Joe MacLeod, whose unapologetically awkward movie-junket interviews are appointment reading, has an unapologetically awkward chat with Oscar Isaac, star of Inside Llewyn Davis.

Accept The Mystery: The Brilliance Of The Coen Bros' Character Studies

Joel and Ethan Coen have been making movies long enough now that it's possible for fans not just to have a favorite film of theirs but a … Read…

1
Pending approvalOriginal post by JOE MACLEOD on JOE MACLEOD

Transcript of a conversation with Oscar Isaac, star of Inside Llewyn Davis

The interview with Oscar Isaac, star of the Coen brothers' new movie Inside Llewyn Davis, (you might have heard about it slightly less than Anchorman 2) is to take place in a very nice hotel room, and the way it works is you sit around in the lobby, and then they (the MOVIE PEOPLE) walk you up to the floor the subject is on, and you stand in the hallway, just outside the hotel room containing the actor, but you're waiting now as if you're standing inside an elevator, and if you talk in a normal voice they shush you, because somebody else is in the room right now asking their important questions, and you can hear a little bit of what's going on in there, a bright voice saying some ridiculous crap about the guy's hair now compared to in the movie, or his hair in another movie, Jesus Christ, this is exactly why, the previous evening back in early November, you get out of the theater as soon as the flick ends, so your brain won't be soiled with stupid fucking questions in the Q&A session with the guy with whom you're now supposed to have a Q&A. You and Mr. Isaac pass each other in the narrow hallway just outside the auditorium and you notice how clean-cut he is now compared to the folkie beard and longish '60s hair he sported in the movie. Finally, the fucking door opens, and the hair-interviewer exits.

PREVIOUS INTERVIEWER REFUSING TO LET GO OF THE MOMENT WITH HANDSOME ACTOR: ". . . it's got all this great journey imagery, so, anyway, thank you so much."

Me, to Oscar Isaac, handsome star of Inside Llewyn Davis: Hi, I'm just getting over a horrible cold so I'm going to stay as far away from you as possible.

Oscar Isaac: (stays in place across the room, sits) OK, alright, I hear you.

(Poorly constructed, elliptical reference to the stupid crap I heard through the door from the person before me ) I saw the movie last night, you might not recognize me, but I was walking out as you were walking in, but I look different here (mumbling so incoherently I could barely decipher for this transcription: about how I'm goofing on the person who was just in before me)

(Hesitant, polite chuckle, possibly suspicious)

(Sitting down as I am talking so it sounds like I am a hundred years old, straining at a bowel movement) I wanted to see it again right away.

Oh, thanks.

Me: I'm tryna do this thing where, where, instead of, um, instead of like, interview somebody who was in a movie, and then reviewing the movie, I just kinda try to work the review into the interview.

Hm? Interesting, cool.

That means I'll spoil a lotta shit, but I think it would make for a better discussion. (says the guy who has not tried this with a movie that he thinks was crappy)

Right on.

And then (lowering voice again into a mumble, still not letting go of the stuff I heard through the door) I won't ask a lotta stupid questions about stuff that doesn't mean anything. I just, (snapping out of it) how did your Q&A go last night?

Ah, it was good, I always enjoy it, it's good to hear how people respond to it, because it's a—I dunno, at the risk of sounding, whatever—I think it's a great work of art, and I think that it has a provocative quality to it that needs to, you need to come to it in an active way.

Some magazine did a thing, it mighta been Esquire, I don't know, it was some magazine and they did a thing comparing popular things versus critically acclaimed things, stuff like that, and the Coen brothers always end up, you know, on the critically acclaimed side of everything

Is that popular based on money?

Yeah. Popular based on money. Popular based on the narrow metric of the opening run, not two years.

Not over time.

Not cult status, because it's like, the Coen brothers, how many movies have they made that have cult status, you know, bunches of 'em.

Yeah, yes. Most. (laughs)

Yeah! So you're in this business, and you end up, in, I mean, they're like Woody Allen.

Yeah.

You know, I mean, you, it's like, how do you get, into the movie, did you, do you, ask, it's like "put," you know, your guy, whoever, your people, whoever run you—

My minions?

