Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac: Failing to get Bourne lead made me a star

THE EXPRESS Jan 19, 2014

PLAYING struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis, in the Coen brothers’ latest award-winning comedy, was a role Oscar Isaac had been preparing for for 34 years…

Oscar Isaac is about to become very famous for playing a complete nobody. The hugely talented, classically trained actor, who was born in Guatemala and raised in Miami, gives a star-making performance playing a struggling folk singer in 1961 New York in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.

No matter that he failed to nab an Oscar nomination (the picture as a whole was weirdly overlooked), he has already bagged a Golden Globe nomination and was the toast of the Cannes Film Festival where the picture won the Grand Prix.

Now he is white-hot with a string of major movies on the horizon including thriller A Most Violent Year with Jessica Chastain and Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces Of January for British company Working Title.

“The irony is not lost on me; that I am being celebrated for playing someone that is not,” says Isaac, 34, as we chat in a London hotel room, the star as amiable and articulate as his character Llewyn Davis is dejected and monosyllabic.

A bleakly comic character study, the picture was inspired by Dave Van Ronk, a Greenwich Village folk singer who missed out on the big time, eclipsed by his protegé Bob Dylan.

As a penniless Davis drifts around New York with his guitar and a misappropriated cat, it becomes apparent that the soulful singer-songwriter is not going to catch the break that the part itself represented for Isaac. Nevertheless, Isaac could certainly relate to that sense of missed opportunity.

After notching up several supporting roles in the likes of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, Drive and W.E, Madonna’s misfire about Wallis Simpson, Isaac finally thought he had landed his big break: playing the new Jason Bourne.

Isaac reveals he was director Tony Gilroy’s choice to take over from Matt Damon in The Bourne Legacy playing new spy Aaron Cross.

“Tony was very interested in me playing the role and said he would bat for me with the studio,” recalls Isaac. “I did a 12-hour screen test and we talked so much about the part. But wo weeks later I got a call from Tony saying: ‘It’s not going to happen because the studio just can’t take that chance on an unknown commodity.’ That was pretty hard because it felt like everything was happening.”

In the end, swallowing his pride, Isaac took a supporting role in the picture; the irony being that had he landed the lead (which went to Jeremy Renner) he would have been unavailable for Inside Llewyn Davis.

“If I had, I couldn’t have done Inside Llewyn Davis and this is a movie that I prepared 34 years for. So sometimes good luck comes in the form of bad luck.”

Isaac’s affinity for the character extended beyond his own instinctive artistic integrity and thoughtfulness. He is also a gifted musician who was in a college band and still writes and records music today. “I never separated music and acting as two different career choices; they were always mixed together,” says Isaac of his childhood.

His Cuban-born father is a doctor who introduced his children to Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. “He was a bit of a frustrated artist and he always wrote and recorded music and he would make movies with us too but it was always just for fun,” says Isaac.

In the end, acting chose Isaac after he applied on a whim to the drama course at New York’s Julliard School. On graduation he found steady work on the stage but, like Llewyn Davis, he never knew where the next cheque was coming from.

Meanwhile he was honing his craft, even if his break was proving elusive.

“I would get a great role and it would come and go and I’d think: ‘If they just gave me one more shot’, but then you realise it’s not about that. It is about a body of work and it is about learning the craft of acting for a camera. Now I think it could not have gone a better way because when the time finally came I was ready.”

As much as the role was a gift for Isaac it was also salvation for Joel and Ethan Coen who despaired of finding an actor who could both act and sing.
Even so, they kept Isaac waiting for a nailbiting few weeks after he auditioned for them. “A month passed and then I got a call and it was Joel and he started talking in a similar way to how Tony Gilroy had. ‘Sorry it took so long, we had to go through the process blah blah blah’ and I thought ‘oh God, not again’. It felt like he talked for ever, but finally he said, ‘we’d love for you to play the role’.”

The actors Isaac admires are those who disappear into their roles. So who might his role models be? Daniel Day-Lewis? Gary Oldman? The answer is a surprise: “Tim Curry.” It was the under-appreciated British star of The Rocky Horror Picture Show who made the young Isaac aware of the possibilities of performance after he saw him in Ridley Scott’s Legend, in which Curry played the villain, and then in family movie Clue.

“At some point in Clue he smiled a certain way and I go: ‘That’s the smile from the devil guy in Legend! It’s the same guy!’ It just floored me.”

There you have it. Oscar Isaac: a likely Oscar-winning star of the future who owes it all to a pair of overlooked performers: Tim Curry and Dave Van Ronk.