Interview | Oscar Issac discusses role in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

Oscar Issac talked to the Daily about his performance as Llewyn Davis in the upcoming Coen Brothers film, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The movie details the life and troubles of Davis, a struggling folk artist living in New York in the 1960s.


Tufts Daily: Can you talk about the research that you did for the role? Obviously, it’s based on Dave Van Ronk, so did you read “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” [Van Ronk’s memoir]?


Oscar Isaac: Yes, I did read that, and “Chronicles,” which was Bob Dylan’s account of the time, and he had some history with Van Ronk, so that worked well. But mostly it was from talking to people who were there in the village when it was all going down, and that was really useful.


TD: Did you have any expectations about working on set with the Coen brothers? And were any of [your expectations] met?


OI: There’s never a desire to not stick to the script. They write in such a great way, and with such a great rhythm and cadence, that once you walk in to it, you wouldn’t want to do anything else. That was unexpected … They didn’t talk much about the symbolism or the meaning of things — any of those big ideas or thematic ideas. It was all very practical, which was unusual. Also, the fact that they never compliment. They don’t compliment anything.


TD: How did they communicate [to] you the tone that they wanted for the film?


OI: Tone is definitely the most important thing for them. You just read it and talk about it with them, but they don’t dictate what you’re supposed to be doing. They don’t say, “You need to act in this style, you need to do it this way.” They leave it open. That’s why it’s kind of a phenomenon — their tone is so specific, yet they’re not controlling it.


TD: To me, the Coen brothers are just a [singular] directing entity; could you explain how they differed on set in terms of their directing styles?


OI: Sometimes, there will be a slight disagreement, but when there is, it’s just whoever feels the strongest about it — and that’s including me as well. I’ll always remember when we were doing some hair tests … Joel and Ethan came in and looked at it, [and] Joel said, “What do you think?” and I said, “I don’t know, I think it’s alright — maybe it’s not perfect, but it could work,” but then he said, “Because I f***ing hate it, but I just hate it.” So that was that. I kept it curly.


TD: How did you first get involved with this film?


OI: I auditioned for it. I saw that they were making a movie on the Internet, and I got an audition with the casting director. She sent that tape to the Coens, and they brought me in again.


TD: What was it like preparing for the audition and the role in general?

OI: I had to work a lot on his [Llewyn Davis’] physicality, how I was going to express what was happening to him emotionally in an external way. For instance, I decided that he would always walk as if he were walking uphill. He’s constantly in a state of struggle.


TD: When you saw the finished product, were there any things, perhaps about the editing, that changed your perception of the character?


OI: Most of it, actually. You are so inside of it that it’s hard to see the meaning of things [when they] come together. Especially for this role, which was a very internal performance … It was up to the Coens to create the context for the character. For instance, the “[The Death of] Queen Jane” song, when they gave it to me to learn, I didn’t really get it. Why is he singing about a medieval c-section? But when I saw it in the movie, I understood. It had echoes of the abortion that never happened, the child that he might have and also the symbolism of him being Queen Jane and having to give up.


TD: You got to spend a lot of time with John Goodman in a car, and also with cats. Were there any crazy experiences on set?


OI: Nothing too wild happened in the car. John Goodman had a very challenging role. He had these big stream of consciousness monologues … so he had a lot of focusing to do. Just the fact that I was in a car with John Goodman in the back was a pretty crazy thing in and of itself. There was that moment when [I] looked around the car and I realized that I was definitely in a Coen brothers movie.