Yeah, do you say "put me in a Coen brothers movie—"

Nobody runs me—

Or do the Coen brothers say "hey, we want you," you know—

Ah, yeah. First of all, nobody runs me.

(Wheezy laugh due to cold)

I run those bastards. (gritty Wild West voice) "I'll run 'em to the ground." No, I say, "oh my god, the Coens are making a movie, they're making a movie about the folk scene in the '60s, you gotta get me in the door for this.

So how did you hear about that?

I saw it on the Internets.

Like, how many years ago?

Like, ah, a year before they started casting. There was a thing that—or maybe it was even a little bit earlier—that they were getting prepared, to—

So you're in the game.

Yeah.

You pay attention to shit.

Of course. I studied acting at Juilliard, which is a cutthroat environment to start out in, and got out, and started working in theater in New York, and was chomping at the bit to get a lead role, and then when this came up—and the Coens are my favorite filmmakers, have been, forever—I had a poster of Miller's Crossing in my room, ahh (notices me having some sort of eye-watering, dry-throated silent choking/failute-to-swallow episode), I love 'em. Do you want some water or something?

(Coughs, tiny voice, drier than Vito Corleone in the hospital scene with Michael)Yeah whaddya got. You can tell I'm dyin'.

(Walks over to assortment of bottled beverages in hotel suite, I can't remember if it was the "honor bar" or a table of stuff because I was trying to make sure he kept his distance)

(Waving for him to stay away)

Club soda or straight up?

Yeah, that's great, just roll it, roll, don't touch me—

(Tosses bottle of water across room)

Thank you sir. So, there's this idea we have, certain actors are actors, certain actors are movie stars, certain actors are artists, certain kinda actors are like "ahh, it's all a bunch bullshit," you know.

Mm-hmm.

So it's like, you went to Juilliard, so you believe that there's art.

Yeah!

And you worked hard, because you got a college degree in acting.

Yeah, yeah, I studied Shakespeare and Chekov, and learned how to use my body, and voice, and how to break down scripts, how to, yeah, I was interested in it and curious about it, curious about film language.

And you play the fucking game! You read the, "trades" for lack of a better term, you pay attention to everything.

Yeah, it's my job!

I love that! I love the game. Have you seen that thing [Seduced and Abandoned], with Alec Baldwin, and—

I wanna see it so bad.

I just saw it last night.

Thank you for reminding me about that.

It's on Home Box.

It's great, right?

James Toback and him, walking around Cannes, trying to get money.

And you see the nasty underbelly, right?

Everybody's really, I mean half of 'em are like "are you kidding me?" And then half of 'em are like "yeah, maybe I'll give you some money, I won't tell you how much." You know?

Uh-hunh.

And then some of 'em are like "no, you're asking too much money, you should ask this much money, because you'll get that—some of 'em are like, really, really get down into it.

They engage into it. And those are probably the more interesting ones, I'd imagine, right? Wow, really cool, yeah.

And then there's a great part when they start asking everybody about death. (laughs) Fuckin' hilarious.

Uh-huh? Wow, very cool.

But anyway, I love shit like that, one time I got to talk to Albert Brooks, and I asked him "how do you get the money to get the movie made," and he's talking about going to Dubai and all this weird shit, and the foreign money—

Well, it's all foreign money now, yeah.

And he's like,"you got any more questions about how shitty the business is, I love talking about it"

(laughs) It is, man, it's an interesting thing, because you're right. My first instinct is to take a little bit of offense to the "playing the game," right?

Right.

I mean, whatever, I'm just saying, because I want to be like "no! I don't play the game," but it's like, OK, so, yes, I guess I do play the game, if I'm looking to see what the directors I like the most are up to, so I can try to get in to the room,

Right! Exactly, you fuckin' pay attention!

