Moviegoers might not warm, entirely or at all, to Llewyn Davis but Oscar Isaac tumbled for the fictional folk singer he plays in the Coen brothers film "Inside Llewyn Davis."
"I fell in love with Llewyn as a character so I'll defend him to the death. I think he's someone being compressed by life, and he's a stranger in a strange land and self-aware to the point of alienation and an island unto himself.
"And so when he plays his songs, that's his only bridge, that's his only method of connection, communication," Mr. Isaac, a newly crowned Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award nominee, said in a phone interview.
Llewyn is a singer struggling to make it in the Greenwich Village folk scene. Poverty stricken, he surfs from one friend's couch to another and pins his hopes on nonexistent royalties from a solo album and then a misbegotten journey to meet a Chicago music mogul.
The actor used, as his inspiration, Dave Van Ronk, called the gravel-voiced, ragtime-picking patriarch of the Greenwich Village folk scene in his New York Times obituary. Nicknamed the Mayor of MacDougal Street, he died at 65 of colon cancer in 2002.
"What the Coens were interested in, and why they thought Van Ronk was an interesting source of inspiration was because he's not Dylan. He's not the poet genius, he's the blue-collar workman. He's not inventing a mythology for himself, he's very direct about the fact he's from the boroughs," Mr. Isaac said.
"And 'The Mayor of MacDougal Street,' which is Dave Van Ronk's memoirs about the time, talks all about the scene and also about his small successes and his bigger failures and his philosophy in the end of what success means to him. And the movie's very much about success and failure and how that's on a knife's edge and so many things have to line up for things to go your way and talent and hard work are just part of the equation."
In addition to Mr. Isaac, the cast includes Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund. The story spans roughly a week although it's jam-packed with music, miscues and major decisions and it doesn't follow the usual movie formula.
"We're conditioned, one, that the protagonist always has to be heroic and lovable and likable and that they have to win. It is a strange thing, in theater there's so much more room" for other outcomes.
"Think of all Shakespeare's tragedies. They don't win in the end. Often, they're terrible people that end up getting their heads cut off by the end of the play. And yet in film we don't give that same kind of leeway -- we've been conditioned in a weird way. I appreciate that the Coens make theater of the common man and that's what they've done since the beginning."
They put those very words into the mouth of "Barton Fink," starring John Turturro as a serious New York playwright who goes to Hollywood to write a screenplay in 1941 and descends into, well, hell. Along the way he meets a traveling salesman played by Mr. Goodman, a favorite of Joel and Ethan Coen.
Here, he's Roland Turner, a jazz musician with a problem with recreational drugs who spends a chunk of his screen time sitting in the back seat of a car. His character is loosely inspired by songwriter Doc Pomus and he taunts Llewyn: "What'd you say you played? Folk songs? I thought you said you were a musician."
There was little time for the "Roseanne" star to share tales about starring in the Coens' "Raising Arizona," "The Big Lebowski" or "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" or little else, for that matter.
"He just came in well into shooting and he had a pretty enormous challenge on his plate. He has these long stream-of-consciousness monologues directed just to the back of my head so it's all self-generated. He had a big challenge. He was very focused and obviously, they have a great rapport. He's a very gentle and generous man."
Much was made a year ago of the cast of "Les Miserables" singing live and the actors did the same here. "All of the music was performed live. It's all sung and played as it's happening. It's a concert film."
And yes, it was a huge challenge.
"I had to learn how to play this style of Travis picking [on guitar], and it had to be both intimate and personal and yet not self-involved and masturbatory. It had to still communicate a story, but clearly he's an introverted performer. There was definitely a delicate balance there and having it be Llewyn's voice, Llewyn's circumstances but also wanting my -- Oscar's -- voice as a musician to come through as well. So it was a balancing act."
Travis picking? It's a style of playing that's similar to stride or ragtime piano. "You need full finger independence -- the thumb is the metronome and plays the baseline while the index finger and the middle finger play the melody and counter-melodies, so you're essentially a one-man band."
Mr. Isaac, a Juilliard grad who portrayed a Pittsburgh teacher in "Won't Back Down," a handsome Russian emigre in Madonna's "W.E.," Ms. Mulligan's husband in "Drive," King John in Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood," and Joseph in "The Nativity Story," auditioned for the "Inside Llewyn Davis" casting director who made a tape and sent it to the filmmakers who brought him in for another audition.
"I didn't know what to expect. I always imagine them with berets on, like beatniks running a coffee shop in the '50s. They're very gentle, actually," relaxed, warm, quick to laugh and to tell stories about people with whom they've worked.
Asked if there's a modern-day counterpart to the folk singers of 1961, he said, "The folk singers were, in a way, curators or even you could say DJs. They would collect all these old songs and then present them to people. Songs that people surely didn't have a chance to hear before.
"As records and recorded music became more and more popular, I think you suddenly had a recording of the original so you didn't need a folk singer to play you some old songs ... So the idea of new songs became much more interesting and new music the new thing."
Today, hip-hop artists and rappers/producers such as Flying Lotus who find old, strange soul, funk and R&B songs and implement them in interesting ways for new generations could be seen as their successors.
(Spoiler alert) Asked what becomes of the title character, last seen witnessing another singer on the brink of the breakout and stardom he craves, Mr. Isaac imagines Llewyn Davis would go on to mentor younger musicians and teach guitar in -- where else? -- the Village.
Opens Friday at Manor Theater, Squirrel Hill.