Actor prepares for failure, and succeeds, with 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

Movies • Oscar Isaac "picked up on the clues" in Coen brothers' folk-scene script.
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The title character of Joel and Ethan Coen's latest film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," is a folk musician who experiences failure and disappointment at every turn.

For Oscar Isaac, the actor who plays Llewyn (pronounced LOO-uhn), the preparation for the film (which opens Friday in Salt Lake City) began with the audition.

"I had been told by a lot of friends that when you audition for [the Coen brothers] that it's the best audition of your life," Isaac said in a phone interview. "They're going to laugh, they're going to encourage you, and you probably won't get it."

He did get it, and now Isaac is getting what comes from giving an acclaimed performance in a Coen brothers movie: the royal treatment.

Isaac has received nominations in the Golden Globes, Gotham Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards, and he has an outside shot at an Oscar nomination. He's also been doing the talk-show circuit, which resulted in a great viral moment on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon": a soulful folk rendition of Katy Perry's hit song "Roar."

At his first audition, Isaac said, he didn't know much about the movie except that it was set in the folk-music scene in New York's Greenwich Village around 1961, just when a young troubadour named Bob Dylan was about to break out.

As for the character, Isaac said, "I knew that it was not Dylan. That's all I had going."

By the second audition, Isaac had done his research. He talked to musicians who knew the scene, read books on the era and watched reruns of the crime series "The Naked City" (which was filmed in New York in the early '60s).

Finding clues about his character from the Coens' script was trickier. The script, he said, "intimates things — that's what's amazing about them. There are these little pearls that you have to dig up. I had to fill in a lot of these blanks. … I just picked up on the clues and I held on to them like lifelines."

It helped that Isaac knew how to play the guitar, but for this he learned a bass-heavy style of playing called "Travis picking."

It's also not the first time Isaac has sung in a movie (he performed Roxy Music's "Love Is the Drug" in "Sucker Punch"), but the singing required for "Inside Llewyn Davis" is different, he said.

"In other ones, you do express the character through the song," Isaac said. "Here, it's not an expression of Llewyn, it's a window into him."

It's sometimes a dark view, though, as Llewyn is not exactly a nice person. He's self-centered, arrogant, and in the recent past has had an affair with a fellow singer (Carey Mulligan) who's married to his best friend (Justin Timberlake).

Being an antihero is rather liberating, Isaac said. "I tend to be very nice in person, so it's nice to not have to be," he said. "We've been conditioned that every single protagonist has to be heroic."