Oscar Isaac on how he won the lead role in the Coens’ Llewyn

Oscar Isaac talks about his turn as a troubled folk singer in the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis.

Oscar Isaac is the star of Inside Llewyn Davis. David McNew / Reuters
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After supporting turns in films including Robin Hood and The Bourne Legacy, Oscar Isaac looks set for stardom with his performance as a troubled folk singer in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

You have a musical past, right?

I started playing guitar when I was 12. Later, I had soft rock bands, hard rock bands, punk bands – I’ve been all over the gamut. But never, as Llewyn would say, in a careerist kind of way. It was only about expression and recording.

Were you keen to work with the Coens?

They’re my favourite filmmakers. I had a poster of Miller’s Crossing in my room and I’ve seen Raising Arizona more than 20 times. Anyway, I was able to get a video to a casting director of me playing Hang Me, the opening song, and she liked it enough to send it to the Coens, and they brought me in.

The character of Llewyn was inspired by the late folky Dave Van Ronk. Did you try sounding like him, because you definitely didn’t try impersonating him?

There’s no way I could’ve, I’m not that talented. I knew that this was based on him when I went in, so I knew it was a long shot because Dave Van Ronk was a 6’ 4’’, 275-pound Swede, and I’m like a little guy with curly hair.

Did the Coens surprise you?

I expected them to be much more serious and closed off. I didn’t expect them to be as childlike as they are – just from a curiosity place – or as generous as they would be with information. Joel would sit and tell me stories about when he worked with Paul Newman and would talk about what he thinks directing is, which, for him, is just tone management.

You had to act with cats. Were they good collaborators?

Well, you’d think it would be the most natural thing in the world to tie a cat to you and then sprint down some steps and subways, but, apparently, they’re not that into that.