Before we know anything about Llewyn Davis, the rising folk singer at the center of Joel and Ethan Coen’s superb new film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” we see him singing on stage. That’s for the best; as a person, Davis is rudderless, but as a musician he’s immaculate. In a hushed Village club, Davis strums an acoustic guitar and sings a rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a lament that’s piercing in its vulnerability. Filmed simply and intimately, the scene leaves no doubt about Davis’ artistry though his position in 1961’s Greenwich Village music scene is never less than precarious.
It’s an affecting introduction to the character, as well as to the actor who plays him. For several years, Oscar Isaac has worked consistently in supporting roles: the villainous King John in “Robin Hood”; the haunted ex-con Standard in “Drive.” But “Inside Llewyn Davis” is this Juilliard-trained actor’s first major lead role. That it just so happens to be in a movie directed by his favorite filmmakers is perfectly in keeping with the film’s exploration of how talent and chance mysteriously intertwine, elevating some to stardom while leaving others to be forgotten footnotes.
“This movie is a recognition that there’s very few shooting-star geniuses—and even for those people, I would say that luck plays a huge role,” says Isaac, sitting in a Los Angeles conference room as part of a busy day of promotion that will include photo shoots and Q&As. It’s a hectic schedule, but Isaac seems energized, understanding how good fortune has brought him to this moment. “You know, [the Coens] have been working on this movie for 10 years. Had they gotten it together five years ago, I’m not in it—or if it was five years [from now]. In my career, I’ve had a lot of that: The right thing at the right time got me the job, and then someone saw that, and that got me the next thing. It could just have easily gone the other way, and still could.”
Amiable and thoughtful, Isaac is not much like the stoic, sardonic Davis, a luckless talent at a personal crossroads who’s frustrated by his going-nowhere solo career amidst the blossoming folk revival. And because the Coens, masters of an ambivalent tone previously evident in “A Serious Man” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” only reveal hints of his backstory, Davis (like the film itself) is open to interpretation: His life is either a dark comedy or a moving meditation on the unseen forces that shape our destiny.
“When I auditioned, there was a little note that said, ‘[Davis] is not the poet. He’s not the Dylan. He’s the blue-collar working man,’ ” Isaac recalls. “I latched onto that. He has self-destructive tendencies. He wants to succeed, but he also wants to fail a bit. At the same time, when things could go his way, they never do. But he doesn’t tell you what to feel. His inner life is the most important thing, and outer expression of that is nonexistent—the only time it happens is when he plays music.”
Additional inspiration came after stumbling upon a Charles Bukowski poem called “Bluebird,” which Isaac knows a good chunk of by memory: “ ‘There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I’m too tough for him…I pour whiskey on him and inhale cigarette smoke and the whores and the bartenders…never know that he’s in there.’ ” Isaac shakes his head in amazement. “That’s really moving, especially from Bukowski, who’s such a roughneck. That was my mantra for Llewyn: ‘There’s a bluebird, there’s a bluebird.’ ” That mantra was reinforced by Isaac’s work with the film’s executive music producer T Bone Burnett. “When I was rehearsing [the songs], T Bone said, ‘Just play it like you’re playing to yourself.’ That hit me in such a strong way, and it led me to this idea of, ‘Just feel it, just have that internal life, connect to that bluebird inside.’ ”
Born in Guatemala, the son of a Cuban father and a Guatemalan mother, Isaac grew up acting in Miami but also playing in punk and rock bands. When Isaac decided to concentrate on acting, he enrolled at Juilliard, landing the lead role in the school’s production of “Macbeth.” Since graduating in 2005, he’s been in demand, working with directors like Steven Soderbergh (“Che”) and Ridley Scott (“Robin Hood,” “Body of Lies”). “Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t the first film where he’s shown off his musical talent—he played a successful songwriter in the 2012 indie “10 Years”—but Isaac says that, with Davis, part of the challenge was “wanting to be true to my voice as a musician. I wanted you to hear who I am as a musician, but funneled through [his] circumstances.” But when pressed to say what part of Davis’ musical DNA comes from him, Isaac is unsure. “I don’t think I could separate it so much,” he replies. “When I’m creating a character, I don’t see it so much as playing someone else as just playing a specific part of myself under certain circumstances. I don’t think, ‘Who is this guy?’ I think, ‘Wow, man, imagine how I would be if I was born here and had this happen to me. What would I be like?’ ”
Although he admits that landing a lead was “something that I’ve wanted for a while,” he insists that his approach to the shoot was similar to when he was a supporting player. “It’s not any different,” he says. “You just have more to work with. If I’m in ‘Drive’ and have [only] three or four scenes, those are limitations of creating a character and creating a story for this guy. With ‘Llewyn,’ I have many more scenes to build that with. There’s more colors.”
Consequently, he found that the extra screen time gave him an opportunity to do less, not more. “It was always about restraint,” he says. “Llewyn never has that cathartic moment. There were a few moments where you could’ve gone a certain way—you know, he finally can’t take it and the tears start to fall—and every time I would start to go in that direction, it felt affected. It’s not coming from an honest place—it’s coming from a place of, ‘Should I make it more dynamic?’ So I decided, ‘Just state it simply and feel it—the context will do the rest.’ And whenever I would feel everything crashing down on me, the louder the Coens would laugh, and that’s when it would work better.” He chuckles thinking about poor Davis. “He’s like this love child of Bukowski and Buster Keaton.”
Isaac doesn’t have much time to talk—his handlers need to get him to his next event. He’s been grateful for all the attention he’s received for “Inside Llewyn Davis” since its Cannes premiere, but there is one element of being a lead for which even Juilliard couldn’t have prepared him.
“I’ll tell you the weird thing about promoting the film,” he says. “This is new for me because, for the amount of time I’ve spent doing [promotion], there’s no quantifiable result. Spending this much time doing something in my life, I’ve always had something to show for it: a song, a piece of theater, a film. But with this, unless I spend the whole day, like, Googling myself to see what the article is…I guess that promotes it, but it’s not really quantifiable. Wrapping my mind around spending this much time doing something without having an obvious thing to show for it can be a little bit of a head trip.”
He’s not complaining, just processing. The life of a rising character actor requires moving relentlessly from project to project, but at this moment, Isaac is experiencing a little of what it means to be a star. He seems to be taking it all in stride, though he confesses that he tries not to read too many profile pieces about himself.
“Once you go down that hole, it’s like, ‘What, I’m only going to read these three?’ What do you do?”
He laughs self-deprecatingly.
“I kind of just let them stay at bay. And if I said something really stupid, someone’s gonna let me know.”