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The Coens Mint a New Leading Man

”Inside Llewyn Davis” star Oscar Isaac was convinced he’d missed his big break — until he was offered the role of a lifetime

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There’s a scene in the Coen brothers’ new drama Inside Llewyn Davis where the titular 1960s folksinger finishes a deeply moving ballad, only to be told with devastating honesty by an impresario he’s trying to impress, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Actor Oscar Isaac has Llewyn take this bullet to the heart with a simple, heartbreaking nod and shrug. It’s a reaction the 33-year-old has honed from plenty of his own rejection experiences, most notably the time he got a call from writer-director Tony Gilroy telling him Universal didn’t want him to headline The Bourne Legacy despite being Gilroy’s first pick. (They ultimately went with Jeremy Renner.) “The studio was saying, ‘It’s too risky, nobody knows who the heck you are,'” Isaac remembers. “Because that had happened six or seven months before, I was expecting the same kind of call from Joel [Coen].”

Instead, the elder filmmaking sibling informed Isaac he was their choice to play the bristly, obstinate couch-surfing also-ran who plays at Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe but never quite makes it. Though the Guatemalan-born performer played Prince John opposite Russell Crowe in Robin Hood and was a romantic rival to Ryan Gosling in Drive, this is Isaac’s first time as the main attraction: “The irony of it, or maybe the destiny, is that had I gotten Bourne, I wouldn’t have been available for this,” he says. “It’s an example of good luck in the form of bad luck.”

The idea of luck as the knife’s edge separating success from failure is one of Inside Llewyn Davis‘ biggest themes. “Talent is obviously important, but it’s better to be lucky than good,” says Isaac. “And I got really lucky.” But to leave it at that unfairly discounts the actor’s efforts to land the role, one to which he was ideally suited with nearly two decades of guitar playing under his belt. When asked to send a sample song to the Coens, Isaac recorded more than 30 takes, and before he set foot in the audition room, he took extensive music lessons in an apartment directly above the old Gaslight. “I remember sometimes literally yelling to the heavens to give me this part,” he says. The fact that he would share many scenes with an orange tabby did give him pause, however: He’d once spent two days in the hospital after a bite from a stray cat gave him a lymphatic infection. “Cut to me on set and them saying, ‘We’ve got about five cats, and we’re going to attach them by a wire to you,'” he laughs. “I was like, Uh-oh.”

Much of Inside Llewyn Davis, a true character piece, rests on Isaac’s shoulders, and while there have been murmurs of an Oscar nomination ever since the film’s Cannes debut, the experience of playing Llewyn has taught him not to invest too heavily in the concept of success. “Llewyn is fine as long as he gets to play his music and pay the bills,” he says. “It’s the same for me. I just hope I get to keep doing what I’m doing. Although I admit it’s pretty nice when people are paying attention.”