By Michael Yoder
Oscar Isaac is the quintessential archetype of dreams coming true. As a kid growing up in Miami in the mid-'80s, he was obsessed with the movies of famed filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. He watched Raising Arizona incessantly, and he had a Miller's Crossing poster hanging in his room. He routinely grabbed his father's movie camera and shot homemade movies with his friends.
After graduating from high school, Isaac, who was born in Guatemala and moved to the States at the age of four months, set his sights on a professional acting career and attended The Juilliard School in New York. In a relatively short time, he's landed major roles in films like Drive and The Bourne Legacy, all while preserving musical aspirations through projects like his Brooklyn indie rock band, NightLab.
But it was a personal phone call from Joel Coen in 2011 that changed the 33-year-old's life forever. Months before, Isaac had auditioned for the lead role in the Coen brothers' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, in which he would play Llewyn Davis, a character loosely based on real-life New York folk musician Dave Van Ronk. Isaac, who first picked up a guitar when he was 10 years old and performed in various bands throughout high school, considered the character of Davis as the role he had been training his entire life to play, and Coen was calling to tell him his dream was about to become a reality by giving him the part.
Inside Llewyn Davis - which won the Grand Prix award at Cannes International Film Festival in May and debuts with much Oscar buzz in theaters on December 20 - centers on the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in 1961, just before Bob Dylan appeared to forever change the genre. Davis is a not-so-likeable struggling musician who makes a last ditch effort to resurrect his career but fails miserably at every turn.
The movie stars Hollywood heavyweights Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund and Justin Timberlake, but it's Isaac's starring performance that's already garnering whispers for an Academy Award for Best Actor.
The role of Davis proved to be especially challenging for Isaac, who appears in every scene of the movie. He played and sang all his own parts in the film's songs, and he was required to learn Travis picking - a style made famous by Van Ronk that mimics piano playing on a guitar.
Isaac says he was having trouble learning the method until a stroke of good fortune occurred while he was filming the independent movie Revenge For Jolly! During a break, one of the extras picked up a nearby guitar and started playing using Travis picking. The extra turned out to be Erik Frandsen, a well-known underground folk performer who had recorded with Van Ronk in the past.
We caught up with Isaac last month for a face-to-face interview in a hotel room overlooking Logan Square on the fourth floor of the Four Seasons in Philadelphia, where he discussed everything from his admiration of the Coens to bathroom graffiti.
Fly Magazine: What meaning does the word "folk" evoke for you?
Oscar Isaac: Folk's taken on so many different meanings. It can be such a derisive term, but it's also a beautiful one. For me, the word that comes to mind is "direct." Folk music at its core is very direct and powerful music, and there's a reason it becomes protest music. It's simple.
FM: Have you become a folk music aficionado since filming Inside Llewyn Davis?
OI: I grew up listening to Dylan. I've listened to everything Dylan has recorded and have seen him play often. But as much as I like Dylan, I wasn't really aware of the pre-Dylan time, apart from Woody Guthrie. There's a big space between Woody and Dylan that's relatively unknown. So this film has opened up a whole world of music for me that I wasn't aware of - Karen Dalton, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Reverend Gary Davis and Lightnin' Hopkins. And above all, Dave Van Ronk.
FM: Of all the Coen brothers' movies I've seen, Inside Llewyn Davis seems like the most plausible and realistic storyline they've ever done. How realistic did it feel to you?
OI: Llewyn feels like he's a real person, even though the characters are composites of other people. He feels like a real soul.
FM: Your character looks exhausted in every scene throughout the movie. Did you start to feel physically tired in real life while filming?
OI: I think my biggest acting feat in the film is that I'm not smiling from ear to ear in every take, because I just couldn't believe my luck. It was honestly the most exciting and joyful experience of my entire life, so I never once felt tired.
FM: One of the themes of Inside Llewyn Davis is navigating the edge between success and failure. What do you credit your own success to?
OI: It's not false humility when I say, "luck" - a lot of it's luck. Yes, I've been determined and I have busted my ass to be ready for when I got the chance - and was begging for the chance. But it's called the chance, and getting the chance has a lot to do with things just falling the right way.
FM: Do you believe in fate?
OI: I don't know, man. I go back and forth. I don't think I believe in free will. I think we're pretty predestined to do what we're going to do - like the choice you're going to make is the only choice you could have made. But at the same time, I don't think things happen for a reason. I think you can find reasons for things happening and find meaning to things, and that helps to understand it. But I don't think there's a great design.
FM: Did it feel like serendipity when you discovered Erik Frandsen playing guitar on the set while you were filming Revenge for Jolly!?
OI: I thought that was an incredible stroke of luck. That's a very non-Llewyn thing happening to me. That's just something falling right in my lap. And at the same time, I made the choice to go up and talk with this guy. Yes, he was playing guitar, but I didn't have to stay interested. The fact that he happened to be there, there happened to be a guitar and he picked it up and started playing - that is a beautiful coincidence.
FM: One of the pivotal scenes of Inside Llewyn Davis comes when your character is sitting in a bathroom stall and sees graffiti that says, "What are you doing?" What's the most profound thing you've ever seen written in a bathroom?
OI: That almost was going to be "Ike sucks cocks." [laughs] It was this close to being that. In fact, I think they even filmed both. In the end, they were like, "OK, we'll go with 'What are you doing?'" And now, it's such a profound moment in the movie. For myself, I always like when I see someone's actual number written that you know their friends put up there, or someone was really pissed off at their ex-girlfriend. That's always a good one.