The darkly funny new movie from the Coen brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis, takes us inside the smoky clubs of the Greenwich Village folk scene. It's 1961, and the sad-eyed Llewyn Davis can't catch a break. Music royalties are nonexistent. He's always in search of an empty couch to crash on. His singing partner has jumped off the George Washington Bridge. And he's lost a cat.
NPR's Melissa Block recently spoke with the film's star, Oscar Isaac, about playing the less-than-likable, sometimes grating Davis — a role that required him to rely less on his own personal charm and to learn a whole new style of guitar playing. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read their conversation below.
What did the directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, say to you in explaining how they saw this character of Llewyn Davis?
When I got the audition materials, there was a little sentence at the bottom that said, "He is not Dylan." He's not the poet: He's the workman.
It's interesting because not only is he not Dylan, but he's the guy who plays just before Dylan, in a room where there are studio executives. And he is the one who is not going to get that deal.
I remember they talked about The Ed Sullivan Show, the night that The Beatles were on. The opening act that night that went on to do nothing? That's me.
You do all your own singing and playing guitar in the movie. Have you been playing and singing a long time?
I've been playing guitar and singing, I guess, for about 20 years now. I met this guy as I was preparing for the audition, Erik Frandsen, who is also a New York guy, who lives on MacDougal Street above the old Gaslight [Cafe], and is an amazing finger-picker and singer and actor, as well. And I serendipitously just met him randomly before the audition, and he started helping me prepare. When he started teaching me the style of playing, he said, "How long you been playing?" I was like, "I've been playing for about 20 years." He goes, "No — you've owned a guitar for 20 years. You've been playing for, like, six months."
This style of playing is called Travis picking, which is a very complicated, syncopated style of playing — much like stride piano or ragtime piano. And it requires the thumb to be the metronome and to carry the bass line, while the fingers independently do the melody.
The music in the film is traditional songs, going way, way back. Were they familiar to you, or did you have to learn them from scratch?
I had to learn them from scratch. I wasn't familiar with any of the songs. I grew up listening to Dylan, but I wasn't aware of these traditional tunes — and also what the folk artist was, especially someone like Dave Van Ronk. In a way, they were [like] a curator, or a DJ. They would find all these old songs and arrange them, and then present them. And they were songs that people would never really get a chance to hear otherwise.
As records became more popular, [there emerged] this idea of "the original": "I've got the original on the recording — what do I need you to sing me a version for?" And then the focus became, "What's new? Can you write me something new?" And Llewyn plays old songs; he doesn't do new songs. So, he's at a crossroads, you know: "What do I do? My authentic voice is to sing old folk songs, and if you guys aren't interested in that, am I supposed to change?" So that's his dilemma. But he's not above hypocrisy, either. When he really needs to, he'll go and record some cheesy pop song to get some dollars to pay for whatever he needs to pay for.
OK, I've got to ask you about that cheesy pop song, because this is one of the highlights of the movie. You go in for a session. You're with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver, and you're singing a song called "Please, Mr. Kennedy." It's a novelty song, and the premise is a claustrophobic astronaut who does not want to go to space. We can laugh at this scene now, but you had to do this with a straight face. You guys in the studio are dead serious.
This was a great piece of direction. He can make fun of it all he wants beforehand, and he says at one point, "I appreciate the gig, but who wrote this?" And unfortunately, it's the guy sitting in front of me, Justin's character. But once he gets into it, he commits. And he starts enjoying the process of singing and recording.
Llewyn Davis does a lot of things wrong. He rubs a lot of people the wrong way, he's caustic, he offends people, he has a bad sense of timing. Was it important to you that he be likable? How do you find a likable guy in there?
We never talked about him being likable.
(Laughing) Obviously! I thought about the comedy of resilience and why it is that sometimes we find someone going through hardship, how that can be funny. It happens in Chekhov a lot. I thought about Buster Keaton, that somebody who's constantly going through near-death experiences — and yet we laugh. We root for him at the same time. And yet his face is always just kind of this melancholic gaze, whether he's in love or fighting a bad guy or having a house fall on top of him. So, I tried to attack the character in that way — to not use warmth within traditional means, not express warmth through smiling or charm or even physical contact, to take all those tools away. You have to find other ways.
This guy Gerry Grennell, who I've worked with many times — he's a fantastic acting teacher and dialect coach — he sent me Bluebird by Charles Bukowski. That was a mantra for me. I believe the first line is, "There's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out, but I'm too tough for him. So I inhale cigarette smoke and pour whiskey on him, and the whores and the bartenders never know that he's in there." And that's what the music is for Llewyn. That's the only time he shows that little bluebird.