Oscar Isaac and his secret weapon

He’s a great actor, but after years in Hollywood, this Guatemalan native has proved he has other skills, too. One of these talents – perhaps the most important in snagging a role in the Coen Brothers’ new movie – is his musical ability.

text: gabriel lerman
       

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The new Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is a simple story. It portrays the lives of folk musicians in New York circa 1961 and does so impeccably. Based in part on the memoirs of musician and activist Dave Van Ronk, the brilliant new movie from the makers of No Country for Old Men is not only forecast to be a major award winner in 2014 but could very well serve as a breakthrough for Oscar Isaac. The 34-year-old actor had his first big role in the 2006 Catherine Hardwicke film The Nativity Story, playing Saint Joseph. But in his latest endeavor, Isaac plays a musician in a performance that has earned him critical raves… and not just for his acting.

Far from playing the same role over and over, which tends to happen with Latino actors, Isaac has used his singing and guitar-playing ability to set him apart in the always-competitive business. “I’ve been playing since I was 12 years old. I played a little bit of a classical guitar […] and then I played every single genre when I was in bands in Miami,” he says. This extra skill helped make him the perfect man for the job in the eyes of Joel and Ethan Coen.

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Isaac in a scene from Inside Llewyn Davis. Photo Getty Images

“Had the Coens done this movie five years earlier, or five years later, it wouldn’t be me.”

Did the fact that you were also a musician help you get the lead in the film Inside Llewyn Davis?

“I think it was a huge factor in casting. In fact, the Coen Brothers started with musicians – they auditioned a lot of great musicians – but I think they realized that you really needed an actor to carry the movie and to convey a lot of these complicated emotions, so then they started to look at actors who could play music. I just got the part in a very traditional way.”
Isaac nabbing the lead role was far from an immediate thing. About a month after his audition, he received a call from Joel Coen. The two talked for a while, with the actor waiting for bad news. Then he heard the magic words: “We would love for you to be in the movie, if you want to be part of it.”

 

What was your biggest challenge in this film?

“Making this guy relatable and, at the same time, making him warm, but without using charm. He’s not a man who tries to charm people. That was definitely a challenge, to try to find a way to relate to people without the normal smiling and winking.”

 

Did you know anything about Dave Van Ronk, the musician who inspired the movie?

“No. I grew up listening to Bob Dylan – my dad was a big fan – but this is pre-Dylan, so I wasn’t as familiar. What I lack in talent, I think I make up for obsessiveness, so I just obsessed over Dave Van Ronk’s repertoire and listened to his entire discography. Before I auditioned, I was doing a small independent movie, and there was a guy who played an extra. He was an older guy, and between takes, he picked up a guitar and started playing. He was one of the most amazing Travis pickers I’d ever heard. It turns out that he had played with Van Ronk. So I went over to his place, and he played me records of the two of them playing together, he started teaching me how to play this style of music. It was completely serendipitous that I even talked to him, but he really helped me for the audition.”

Before Oscar Isaac

The son of a Cuban father and a Guatemalan mother, Isaac graduated from the prestigious Julliard School for the Performing Arts in 2005. Since then, he has appeared in films as diverse as Agora (Alejandro Amenábar, 2009), Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 2010), Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011) and Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011). The last film saw him share the screen with Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, portraying a troubled ex-convict. This role was perhaps the first step in taking his career to the next level, despite having been in Hollywood for several years.
Isaac’s passion for music comes from his childhood experiences with his family. He grew up surrounded by rock‘n’roll records, and he experimented with bands of his own in high school. His punk band, Blinking Underdogs, even managed to open for Green Day.

 

Can you talk a bit about your upbringing?

“Well, my father has always been a bit of a frustrated artist. He’s a doctor, and he has three brothers who are also doctors. My grandmother worked for the UN, so they came from Cuba right before the revolution, and they grew up in Washington, D.C. They were hippies – that’s why we grew up listening to Jimmy Hendrix and Dylan, like I said. [My dad] always played music; he always recorded music. He made movies with his little camera, and he would make movies with us. I would pick up his guitar and play it. That’s really where I think I got a lot of my interest in acting. I actually never really made a decision to become an actor. In fact, at one point I told him, ‘I think I want to go to film school to become a director,’ and he said, ‘You are an actor.’ [My parents] have always been incredibly supportive, but the truth is, I was never really good at anything else. When I got into school here at Julliard, that was clearly the right thing to do.”

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Your given name is Oscar Hernández Estrada, how did it turn into Oscar Isaac?

“I just thought on the marquee, it seemed a little too much. Seriously, Oscar Hernández is basically like John Smith in Miami. In fact, when I became a citizen, I got stopped more in the airports and taken to the back because of all the Oscar Hernándezes who are on the list. Also, starting out as an actor, you immediately worry about being pigeonholed or typecast. I don’t want to just go up for the dead body, the gangster, the bandolero, whatever. I don’t want to be defined by someone else’s idea of what an Oscar Hernández should be playing. So I used my middle name, Isaac, as my last name.”

 

Have you always felt like a Latino in the United States?

“Not really. We grew up with a very American kind of culture, just rock and roll. I remember when I was at Juilliard, one of the teachers said, you have such a sandy quality to your voice, was that from listening to all that Flamenco growing up? And I said, first of all, wrong country, second of all, no, we listened to Hendrix and Dylan growing up. So, obviously, I am very close to my Latin roots, and I go back to Guatemala often, but I was five months old when I moved to the United States, so I probably identify the most with American culture, which is a melting pot of all the other cultures coming together.”

 

Would you like to make a movie in Spanish?

“I would love to do a movie in Spanish. There are some great directors. Pedro Almodóvar is a director that I have admired for a very, very long time, and I hope one day to be able to do a movie with him. There are also some other really great Latin American directors and Spanish directors who I would love to work with.”

Are you surprised by how much your career has developed?

“Yes, I’ve been very happy with the way it has gone, because I’ve been allowed to play such vastly different types of characters. No one said to me, this is what you are, this is what you have to do. So actually that anonymity has served me as an actor. Finally, I’ve been given the chance to shoulder a movie and to be the lead in a film. It’s fabulous for it to be this one, since I’ve been playing music for so long. Things don’t go right for Llewyn, partly because of chance and partly it was his own doing, but in my particular situation, chance was on my side: I was the right guy at the right moment, I mean, had the Coens done this movie five years earlier, or five years later, it wouldn’t be me.”

 

Would you like to release your own record and would you tour with Justin Timberlake, singing the movie’s theme?

“Yeah, I would love to tour. I would love to eventually tour and to release a record. I have a lot of material. It’s all about figuring out when and how to do it in an honest way and not an overly calculated kind of way. I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time. And if Justin Timberlake will have me, I’ll gladly follow him around the world on tour.” in

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