Telegraph.co.uk — As a high-school punk growing up in an evangelical Christian family, Oscar Isaac had a Coen brothers poster on his bedroom wall. Starring in their new film, he says, was meant to be.
The Coen brothers’ inimitable, darkly comic films have produced career-defining performances from the likes of Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998), George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Javier Bardem in 2007’s No Country for Old Men for which he won an Oscar. But when it came to casting their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, the directors hit a wall in their search for a leading man. What the character required was not only someone who could act the part of a folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961, but someone who could authentically perform the music too; someone who, as Joel Coen describes, ‘could really sing’.
Luckily for them their Cinderella turned out to be hiding in plain view. Oscar Isaac is an actor who has been steadily building up an impressive reputation in Hollywood for the past 10 years. He stole the film in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) with what Empire magazine described as his ‘intensely nuanced’ portrayal of the malevolent Prince John. He held his own playing Carey Mulligan’s charming ex-con boyfriend, Standard, who teams up for one last heist with Ryan Gosling in Drive. He even managed to come out unscathed from Madonna’s W.E, miraculously investing his part as a Russian Sotheby’s security guard with a hinterland, apparently causing his director to develop a schoolgirl crush on him.
But none of this would prepare you for how masterfully Isaac inhabits the role of Llewyn Davis. From the opening close-up of him singing with heartbreaking soulfulness to his slapstick spiralling through a week of misfortune and bad decisions, Isaac is utterly captivating in every frame. Davis is a struggling New York folk singer, trying to forge a solo career after the suicide of his former singing partner. When he is not performing on stage, he has little in the way of monologues or detailed conversation to express his character. Instead he scurries around scowling between gigs and beds, always on the scrounge, smouldering with a martyr’s po-faced conviction. He bitterly guards the tradition of old songs, while the world around him moves on, falling in love with sweetly simple songs sung by smiling, angelic-voiced young troubadours such as his friend Jim (brilliantly portrayed by Justin Timberlake).
Davis is also prone to bitterness and hypocrisy and makes old ladies cry or young ladies very angry, as in one of the film’s highlights; Jim’s girlfriend, Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, rips Davis to shreds when she thinks she is pregnant by him: ‘I should have had you wear double condoms… You should be wearing condom on condom, and then wrap it in electrical tape.’ He takes the insults mutely, unflinchingly, too emotionally constipated to either defend or express his love for her.
The film has been hailed as a major triumph for the Coens, taking the Grand Prix prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year, and both the Coens and Isaac have been nominated in the forthcoming Golden Globes.
If Llewyn Davis’s story is about being the guy making folk music before Dylan came along – the wrong man at the wrong time – then Isaac’s trajectory could not be more different. The Coen brothers’ perfect candidate turned out to be an actor who has spent as much of his life making music as acting. ‘I think it was destiny,’ Isaac says of his big break. ‘Everything I had been building towards was required for this role… everything coalesced.’
When I meet the 33-year-old in London he is unrecognisable from Davis, the wild curly hair and beard shorn back to reveal a glowing complexion and a wide, goofy smile beneath puppyish eyes. The only thing that does remind me of Davis – who spends most of the film freezing through a merciless New York winter without an overcoat – is the way Isaac huddles inside his dark denim jacket against the chill of the hotel room air-conditioning while nursing a coffee.
Isaac was born in Guatemala, his mother’s home country, as Oscar Hernández, the middle of three children. His father was a Cuban-born, music-loving doctor who moved posts around various southern US states before the family settled in Miami when he was a child. ‘My dad was a bit of a frustrated artist so we grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, all the singer-songwriters.’ In high school Isaac played in punk bands and made home movies inspired by Tarantino, ‘action movies, with lots of blood and cars’. Portentously, he had a poster of the Coen brothers’ film Miller’s Crossing next to one of the band Nine Inch Nails on his bedroom wall.
His family were deeply Christian. ‘We were evangelical. [At church] there was speaking in tongues, the devil was a real thing and people believed in demon possession.’ So while he played in bands, Isaac aligned himself to the straight-edge movement, a splinter group from the Washington, DC, punk scene that emerged in the early 1980s whose followers rejected the hedonism of traditional rock’n’roll culture by avoiding alcohol and drugs. ‘I was a bit of a loner. Sometimes I look back and think maybe I missed out a little. But I had no interest in going off the rails.’
After finishing high school in 1998 Isaac began to explore acting in the theatre, dropping his surname at auditions to avoid being type-cast as a ‘Latino gangster’. ‘Being called Oscar Hernández in Miami is like being called John Smith; there are 15 pages of us in the phone book.’ To make money, he worked as an orderly in the hospital his father worked at. Isaac also became the frontman in the ska-punk group the Blinking Underdogs. ‘I was never much of a singer. I was terrible,’ he admits. ‘It’s embarrassing, I was trying to sound like everybody else. I went through a big Cure phase so I was trying to do that kind of dramatic voice.’
