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The titular character of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is a fairly stubborn and principled individual. His life is hard, but those issues are compounded by the fact that he has an incredible difficulty putting up with people who he doesn’t think highly of (read: everybody). As much as a grouch and a curmudgeon the struggling folk singer is, however, the audience is drawn to him and cheers for him to escape the ditch that his life has landed in. And a great deal of that credit goes to star Oscar Isaac.

The lead actor recently participated in a Los Angeles press day for the new musical drama, and spoke with a group of journalists, including myself, all about what it was like getting into the mindset of Llewyn for the new film. Read on to learn about the actor’s first thrilling exposure to the Coen brothers’ work, the challenge of giving both a dramatic and musical performance, and what it’s like to see the world through the eyes of Llewyn Davis.

How did you prepare and come into this role, because he is an ass, but he’s a very likable ass.

[laughs] I can be an ass too.

Llewyn is an ass, but he’s a very likable ass.

He’s a likable ass? Well, that’s good.

And he’s good to cats, so...

Someone just a little bit ago said I was bad to cats, so it’s interesting.

You had the save the cat moment!

Exactly.

You ran all over town looking for it.

The people that are saying that are feline fundamentalists, I think. Extremists. Yeah, you know, it was an interesting challenge, because early on, obviously the writing is such that you have a clue the clearly people are not too happy with Llewyn, at least the people in his circle. So, it’s someone that is disconnected and isolated from others. He’s a man unto himself. He’s an island unto himself and early on I thought, I want to still convey warmth, but not us any of the traditional means of doing that, which is, you know, charming someone or ingratiating yourself to someone or even smiling, any of those kinds of things, things that most people normally do. You tell and joke and then you laugh to let other knows you were joking. He doesn’t do any of those things. So, but at the same time, it was not about being cool and detached because he’s still, his temperature runs very hot, and what ended up happening, you know, I thought about something, for example I thought about the Comedy of Resilience and I thought, why is it that we laugh at this, all of these hardships that are happening? Is it because we’re sadistic? Is it because it’s relief that it’s not us or is it something else and I thought of a performer that I think does that a lot, which is Buster Keaton, who is you know, all these things are happening to him, these near death experiences are constantly happening to him, and yet he presses on and his face is always in this kind of melancholic impasse and I thought, what happens is when you see that, there’s, you really, it’s a real great suggestion of a rich inner life that’s happening. So, for me, that was really important to have that constantly happening, because the only time he really does connect with people and the only times he opens up is when he plays his songs. That’s the only time that he really shows a window into where he’s at emotionally. Otherwise, it’s all just happening inside his head.

Can you talk about collaborating with T-Bone Burnett, what you learned from him, what you got just from watching this maestro at work?

Yeah, that, everything, he completely changed the way not only that I listen to music, but the way that I play music. The first thing we did I we went out to Tarzana to Norm’s Rare Guitars and we found Llewyn’s guitar, which is this guitar from 1924, this little L-1, which is what rock and roll was invented on, that’s the Robert Johnson an the crossroads guitar, and we joked that I made a deal with T-Bone, made a very special deal, and then he took me back to his studio, his home studio, and the first thing he did was put on Tom Waits new record and then he left the room for an hour. He was like the musical Mr. Miyagi. He was an invisible hand that was guiding me, never telling me what to sound like, just stripping away any artifice.

What was your musical experience prior to working on this and how did it change the way that you play music?

It, well, you know, I’ve been playing for a long time. I’ve been playing guitar for a very long time, but I never played to particular style of picking, called Travis picking, which is very much like stride piano or ragtime, where the bass is constantly going and the right hand is doing all sorts of crazy stuff, but basically you’re doing it with these three fingers. The thumb is the bass and these two fingers are doing all of the syncopated melodies and that took a real rewiring of the brain to figure out, but yeah, I just obsessed over it.

Did you like folk music going in, and now that you’ve recorded some, do you have a better appreciation for it?

Well, I grew up listening to Dylan, but this was obviously the time before, and I’d heard some Woody Guthrie and a little Pete Seeger, but this particular time, I wasn’t aware of and as soon as I dove into it, I’ve been obsessed with it ever since and I found Karen Dalton, who I wasn’t aware of and now I’m such a huge fan of her music and what a tragic story, but other, Dave Van Ronk’s repertoire, which really was my lifeline for this movie, I just clung to that very early on and it wasn’t dictated that I was supposed to sound like him. Obviously I’m not playing Dave Van Ronk, but his music just spoke to me in a very particular way and so I learned a large amount of his repertoire.

