Isaac's driving in his car. Gilroy calls, tells him to pull over. Small talk, small talk. Then Gilroy, according to Isaac, says: “Look, sorry, it's not going to happen. The studio doesn't want you, you're not a known commodity.” Jeremy Renner got the role instead. (Isaac ended up with a supporting role, that of an auxiliary assassin.)
Joel Coen calls. “And he's talking for a long time,” Isaac says, so he begins to think: This is just like the Tony Gilroy phone call. I didn't get the part. He feels sick. He throws his coffee away. Coen rambles on: “Sorry it took so long, there were some other people we needed to see. …” And then, sunshine: Isaac hears Coen offer him the part.
Meet a semi-known commodity, if you don't know him already. Now 33, born to a Guatemalan mother and a Cuban father, Isaac is an actor and musician (high school band: The Worms; current band, NightLab), Juilliard-trained for the stage, now an established and versatile craftsman. (He was King John in the recent “Robin Hood,” and Carey Mulligan's dangerous ex-con husband in “Drive.”)
“Inside Llewyn Davis” demanded a different set of skills. “Joel describes directing as ‘tone management,'” Isaac says, with a smile, “and I think I understand the tone.”
Set in 1961, the melancholy comic ballad tumbles through a week in the life of a fledgling folk singer with self-destructive tendencies. Like a lot of the Coens' work, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a splitter, playing to raucous approval from Audience A and then restless perplexity with Audience B. The closing-night audience at the recent Chicago International Film Festival, for example, received the film oddly, Isaac (and others) thought. The laughs never really got going. The jokes may have eluded the crowd. Then again, Isaac says, he took a couple of old pals to see a private screening this year, and “We all left pretty bummed out.”
While in high school in West Palm Beach, Fla., Isaac played a decorative pool boy in his 1996 screen debut, “Illtown.” His real career, he says, began about a decade later. “In the theater there's much less of a priority about making the protagonist likable. Look at Chekhov: They're often pretty (cruddy) people, but they're humorous and they're crying out for understanding. Life squeezes them, and these are the noises that come out of them. Joel and Ethan Coen understand that sound.”
Isaac says the stakes on the “Inside Llewyn Davis” set seemed “deceptively low.” He decided early on to play the disgruntled folkie in crisis “without ever smiling, or nearly. How do you convey warmth and try to stay open as a person, but not try to ingratiate yourself?
“To me it's such an alien thing. I come from a place where everything about me, even my body language, is saying: I mean you no harm. I smile, I laugh. Basic stuff for most people. Llewyn is different. It's an unusual movie, and for some people it'll be like, ‘I don't get the joke. This movie's (an ass)! It should've laughed, to let me know it was a joke!' But other people will see it and develop a different sort of relationship to it.”
Loosely inspired by Dave Van Ronk's Greenwich Village memoir “The Mayor of Macdougal Street,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” finds its protagonist reeling from the suicide of his former partner; coping, poorly, with his latest pregnant girlfriend; and crashing on various couches, including the one owned by the woman (played by Carey Mulligan) about to have an abortion resulting from her furtive affair with Davis.
Isaac says he was lucky: He never went through a “couch” period, crashing with friends, waiting for his acting ship to come in.
“Very lucky,” he calls himself. “A lot of right thing, right time. I think the Coens recognize that in themselves too. Luck plays such a major role in all our lives, and the movie's about that. The Coens recognize there are very, very few shooting stars out there. The rest of us need luck to have a lot of things go right.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens Dec. 20.