Q&A with Oscar Isaac, candidate for ONTD's acting/folk-singing boyfriend

Oscar Isaac plays the unsung title “loser” of the Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in New York’s Greenwich Village of 1961 who can’t seem to catch a break.

Fortunately for Isaac, 33, a Guatemalan-born American whose musicianship is as sterling as his acting, life isn’t imitating art. This includes the beard, which he shaved off after making the film.

To many people, Isaac may seem like a “mystery tramp,” to cop a lyrical allusion from Bob Dylan, whose imminent arrival in Greenwich Village looms over Inside Llewyn Davis.

Isaac’s previous screen roles have been everywhere except the marquee. They include stints as King John in Robin Hood, an interpreter in Steven Soderbergh’s Che and Jesus’ dad Joseph in The Nativity Story. He’s perhaps best known to moviegoers as Carey Mulligan’s ex-con husband in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, playing opposite Ryan Gosling.

That’s all changing with the release of Inside Llewyn Davis, which last week earned Isaac the 2013 Best Actor prize from the Toronto Film Critics Association. He’s on the awards radar for this film, and also on many music players, since he features prominently on the soundtrack album produced by T Bone Burnett, who lavishes praise on the actor/singer.

Isaac spoke to the Star from New York, amidst a whirlwind of promotional chores that likely would have flummoxed Llewyn Davis.

Llewyn Davis is very loosely modelled on late folkie Dave Van Ronk, but it’s amazing how real he feels beyond that. It’s almost as if you could go out and buy the album you see in the movie.
I think that’s what’s so great about it. The Coens have been able to create what feels like a very real human. I’ve been asked many times about the “real” Llewyn and it’s like, no, no, that’s a fictitious character.

How do you suppose Llewyn would react to the awards attention your performance is receiving?
He probably wouldn’t show much outward recognition of it, but I think inside he’d be pretty stoked. I think he’d be contemptuous, but I think he’d also want to win.

What do you make of Llewyn as a man? There are moments in the film when you want to throttle him and then you feel sorry for him.
I think that’s part of it. He’s a guy who wants to succeed but he also wants to fail as well, because failing would be more true. I think success would mean having to compromise and he’s not willing to do that.

In order to succeed, there’s things he’d have to do that he’s just not willing to do because that’s not who he is.

Do you like Llewyn? Would you have a beer with him, if you could?
I love Llewyn, and I do have beers with those kinds of guys. Those kinds of guys are my friends. I get it. And that’s the thing: I don’t think he dislikes people, he just has a particular way about him. I actually started playing in little cafés around New York and I have a lot of good friends of mine who are musicians who are struggling in New York.

A lot of people don’t know that when Dylan arrived in NYC he was basically a total invention, a city intellectual pretending to be a country bumpkin. Here you have Llewyn trying so hard to be an authentic folk artist, whereas for Dylan it was just one of his many transformations.

You’re exactly right. When I got the material to audition, on the bottom of the page it said, “Note: Llewyn is not Dylan. He is not the poet genius. He’s the workman, the blue-collar workman.” And I took that further. He knows exactly who he is: he’s from the boroughs; he’s not from anywhere else. He’s not making up a myth to try and seem more mysterious. He’s very upfront about who he is.

How do you feel about what’s called “the folk process,” the appropriating of melodies and lines from traditional songs to make new ones, something Dylan did all the time. Would Llewyn be against that?
I think that Llewyn’s not against it. If the song is good, he’s not against it. For him, though, that’s not what he does. He’s a preservationist (singing the original song). That’s how he expresses himself.

Unfortunately for him, preservation doesn’t sell.
Well, T Bone (Burnett) says that Llewyn was looking backwards, like a lot of these preservationists were. But Dylan was able to look backwards and forwards.

A lot has been said about that scene-stealing cat who dogs Llewyn, a discussion that began right after the premiere at Cannes last May. Were you a cat person before you made the film, and are you one now?
No, and no! Cats are impossible to work with. They’re just very difficult because you can’t really train them. They’re not really interested in whatever you want them to do. Dogs want to please you; cats only want to please themselves. That’s a little tough.

But it was a genius touch on the Coens’ part. One, it gives the movie a plot. Two, it completely undercuts Llewyn’s seriousness. It’s absurd that he has to walk around with a cat. At the same time, it’s a vulnerability thing: the cat needs him, and it’s one thing that he can’t just turn his back on. He actually feels the need to take care of it.

Everyone who made this movie with you, especially T Bone Burnett, has remarked how great it was that you could do take after take of the songs you play in the film.
I guess it’s just because I was so happy to be there. I could have done it all day long. I just loved doing it. I was completely energized. I worked so hard on the music that I felt confident to do it take after take.