Oscar Isaac describes how he became 'Llewyn Davis'

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in 'Inside Llewyn Davis' (Courtesy CBS Films)
  1. Listen Interview with Oscar Isaac

    Dec 19, 2013

"He is a musician in New York City in 1961 and he's trying to find his way. He plays old traditional songs and this is a difficult week in his life. Things aren't really going his way. His record didn't sell, he's sleeping on couches... and he's having a bit of an existential crisis. He doesn't know what he wants or what he's doing anymore."

That's the story of Inside Llewyn Davis, but is it the story of star actor and performer Oscar Isaac? Absolutely not. Quite the contrary, he couldn't be happier.

Isaac spoke with Jill Riley about making the critically-acclaimed movie and his methods for getting both his character and his musical chops in the "Llewyn Davis" mindset.

He explains, "I was basically in [character] all the time. It was the most joyful experience I've ever had. So I was Llewyn, but really happy Llewyn between takes. I was just smiling from ear-to-ear. They [the Coen brothers] really create such a relaxed, comfortable environment. For me, it was important to stay in that place physically and emotionally."

"Before the final audition where i had to go in front of Joel and Ethan [Coen], I met this guy randomly — I was doing a very small movie — and he was playing an extra as an older gentleman. In between takes, he'd pick up the guitar and start playing in exactly in the style of Dave Van Ronk. So I went up to him and said 'Oh my God. You are amazing. I am doing this thing loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, have you heard of him?' and he said 'Yeah, I played with Dave. Do you need guitar lessons?' and I said 'Yes.' So he started teaching me guitar — a guy named Eric Franzen — and letting me open up for him in clubs."

"I would go and play the songs — apart from the music part of it — I would go to parties dressed up as Llewyn and try to interact the way that he does. without trying to charm anyone or ingratiate myself without smiling but still trying to connect with people. It was an interesting experiment."

On the topic of experiments, Isaac also spoke with Riley about the process of creating a period folk soundtrack with legendary producer T-Bone Burnett, pop impresario Justin Timberlake and banjo-toting English music enthusiast Marcus Mumford.

"T-Bone is a musical revolutionary. One of the most amazing parts of this film has been doing press with T-Bone. He's said that technology has really hampered musicians and music... The MP3 was made for dial-up modems and the fact that people have gotten comfortable with being OK listening to terrible versions of music is something he's fighting against."

"About a month before we started shooting, we all got together at Avatar studios in New York City, one of the last fully analog studios in the city. And we all came out, and T-Bone brought the lights down, and put couches together and burned Palo Santo [incense] and we just sat around and worked on the arrangements of the songs together. Joel and Ethan would wander in and out and listen. It was such a beautiful moment of community. It's as if we recreated Greenwich Village 1961 right there in the studios."

Hear more about the creation of the Llewyn Davis character, Dave Van Ronk's finger-picking guitar style and why the cat is essential to the plot of the movie by listening to the full interview.

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  • Oscar Isaac (left) and Justin Timberlake in a scene from 'Inside Llewyn Davis.' Both are featured on the movie's soundtrack.
    Oscar Isaac (left) and Justin Timberlake in a scene from 'Inside Llewyn Davis.' Both are featured on the movie's soundtrack. (Alison Rosa / Courtesy of the production compnay)