“It opened doors immediately,” Oscar Isaac muses on working with the Coen brothers. “I got The Two Faces of January a couple of days after I had been cast in Inside Llewyn Davis. The trajectory completely changed once that happened.”
It’s no surprise that the actor’s soulful performance as down-at-heel folk singer Llewyn has proved to be such a turning point. In the two years that have passed since shooting, he’s gone from respected supporting player to compelling leading man, and was recently cast in a major role for JJ Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII.
Digital Spy sat down with Isaac this week to talk about his Star Wars fandom, the meaning of Inside Llewyn Davis’s much-discussed cat, and his role opposite Viggo Mortensen in this week’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation The Two Faces of January.
Hossein Amini has said that The Two Faces of January appealed to him as a novel because the characters’ motivations are so unclear, but don’t actors always want to know what their motivation is? Yeah, the motivation is important for me to act it, but I don’t necessarily want the audience to know my motivation. When you watch something, you don’t want to be told what to think, and when movies or performers try to prescribe that it usually doesn’t work, because the camera sees everything. You let the characters’ behavior happen and people will make their own decisions about what it is.
I had worked with Hoss before on Drive, and that was a really great experience because we had to completely remake the character together, and he was so open to it all, and such a gentleman. And when he showed me this script, the characters were so dark and complicated and you never knew what their motivations were, and that’s what I thrive on.
Your character Rydal has a very ambiguous dynamic with Viggo Mortensen’s Chester, it’s paternal but also homoerotic. How did you view their relationship? Well, Viggo is a very, very beautiful man, so there’s always gonna be erotic tension whenever he’s in the room. That work was done for me! But it was fascinating, yeah, Highsmith sets this up straight away and Hoss does the same. Rydal’s father has passed away, and it was clearly not a good relationship, he didn’t go home for the funeral. So suddenly he sees this man, Chester, and he represents everything he wants to be and also everything he hates, everything he wants to kill in himself. So that creates a whole well of emotions that are tapped at different moments.
The ending is much more cathartic and less cynical than the rest of the film leads you to expect – were you surprised by the finale? Yeah, I remember that being a strangely emotional moment. The irony is that it’s much more emotional than his earlier scene with Colette, who he is supposedly in love with. It’s a process of projection, or displacement, where he’s watching his father just disintegrate through Chester. And what Patricia Highsmith and Hoss both picked up on is showing people at their weakest, and ugliest. Viggo was never afraid to be ugly, or stupid, or foolish, and in fact he looked for those places.
You’re a pretty chameleonic actor – somebody watching you in Inside Llewyn Davis might take a while to place you from Drive. Is that something you’re conscious of? Absolutely. Being someone with Latin roots, so many doors are constantly closed for you, because people put you in a category, and the thing I’ve always wanted to avoid is categorisation. I remember the first time my mind was blown by an actor was Tim Curry, because I loved Clue when I was a kid, and then I was watching the movie Legend and the Devil suddenly smiles, and I was like, “It’s the same guy!” It was a total Keyser Söze moment.
I think that’s always been a motivation – I don’t want you to know who I am, I want to be vastly different in each role, so that suddenly someone will maybe have a glimmer that it’s the same guy, and have that moment as well. You don’t even have to really change your appearance that much. I’m not physically very different in Drive and Inside Llewyn Davis, but there’s an essence and a way that the person relates to the world that can vary hugely.
Do you have a theory about what the cat means in Llewyn Davis? There was a lot of discussion about that online. I think that’s beautiful, that’s what art should do. The reductionist view of it is that it was a plot device, nothing happens if there’s no cat, it takes him from one thing to the take. It’s literally his guide. It serves all sorts of purposes: it’s an expression of the Coens’ sense of humor, but then you also have “Llewyn is the cat”! It’s a specific emotional expression, for the Coens, but it doesn’t have to be an overly intellectual one.
We didn’t, ourselves, have to sit and agree, ‘OK, the cat’s gonna be a symbol for this, let’s make sure everyone knows that it means this’. It’s the same thing as with a performance – it’s enough for someone to look at something and feel it and think about it, you don’t have to be showing them something. That’s usually a failure, because the camera sees what it sees. People resent movies that try to tell them exactly what to feel. Well, maybe not everyone does because those are often the movies that make the most money! But I think generally, the better movies are the ones where the audience has as much of a role in the whole thing as we do.
How does it feel to be joining the Star Wars universe – did you struggle to keep that a secret? Yeah, there was about a month when I already knew, before the announcement, so it was tough to keep under wraps. But secrets can be fun! I was a huge Star Wars fan growing up, my family collects the toys and we had Star Wars parties, where you’d dress up as your favorite character. I came as a Gonk droid, but that was less about imagination and more about laziness, because it’s just a cardboard box that you can paint grey, it was just like, ‘Oh, damnit, I forgot to get a costume, just gimme a box and I’ll paint it grey’.
Have you spent much time with JJ Abrams yet? We start filming at the end of the month, so we’ve just been talking a lot about the character. JJ’s enthusiasm and his collaborative nature is so refreshing in a movie of that size.
What was it like working with Alex Garland on his directorial debut, Ex Machina? Alex is so fantastic. The first script I ever read, when I was graduating school, was Sunshine. And it still ranks as probably the best script that I’ve ever read – behind Inside Llewyn Davis, because I read that one about 150 times, that play, script, piece of literature. But Sunshine made a huge impression on me, and I auditioned basically as part of a cattle call, and after I didn’t get cast it stayed with me, to the point where I had come up with music for it and was trying to get it to the producers! It was like, ‘I know I’m not in this, but I really just feel like this could work!’
So when I got the chance to meet Alex, finally, it was just a bit of a nerd-fest. He’s so, so smart, and you can pick up Ex Machina, and look at it from any angle and the arguments hold true. He’s got such a great mind.