Interview: Oscar Isaac Talks "10 Years," the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," and Jamming with Justin Timberlake

The actor discusses the Channing Tatum-produced high school reunion movie.

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Aside from being "that guy" you recognize in some of your favorite movies, e.g. Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, you really don't know much about Oscar Isaac yet. But come 2013, you sure will. As the star of the prestigious Coen brothers' next film Inside Llewyn Davis (which co-stars Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), the 32-year-old actor is bound to grave the covers every major movie publication from The Hollywood Reporter to Entertainment Weekly. Just think about what happened to Javier Bardem after starring in No Country for Old Men, and you'll get a glimpse of Isaac's projected trajectory. 

Inside Llewyn Davis follows the Guatemalan-born Isaac as the titular singer-songwriter, a New York City folk musician in the '60s. The role required him to showcase his natural musical ability, though it wasn't the first time he had to do so. In the Jamie Linden-directed 10 Years (available on DVD/Blu-ray today), Isaac plays a famous musician who returns home for his high school reunion and gets into shenanigans with old friends, some of whom are played by Kate Mara, Aubrey Plaza, Ari Graynor, Chris Pratt and Channing Tatum (who also produced the film). And, of course, what would a rock star character be without his own original song?

Complex recently caught up with Isaac to discuss filming the understated rom-com, being given the chance to finally reconcile his passion for acting and singing, and what we can expect from him in the new year.

Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)

How did you get attached to 10 Years?
Jamie Linden wrote and directed it, he knew my work, and he ended up asking me to be a part of it. I play the role of Reeves, this musician who has had some fame with a particular song who comes back to his high school reunion and finds the woman that inspired it. Once I got the role, the producers were sending me different possibilities for songs. But I've been playing and writing music my whole life, and thought that I would love to take on the challenge of creating a song that we can use for the movie. So I wrote a song called “Never Had,” and he loved it, and I ended up performing the song live in the movie.

The song was so impressive that after the movie I looked it up and was surprised to learn that you actually wrote it.
Yeah, thank you. For me, it would have been the biggest failure of my life if I couldn’t write a song for this movie. [Laughs.] So I definitely put a lot in to it, especially the fact that, like Les Miserables, we recorded it live as well.

Was that nerve-racking at all?
A little bit, but the truth is I played open mics and clubs and things like that. I was really excited for a chance to [play music professionally], but there was a certain point when I started to study acting seriously. When I moved to New York, I had to let my band know that I couldn't play anymore, and that was difficult to leave that behind. 

When did you decide that you were going to act instead of focus on your music?
Well, at the time, I was making movies with my buddies and doing that a lot. Then I randomly went down to Miami to audition for a play and got in. That was actually my first real good source of income, doing plays in Miami. When I came up to New York to do a play, I passed by Julliard, and I was like, “Oh I heard of this place.” I applied, and ended up getting in.

It's great that you get to do both now.
Yeah, it is really amazing that this year I was able to circle back and get back to my original passion.

Sometimes it can be isolating to go to whole new places to film for long amounts of time, not really knowing anybody, and just focusing on your work.

Since this is a movie about high school, what were you like in those days?
I was a band guy. I was in four different bands in high school. Soft rock band, and a hardcore band, and a punk band and stuff like that, and I'd just make movies with my buddies.

Did you ever go to your 10-year reunion?
No, I missed it. I didn’t go.

Do you plan on going to the next one?
Oh, like the 15-year or 20-year? Oh, no, I don't plan on going. All of my high school issues are resolved! [Laughs.] So there is no reason to go back.

Could you relate to your character at all with having all this fame and the consequent weirdness of going back to what you once knew and who you once were?
You could imagine at a certain point. I know that when Jamie and Channing were talking about it that it was definitely Channing’s experience.

Watching the movie, it looked like you guys had been friends forever. What was it like on set?
Well, I think that was because we were all in one hotel. We were shooting and staying in the same hotel, and everyone was just drunk all the time. [Laughs.] I think that made us all seem very friendly.

Do you keep in touch with any of them at all?
Yeah, Max Minghella is a very close friend of mine and I talk to him regularly.

Do you find that that kind of bonding experience as an actor happens often or is this a rare thing?
I think it is rare. You do get close to people very quickly, but then the nature of it is that you move on to a new group of people. You meet a new family and a new focus, and it goes on and on and on like that. It is rare, at least for me, that you really stay in contact with the other actors and go out of your way to go see them and maintain a friendship with them.

Your character is a rock star and has no time for his life back home. Do you find yourself experiencing the same thing as a movie star and having to film all the time?
Yeah, I think that sometimes it can be isolating to go to whole new places to film long amounts of time, not really knowing anybody, and just focusing on your work. I think those times of loneliness can come off the lot, so it's good to have a good stable home life.

Are you based in New York?
Yeah, I've been here for over 12 years now.

Do you play gigs often?
Yeah, I do when I am not working. I play around the city a whole lot, and I have a band called Nightlab. We are always writing and performing all around the city and in Brooklyn. 

After 10 Years, you have the Coen brothers movie coming out, Inside Llewyn Davis.
Yeah, I am thrilled about it. I think it is an incredible movie. It's one of the most personal and intimate movies. I’m really excited about everything that is going on around it, as far as the music side of it—the performances, the soundtrack release, and all of those aspects.

Did you get to write some of your own music for that as well?
No, it takes place in the '60s, and it’s all focused on all old folk songs that have been passed down for years and years and years, so there actually aren’t any new songs in there.

On set, did you ever jam with Justin Timberlake?
Definitely! We got to go to the studio beforehand with Justin Timberlake and Marcus Mumford, who were a big part of the recording of the music, and we got to jam and play a whole lot. It was just heaven.

What was that collaboration like?
I couldn’t have dreamed of a better scenario with Justin and Marcus. Also, the Coens are incredibly collaborative and incredibly excited to impart their story and what they have learned throughout the years. They would tell me about a performer I should look into or a movie that they really like, and it was really inspirational.

Besides Inside Llewyn Davis, what can we expect next from you in the new year?
There is a film called Therese, which is based on a novel by Émile Zola. Then Two Faces of January, which Hossein Amini—the writer of Drive—wrote and directed. We just finished shooting that with Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, and it's a 1960s psychological thriller that takes place in Greece and Istanbul.

Besides that, expect a lot more music and some shows with my band. Who knows, we’ll see what happens with that, and maybe people will start listening to it.

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Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)

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