GQ-Magazine.co.uk — Sad, strange, funny and folky, Inside Llewyn Davis sees the Coen Brothers reteam with producer T Bone Burnett for their most successful musical partnership since the Soggy Bottom Boys of O Brother, Where Art Thou? last left the stage. Loosely based on the career of singer songwriter Dave Van Ronk, the film focuses on the thwarted ambition of a musical misanthrope – played brilliantly by Drive‘s Oscar Isaac – in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961.
Sitting in London’s Soho Hotel, Isaac possesses none of Davis’ prickliness but does share his character’s trademark intensity. He is, however, far better company; when reminded of his recent appearance inRolling Stone‘s “The Hot List” the 33-year-old recalls his girlfriend’s only response was, “You’re not thatcool”. We beg to differ: born in Guatemala, raised in Miami, Isaac is as comfortable acting on stage at the Juilliard School as performing in a dive bar with his old ska band The Blinking Underdogs. His CV also shows a resilience few can match: the praise he received for his supporting role in Soderbergh’s Che biopic must have been much needed after appearing in Madonna’s WE, Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch and the underwhelming The Bourne Legacy. To mark the debut of a film finally worthy of his talents arriving in British cinemas, we talk to Isaac about being intimidated by John Goodman, why not everything in the Coens’ universe makes sense and his worst ever audition.
GQ: On your first session together to help prepare you for the role, T Bone Burnett played you Tom Waits’ Bad As Me and left the room. What happened next?
Oscar Isaac: It never really changed – there was always that kind of vibe. He’d say, “play me a song”, I’d play a little something of it and then he’d say, “Do you want to smoke a bit of weed?” He kept saying, “Play it like you’re playing it to yourself.” I would have that stewing in my brain – “Play it like you’re playing it toyourself? What does that mean, man?” That’s how he works and its no wonder he and the Coens get along so well, because it’s the same thing. It’s kind of a crazy phenomenon: both T Bone and the Coens, their tone is so specific. You can easily tell what is a Coen Brothers or a T Bone Burnett piece of art. And yet it’s not an imposed, precise, calibrated, intellectualized, predetermined thing at all. It’s a weird thing when the vibe is set for that to just be drawn out of people. It percolates up! I was expecting a team of [musical] experts, fingerpickers, videos I had to watch, reproducing certain sounds. I think they did for [Johnny Cash biopic] Walk The Line because it had to be this qualitative thing. But with this one it was much more murky and ambiguous. So there was never a real conversation: “Do I sound like Dave Van Ronk?” “Idon’t sound like Dave Van Ronk?” “Do I just do what I’m doing?”
How helpful was Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street?
I went back to it, because as an actor it’s just about what inspires curiosity and creativity. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I grabbed on to Dave Van Ronk for dear life. But it’s impossible for me to be Dave Van Ronk – John Goodman’s character has a lot more to do with Dave Van Ronk than I do. Van Ronk was a huge Swedish f***ing howler – that’s not me. But his story, his thoughts about life, his humour, his aggression and his surliness – there’s a great description of Dylan first meeting Van Ronk in Chronicle where he has the music shop. “One winter day a big burly guy stepping in off the street – he looked like he’d come from the Russian embassy”. He’s very surly with the guitar and doesn’t want to talk to anybody. I really liked that. The Coens didn’t really refer to it that much again because they didn’t do such a departure.
What was the strangest record Burnett played you?
To be honest the strangest thing that was sent to me was when they said, “This is the song that we think you should perform [when Davis has a crucial audition for a manager] ‘The Death Of Queen Jane’.” There was a version by the Bothy band – it had like 100 notes in each syllable. That one just completely threw me. The song hadn’t been delineated in the script so I had been ravaging the archives of Van Ronk and trying to find some crazy, bluesy, howling song, as this is his one shot. I’d bring them stuff and I remember them thinking, “Maybe we’re thinking more ‘white'”. When they gave me that I really didn’t get it. It was a song out of all the songs that I had the least emotional connection to – I was singing about King Henry and it means nothing to me. I don’t know what it means in the story for this guy. But I don’t think [the Coens] knew! I think that their genius isn’t that they have these brilliant meticulous thoughts that are full of meaning that they implement. I think that instinctively what appeals to their taste and sense of humour happens to have tons of meaning. I spent months bending over backwards trying to find a connection, even musically, but it wasn’t until after I saw the movie that I finally did. When I saw it, “Of course that’s the song he plays…because it’s the song he shouldn’t play.” It’s the least commercial song and yet it’s the whole point of folk music that you get old songs and you find some strange connection that’s not an intellectual one but much more of a primitive one. It does actually have thematic relevance: there’s the baby, this possible kid in Akron, an abortion he has to pay for. This could be a pro-choice rally song about saving Queen Jane! The layers unfold but I don’t think that had they said “This is why we want this” and given me their dissertation about why, this is what it symbolizes – they just don’t. I don’t think it would evenoccur to them. I think that kind of stuff embarrasses them.
