This is Oscar Isaac’s fourth Cannes. He was here in 2009 with Agora, then Robin Hood in 2010, then Drive the year after. Actually, he’s quite the film fest fixture: at Venice with W.E. and Toronto with 10 Years. So it’s testimony to his quicksilver skills – or to a collective forgetfulness – that he was greeted at Cannes like a starlet emerged fresh from the ether. A miraculous discovery found fully formed on the shore.
“Is that guy a real folk singer?” asked the veteran critic next to me as the end credits rolled on the Coen brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, in which Isaac stars as a Dave van Ronk-ish singer-songwriter seemingly destined for obscurity in early 1960s New York. “Where have you come from?” was the first question put to him in the press conference the next day. He didn’t respond. He just grinned and enjoyed it, clean-cut and scrubbed, almost bobbing with pleasure.
In fact, it’s the experience of being met by a blind eye for 10 years, twiddling thumbs as Ryan Gosling mops up the applause, that lends Isaac’s performance its oomph. He is now hot property for playing someone who isn’t; the strummer with soul but no sales, the man who wasn’t Bob Dylan. Llewyn rattles round Manhattan, sucking up his persistent bad luck with groggy resignation. He kips on couches and loses somebody’s cat. He signs away royalty rights on a novelty record so he can fund the termination of a pregnancy for which he may not be responsible. And, sometimes, he takes the stage at the Gaslight with earnest ballads, fishermen laments, hymns to the middle ages. He’s good. But he probably isn’t quite good enough.
“The irony hasn’t been lost on me,” Isaac smiles. “Being celebrated for playing someone who wasn’t. Llewyn is like the Jesus character who had to be sacrificed for our sins. I get quite emotional about it. It’s hard not sounding like a douchebag because it’s like: ‘Oh, I’ve been so successful for those poor people that haven’t.’ But I know those people; it could have easily just gone the other way for me too. There’s very few people – like Shakespeare – who, no matter what, were gonna do what they did. For the rest of us there’s a lot of events that have to happen in order for things to end up the way they are. The celebration of that can allow me to relax in all of this.”
“The whole story is about a guy who never gets there,” says T Bone Burnett, who oversaw the score with Marcus Mumford and Justin Timberlake. “And yet the actual person who’s playing that guy, does it. He seizes that minute like a motherfucker.”
That can make Isaac sound grasping. Actually, he is easy, peachy company. On screen he is prone to the smoulder; up close he beams unselfconsciously, campily tactile, eager to connect, recalling stories in dialogue form, rather than precis. He wears pressed chinos and a blue-and-white seersucker shirt so cheery and short-sleeved that it might have been taken from a toddler.
Isaac won the part after sending an audition tape to the Coens, who were, says Ethan, “screwed until Oscar showed up”. Two things mean it might as well have been written for him. First, his indeterminate ethnicity – born Oscar Isaac Hernández, raised in Miami, schooled at Juilliard, he has a Guatemalan mother and a Cuban father, plus a touch of French and a smidge of Israeli. It’s a blurriness perfect for a film preoccupied with cultural reinvention, the compromises and affectations made in aid of success. Llewyn’s name recalls that appropriated by Robert Zimmerman; Adam Driver has a cameo as a Jewish doctor’s son who rebrands himself as Al Cody the cowboy.
The other factor was Isaac’s musical background: he is a professional guitarist who gigged with a punk outfit called Blinking Underdogs (who once opened for Green Day). The dynamics of live performance interest him – and the keynote scenes of Davis rely on his ability to command our attention.
He tells me about a study into the respiration of musicians and crowd at a classical concert. Those moments the audience generally agreed were most moving were when they were breathing in sync with the performers. “It’s a primal thing, it’s what makes us pack animals. We’re like birds – we all move together at the same time. And we don’t really get that very often in normal life. Those moments that really resonate are when something is being opened up.”
And how do you manage that? “By letting go. It’s almost an acceptance of death.” A what? “William Hurt tells himself before each take: ‘We’re all gonna die.’ You just let go because you’re like: life is squeezing me and these are the sounds coming out. The songs I’ve written that are the strongest, I’m like: ‘I don’t know where that came from. It just kind of popped out.’ You feel you can’t take a whole lot of credit for it. I didn’t purposefully will it into existence.”
Isaac was raised in what he has called a “very Christian” household, and there is a thick band of bashfulness sandwiched between the confidence and the new-found celebrity. He feels, he says: “immediate shame after I play music in front of everyone. It has nothing to do with how good or bad it was; I just feel embarrassed afterwards. It’s because it’s such an open channel.”
Can he think of an equivalent? “Sex with a stranger. When you’re done it’s like, OK! Well … nice to meet you! Good luck!’ It’s that kind of thing where [you feel] ‘I just did something weird in front of people and, er …'”
Isn’t sex with a stranger more of a duet than a solo? “Yeah, but you’re sitting there watching me and we’re making weird sounds and maybe we’re breathing together. And then it’s done and it’s: ‘That was great, thank you!'”
Isaac shares with the film he is promoting a deep concern with sincerity. It’s brutal about what star quality can boil down to (“I’d like to fuck her,” says the Gaslight club owner about Carey Mulligan), about quantifying the saleability of someone’s poetry.
It’s curious that this candour seems to have struck such a chord in Cannes – the film is frontrunner for the Palme d’Or – given the festival’s lingering reputation for pretension. “Yeah, there’s a lot of bullshit. And the Coens just cut through it, with no vanity. They say it how it is. Maybe that’s why it resonates so much here.”
That decade below stairs has given Isaac a clear-eyed cynicism about the shopfront. This is the first time, he says, that he hasn’t felt the need to sell the film he is in. “I’ve done movies I’m very proud of, but there’s always a sense of: ‘Come see this shiny new car!’ The question I hate the most is: ‘Why should people see it?’ I don’t fucking know! I’m not a salesman.”
He leans forward. People today are afraid of frankness, he thinks. That’s why they litter their sentences (as he does, he admits) with “like”. They’re protecting themselves from committing to statements. Why are people nervous of that? “Maybe it’s just American speech. It’s all the way in the back of the throat; you don’t wanna make too much movement. Maybe it’s a bit of fear, a way of pulling back. In the 1960s, there was a forward way of speaking and inflection. Maybe it is population explosion …” He trails off, slaps his head. “Ah, I’m just talking out of my ass!”
So he won’t commit to the statement? “I’ll try. I think it’s good to be a little more fearless in saying what you feel. In not being scared of the repercussions of that.”
Because we’re all going to die? He nods merrily. “We’re all losers. They keep telling Llewyn: ‘You’re a loser, you’re a loser.’ And … well: so are you. You’re gonna die too, man.” He smiles; the sweetest grim reaper you’ll see.