The Talented Mr. Isaac

Scenes from an interview with the star of the Coen Brothers' 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

The Talented Mr. Isaac

Having been sitting all day in a second-floor conference room, giving countless interviews, the Talent had a sore throat.

That's how members of the PR team, openly and frequently, refer to the actors they represent: the Talent. It's unnerving. And when used in chatty conversation, a bit absurd.

Though, sometimes, it's true. Oscar Isaac, the titular star of the Coen Brothers' new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, is talented.

Like many Coen Brothers films, ILD focuses on an everyday loser failing at life thanks to shitty luck and his own shitty attitude. Set during the emerging Sixties New York folk scene, the struggling – and self-sabotaging – performer Llewyn is caught between his desire for artistic integrity and the cold, hard need for self-preservation (at times literally: It's set in winter). That's what Isaac was here to talk about. His press junket tour started with the premiere in Cannes and hopped to Telluride and Chicago before landing here at the Austin Film Festival. He'd given countless one-on-one interviews, and here he was again, giving another interview to another journo behind the closed conference door.

Usually, nothing good comes of these one-on-one interviews. As a general rule, these five- to 15-minute sit-downs are forced and artificial, which goes a long way toward explaining why various participants compare them to conveyor belts and speed dating.

Why else would the friendly PR reps offer refreshments, pointing the way to a big buffet spread with everything from cold cuts to potato salad? And why else would they allow a freelance writer in that area, unsupervised, where he or she could pocket a handful of jelly beans?

A few minutes later, a disheveled media type scampered out of the room and Isaac's personal bodywoman approached. He was almost ready. She said she'd check in with us after 15 minutes. Asked why checking in was so important, she explained, in the abstract, that the Talent can become miffed if an interview ends suddenly, giving room to an awkward silence.

There's another reason press junket one-on-ones are so god-awful: It's always the same questions. In the case of expensive, highly publicized movies, or critical darlings, it's tenfold. And if you have any interest in the release of the much-loved Coen Brothers' $11 million picture, then you've probably read all previous questions and answers. Having another hack (even a local one) sitting across from the movie star couldn't possibly matter.

Mind you, this is all conjecture. Before this, the only celebrity interaction I'd had was with The Mentalist's Simon Baker. I was a busboy clearing plates; he was a man who wanted to finish his grouper. Underqualified is an understatement.

The wood-floor conference room was mostly bare, except for a small table, where Isaac sat. Like many movie stars, he's a near-perfect human specimen, down to that distinguished little splotch of white in his otherwise dark hair. I introduced myself as the writer from the "alternative" paper, which felt less distinguished. The pressure of just me and a movie star in the same isolated space was too much. I kinda blacked out. Tunnel vision, at the very least.

According to my voice recorder, Isaac said he'd been doing interviews all day, it wears him out, he had no idea how many interviews he'd done, and he had maybe three or four left. The process would "be a fucking nightmare" if he "didn't love the movie as much as I do." Although some people ask "stupid, shitty questions," Isaac said that he can always find something new in the film, so it's interesting to hear what other people pick up on.

"Actually, here I've gotten really good stuff," he said, after first giving himself a second to think, as seemed to be his habit.

I thought all my questions were pretty original. Most of them, I discover after trawling the Internet, were not. He'd been asked plenty of questions about being an accomplished musician made to play full-length songs in the movie with conviction ("I've been doing both forever, so I didn't really see a huge separation between [acting and performing]"); about this being his first big role ("It's the thing that I had hoped that I'd get a chance to do," he told the Huffington Post). Even my most personally curious one – "Is it strange to be talking so intimately and immediately about a project you did two years ago?" – was not original (HitFix).

Still, it was nice hearing Isaac curse like a normal person with a self-aware sense of humor to boot (The Guardian thought as much, too). And he mocked stupid questions. Isaac said that when he's asked a "what's it like ..." question, he wants so badly to flutter his hands dramatically, put on a faux poetic voice, and say, "It was like a fog rolling today." Still, that sort of question "gives me a chance to think about it myself, really."

The mood changed after about six minutes. When I asked what's the stupidest question he's ever been asked, Isaac's reply was uncharacteristically quick.

"Probably that one," he said.

Shit, I thought, I've pissed off the Talent.

This had been my biggest fear. There are the real horror stories: Tommy Lee Jones is famously hostile, Bruce Willis tired and condescending. In one interview, Jesse Eisenberg was a complete dick, and a very high Jason Segel made another impossible by giggling the whole way through.

I briefly considered offering the Talent a jelly bean.

Two, painful seconds later, it was "just kidding, man," as Isaac took a sip of tea. I pressed on. "What's it like working for the Coen Brothers?" was an obviously press question (Slant Magazine, HitFix) and I asked if he had a stock answer for that.

"Well, no. I mean, I try to make it interesting for myself," he said.

There was a pause.

"Are you asking what it's like to work with the Coen Brothers?"


The Talented Mr. Isaac

Isaac switches it up, but he does have some pretty standard answers (spoilers: He's a huge fan of the Coen Brothers, loves their "theatre of the common man," and he'd work with them again in a heartbeat). This was the role that elevated him from playing memorable, bit-man parts in Drive and Sucker Punch to what is, essentially, a beautifully filmed one-man-play. Under the pressure of headlining a Co-Bros film, he put everything into the role and yet, gave nothing away. He's both proud and humbled by the effort (as stated in just about every interview), and it's clearly had a profound effect on him.

Or, at least, it did on me. The interview, that is. Twelve disastrous minutes in, we were discussing how he picks roles, and Isaac said it's important to find a role that will keep him interested throughout the time it takes to both shoot and promote. As he expounded, I felt something change in his tone. His eyes focused. His voice dropped and slowed just a beat.

"This thing, this will keep me interested for my lifetime," said Isaac. "I'll have moments now where I'll take a shower and be like, 'Oh, that's what that scene was. I should've done this thing.' ... It's so true to the experience of being alive and existing that when it goes that deep, you can continue [to think about the film]. It goes into infinity."


It's hard to describe, but I felt something, a force, rolling over me like a warm blanket as he spoke. I was stunned. And it had nothing to do with imagining Isaac in the shower. I was in a strange, peaceful state where a simple reply felt like a truly honest answer.

A couple minutes later, I'd run out of questions. There was a moment of silence. When Isaac's personal bodywoman came in to check on us, I left very quickly, hoping the Talent wasn't too miffed that the interview ended in a sudden, awkward manner.

Isaac's since attended award shows, appeared on Jimmy Fallon, and given hundreds of interviews. Huffington Post and Slate have already added the film to their respective best-of lists. But his earnest comment has stuck with me.

David Mamet, paraphrasing Stanislavski, wrote something similar. Some performances may leave you thinking, "That was awesome!" but are easily forgotten. Then there are "plays ... that are perhaps upsetting or intricate or unusual, that you leave unsure, but which you think about perhaps ... the rest of your life."

That's ILD. The weird, Möbius-strip-like beginning-ending; the moments of levity weighted by gloom. The film's tone is exacting in its ambiguity, and the acting explosive in its reservation. Most of this is thanks to Isaac.

The Talent is here.

Inside Llewyn Davis opens Friday, Dec. 20, in Austin. See our Film Listings for showtimes and a review.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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