"Why would anyone beat up a folk singer?"
Bearded, turtleneck-wearing, acoustic-guitar strumming musicians don’t normally inspire fits of rage but filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen used the curious question as a spark for Inside Llewyn Davis, their portrait of a struggling 1960s-era Greenwich Village musician — and it’s clear from the start that Llewyn Davis is no Bob Dylan.
Played by Oscar Isaac (Drive, Robin Hood), Davis is angrier than one might expect, driven by the pursuit of an authentic music career, his guitar the only constant as he traipses around a blustery New York with permanently wet shoes and no winter coat. But he’s got his pride, as he’ll readily tell you, and that self-righteousness gets under everyone’s skin, even those giving him a couch to sleep on like fellow musicians Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake).
Using the memoir of a little-known folk musician named Dave Van Ronk as inspiration, the Coens paint a darkly funny, intimate story of a guy trying, and consistently failing, to make it. And for Isaac, a long-time musician with a warm, honeyed voice, the journey was a somewhat familiar one.
The 33-year-old actor was on the phone from New York when we spoke about why the movie reminds him of a folk song, how a camel and Buster Keaton inspired his performance and what it was like singing live on set.
What did the Coen brothers tell you about the story when you started working together?
"They don't really go in for the big thematic conversations. It's very instinctual. It just evolved in a way from this particular idea that they found funny and unusual. So they made this guy that's not Bob Dylan, not the poet shooting through the sky, he's the workman. He's a blue-collar guy; he’s not someone that's reinventing his past. He's very upfront about where he’s from: He's from the Boroughs. He's a very earthbound character."
How would you describe the story, because it's very small in scale and takes place over only maybe a week or two weeks at most?
"I think the story itself is unusual and it's in the structure of a song. In folk songs, the structure is first verse, chorus, second verse, chorus, third verse, chorus and then the first verse again at the end and by the time you get to that first verse again, it's completely changed even though they're the same words. I'm not sure how completely conscious that was, but when I look at it, that's definitely what I see."
You do your own singing in the movie and I know you’re a musician, but did you ever try to pursue it as a career?
"I've been doing them both in conjunction ever since I was very, very young. It just so happened at a certain point, when I got accepted into Juilliard, I had to leave the band that I had in Miami to come up to New York, but even then I continued to record and play. I had bands during college and right after high school and we played a lot, but in a very Llewyn-like way...I just, for some reason, found myself not really ever comfortable with that kind of thing. I think I share that idea with Llewyn — this idea of monetizing music, in a strange way, hasn't always appealed to me."
Is that part of what made you want to do this movie? That you had something in common with Llewyn?
"One, the fact that it is a Coen brothers film and they're my favourite filmmakers. I've been watching their movies since, as soon as I was watching movies, I was watching their movies, and I'm such a huge fan of theirs. I really feel a kinship towards them and their view of the world, their tone. They have a mixture of very dark despair and then the absurdity and the mystery and the wonder [of existence]. And then the fact that it is a musician, it's something that I've done for so many years and those two things together, particularly the scene, I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Cat Stevens, and I was so familiar with a lot of that style of music so I just thought it was perfect for me."
What did it take for you to get inside Llewyn? Did you read the Dave Van Ronk memoir or prepare in other ways?
"Yeah, I read The Mayor of MacDougal Street, I read Chronicles, the Bob Dylan autobiography, and apart from that I met this guy Erik Frandsen, who lives on MacDougal Street, above the old [folk club] Gaslight. He's an older gentleman and he's a mean guitar-picker and I actually met him before the audition, just completely serendipitously, and started talking to him and he'd played with Dave Van Ronk and he played me a bunch of his old records and started teaching me how to play in that style. And then I just thought about the comedy of resilience. You know, this is a guy who's always walking uphill, he's almost like a camel, because of all the weight that's on his back…. I thought a lot about Buster Keaton, somebody who seems to have all this horrible sh-t happen to him all the time and yet continues on and we love watching that."
You were singing and playing live during the filming, which I imagine could be intimidating. Do you think it helped you get into character?
"It was absolutely crucial. There's never really a cathartic moment for Llewyn. He never expresses really what he feels or what’s going on inside of him, the only window is his music. And then if suddenly he starts playing and you have to suspend your disbelief that I'm actually the one that's singing and playing the magic goes away and I think the whole thing falls apart. It really rests on those moments. They have nothing really to do with plot; they have everything to do with showing you who the character is. So yeah, that's one of the reasons that I was most excited. I knew I could do that."
Being the lead in a Coen brothers movie means a lot more eyes on you. Do you have a sense of that?
"Oh yeah, definitely. It's really...heavy, man [laughs]. It's a lot to take on, it was definitely there but I had to just put it to the side of me, or put it behind me, so it just wasn't in my field of vision so I could just focus on the work and, in a way, convince myself that it was a small movie that no one was gonna see in order just to be able to do the work and not feel that pressure."
Andrea Miller is a content producer for Cineplex.com.