Guest of Honor

Travis Pickin’ & the Comedy of Resilience: Hanging with Oscar Isaac

The character actor talks about his breakthrough starring role in the Coen Brothers' latest film, and how he made a difficult guy easy to love.

Actor Oscar Issac appeared in the thriller “Drive,” and as the arch-villain King John in Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood.” Now he’s taken on the title role in the Coen Bros. new film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” in which he not only rides the line between comedy and tragedy portraying a struggling, prickly musician in early-’60s-era Greenwich Village — but sings and plays some of the most beautiful folk music you’ll hear this year.

Isaac’s character was inspired by the real-life folk singer Dave Van Ronk, aka “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” — a respected but less well-known musical contemporary of Bob Dylan.


Rico Gagliano: How much of the real Van Ronk ended up in the fictional Llewyn?

 Oscar Isaac: The fact that he was the anti-Dylan was very important to me, and the fact that he was from the boroughs, you know — a lot of people were descending onto the Village at that time from all different places in America, and inventing mythologies for themselves.

But Llewyn, much like Van Ronk, is very direct and upfront about who he is and where he’s from.

Rico Gagliano: Kind of the real deal, like he maybe came from a more hard-working background?

Oscar Isaac: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Maybe to his detriment, he doesn’t make up an interesting past for himself.  And also, you know, Van Ronk was known to have a bit of a surly nature at times, and Llewyn Davis certainly has that.

Rico Gagliano: This is a really tricky role because Llewyn is a guy who’s surly. He kind of compulsively destroys every relationship he has almost, but we’re with him for the whole film and on some level we have to like him anyway, and we do.

Oscar Isaac: Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: How did you do that?

Oscar Isaac: Something that really popped out to me when I first read it was the idea of resilience and the comedy of resilience, and why is it that someone struggling so desperately is funny? Is it just because I’m sadistic? Is it just relief that it’s not me?  Or is it something else?

And I thought about performances that do that to me, that inspire… that make me laugh at, but also root for the person, and that are not maybe overly expressive…

Rico Gagliano: What’s another example?

Oscar Isaac: …I’d say Buster Keaton. He’s someone where he’s basically facing down death every other scene, and yet he has this melancholic, impassive gaze.

Rico Gagliano: The thing about this movie is Llewyn is actually a great musician, so you had to actually be great.  And these songs were recorded live on set right? With like the Coens’ musical collaborator T-Bone Burnett probably in the house, I’m guessing.

Oscar Isaac: That’s correct, yeah. They were. It’s a concert movie.

Rico Gagliano: You’ve been in bands, you’ve played music in previous films, but that still sounds like a lot of pressure to me. Tell me about shooting those scenes.

Oscar with JTimberlake - credit Alison Rosa 2012 Long Strange Trip LLC.jpg

Oscar Isaac: It’s critical that they be live, because the only time he opens up to the world is when he plays his songs.  And so if suddenly you see me lip-syncing, or my hands aren’t really doing the playing, it just all falls apart.

I’ve been playing for about 20 years, but not in this style. In fact, when I first met this friend of mine who’s lived on MacDougal Street above the old Gaslight since 1969… I started getting some lessons from him, and he said, “You’ve owned a guitar for 20 years, you’ve been playing maybe for about six months.”

Rico Gagliano: So that’s a nice boost of confidence for you, when you’re about to play for T-Bone Burnett and the Coen Brothers!

Oscar Isaac: Exactly!  But luckily I was able to rewire my brain and figure out how to play this very tricky style, this syncopated style of playing called “Travis picking,” which is very similar to stride or ragtime.

Rico Gagliano: Is there one song on the soundtrack that you especially like? Maybe we can play a clip from it.

Oscar Isaac: “Hang Me.”

Rico Gagliano: The first song in the movie.

Oscar Isaac: Yeah, the first song, it really sets the tone for the whole thing.

Rico Gagliano: What attracts you to that one?

Oscar Isaac: It was the first one that we had to audition with. Anybody that wanted to get up and try to take a swing at being Llewyn had to sing “Hang Me” and Travis picking. And once I locked in, I haven’t been able to get out of it.

Rico Gagliano: Your future music, you think, will be influenced by this?

Oscar Isaac: Oh yeah, it has to be. I mean working with T-Bone not only changed the way I play music, but the way I hear music.

Rico Gagliano: All right, well speaking of your collaborators here, I cannot not ask you about working with the Coen brothers. These are two of the greatest living filmmakers.  A lot of people mention that they seem to be almost psychic with one another, like they can anticipate each other’s words and thoughts. Was that your experience? And I am blatantly asking you for stories about this.

Mark Davis / Getty Images Entertainment
Mark Davis / Getty Images Entertainment

Oscar Isaac: Yeah, absolutely. They’re two geniuses, two brains that are making the same movie.

So if I was sitting there… I remember I had my hand in a certain position on my face, we did a take, Joel comes over. I said, “Maybe I should put my hand down.”  He goes, “Yeah that seems about right.” And then he leaves and Ethan comes up and he goes, “Hey can you do this take without your hand up?”

And it’s all these little nuances. They never go in for the big thematic gestures. It’s always very practical, slight little modulations.  And Joel always said directing for him is ‘tone management.’

Rico Gagliano: All right, we have two questions that we ask all our guests of honor. The first one is the following: if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question should we not ask you?

Oscar Isaac: “What was the cat like?”

Rico Gagliano: Oh yeah, you spent a lot of time in this movie taking care of a cat! “What was the cat like?” What kind of question is that? It was a cat.

Oscar Isaac: Exactly, exactly! So don’t ask me that.

Rico Gagliano: Although I will say that that’s another reason we love this character immediately, is because you’re immediately tasked with taking care of a cat throughout about half the film.

Oscar Isaac: It’s the brilliance of the Coen brothers — they immediately cut any self-seriousness Llewyn has by making him schlep around a cat.

Rico Gagliano: All right, our second question is: tell us something we don’t know.

Oscar Isaac: Speaking of cats, apparently all tabby cats are male.*

Rico Gagliano: So their coloring has something to do with their sex?

Oscar Isaac: Someone randomly came up to me yesterday and said “There’s a mistake [in the film], because there are no female tabby cats.”

Rico Gagliano: Oh that’s right!  There’s a plot point that turns on the cat being female, and it’s a tabby.

Oscar Isaac: See but the way that I’ve defended that was: We never said that it’s female, we just said that it didn’t have a scrotum.

Rico Gagliano: Always scientifically accurate, the Coens.

Oscar Isaac: Exactly.


*Note: Whoever “corrected” Oscar was wrong.  Orange tabbies are mostly males — but about 20% are female.