Sure megawatt smiles and billion dollar bankrolls go a long way in a town built on beauty and status, but when it comes to the actual art-makers whose creative scope has truly made Hollywood what it is today, it’s pretty much agreed that good people want to work with good people…

Minnesota’s own Joel and Ethan Coen by all accounts, are such people. Affable, curious, and dedicated, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone with negative things to say about the dynamic duo. Fortunately, they also happen to be filmmaking geniuses; ones possessed of a style and perspective that is undeniably all their own. Perhaps that’s why almost 30 years into their storied partnership, the brothers are still at the top of their game – case in point, this month’s Golden Globe Nominated Inside Llewyn Davis – and still attracting the best actors in the business.

“They have a (great) vision and they know how to achieve it. They surround themselves with people who are competent and excel at their jobs – it makes for a great set and happy performances – and that’s almost everything when you’re doing a film.”

Legendary star of the big and small screen, John Goodman doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing the prodigious talents of his long time buddies and frequent collaborators.The first time (that I met them), I went in to audition for Raising Arizona. I had such a great time hanging out with them, to the point where I almost didn’t care if I got it – I mean I wanted it very badly – but they were just great guys to hang around with for the hour that I was in there, and I think I exceeded my time limit because we were having so much fun.”


Now, 27 years and 6 iconic films later, the relationship is stronger than ever, with Goodman giving another memorable performance as “bop-pianist” and “blowhard”, Roland Turner, in this latest Coen pic. But Guatemalan born, Miami-raised actor/musician Oscar Issac will never forget that first collaboration… “I remember seeing (Raising Arizona) as a little kid and it just blew my little kid mind. It was so funny but also made me feel so sad and weird.”

It was the future Juilliard graduate’s first introduction to a filmmaking pair who would immediately become his favorite directors, and whose talent and understanding of the human condition still floors him:

“They make theater about the common man. (In) Barton Fink, John Turturro says it, I want to make theater of the common man!  That’s what they’ve always done – the common man dangling in existence. It’s an investigation of existence and existence is both desperate and completely absurd. It’s mysterious and dark, joyful and painful, and those things are constantly happening, sometimes right on top of each other.”

Isaac’s apt and eloquent description can certainly be applied to the rootless troubadour at the center of Inside Llewyn Davis, a walking contradiction whom he felt an instant affinity towards.


“Obviously the writing is such that you quickly get the clue that people are not too happy with Llewyn, or at least the people in his circle. He’s someone who is disconnected and isolated from others. He’s someone who is an island onto himself, (but) early on I thought I want to still convey warmth! – just not use any of the traditional means of doing that, which is charming or ingratiating yourself to someone, or even smiling – things that most people normally do. You tell a joke and than you laugh to let others know you were joking. He doesn’t do any of those things.”

In many ways, Llewyn is a typically flawed and complicated Coen anti-hero, but when it comes to conveying that warmth, he’s got a singularly breathtaking gift. Isaac explains, “The only time Llewyn does connect with people and open up is when he plays his songs. That’s (when) he really shows a window into where he’s at emotionally.”

And when your directors tap their friend and frequent collaborator, the imitable T-Bone Burnett as the film’s music producer, you better believe that those performances are gonna be authentic. Actor Stark Sands, who plays the scene-stealing Gomer Pyleesq private turned weekend folk singer, Troy Nelson, gushes, “T-Bone is like a mystical music wizard. He’s always finding new ways to deepen the music that we’re listening to because he has ears that hear things differently than everybody else.”

Isaac is equally as effusive in his praise, crediting the Oscar-Winner and global ambassador of American music with not only helping him find Llewyn’s musical voice, but also his own:


“(T-Bone) completely changed the way that I listen to and play music. The first thing we did (after meeting) was go out to Tarzana to Norm’s Rare Guitars and find Llewyn’s guitar which was from 1924. (It was) this little (Gibson) L1 which is what rock and roll was invented on – it’s the Robert Johnson at the crossroads guitar, so we joked that I made a very special deal with T-Bone. Then he took me back to his home studio and the first thing he did was put on Tom Waits’ new record and leave the room for an hour. He was like the musical Mister Miyagi: an invisible hand that was guiding me, never telling me what to sound like, but stripping away any artifice.”

