That may be because, whereas his character couldn’t catch a break on MacDougal Street, the 33-year-old actor finds himself a leading man for whom Oscar isn’t just his first name, but a real career possibility (he was nominated for a Golden Globe this week); who could pause among considerations for his next leading role to launch a successful music career.For the Guatemalan-born Isaac, whose father grew up in the District, music and acting were equal interests as he grew up in Miami.
There was a moment when his punk-ska band, Blinking Underdogs, threatened to break out. But, he says with a shrug, “every time there’d be a manager getting involved or it looked like we were going to sign with a manager, I’d always do something to [muck] it up, in a Llewyn type of way.”
Isaac went to Juilliard for acting, seemingly making his choice, but found his musical abilities being used along the way.
“The very first proper play I did was ‘Godspell,’ and I played the guitar for it and I had a small part in a high school play,” he says. “And before that, in sixth grade, I wrote a musical about Noah’s ark.”
He’d bring music to movie roles as well. In 2011 alone, he sang Roxy Music in the “Sucker Punch,” took up classical piano in the Madonna-directed “W/E” and got to perform an original song in “10 Years.”
“Ironically, all those movies that came to me, it wasn’t a requirement that I was a musician or a singer,” Isaac says. “It was strange how those things sort of gravitated toward me.”
It was stranger still when the Coen brothers concocted their early ’60s set piece on the East Village folk scene, loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s rangy memoir “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.” Finding an actor with musical ability was both necessary and nearly impossible.
“Quite honestly, at a certain point, we wondered whether or not we’d written an uncastable part,” Joel Coen says in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “Until we actually met Oscar, we hadn’t seen anyone who even came close. And, frankly, if we hadn’t met Oscar, it’s possible we wouldn’t have made the movie.”
“It was a bit miraculous to see Oscar finally walk in,” T Bone Burnett, the lanky Texas producer and performer who presided over the music, says over the phone from San Francisco, “because the field was so limited. In other words, there was no one else.”
Isaac had prepared as much as he could for the audition.
“They sent ‘Hang Me’ for everyone who was auditioning to learn,” Isaac says. “But the song they sent was a Dave Van Ronk recording, so I just decided: You know what? That’s the gateway in.”
He concentrated exclusively on the recordings of the growly folksinger, who died in 2002. “I decided I was going to do probably what Dave Van Ronk did, which is listen to the old songs and learn them. Learn them note for note. Then after you know them note for note, then you can start arranging them in our own way.”
A bit of East Village serendipity helped.
While out on a small indie movie set on Long Island he noticed an extra playing a background barfly doing some guitar fingerpicking between takes.
“I told him, ‘I’m auditioning for this thing that’s kind of inspired by Dave Van Ronk, do you know Dave Van Ronk?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, I played with Dave.’ ”
Erik Frandsen, a Greenwich Village fixture who still plays Café Vienna on Monday nights, invited him over for a few lessons.
“So I go over to his place and it’s like a time capsule. He’s got guitars all over, he’s got records stacked up, and he played me recordings of Dave playing,” Isaac says. “And he started giving me guitar lessons.”
Before long, Isaac was opening for Frandsen at tiny clubs all over the Village. “He’d let me come on and do a song right before he came on, and it was great,” Isaac says. “That was the style of these guys. That’s what Van Ronk did. All of these kids would come to Van Ronk’s and sleep on his couch, and Dylan was one of them. So I got to actually live that.”
With Frandsen’s help, Isaac became the kind of guitarist and singer whose live performances could captivate a film audience and shed a softer light on what was otherwise a very prickly character.
Isaac describes the scruffy, down-on-his-luck Llewyn as someone “who is so self-aware that it alienates him. And also causes him to lack some empathy as well.”
Llewyn may not care whether people like him, but, Isaac says, “that doesn’t come from a place of cool. It’s actually very hot, and very open and very vulnerable in a shameful kind of way, and that’s what makes it even more difficult.”
Few are ever required to sing live to film. But, Burnett says, “Oscar was able to perform what was probably 15 minutes of music live, and he was able to play a song at the same tempo and the same intensity for 30 takes in a day. Just like that. It’s extraordinary. It takes extraordinary resilience and confidence and concentration. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
“It’s always been a bit nerve-racking if you’re not a singer singing in front of people,” says co-star Carey Mulligan, who came to “Inside Llewyn Davis” directly from playing Daisy in “The Great Gatsby.”
And though she had worked opposite Isaac previously, she said, “when I found out he was playing this part, I had no idea what kind of talent he had.”
And now Isaac, who worked largely in supporting roles previously, may have the luxury to choose between major film roles and a recording career.
Already he took to the stage with Mulligan and an impressive array of recording artists at an October concert in New York celebrating the film (shot for the documentary “Another Day/Another Time: Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’” premiering this Sunday on Showtime).
“It was mind boggling,” Isaac said of the show. “And to be backstage was even more amazing. The impromptu jam sessions that broke out! At one point, it was Joan Baez standing next to Jack White, standing next to Patti Smith, and then the Punch Brothers, and they’re all playing. I couldn’t believe I was even at that table.”
A similar concert launched the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” leading to a soundtrack Grammy and a spike in bluegrass popularity.
Isaac says a neo-folk boom could happen on the heels of “Llewyn” simply because “there is a growing reaction to all of the party music.”
But, Burnett says, “an ongoing renaissance in American music” is already happening with acts such as the Punch Brothers, Milk Carton Kids and Rhiannon Giddens. Such artists are “reinventing this traditional American music for this century. And they are so much better than we were in the last century at putting it together and understanding it.”
In such an atmosphere, Isaac says he’s exploring the possibilities of doing his own recording. “I have a huge library of songs I’ve written and recorded over the years, so I think it’s about figuring how to do it and what I want to say with it as opposed to an opportunistic, or in Llewyn’s words, an overly careerist move.”
But he wonders how people will respond to music from an actor. “It’s like in Llewyn’s case: What’s the authentic thing? Which has the most credibility? And that’s always been the case in music. In hip-hop, in punk rock, it’s like: Who means it more?”
“With actors, [the feeling is] hey, they’re faking it anyway. But I don’t feel that because I know I’ve been playing forever and I’ve never tried to monetize it in any way. In fact, I’ve always done something to screw that up. So we’ll see.”
Catlin is a freelance writer.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Opening in area theaters on Dec. 20. Rated R for language including sexual references. 105 minutes.