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On Becoming Llewyn Davis, A Hero Who Excels At Failing

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On Becoming Llewyn Davis, A Hero Who Excels At Failing

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On Becoming Llewyn Davis, A Hero Who Excels At Failing

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


And I'm Melissa Block.


OSCAR ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) (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 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.


ISAAC: (As Davis) (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..

BLOCK: No one remembers.

ISAAC: ...never - exactly, that went on to do nothing.


BLOCK: So that's you.

ISAAC: That's me.


ISAAC: (As Davis) (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 Frandsen, 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 nah, you've owned a guitar for 20 years. You've been playing for like, six months.



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.


ISAAC: (As Davis) (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'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 claustrophobic astronaut who does not want to go to space, right?

ISAAC: Exactly.



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."

ISAAC: The "puh-puh."

BLOCK: Which had to be timed, right?

ISAAC: Yeah, exactly.

BLOCK: There's a little discussion there?

ISAAC: Of where the puh-puhs go.


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

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


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's - yeah.

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


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.


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 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. 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.


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.


ISAAC: (Singing) Fare, fare thee well...


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