Oscar Isaac takes a star turn in 'Llewyn Davis'
05:00 AM, Dec 08, 2013
BEVERLY HILLS Few roles offer the opportunity to sing for Barbra Streisand.
But there Oscar Isaac was, on stage, guitar in hand, singing Fare Thee Well at an evening honoring the Coen brothers’ newest film, Inside Llewyn Davis.
“When I got up there I did not make eye contact,” says Llewyn’s 33-year-old breakout star. “The hands start shaking a little bit, they start freezing up. I saw her right there! She was to my left. I was like, what!”
Isaac is willing to shoulder the unusual to promote what he acknowledges is “a strange movie” depicting one frigid, frustrating week in the life of a Greenwich Village folk singer trying to make ends meet in 1961. “It’s unusual. The structure is strange. The character is not one who tries to charm or asks for any sympathy,” he says.
Just last week, the film beat out12 Years a Slave for best picture at the Gotham Independent Film Awards.
Raised in Miami by a Cuban doctor and Guatemalan homemaker, Isaac has been on a steady ascent since graduating from Julliard in 2005, with roles in films such as Drive and Robin Hood. This year, he was one of the most buzzed-about faces at the Cannes Film Festival.
“We walked into the press conference and he got a standing ovation from the press, which I’d never seen at Cannes or anywhere,” says his co-star Carey Mulligan.
In Llewyn, the character’s failure is palpable to connect to others around him, to land a meaningful record deal, even to keep track of a tabby cat entrusted to his care.
“Often with a Coen brothers movie, I don’t think it’s what life looks like, it’s what it feels like,” says Isaac, whose character is loosely based on folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “And I think it generally feels more like that than the other thing, like Searching for Sugarman, where it is this great success story.”
Alienated by his unflappable commitment to a pre-Bob Dylan sound that has yet to sell, the broke singer grates against those in his life most apt to let him crash on their couch: his squarish sister, an all-too-earnest best friend, Jim (Justin Timberlake), and the acid-tongued Jean, Jim’s girlfriend (Mulligan) whom Llewyn recently may have impregnated.
Unshakable fame was almost Isaac’s a year ago. The actor was a main contender for The Bourne Legacy, but the studio passed over him in favor of the more recognizable Jeremy Renner. Isaac accepted a smaller role in the film instead. “I think that’s a testament to Jeremy, too,” says Isaac, who says Renner welcomed him despite the potentially awkward situation. “He understands how those things go.”
The loss fatefully led to Llewyn, a role for which the Coens initially had tested famous musicians. “Ironically, had I gotten Bourne I wouldn’t have been available for Llewyn,” says Isaac, who also sings with a childhood friend in an experimental rock band, NightLab.
He recalls getting the career-changing call on the opening night of his play, We Live Here in New York. The Coens’ tone sounded remarkably like Bourne director Tony Gilroy’s had when he had tactfully let him down.
“I get the call and it’s Joel ‘Ok so we went through the process’ it was the same thing. I threw (my) coffee away, like … dammit. ‘Uh huh. Uh huh’. And he said, ‘But we’d love for you to play Llewyn if you want it.’ So it was a happy ending.”
The film is as music-laden as the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but this time the directors chose not to pre-record the songs, shooting them entirely “gonzo, documentary-style,” says T Bone Burnett, who returns from O Brother to executive-produce the film’s music, with help from Mumford and Sons’ Marcus Mumford.
Upon first meeting Isaac, Burnett set the tone by putting on a Tom Waits record and left the room for an hour.”We found the guy who could do it. That’s the miracle,” Burnett says. “He’s Guatemalan you can see the fire in him. You can see it in his singing because it’s so capped. You can hear that longing to connect.”
What did Isaac take from the Coens, whom he calls “two brains on the exact same page”?
“They never compliment.” The actor grins. “That took some getting used to. If you move on I guess they like it. … It’s freeing, I think.”
Next, Isaac will reunite with his Julliard pal Jessica Chastain in J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, shooting in January. This week, awards nominations could be kind to Isaac. “The role is such a great showcase for him,” Fandango’s Dave Karger says. “The Golden Globes will probably be his big moment. He’ll be in the same breath as some of the biggest stars working today.”