Yeah, you have to pay attention to that stuff, especially if I wanna be my own man, if I don't want to be somebody who's "run" by people, you know? Starting out, when I was in Miami, before I went to school, before any of that, I would wake up every morning and be a little "careerist," as Llewyn says, you know, I'd wake up and be like, "what can I do, to help me further the thing I wanna do, not just act in movies, who do I call, it was all on me to do that, to go give my head shot to the casting director in North Miami Beach, you know? (Mr. Isaac totally saves the interview—if that's possible—for everyone right here, by tying the movie's main character to his own career effort)

Right. You from Miami?

I grew up in Miami.

I just got back from my honeymoon, I went to Miami.

Alright, (politely) how'd you like it?

Your movie now, I took my wife—I get to say that now—last night, took her to see it, and so, your movie is part of my honeymoon.

(laughs)

We got married in Baltimore, flew down to Miami, stayed at the Fontainebleau, because we're tourists—

Uh-huh.

Then we stayed in South Beach at this place called The Richmond—

OK.

Tiny little Art Deco place, Halloween, it was crazy.

You enjoy it?

Oh, it was great! We're goin' back every year now, that's gonna be the place.

When I was a baby, my family, we moved from Guatemala, first to Baltimore, and then to Miami.

No shit?

Well, actually Miami via Louisiana for a year, but uh—

My mom worked at Burdines down there.

(laughs, possibly as an expression of "where the fuck are we going?") Wow.

We were on the tour bus, we did all tourist shit, we're on the doubledecker tour bus, the guy who was running the tour was this Cuban guy, he was hilarious, he's like "here's where all the rich people live," (pointing with middle fingers).

(laughs)

"There's where they all live," and then he's like "here's what used to be Burdines," and there was one part of the sign left, that they couldn't take down because of historic preservation

That's interesting, Burdines, that's hilarious.

And then there's a Macy's sign over it, yeah.

Wow.

Anyway, your movie is part of my honeymoon.

Great. I'm still waiting to hear the critique.

<strong>[HERE BEGIN ALL MANNER OF SPOILER ALERTS]</strong>

It was—well first of all—it's like, when you—Coen brothers movies—you're kinda like "is it gonna be a heightened reality, is it gonna be kinda like an unreality, you know, is it gonna be a parody of an era, you know, like The Hudsucker Proxywas a parody of an era and a parody of that type of movie, the screwball, movie, you know, and then of course, Coen brothers movies are always smarter than I am, because it's like "ohh, man, there's that one movie where they said it was all about Ulysses," you know, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?was supposed to be Ulysses, I dunno, it's always like, there's always some higher intellectual thing that the Coen brothers are playing with, you know? But a long time ago, I just resigned myself to just lay back, and be entertained by the fuckin' movie, and if I was gonna get challenged by it, I could get challenged by it later.

Yeah, OK.

Because the movies generally are just, you know, they go after genres, and they just do what they wanna do, and so, they're unpredictable.

Right.

You know? Because you're watching that movie and it's like "oh, he's gonna, Llewyn's gonna get together and make a trio."

Mm-hmm.

No he's not!

Right, right.

He's gonna do some shit that you don't know, that, what he's gonna do. Because it's a Coen brothers movie.

Right, right, right.

I gotta say, in all the Coen brothers movies I've ever seen, except for maybe Blood Simple, you were the most realistic performance. You weren't doing wacky banter, or whatever George Clooney was doin' in O Brother Where Art Thou, he's kinda like, kinda Clark Gable stuff, and then Billy Bob in that one with the, with the—

The Man Who Wasn't There.

—with the circles, yeah, and um, that was all like

Very measured.

Yeah, really deadly, deliberate. And you were like, natural! Which is kind of unusual, so it's like, what did they tell you to do? Do they just give you lines—because I hear this thing about Woody Allen, he gives people lines and they say "oh yeah, he just tells you to do what you want," it's like, so many times I see a Woody Allen movie, and I'll see somebody talking like Woody Allen.

Yeah, yeah,

And it sucks.

Yeah.

There was that one with him and Scarlett Johansson, and that movie sucked—you don't have to say anything.

(an exhale sniff-laugh)

That movie sucked, because she was talking like Woody Allen.

