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inside oscar isaac

The Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis stars Oscar Isaac alongside Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver and Garrett Hedlund. As it premieres in cinemas today, we get under the skin of it's down on his luck, soulful protagonist.

Oscar Isaac has had small roles in big movies for a long time; Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies and Robin Hood, Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy, Steven Soderbergh’s Che, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. He was born in Guatemala to a Cuban father and Guatemalan mum and, as a teenager, played guitar and sang for the Blinking Underdogs. Inside Llewyn Davis was a role made for him; the folk singer schlepping around a wintry Greenwich Village in 1961, trying to make it, down on his luck, soulful, full of himself, desperately sad but only able to realize how he feels when he sings folk songs. Isaac talked to i-D about working the Coen’s, and getting inside Llewyn Davis.

Inside Llewyn Davis portrays an artist’s life before he gains success. What was your life like after drama school?
I can relate to him. I remember finishing drama school and wanting that one shot, thinking about that one shot, and then getting that shot, getting excited about, and then realising that shot hasn’t really changed anything in a major way, but has given you enough to carry on going. Being determined not to compromise. Realising that success and failure are on a knife’s edge, and you do need luck. Feeling frustrated because you think you have something to offer, but knowing it’s just not coming across in the way you want it to.

Your character Llewyn Davis accuses Carey Mulligan of being a careerist. Do you think careerism is a compliment now?
Things have changed I think. I think some people see it as a compliment, and are looking for the moment to sell out. But Llewyn Davis was trying to make it as a folk singer because he believed in it, even if it meant sacrificing his happiness. He wants to succeed but he also wants to fail, because failure is a purer thing. When you succeed, you have to compromise and shift and change. I look at the Coen brothers; they’re not careerists. They’re relaxed about their success. You can’t be overly focused on it. 

Can you imagine Llewyn ever compromising?
That’s not who he is – he’s a preservationist, someone who sings old folk songs, and people aren’t interested in that. But it’s not a tragedy, because he gets the joke. He isn’t scared about failure. He’s not going to quit, he’s going to find a way to do it. A lot of these guys did – they found a way. They taught guitar, played open mics, lived in rent-controlled apartments. They managed to keep at it.

Does folk predate this film for you?
I grew up listening to Dylan and Peter Seeger, but I was unaware of this tiny little era between those two giants, so I got to delve in and got obsessed by it.

How quickly did you feel you understood the film, Llewyn’s character, the tone of the film?
There’s always a huge gulf between what you first read and then playing the person. So I spent a lot of time with Joel and Ethan and went through every scene, talking about where he was at each point. I got guidance from obvious things – the music of the time, the clothes. But I also thought about the way he expresses himself. I looked at the way Buster Keaton expresses himself, which is more physical than facial. Llewyn expresses his emotions through playing music.

Do you see acting as a craft?
Yeah I do. It’s like learning to play a G-cord on a guitar – at some point, you need to work out where the fingers go. T-Bone Burnett, who did the music for the film, said to me: “A melody does one of three things, it either goes up, down or stays the same, but within those three things is infinity, all of music.” Acting’s like that; it’s simple, but then it’s infinitely complex. You figure out how to access your emotions. You sit down and you work out how to convey feeling and warmth and desire and frustration without using all the things that Oscar, me, usually uses. You have to register, rather than judge.

What was it like watching the film back for the first time?
I could handle the scenes of me playing and singing but, when it comes to the performance, I’m not good at being good to myself. We shot Inside Llewyn Davis two years ago, and there are still moments when I find myself thinking: “Oh fuck, that’s what that scene was.”

What’s it like to have two people behind the camera?
It’s a bit like having John Ford and Billy Wilder behind the camera, yet they get along. They’re completely in sync, they’ve managed to develop a system and tone that doesn’t require a whole lot of checking in with each other. Occasionally they disagree, but they let whoever feels strongest win.

What’s your advice to a young actor?
You have to do things that make you better at what you do, which is actually a very practical thing. So it’s not just about getting the next part, it’s about finding a way of working the imagination muscles, and that’s actually a lot more challenging than it sounds. And usually it has nothing to do with ‘the business.’ Art is subjective. The focus has to be on the actual craft. The people that allow you to keep going and allow you to make a living out of what you do have opinions. Actors are so different in what they give to an audience or the camera. You’ve got to work on your identity as an actor, and if you do that then hopefully luck will intervene a little bit.

Inside Llewyn Davis is out in cinemas today.