It was exactly what the actor needed, considering, as he explains, “this film isn’t like a musical where the songs are an expression of the character and of the plot and what’s happening. The songs have zero to do with the plot really, (they’re) more of a revelation or a window in.”

That fresh approach gives the film a warm, cozy intimacy, something Stark Sands, the Tony-Nominated star of Journey’s End and Kinky Boots loved, even if it required that he both modify his approach and become better acquainted with folk music.

“When I auditioned for the part, the only exposure I had to it was the song that I had to audition with, which was the song I sang in the film, ‘The Last Thing On My Mind’ by Tom Paxton. My parents didn’t listen to folk music and  I wasn’t exposed to it, so I had to immerse myself in it. I got the part and I had about 6 weeks until we started shooting, and I just started listening to all the music that I could get my hands on from the time, which includes the grittier stuff like Dave Van Ronk, which was less commercially successful, but more influential on people like Bob Dylan, and then the Peter, Paul and Mary’s and the big hugely successful acts.”


Isaac also dove headfirst into the music of this era: “Dave Van Ronk’s repertoire was really my lifeline for this movie. His music just spoke to me in a very particular way so I (chose to) learn large amount of his repertoire (even though) it wasn’t dictated that I was supposed to sound like him because obviously I wasn’t playing him.”

That’s because even though the Coen’s loosely adapted the 2005 Van Ronk memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street (written mostly after his death by Elijah Wald) for the film, the actor was told from the start that this was not a biopic. Although, he had no idea how much freedom he’d be given, especially when it came to creating Llewyn’s voice…

“What I decided to do just for the audition – we all had to sing ‘Hang Me’, whoever auditioned – was that I would do Van Ronk’s arrangement, but just sing it like me. And then from there, I assumed there would be a panel of experts headed by T-Bone who would get me to sound exactly how they needed me to sound. But that never happened. In fact, it was a much slower, organic process, and as I investigated the character more, and let his circumstances inform who he is, there was a mixing of my voice and Llewyn’s voice – and the pressure and compression that he’s feeling – and I decided to live in that brackish water.”

It’s all par for the course when it comes to working with Joel and Ethan, famous for giving their actors room to breathe, and for creating characters that are as enigmatic as they are unforgettable. John Goodman offers up some insight:


“They are very meticulous in their writing and it doesn’t need any improvement from me because you can’t improve upon it. So when you get something like that, it’s really liberating – you are free to act and be the character.”

And to let inspiration descend… “I was very fortunate in that I let the guy come to me. I just read it, read it, read it, – I had a lot of long speeches and I’m getting older so I had to keep going over and over – and the voice came to me. I just had to trust that it was all in there and when that happened it worked for Joel and Ethan so I said, well this is good enough.”

Clearly the trio, whom Goodman describes as “(part of) the Midwestern wiseguy network” because  “early on we discovered that we had a lot of the same reference points” know what works for them, but the Emmy-Winning former Roseanne star doesn’t take any of it for granted:

I was at a ceremony (recently) and I remarked – and I meant it – that I would not be up there if it weren’t for Joel and Ethan Coen. Being able to work with them has really done a lot for me. When you work with people who are that good, you can’t help but rise to the occasion.”


Naturally everything goes back to these auteur siblings, and as he stares down a much deserved Golden Globe Nomination and perhaps even his first Academy Award nod, Oscar Isaac takes a minute to reflect on his magical experience and to share some deliciously insider information that perhaps best posits the reason for Joel’s and Ethan’s continued success:

“I learned not to look for compliments from the Coens, because they don’t give many. That first week (of filming) you’re like, they’re not saying if it’s good or notI hope it’s going ok! But soon, you don’t look for it anymore, and it’s actually almost a relief because now it’s not about that constant judgment. It’s just about the work and about figuring this thing out. (That’s) why actors are always dying to work with the Coens, because they just set the stage for you to do your best work.”