What is the appeal of working with the Coen brothers and this script for you?

They’re my favorite filmmakers. They have been since I saw Raising Arizona. I remember seeing that movie as a little kid and it just blew my little kid mind. It was so funny, but it also made me feel so sad and weird, and I think that’s what it is. They do two things. One, it’s theater about the common man. Barton Fink said it, John Turturro says it, "I want to make theater of the common man." That’s what they’ve always done, but not only that, it’s the common man dangling in existence. It’s an investigation of existence and existence is both desperate and completely absurd and it’s mysterious, and dark as well, and joyful and painful, and those things are constantly happening, sometimes right on top of each other, and it is very much like Chekhov. When I was at school, I hadn’t read any Chekhov and suddenly I got to drama school and I found this thing and I was like This is amazing. This is what it feels like. Coen brothers’ movies, it’s not always what life looks like, but it’s definitely what life feels like.

How did you balance both giving a musical performance and then performing in the role that you needed to be doing at the same time? Was it an easy thing to do or did it require a certain...

That was really challenging, because again, what I decided to do just for the audition, we all had to sing "Hang Me," whoever auditioned had to sing "Hang Me," was just to sing it in, I would do Dave Van Ronk’s arrangement, but just sing it like me, and from there I would assume there would be a panel of experts with T-Bone heading it, getting me to sound just exactly as they needed me to sound, but that never happened. In fact, it was a much slower organic process and as I investigated the character more and let his circumstances inform who he is, there was a mixing of what my voice is and Llewyn’s voice, and the pressure and compression that he’s feeling, and it was kind of that brackish water where I decided to live in and it was tricky, because it’s not like a musical, where the song is an expression of the character and what’s happening. It’s not that at all. The songs had zero to do with the plot, really, but it’s more of a revelation, more of a window in and the cameras never shoot with long lenses. The cameras are always this close, so it has to be internal. It has to all be inside here, but still wanting my voice as a musician to come through, as well.

As we discussed, Llewyn is an asshole and he pretty much alienates every single person around him, but as a performer, you can’t judge him. So I’m kind of curious about the inside-out look at the world from Llewyn’s perspective. How does he see the way that people act around him? Does he understand why?

I think he thinks they’re assholes. I mean, you know, he’s just trying to survive and he’s trying to do his thing and he’s trying to be authentic and trying to do the right thing too. You know, she doesn’t take any responsibility at all. He didn’t force himself onto her. It does take two to tango, and he still decides to give away, sign away his royalties to pay for an abortion of a child that may not be his, because it’s the right thing to do. He decides to walk around with this cat forever, because the people that let him crash on his couch, even though they kind of exploit him every now and again. When he comes up, they can be condescending, but he still decides it’s the right thing to do. So, yeah I think it’s just a non-win situation. He’s never going to try to ingratiate himself just so people like him more, you know.

The film was a mixture of comedy and drama. How did you adapt your performance to strike the right balance between the two?

Well, rhythm is obviously very important and a lot of that is written in these if you can just find the right rhythm, but truthfully whenever I felt in the absolute most pain, the most horrible, the darkest, is when Joel and Ethan would laugh the loudest, so that was my barometer.

What was it like working with Carey again, because she was really sweet to you on Drive, but here, she’s very sassy, yelling curse words at you.

Yeah, she got to let loose everything that was pent up from the other movie. She’s great, you know, she has such a vulnerability innately to her, so to see her play so against that was so fun, but it’s still there. I think you can still see, I can see why she would have loved him, or there would have been something there. There is something else, and somebody who is that angry, is clearly hurt by something.

What did you learn from this job besides the musical technique?

Not to look for compliments from the Coens, because they don’t give many, so that was really refreshing because that first week I’m like, "They’re not saying if it’s good or not. I hope it’s going ok." but then after that first week you don’t look for it anymore, so actually it takes a big, it’s almost a relief because now it’s not about that. It’s not about a constant judgment. It’s just about the work and figuring this thing out, and it’s a really, really nice way to work actually.

You feel you’ve kind of grown as an actor?

Yeah, yeah. There’s a reason why actors are always dying to work with the Coens. It’s because they just set the stage for you to do your best work and apart from the movie, their friendship more than anything. They brought me into their world view and how they feel about art and life and that just made me grow as a person and obviously as an actor as well.
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