Oscar Isaac could very well be nominated for an Academy Award for Inside Llewyn Davis, playing the tortured journeyman singer in the title of the Coen Brothers’ love letter to the fledgling folk revival scene in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961—in all the romantic glamour and ugliness of the time. And he can thank the Karate Kid for that.
Isaac, who has a screen presence so intense it’d be menacing were it not for the Everyman tenderness in his saucer-like brown eyes, was just 13 when he started singing and playing guitar. “I had seen that movie Crossroads with Ralph Macchio and Steve Vai, where it’s basically Karate Kid with guitars,” he tells me. “He beats the devil by playing classical music! So I was like, ‘Well, I gotta learn classical guitar.’ I went and took five months of classical guitar and got bored of that and just started playing Metallica instead.”
Suffice it to say, the music that Isaac plays in Inside Llewyn Davis is significantly more subdued than Metallica. It’s frigid winter, the one, as it happens, just before Bob Dylan arrived in New York City, a fulcrum moment in time. Eisenhower America is on the verge of being ushered out by the rise of counter-culture and the folk movement. Llewyn Davis is a troubadour and vagabond, one who happens to be in grief. Whether he knows it or not, he’s singing about it.
He’s grieving the death of his music partner. He’s grieving the reality that he may be his own biggest obstacle in succeeding as a solo act. He’s grieving his inability to give the meaningful relationships in his personal life the emotional heft that he reserves solely for his music. And he’s grieving that the music inside him isn’t being heard—because he has no other way of really speaking. He delivers a performance that wrenches in restraint, even when wailing folk ballads at the top of his lungs, as he does in the opening scene. Isaac was a quiet standout in Drive and Madonna’s W.E., but in Inside Llewyn Davis he speaks volumes, which could accomplish something for the actor that never quite happens to Llewyn: rise from the class of “underrated” artists to those who finally earn the recognition their talent deserves.
“Remaining so contained was challenging, especially for me,” Isaac says. “I can be a ham now and then. There would be moments where I would think, ‘Should I be more dynamic here? Should I break something?’ But every time I would slightly even just inch in that direction it would feel false, like affectation, because this is a guy who doesn’t do those things. His only outlet are those songs. If he erupted like that, he wouldn’t need this music.”
Being cast in a role like Llewyn was kismet for Isaac, providing an outlet for all of his passions. It had him playing folk music arranged by T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford alongside Justin Timberlake. It gave him the opportunity to perform an entire contained act in a car with John Goodman. It was like he was led by the Coen Brothers on an excavating trip to surface the most powerful of his acting muscles.
“I really wanted it,” he says. “I wanted it really bad. I couldn’t have imagined a better scenario, something that brought together two things that I love so much, singing and acting. And doing it for the Coens!? C’mon.”
Isaac was born in Guatemala, but moved to Miami with his Guatemalan mother and Cuban father when he was still young. Where does a Latin America-born boy with a Cuban father living in Miami learn to get in touch with Americana folk roots? All that talk about heritage might be a bit misleading: “My dad grew up in D.C., and he was a little bit of a hippie—though he probably wouldn’t admit that. We listened to Hendrix and Bob Dylan and The Beatles growing up. A lot of Dylan.” In fact, ask Isaac what a perfect song might sound like, and he’ll extol the virtues of Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.”
Sowing the oats of his Karate Kid inspiration, he performed in a handful of bands in Miami before heading to college at New York’s prestigious Julliard School, where he studied acting. His experience at Julliard helped him identify Llewyn’s struggle. Not that either party ever struggled per se, but both sought to immerse themselves in their craft, become as gifted as they could at it, and hopefully be able to share that with other people.
There’s Llewyn, who’s peddling a solo record—a moving, powerful solo record—and constantly hearing “no” from those with the ability to help him break out. He doesn’t want to be a star; he wants to be heard.
“He’s definitely in a situation where he’s just trying to survive,” Isaac says about Llewyn. “He is trying to get his music to people to hear it, but I don’t think it’s batting to try to hit a homerun or become a huge star. Folk musicians at that time, for the most part, were just interested in square footage in Washington Square Park. It was the bluegrass guys and jazz guys and the folk guys and the drum guys and everybody just hated each other and was fighting for control of that little space.”
“His only outlet are those songs.”
And Isaac, he’s been steadily impressing in smaller roles (Drive, Won’t Back Down, W.E., Robin Hood) on the way to finally landing the leading man part. The key, though, is that Llewyn Davis isn’t just any leading man part. It’s the one that’s meant for him. And it’s been a journey to get there. “For me, the frustration of rejection and the industry is that I’ve got something to say and something to express,” he says. “Why am I not finding the right way of doing it? Why can’t they see that?”
But all kinds of fortuitous circumstances—important people “seeing that”—led him to getting cast in Inside Llewyn Davis. After auditioning for a casting director, he met an extra on the set of a movie he was filming, who in between takes would just pick up a guitar “and start finger-picking like a motherfucker.” Small talk led to the discovery that the extra knew Dave Van Ronk, the musician who Inside Llewyn Davis is loosely based on, and he actually lived on MacDougal Street above where the old Gaslight Café used to be, where Llewyn plays a number of times in the film. He began giving Isaac guitar lessons, and Isaac began opening up for him at cafés in the Village, performing sets while he continued to audition for the film.
Fittingly, Isaac was at a Village café picking up a coffee when he got the phone call that he won the part.
A confluence of events so seemingly magical made for a mostly charmed film shoot. Jamming with Justin Timberlake certainly wasn’t bad, especially when the pop star gave Isaac sneak-peek listens to songs for the album he was working on at the time, The 20/20 Experience. Shooting one scene in particular was surreal. Llewyn has a confrontation with Jean (played by Carey Mulligan), a friend and former lover, on a chilly day in Washington Square Park. Isaac and Mulligan, old friends after playing a doomed couple in Drive, actually filmed the scene on a chilly day on-location in the village staple.
“Just to be in the spots where all this stuff we’re talking about in the movie actually took place was so awesome,” he says. “That day in particular was so foggy and rainy and it was just perfect. It was like that The Freewheelin Bob Dylan cover come to life.”
Not everything about the experience was so charmed. He had as a co-star a cat—well, four cats, with different ones in different scenes. (The hijinx Llewyn finds himself in with the cat is worthy of a Busby Berkeley number.) But spending so much time with the feline friends brought on a bit of PTSD, since he was once hospitalized after a stray cat, despite a lovely bout of sweet petting, chomped on his hand and gave him an infection. “So showing up to the Coens’ set and they’re like, ‘We’ve got four cats we’re going to tie to you,’ was a moment of, ‘Oh, god,’” he says. “But it was worth it.”
Worth it, to say the least. “The notes he hits reach your soul,” New York magazine writes. Oscarologists are campaigning for the actor to get a nod for his soulful, steady breakout turn. He’s just been cast opposite Jessica Chastain in the buzzy period drama A Violent Year
And he’s doing the Karate Kid proud.