Hm. I think that some of those rhythms are built into the script, you know? The rhythms are built in, so, I understand sometimes when people lay in to that, but with this one, there wasn't a talk about style. Llewyn is, he's not very expressive verbally, you know? A lot of those "uhs" and ellipses are just written in there. For me I thought about, I've grown up watching their movies, I think, I would say Fran McDormand in Fargo, is very naturalistic. There's a heightened quality just because of where they're from, which is Minnesota (says it like he's a Fargo guy), you know, the dialect, but apart from that. it's very grounded in reality, you know I'd say to a certain extent, Josh Brolin in No Country [for Old Men] as well, and Tommy Lee Jones as well,

Oh wow, you know what, yeah, you're right, I gotta put that movie, like, in almost a different category, because that movie was so scary.

That was a freaky, freaky movie. So I understood, I think I just got the tone, and when I keyed-in to a guy from the boroughs, someone in deep pain, someone that's a stranger in a strange land, and self-aware to the point of alienation, you know, marveling and horrified at existence, in equal measure. I think those were all things that were fuel, and the fact that the cameras were always this close (holds up his hand to indicate a lens that's like, about, a 40) I mean the longest lens they shoot with is like a 40, which is like: here. (laughs) Right? So the cameras were always: here. (again indicating that lens, I have no idea) So what that meant was I just have to feel it, man, this guy doesn't express anything. He just has to have a rich inner life.

(Moving on, I think quite possibly having failed to react to what was intended as a humorous statement about the "rich inner life") And then you have—

MOVIE PERSON, TOO LATE: Last question—

I'm gonna go back to me and my wedding again. I sang to my wife at my wedding reception, which was horrible for everybody, but it meant a lot to my wife and me. So anyway, made a spectacle of myself, I'm not a musical person at all. You had all these parts, where you sing a whole song, for the most part, into a camera.

Yeah, live, all live.

And then something's supposed to happen after that (laughs)

Mm-hm.

It's just, funny, I mean, so it's like, you're really throwin' down.

(Laughs) The story's brutal.

It's like, how do you do that? I'm just thinking about, you know, me standing up in front of 80 people doing that, and it's like, how the fuck do you fucking, you know, what do you, where do you go, do you just sing the song, do you think about the song, but then also you gotta think about "I'm acting?"

Yeah, yeah, well, those, I just hadda close my eyes and invest in the song. Early on, T-Bone [Burnett, famous music guy] told me, he was like, and he probably just meant it, in the moment, but he's very similar to the Coens in that way they just, off-handedly drop wisdom down, he said, just play it like you're playing to yourself on your couch, and that I took, and I just held onto that for dear life, and I said "I'm just playin' like I'm playin' to myself, just playin' on the couch, I'm just playin' on the couch." And some people might think he's too introverted even for the coffee houses, right, because it's in here, but at the same time, the balance was "make it here" (gesturing to an actor-space distance) but it's still telling a story. Singing is storytelling, and it's not masturbatory, I can't just be there being all emo and "mnyuuueeeeeuuunhh," you know, it had to be direct. It's to myself, but it's direct. It's not just a place to emote. That's not what those songs are about. That's why those songs become protest songs, because it's just three chords and the truth. (laughs)

Not like John Goodman's character, who fuckin' rips it all down. (stands up)

(laughs) "In jazz, we play all the notes." (laughs) that's my favorite line.

(laughs) It's so easy to hate folk music. (moving toward exit)

Yeah.

It really is.

Because of its simplicity

Also because there's so much of it that's generic.

That's bad. Lotsa genres are like that.

I think the movie's a tremendous success because you got to do that, and you got to make me listen to folk music.

(laughs) That's great, man, that's cool.

And I never got out of it, nothing pulled me out of it.

That's great, that's good to hear.

MOVIE PERSON: Thank you.

Alright. Thank you sir.

Alright man, feel better.

I'll do my best.

Congratulations on your marriage.

Congratulations to you, sir.

MOVIE PERSON, TO ME: Are those your glasses?

They are, where are they? Alright. (gesturing to my end of the room) Don't touch anything over there. Spray—rub that—rub that all with Purell®. Thank you sir.

Take care man.

1