The last time most of you saw Oscar Isaac on a movie screen, he was getting blown away in a botched armed robbery while Ryan Gosling stoically waited for him in a getaway car. That role as Carey Mulligan’s jailbird husband in last year’s Drive was, for all intents and purposes, the Julliard-trained actor’s breakout. But if you blinked—and most people did—you probably missed him in the charming ensemble comedy 10 Years, which was released on DVD this week. In it, Isaac manages to stand out in a star-studded cast that includes Channing Tatum, Chris Pratt, Rosario Dawson, Justin Long, and Aubrey Plaza, as high school friends reconnecting at their high school reunion. Isaac’s character is the one who made it big (every high school reunion’s got one), and gets to display his musical prowess in a standout karaoke scene. The performance came easy to Isaac, who’s been writing and performing songs well before Hollywood took notice. That background came in handy when he auditioned for the lead in Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers highly anticipated tome to the ’60s era Greenwich Village folk scene. Isaac booked the part (based on the real-life mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk), and toplines a heavy-hitter cast that includes Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, and Garrett Hedlund. We spoke to Isaac recently about the criminally underseen 10 Years, and that feeling you get when your favorite moviemakers want you to star in their film.
You have a musical number in 10 Years, and your playing a musician in Inside Llewyn Davis. Is singing a prerequisite for your roles now?
It’s interesting because I’ve played in bands. I’ve been playing music for years. Like literally since I was 13 years old, and when I was in high school that was my entire focus, and I’d be making movies as well. When I got into Julliard I had to make a big decision whether to leave my band out in Miami to do the acting thing for a while, and I ended up doing that. It’s always a difficult decision to have to choose one over the other. The fact is that this last year worked out so incredibly well that I’d been able to do the two things I love in the same medium.
10 Years feels like an overlooked film to me. It had a lot of charm and a great cast. Did you get that sense?
I know, it’s a bummer that it didn’t end up getting a good release. That’s something I have no control over. You always hope that people are going get to see your work, and sometimes it works out that way and sometimes it doesn’t. But I was really hoping that people would see it because it is such a small, quirky movie but made with a lot of love.
You’ve been working for a long time, but only in this last year does it feel like your career is really coming into its own. Does it feel that way for you?
Definitely. I think the shit that’s been happening, I’ve been doing this for a little while now and so every year seems like the roles get more interesting and are in higher profile films, so that’s been really good. And being able to write a song for a film and perform it in it in its entirety was great. There was a lot of talk about that particular part—it’s and you see how visceral it is. And that’s the same thing we did in the Coen brothers movie as well.
Tell me about getting the lead in Inside Llewyn Davis. That’s a really big deal.
For me it was a huge turning point. It’s definitely a big resounding validation to have those guys wanting you for the lead of their film, so that was a huge moment.
How did you book it?
I auditioned, went through the process with the casting director and the two of them, worked on it, and they ended up hiring me off of my audition. It was an unbelievable moment. I had heard about them a long time ago, wanting to make a movie about a folk musician, and they’re my favorite filmmakers so those two things together—I knew I had to at least get a shot at this. It’s one of the most intimate movies that they’ve made and one of the most personal films that they’ve made.
The film is based on a real person and a real time in New York’s history. What kind of research did you do to prepare for it?
I played a lot, a lot, a lot of music. I worked with T-Bone Burnett, and just played a lot of gigs and read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies. And a really good friend lives here in the city, and actually knew the real Llewyn Davis. They were friends and he lives in the Village on MacDougal Street, and I’d go and hang with him and he’d tell me stories.
Most people know you from Drive. When you were filming it did you get the sense it would become the cult phenomenon that it did?
I could tell how great Nicolas was and what an interesting vision he had, but there’s never any way of knowing how people are going to receive a movie. But I definitely thought we were doing something with integrity and that we were definitely interested in it, not just being palatable but in making a movie that’s interesting and unique. I think that guided a lot of our choices.