What surprised you most about working with Justin Timberlake?
How self-aware Justin is. And he can be very self-deprecating. He’s an incredibly funny, very energetic guy. He’s very aware of what’s going on, who he is, that persona.
You have talked before about how important the right pair of desert boots were to getting into character as Davis: is there an item you own you are similarly attached to?
I get attached to things: I wear the same jeans for a year. I’m not a purist so it’s different kinds all the time. Now it’s shoes actually – I’ve worn the same kind of shoes for three years. I wear them till they fall apart and they are just the most comfortable. For me, with a character you start with the shoes. Particularly with Llewyn as it was all walking.
Who is the most clothes obsessed actor you’ve ever worked with?
Actor? I don’t know. Madonna was definitely the most clothes obsessed person though. There were probably 80 extras lined for this one scene and she’d go down the line saying “Yes, yes, yes, no”. I just kept thinking “They are not going to even be on camera….”
Not Ryan Gosling?
Not that I witnessed other than what he wears which seems to be quite meticulous.
John Goodman is a notoriously tricky interview and is prone to giving only one or two word answers. Presumably your interactions are a lot more relaxed…
It’s probably not that different! No, he’s soft-hearted and very sweet but he’s focused on what he’s got to do. In this movie he had a lot to say and long takes of stream-of-consciousness. That stuff is hard to memorise as it is not coming off of anyone else at all. Usually with big monologues you see something land and you get something back – he’s just doing this to the back of my head. That was a big challenge for him. Most of the time he was just “F***, can I remember my lines?”
One of the best monologues is in a scene when Davis is being driven by Garrett Hedlund’s character and Goodman’s jazz musician Roland Turner is in the back…
That section was hard to tell what it was going to be but when I saw it I thought “Holy shit I didn’t realise it was going to be ominous!” I didn’t realise this was going to be a descent into Dante’s inferno. The sound design with the wipers, the red lights: it takes on this very evil feeling. [Adopts mocking conspiratorial tone] Ooh, Roland doesn’t even exist man!
You once described being pelted with lighters during a bad gig. What was the cinematic equivalent?
It probably would have to be the auditioning equivalent which is completely humiliating situation. I had an audition where Josh Brolin was pelting me with his personality. I didn’t get the part.
What’s been your worst job?
It’s difficult because you don’t want to slag off stuff. The ones that are bad are when you start turning into a dick. When other people are bad you can always make your way through, but when halfway through you realise, “Oh I’m the asshole because I’m miserable. Everything is going so badly.”
Which band would you like to see reform?
I wouldn’t mind seeing The Smiths reform. That would be cool. I love that bass player [Andy Rourke] so much man. My Smiths song of choice? [sings] “But these things take time / And I know that I’m / The most inept / That ever stepped,” off Hatful Of Hollow.
What trend in music needs to die out?
I’m really sick of anthems. Every song has to be a very big singalong thing – it feels very Eighties. There are a lot of “whoah whoa whoahs”, this stadium thing. You’re even getting that from some of the “folk” groups. I can’t stand it.
What was the highlight of filming Robin Hood – did it involving drinking Guinness with Russell Crowe?
Being terrified by Russell Crowe! Being in bed with Lea Seydoux has to be on top of the list.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Wish I had something funnier but, “Do what’s before you with all your might”. That was from my Dad.
When actors play musicians what do they do on screen that irritates you?
I can’t do the lip-syncing stuff. It’s kind of basic but you can always tell. It’s the suspension of disbelief, I get it, but that… and also when someone doesn’t [actually] know how to play a guitar. It’s such an evident thing.
And when musicians try to be actors?
Probably just that: when they try and be actors.
Inside Llewyn Davis is out now.