Sunday 20 October 2019

People: Oscar Isaac, the slow-burner who has burst into life

His face is recognisable even if his name is not, but Oscar Isaac's first lead role, in a Coen brothers' film no less, is about to change all thatJulia Molony

Oscar Isaac, star of Inside Llewyn Davis
Oscar Isaac, star of Inside Llewyn Davis

Julia Molony

When the heretofore little-known Oscar Isaac was cast in the title role in Inside Llewyn Davis, his main concern was that he "didn't want to be the first guy to f**k up a Coen brothers movie".

Isaac had plenty to prove; his first leading male role was every drama student's bucket-list dream -- working with Hollywood's revered director-siblings.

By the time the film won the Grand Prix in Cannes, he must have been feeling less worried about the responsibility. But if there was any residual anxiety lingering for Isaac, it will have been scotched by the Golden Globe nomination he bagged last month. He didn't win, but I don't reckon that could be construed as a failure for an unknown challenger whose competition included Leonardo DiCaprio, Joaquin Phoenix and Christian Bale.

Judging by the company he's keeping on the awards slate, he's in danger of finding himself on the cover of People magazine someday pretty soon. Indeed, he's got three movies coming out this year. But as is usually the case for overnight successes, Isaac's ascent has been a long time coming -- he's been slowly and steadily making his way in movies since he graduated from the acting programme in Julliard almost 10 years ago.

"Since 2005 I've managed to work consistently and get better at it. So this actually came at the perfect time," he says, " because it gave me a chance to practise -- I was learning the craft and figuring it out."

It's a grey Saturday morning in London, but Issac is a shot of sunny LA positivity. The morning coffee he's nursing is, he says, doing it's work, and after all he's got plenty of reasons to be cheerful. In conversation, he's solicitious to the point of flirtatious; full of compliments and attention.

Isaac was born in Guatemala, like his mother. His father is Cuban, but grew up in the States. The family moved to Miami when Isaac was a baby, so culturally he feels more American than anything else. "We grew up listening to that music, Dylan and Jimmy Hendrix. But we lived in Miami, which was like a different country," he says.

As a young actor, he dropped his last name Hernandez, and became known only by his first two names, Oscar Isaac. Physically, he's hard to place, which he has capitalised on to play varying roles, from a Russian guy to English royalty. "It's a little harder to pigeonhole me into one thing, but at the same time you are having to deal with certain stereotypes," he says.

He's so far managed to resist them, but is very aware they exist. "Oh yeah. Casting -- generally it's not a very imaginative group of people, and definitely the people at the studios are not the most creative types. So suddenly one movie with a blond Australian does well and it's like, 'Get me a blond Australian'. So it can be tough for minority actors."

In the last few years, he's been building a portfolio of films with high-profile directors. He had a small but smouldering role playing Carey Mulligan's errant husband in 2012's Drive, won plaudits for his work in Ridley Scott's Robin Hood in 2010, but still the big time eluded him. Until the call came in from the Coen brothers about a new musical they were working on, loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, a minor folk singer and Village scenester who haunted Greenwich in the early 70s, performing at the Gaslight with Dylan, skirting success but never quite grasping it.

It's a circular, darkly comic narrative that follows the central character as he drags his guitar case around live venues and scruffy offices. By turns desperate and desultory, he wanders through the Village with a Beckettian sense of disorientation, crashing on couches, overstaying his welcome, scratching around for cash and generally managing to upset and enrage those around him.

It was T Bone Burnett, recording industry legend and the Coen brothers' long-time musical collaborator (you can thank him for the scores of The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother Where Art Thou, among others), who first recognised that Isaac had the musical chops to pull it off. Burnett is a tall, rangy man wearing a sharp suit and a soft expression, who tells me that his conviction in Isaac was instant.

"I've sat around with Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Sam Shepherd, sitting around playing songs, and so after a while, after maybe 3,000 hours, you start knowing who is pretty good. And Don Everly would be there and Willie Nelson -- we've done that nights and nights.

"We'd just sit around playing guitar all day. And so you just get to the point where you know who is good. It's just a sense of it. And within three seconds of hearing Oscar sing, I knew that we had found him. It was that immediate," he says.

For Isaac, the omens had been good long before he got the part.

"I had been doing this tiny movie," he says, "and there was this guy who was playing an extra at the bar. And in between takes he would pick up a guitar and start finger picking and playing and singing in the exact same style of the folk music of the time -- and of Dave Van Ronk. I went up to him and I said to him, 'you're incredible. I'm auditioning for this thing that's loosely based on Dave Van Ronk -- do you know who that is, do you know Dave?' And he said, 'yeah I played with Dave ... Do you need guitar lessons?' And I was like, yeah! He said, 'come to my place I live above the old Gaslight on MacDougal Street' [the hub around which the movie is set]. He's been there for years. It was like a time capsule. He started playing me all these old records and teaching me how to play and I started opening up for [his shows] in the village. In little cafes. This was all just before the audition."

Isaac himself had spent much of a lifetime messing around in bands -- even making a respectable stab at fame with the punk ska band The Blinking Underdogs, who once supported Green Day. "I was a musical whore so I went through every genre -- except for jazz," he says. " I was never good enough to play jazz."

He says whether it was part of his day job or not, he'd always play music because otherwise he gets depressed. "It's kinda wild ... . The first time I get a role like this where I get to lead a film, it's crucial that I play music."

Certainly, it seems like he was made for it. But there was one more serendipitous intervention that turned it from simply an important experience to a career defining one. This one he says, came from Ireland, direct from renowned vocal coach Gerry Grennell. He gave Isaac some revelatory advice on technique but not only that. "He sent me Bluebird, by Charles Bukowski," Isaac says, before launching into the opening lines "There's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too tough for him. I say stay in there I'm not going to let anybody see you. I pour whiskey on him and cigarette smoke and all the whores and the bartenders never know that he's in there.

"That became my mantra for the whole movie," he says. "And that was such a beautiful gift that Gerry gave me ... so I owe a big debt to Gerry and to Ireland for that one."

  • Inside Llewyn Davis is in cinemas from Friday

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