Movie Interviews
5:59 pm
Wed December 4, 2013

On Becoming Llewyn Davis, A Hero Who Excels At Failing

Originally published on Fri December 6, 2013 4:10 pm

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.

Really?

(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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANG ME, OH HANG ME")

OSCAR ISAAC: (Singing) Hang me, oh, hang me. I'll be dead and gone.

BLOCK: The darkly funny 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 non-existent. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANG ME, OH HANG ME")

ISAAC: (Singing) I wouldn't mind the hangin' but the layin' in the grave so long. Poor boy, been all around this world.

BLOCK: Oscar Isaac in the title role of "Inside Llewyn Davis." That's him singing and playing guitar, and he joins me here in the studio. Oscar, thanks for coming in.

ISAAC: Thanks for having me here.

BLOCK: What did the directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, say to you in explaining how they saw this character of Llewyn Davis?

ISAAC: Well, I remember 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.

BLOCK: Well, it's interesting too, because not only is he not Dylan, but he's the guy who plays just before Dylan, right, in a room where there are studio executives. And he is the one who is not going to get that deal.

ISAAC: I remember they talked about "The Ed Sullivan Show" the night that The Beatles were on and about the opening act that night that went on to never - exactly, that went on to do nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: So that's you.

ISAAC: That's me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN, GREEN ROCKY ROAD")

ISAAC: (Singing) When I go back Baltimore, ain't no carpet on my floor. You come along...

BLOCK: We should explain that you do all your own singing and playing guitar in the movie. You've been playing guitar a long time, singing a long time?

ISAAC: Well, yeah, I've been playing guitar and singing, I guess, for about 20 years now. Funny enough, I met this guy, as I was preparing for the audition, named Eric Franzen, who is also a New York guy, who lives on McDougal Street above the old Gaslight, and is an amazing finger-picker and singer and an actor, as well. And I serendipitously just met him randomly before the audition and he started helping me prepare. And one of the things when he started teaching me this style of playing is he said, you know, how long have 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.

BLOCK: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

ISAAC: And so - because this style of playing is called Travis picking, which is a very complicated, syncopated style of playing, much like stride piano or ragtime piano, right. And it requires the thumb to be the metronome and to carry the bass line, while the fingers independently do the melody.

BLOCK: Which song do we hear that best on, do you think?

ISAAC: Both "Hang Me" and really "Green, Green Rocky Road." It really just stays in this one chord but it's just moving all over, up and down the neck in this one style.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN, GREEN ROCKY ROAD")

ISAAC: (Singing) Tell me who you love. Tell me who you love.

BLOCK: Were these songs that you knew at all? I mean, this is a bunch of traditional folk songs going way, way, way back. Were they familiar to you? Or did you have to learn them from scratch?

ISAAC: I had to learn them from scratch.

BLOCK: Really?

ISAAC: Yeah. I wasn't familiar with any of the songs. I grew up listening to Dylan, but I didn't - I wasn't aware of the - these traditional tunes and also what the folk artist was, especially someone like Dave Van Ronk. In a way, they were a curator or a DJ. You know, 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.

And then as records became more popular and, you know, this idea of the original - I've got the original of 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.

BLOCK: Yeah.

ISAAC: But he's not above hypocrisy, either. You know, when he really needs to, he'll go and record some cheesy pop song to get some dollars to pay for, you know, whatever he needs to pay for.

BLOCK: OK. I 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, right?

ISAAC: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE MR. KENNEDY")

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Three, two...

ADAM DRIVER: One second, please.

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Please, Mr. Kennedy.

DRIVER: Uh-oh.

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I don't want to go.

DRIVER: (Singing) Please don't shoot me into outer space.

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Please, Mr. Kennedy.

BLOCK: You're in the puh(ph).

ISAAC: The puh-puh(ph).

BLOCK: Which had to be timed, right?

ISAAC: Yeah, exactly.

BLOCK: There's a little discussion there?

ISAAC: Of where the puh-puhs go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE MR. KENNEDY")

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) When they stuff me in the pressure suits, bubble helmet...

ISAAC: That's Adam driver with the weird ahs and outer spaces.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE MR. KENNEDY")

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I need to breathe.

DRIVER: Outer.

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Don't need to be a hero.

DRIVER: Space.

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) And are you reading me loud and clear. Oh, please...

BLOCK: All right. We're sitting in here laughing as we listen to this, but you had to do this with a straight face.

ISAAC: Yeah.

BLOCK: Like, you guys in the studio are dead serious.

ISAAC: Well, the thing about Llewyn - this was a great piece of direction. Yeah, he can make fun of it all he wants beforehand, you know, 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.

BLOCK: Justin Timberlake, yeah.

ISAAC: But once he gets into it, he commits and he starts enjoying the process of singing and recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE MR. KENNEDY")

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) And who will play catch out in the back with our kids? Oh, please, Mr. Kennedy.

BLOCK: In thinking about your character, about Llewyn Davis, he does a lot of things wrong, right? 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?

ISAAC: We never talked about him being likable.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Really?

ISAAC: Obviously. No, not really. 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. And I thought about Buster Keaton, that somebody who, you know, is 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.

And so I tried to attack the character in that way, to not use warmth with any 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. And 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. And 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, and that's the only time he shows that little bluebird.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DINK'S SONG")

ISAAC: (Singing) If I had wing like Nora's dove, I'd fly up the river to the one I love. Fare thee well, oh, honey.

BLOCK: Oscar Isaac is Llewyn Davis in the movie "Inside Llewyn Davis." Oscar, thanks so much for coming in.

ISAAC: Thank you for having me here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DINK'S SONG")

ISAAC: (Singing) Fare, fare thee well.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program