re absolutely transfixed in this man’s journey. Moviefone Canada spoke to Isaac soon after his Golden Globe nomination was announced, and delved into just what it’s like to be playing such a major part within the Coen’s world.

Moviefone Canada: For such a unique role I assume the casting process was reasonably taxing. Oscar Isaac: The casting process was pretty traditional. Ellen Chenoweth, the casting director, had a couple scenes and I did those. I had to record a song, and I did about 30 takes of the song. I sent in take 27.

Once cast, how much involvement you had in the way that the songs were performed on screen, the selection of songs? There were about two or three songs that were already specified in the script, but there were many that weren’t. I quickly fell in love with Dave Van Ronk’s music in particular, so I started learning a lot of his music. [Famed music supervisor] T-Bone [Burnett] and I got together and started playing music together. Sometimes I would go and just make an arrangement myself and bring it to T-Bone and he would change a few things, so it was a very collaborative process. The way the Coens work with T-Bone … they create a community. To be honest, people can’t really remember who came up with what. If you ask the Coens “who wrote this line?” they won’t remember. As soon as you give your idea you don’t own it anymore. It’s all the raw materials to build this thing, and I had an equal share in it.

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