The Blinking Underdogs became fairly successful, opening for Green Day on a couple of dates, but Isaac could feel his passion waning. ‘The music scene was changing – people were losing interest in the genre, as was I.’
Isaac was performing in a play in New York in 2000 when one day he passed by the prestigious Juilliard School and decided to inquire about applying to its drama course. ‘It was a Monday and they said the deadline had passed on the Friday. But I asked for a form anyway and then I came back the next day and just pleaded and pleaded for them to accept it for that intake.’
Being a little older (he was 21) when he won a place at Juilliard, Isaac says, prepared him better for the fiercely competitive atmosphere. ‘My experience with all the straight-edge stuff allowed me to feel I could participate and yet still hold on to who I was.’ Despite having abandoned his rock band ambitions when he left the Blinking Underdogs, his studies at Juilliard encouraged Isaac to work on his voice. ‘Through doing the basic practical classes, learning how to use my diaphragm, I really figured out how to sing and what it was that I sounded like.’
Straight after graduation Isaac took the role of Proteus in the Public Theatre’s Central Park production of Two Gentlemen of Verona before starring alongside Paddy Considine in the HBO film PU-239 as a petty criminal. He has worked in films almost constantly since. ‘I started off thinking that I just needed one shot to prove myself, but then I realised that I was only going to learn about acting by doing it.’ On the side, he continued to write music and perform in small clubs around New York.
When Isaac heard his childhood heroes the Coens were casting for a new film about the folk scene in 1960s New York he admits he was a man possessed. ‘I had to be in it. I’ve seen all of their movies two or three times, some of them way more. Their tone is ingrained in my head.’
While working on an indie film, Isaac was given the news that the Coens wanted him to audition. ‘We were shooting in this bar and in-between scenes, one of the extras picked up a guitar and started playing with the most amazing fingerpicking style I had ever heard. I got talking to him and he told me he had been a musician in New York since the 1960s.’ The extra turned out to be Erik Frandsen, who was a contemporary of the pioneering singer and guitarist Dave Van Ronk (known as ‘The Mayor of MacDougal Street’) and Bob Dylan who still lived on MacDougal Street above the old Gaslight Club, the epicentre of the folk scene. ‘The serendipity of the situation was wild,’ Isaac says.
Van Ronk was the young Bob Dylan’s idol and his mentor, and the Coen brothers have talked about how the inspiration for the story of Llewyn Davis was Van Ronk’s memoirs. Isaac knew he was no physical or vocal match for the 6ft 5in Irish American with a whisky-soaked growl. But Isaac was assured by the casting director that the Coen brothers were looking for the spirit of the man rather than a literal portrayal. ‘They said this guy is the workhorse, the blue-collar guy. I knew exactly what they meant.’ He immersed himself in the music, persuading Frandsen to give him guitar lessons in the complicated Travis picking style Van Ronk was famous for, and eventually Isaac even played at Frandsen’s gigs as his opening act.
Once cast, Isaac hooked up with the Coen brothers’ music collaborator, the producer T Bone Burnett. ‘He said just play it like you would play it to yourself. It is not like a musical where the singing is an expression of the character, it is a window on me.’
‘Llewyn is such an internal guy,’ Isaac says now. ‘That was the hardest thing to portray. He is an island, shut off from everyone else.’ A naturally warm personality, Isaac says he borrowed physical cues for the character from the Coen brothers. ‘Even though I find them really charming people, they are not people pleasers. Which really stands out compared to all the bullshit you get in this industry.
‘So I tried it out by going along to parties and not smiling or cracking jokes but just trying to talk to people. It is a really scary feeling at first because you don’t have any false niceties to hide behind any more. People would either think you were an idiot or others would immediately open up to you. It got quite an extreme reaction.’ As it did on screen, either from Mulligan or from John Goodman in his virtuoso turn as a fried old jazz head, sneering about the mindless simplicity of the new folk music. In another actor’s hands, Davis’s intransigence could have made him deeply unsympathetic but Isaac manages to make this prickly anti-hero dignified and warmly compelling – comical rather than pathetic.
Inside Llewyn Davis has resulted in overdrive for Isaac’s career. This year he is billed to appear in Charlie Stratton’s 19th-century Parisian thriller In Secret with Elizabeth Olsen and Jessica Lange; William Monahan’s Mojave; Alex Garland’s futuristic Ex Machina, and Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January with Kirsten Dunst. He has also just been named as the replacement for Javier Bardem in JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year as an oil company owner whose business is under threat in New York in 1981, starring opposite a fellow Juilliard alumnus, Jessica Chastain.
Isaac has the talent, lack of ego and on-screen magnetism to build a long and versatile career. But as he looks back on this transformative moment in his life with the kind of wistfulness usually reserved for a first love, you wonder whether he will ever feel so close to a character again. ‘It was the most beautiful experience I have had. The friendship I created with the Coens, you don’t get that often in this film world circus. They really shared their world with me.’