Oscar Isaac on his role in Inside Llewyn Davis

Actor Oscar Isaac, star of the new Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. Picture: Reuters
Actor Oscar Isaac, star of the new Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. Picture: Reuters
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HIS performance in the Coen brothers’ new film has generated serious awards buzz, but how’s Oscar Isaac coping with the attention, asks Alistair Harkness

Oh man, that’s a scary thought: a huge machine behind you...” It’s early October and Oscar Isaac is playfully mocking my suggestion that his starring role in the new Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis has resulted in the full weight of the movie industry kicking into gear behind him. As it turns out, it’s not such a fanciful notion. Having notched up a string of smaller parts in films such as The Bourne Legacy, Madonna’s misbegotten W/E, and Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (he played Carey Mulligan’s jailbird husband), Isaac’s performance in Inside Llewyn Davis is now generating serious awards buzz and has put him in the frame for more A-list projects.

“I guess this is definitely the most visible I’ve been as I’m out front and centre,” he nods, “but I don’t know what that necessarily translates to. If it translates to maybe being the lead in a few more movies that would be pretty cool. But when you’re in this kind of press thing, it’s very easy to feel that this is life – like everybody is talking about this movie or this performance because everyone you’re talking to is talking about this movie or this performance.”

Return to music for Isaac

There’s certainly a hint of irony in the fact that Inside Llewyn Davis should be generating so much breakthrough discussion considering what it’s about. Set in the winter of 1961, against the backdrop of the pre-Bob Dylan folk scene in New York, the film casts Isaac as the eponymous Davis, a talented musician who has been on the cusp of something big, but has become too self-involved to realise that the times they are a-changin’. “Yeah, the new is being born, but it hasn’t been born yet, and the old hasn’t quite died,” is how Isaac describes Llewyn’s predicament. In the pantheon of classic Coen brothers creations, Llewyn Davis is right up there with Barton Fink – another authenticity-obsessed artist doing his utmost to sabotage any chance of success as life throws every possible trial at him.

As it happens, Isaac could relate to Llewyn’s experiences. A musician himself, the Guatemalan-born, Miami-raised actor spent his teens and early twenties playing in bands around his home city, eventually progressing to the festival circuit with a ska-punk outfit called The Blinking Underdogs. Though they played with multi-platinum-selling bands like Green Day, every time a manager wanted to sign them, Isaac turned them down.

“I was kind of Lleywyn-esque in that way. I’d read contracts and be like, ‘Nope’. I’m sure it would have been much easier if we’d had representation. We weren’t making any money, so 15 per cent of zero is still zero, but for some reason I didn’t want to sign anything away, so I just ended up getting in the way of that’.”

Don’t feel too bad for him, though. Promptly moving to New York to study drama at the prestigious Julliard School, Isaac is now getting the chance to draw on that moribund musical career for his favourite filmmakers –­ Joel and Ethan Coen. “They told me to record a song, so I recorded Hang Me, O Hang Me, which is the first song I sing in the movie,” explains the actor of the initial audition process. “The Coens saw that, and then they brought me in.”

Before he met them, however, he proceeded to devour every bit of music recorded by the late Dave Van Ronk, an almost-star of the Greenwich Village folk scene upon whose life he’d heard the Coens were loosely basing the character. He also sought out one of Van Ronk’s former contemporaries, Eric Frandsen, who taught him lots of old songs and how to master Van Ronk’s “travis picking” guitar style. “That prepared me for the audition. Then I went in and did two scenes and played three songs and won the part.”

No lip-synching

The ability to sing and play live was critical. There are no lip-synched numbers in Inside Llewyn Davis; Isaac’s raw, heartbreaking performances are the real deal. “The whole magic of the movie rests on those songs happening for real,” says Isaac of film’s T-Bone Burnett-produced musical component. “This character has zero cathartic moments with other people and the only time he lets anybody in is when he plays his songs. There are five of them in there, so it was crucial that when that happens, you totally believe it’s happening in that moment. That’s the only way of relating to him and having an intimate connection to the character.”

The last time the Coen brothers made such a music-orientated film was O Brother Where Art Thou? – the soundtrack for which arguably became bigger than the movie. Is Isaac anticipating any residual pop stardom off the back of the film? “Yeah, maybe,” he says. “It would depend on whether I had something to say or contribute with the music, but I’m definitely interested in playing a little more and carving out some time to do that.”

In fact, he’s already had a little taste of this kind of stardom. In the film, he gets to perform with Justin Timberlake, who plays a more commercially minded folk musician who ropes Llewyn in to record a novelty ditty entitled Please Mr Kennedy. “That was fun, but intimidating,” he says of singing with Timberlake. “His vocal range is insane.”

He also participated recently in a big star-studded town hall concert in New York to promote the music from the film. “Just being backstage for that thing and seeing Jack White and Patti Smith and Joan Baez and the Punch Brothers all jamming together a couple of feet away from me was more than I could ever have thought about experiencing.”

On stage, however, he went one better, singing a duet with Elvis Costello. “That was intense,” he beams. “He’s just a rock star.”

What did they play? “We did Please Mr Kennedy from the film. He was basically Justin Timberlake’s understudy.”

Despite all this, movies are where Isaac’s interests primarily lie at the moment, even if his own naturally pessimistic nature means he always assumes they’re never going to work. He was amazed, for instance, when Drive became the cult success it did. I ask how he felt, then, about making W/E. “Oh, I assumed that wasn’t going to work,” he quips. He did admire Madonna for doing it, though. “She’s got to where she’s got to by having a lot of control over her artistic output and it’s impressive to see someone have such a handle on all that stuff.

“I was really proud to do that,” he adds, “particularly because she had a lot of people hoping that she was going to fail miserably.”

For the moment at least, failure doesn’t look like it’s on the cards for Isaac. Critical reaction to Inside Llewyn Davis has been ecstatic, and he’s just signed on to replace Javier Bardem opposite Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year, the new thriller from Margin Call and All is Lost writer/director J.C. Chandor.

Before that, he’ll be seen in the intriguing-sounding Ex Machina, novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut. “It’s fascinating,” says Isaac of the film, which revolves around a reclusive billionaire programmer (played by Isaac) who creates a beautiful robot who may or may not have human consciousness. “It’s basically people in rooms torturing each other with their brains.”

• Inside Llewyn Davis is released in January.