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Of his character, actor Oscar Isaac says, ‘Llewyn wants to succeed and fail in equal measure.’David McNew/Reuters

You never know which events in your life are going to shape you, do you? You can't recognize them while you're living through them. Only when you're looking back can you say, "Oh yeah, that thing, that was a thing that made me."

Certainly Oscar Isaac – the actor and musician who's riding one of those "Where did he come from?" rocket ships to glory as the title character in the new Coen brothers' film, Inside Llewyn Davis – couldn't have known that a childhood punishment would become both a metaphor for his personality and a handy tool in his work. (The film, opening gradually across the country this month, was named best picture by the Toronto Film Critics Association, and Isaac won best actor. He's also a Golden Globe nominee.)

As a kid at a private grade school, growing up in Miami with strict Protestant parents and a distaste for authority, Isaac liked to cause trouble. (His full name is Oscar Isaac Hernandez; his mother is Guatemalan, and his father is Cuban.) "I set off a fire extinguisher in the gym, defaced a mural, just stupid stuff," he said in a recent phone interview. He was genial and enthusiastic, occasionally dropping the word "man" at the end of his sentences, in keeping with the vibe of Inside Llewyn Davis, which is about a prickly folk musician in 1960s Greenwich Village.

"It felt good when I made kids laugh, so I'd do it a lot," Isaac continues. Eventually he was expelled. But before that, one of his teachers resorted to screening off his desk from the rest of the class with a cardboard car-windshield shade.

In high school, Isaac started playing in "crazy punk bands," in an atmosphere rife with alcohol and drugs. "Temptation wasn't my thing, so I always felt a bit removed from everything," he says. "I feel like I can trace that back to being surrounded by the cardboard. I was always a bit apart, commenting on what was happening. As opposed to really living it."

A few years later, as an acting student at the Juilliard School in New York (he graduated in 2005), Isaac realized that his analytical remove could be helpful in that vocation, too – though not necessarily in his personal life. "Anybody who dedicates himself to exploring the human condition, there's always a detached eye that's watching," he says. "In any situation, a little part of me is observing it, to see if there are any raw materials to create something else later."

A fight with a girlfriend brought that idea home. "She was crying, and I started to get emotional, too," Isaac recalls. "But a part of me suddenly wanted to laugh, even though it was such a horrible situation. I had to stop myself, because obviously she would have been furious. And in the middle of all that, I thought, 'Wow, this is a weird, unusual feeling. Remember what it's like, because it might be something you can use.'"

He remembers stepping outside to get some air, pacing back and forth, full of shame and guilt that he could be that detached. "One part of me is thinking, 'I need to get help, right?'" he says. "Because that can't be healthy. You're scavenging your own life." At the same time, he was also thinking, "Wait a second, this is not necessarily a horrible thing."

Isaac decided his only choice was to "get comfortable" with that invisible screen around him. "I do what I do" – act – "because I can do that," he says now. "The better I am at observing moments in life, the better I'll be at showing them in my acting. I can be absolved for that sin [of detachment] by showing someone else, 'Hey, this is what complex emotions feel like.'"

He honed his skills in small but choice roles: a guest spot on Law & Order: Criminal Intent; an interpreter in Che; the romantic security guard in W.E.; Carey Mulligan's boyfriend in Drive. He continued to play music, too. "I was focused on getting good, getting better," he says. "I always knew it was a matter of time till I got a role I could excel in." Then the Coens decided to make a movie about a folk singer whose emotional detachment is both his defining trait and his downfall, and all the stars aligned.

Llewyn is based loosely on Dave Van Ronk, an avuncular figure in the Greenwich Village folk scene, nicknamed "the mayor of MacDougal Street," who helped other musicians find bigger success than he ever did. (The movie's title comes from his album Inside Dave Van Ronk.) "Llewyn wants to succeed and fail in equal measure," Isaac says. "He plays only old songs. He sees that to succeed would be to compromise who he is – he'd have to write new songs, shave his beard to a goatee. Career calculus, which he's not willing to do."

In a telling moment, Llewyn sits in a coffee house, detached, as the crowd sings along to 500 Miles. "He's overwhelmed by how much he is not that thing that's happening, whatever it is," Isaac says. "You can't try to be authentic. You either are or you aren't."

To play Llewyn, Isaac used Charles Bukowski's poem Bluebird as a mantra. (It begins, "There's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too tough for him.") "Llewyn has this rich, tender inner life that's waiting to come out, but he shuts it off; the only time he lets it out is when he sings," Isaac says.

He also found inspiration in something T-Bone Burnett, the film's executive music producer, said: "T-Bone talks about how there are some people who walk down the road, and see fruit hanging in a tree. They think, 'Look at that, I should get that.' They look around to see if anyone's coming. They're crossing back and forth in the street, thinking how maybe they're going to pick it. And somebody else walks by, whistling, and he just grabs it."

Isaac's not sure which guy he is – "It depends on the day, man," he says, laughing. But Llewyn is clearly the former; and thanks to that cardboard screen and his ability to detach, Isaac was uniquely ready to play him. "No matter what you try to control in life, there's no way to tell what's going to happen," he says. "You're at the mercy of fate and chance. It's like Llewyn: You can work hard, you can not compromise, you can have a real vision for what you want as an artist, and if things don't line up your way, you're [screwed]. And if they do, you have to be ready for that moment.

"In my situation, things lined up so perfectly," he sums up. "No matter how much calculation you do, you could never calculate that."

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