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The Coen Brothers’ Folk Hero

Ex-punk Oscar Isaac on playing a prickly Village singer.

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In Inside Llewyn Davis, by Joel and Ethan Coen, Oscar Isaac is Davis: a folk singer stalking through sixties Greenwich Village with a black cloud perpetually overhead (the character is based loosely on Dave Van Ronk, the “Mayor of Macdougal Street”). For Isaac, 33, who co-stars with Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, the role should be transformative.

What did the Coen brothers see in you?
One thing they said was, “This guy can play, he’s a good actor, and he’s not a square.” [Laughs.] A month went by after my audition, and I got a phone call from Joel. He talked for way too long without saying whether I’d gotten the part. It was ten minutes before he finally said, “You know, we’d love for you to do it.”

Llewyn rails against inauthentic folk artists, but we see him jumping to take a money gig, too. Could you relate?
I’ve tried to maintain some sense of taste with what I do, but listen: When I was at University of Miami, I played a role called Officer Fartman.

Did that involve passing a lot of gas?
It didn’t! It was a complete non sequitur. That’s how bad it was.

You grew up playing in punk bands. Good training for Hollywood?
It definitely thickened my skin. I remember at one gig, I decided to play this really sensitive song. I was like, “Trust me, guys, the hard part comes later … but the soft part will be really good, too!” In 30 seconds, people were throwing lighters at my face.

You’re in a band called NightLab. Has folk music crept into your work?
I haven’t been able to escape it! For the movie, I had to learn this way of playing guitar called “Travis picking,” where your thumb is like the metronome, and you’re playing the bass line and the melody at the same time. It’s this very tricky, syncopated style of playing, and once I locked in to it, I haven’t been able to get out.

Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. CBS Films. R. December 6. (Also at New York Film Festival.)


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