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Michael Stuhlbarg—A Serious Man—9/29/09

/content/interviews/300/1.jpgMichael Stuhlbarg is, in Hollywood terms, an "unknown." But to New York theater audiences, Stuhlbarg is already a star. The Juilliard-trained actor was nominated for a Tony Award for his work opposite Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum in the Broadway production of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman. He played Hamlet in Central Park for the Public Theater, and performed in David Mamet's The Voynsey Inheritance, as well as in Long Day's Journey Into Night and Sam Mendes' production of Cabaret. Stuhlbarg has also cozied up to Martin Scorsese, having snagged a role in the auteur's sly short film "The Key to Reserva" and now playing a regular role in Scorsese's HBO series Boardwalk Empire, the heir apparent to The Sopranos. Stuhlbarg's Hollywood coming-out party, however, is his leading role in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. I sat down with Stuhlbarg at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel to pick his brain about playing Larry Gopnik, working with the Coens, and living a life in the theater.

Michael Stuhlbarg: Hi! (Laughs.)

Groucho: I hope you don’t feel too much like the hamster in the wheel.

Michael Stuhlbarg: Oh no no no: it’s good!

Groucho: So I read that you caught the acting bug first in a community theater production of Bye Bye Birdie.

MS: That’s right! (Laughs.)

G: Looking all the way back to then—

MS: God! (Laughs.)

G: Do you remember what your kid self was responding to that made you surprise yourself and say, “Hey, this is something I’d like to do more of.”

MS: (Laughs.) Y’know, truthfully, I was bored. I was backstage. They had thrown me into the chorus. I really only signed up to build the sets. And the director, if I remember correctly, had worked with Bob Fosse at one point or another. What she was doing in Long Beach, I’ll never know. But she said, “If you don’t like what you’re doing in the chorus, make yourself seen. Do something to make yourself noticed. To get yourself noticed. And I was a really—I guess more precocious than I remember myself being. I took her to heart. And I went home. I got a trenchcoat and a big green bottle of empty Inglenook wine I found in the trash can somewhere. I brought it to rehearsals the next day. And the middle of the sort of “eleven o’clock hour” “Spanish Rose” song at the end of the musical, I came out and pretended to be a drunk. Behind the leading actress, who never turned around during the course of the whole song. So I was mimicking her and doing all this sort of silly stuff. And it got a lot of laughs. And frankly something about hearing that laughter, I think, probably bit me really hard, and sort of said, “I like making people laugh.” They kept it in the play. So that’s sort of what got me started. My inner ham came out as an eleven-year-old, and I’ve kept doing it ever since.

G: I’ve heard you talk about actively seeking out a character in sort of the "outside-in" sense of looking for sort of externals—costumes—

MS: Sure.

G: Appearance and haircut and weight and what-not that would fit the character. But also I’ve heard you talking about sort of tricking yourself into receptivity where the character would sort of "find you," in a way.

MS: Okay…

G: Maybe I’m misquoting.

MS: No, no, that’s okay.

G: But, could you talk about the delicate balance of building a character, how you go about that?

/content/films/3601/1.jpgMS: Sure. I mean it’s a different job every time it’s thrown at you. You know? I don’t find that I have any kind of a formula for it. You never know how a character’s going to hit you until you throw yourself into it and see what happens. Sometimes you can find it physically first, sometimes you can find it because it resonates emotionally with you, sometimes there are ideas that the character speaks on that have resonance or that are completely different from you and you have to try to find your way in somehow or another. There’s no rulebook. You just—I find the more questions you ask, it’s a good place to start. You know? Just keep asking questions and see what sticks and see what eventually you can come up with [as] answers for yourself, but start with what’s given to you and ask questions.

G: One thing that you’ve become sort of infamous for, I suppose, is the idea of sketching the characters.

MS: Okay.

G: From your background, your interest in drawing and cartooning.

MS: Right.

G: You share those sketches with directors and designers.

MS: Sometimes, yeah.

G: When you first did that, were you apprehensive about "Well, you know, should I share this part of my process?" or—?

MS: Well, I—

G: When did you first start to do that?

/content/interviews/300/3.jpgMS: That’s a good question. What I remember—. (Pause.) A drama teacher, my acting teacher at Juilliard, Richard Feldman, pulled me aside during one of the critiques that they give out at drama school and said, “I love that you have such strong visions of what your characters are going to look like." Because by that time I had played a lot of sort of character parts at school. He said, “The next step in your journey”—something to this effect—was—he felt like it’s not enough to just present this pretty picture and place it out there and not let all the other characters that are around you to interact with you. You can’t hold yourself in such a tight straightjacket of what you think the character is like and keep it in your head. That won’t let you interact because then it becomes two-dimensional as opposed to three-dimensional. When it comes to life is when it interacts with other people. So you have to take your ideas and then throw them against and interact them with other people, then you’ll surprise yourself, and in surprising yourself, you’ll surprise everybody else. So that’s where the juice comes from. That’s where the joy and the fun and the surprises come from. So I guess I learned that from him.

G: Moving to A Serious Man, I’m curious, what kinds of discussions, if any, you had with the Coens about script and character prior to production. Do they prime you for this material?

MS: No.

G: Or even in a subtle way and not overtly?

MS: Well, I—as soon as I got cast in the part, I sat down and I read through the script diligently and wrote as many questions out as I could think of to start out with, and I ended up with like three-and-a-half pages of notes. And I called them up and I went through them all with them, and they answered every single one of them. In some cases they said, “That’s up to your interpretation. Do whatever you want with that.” In other cases they’d say that means this, you know? So that’s where I started. In terms of how it was going to be done, we had two days of rehearsal before we shot it, and in those two days we touched on every scene in the whole thing once. Enough just to sort of see if we were all on the same page and then to leave it alone until we actually did it. And they left it up to me then. You know? If they felt like I was going down a road that wasn’t helpful they’d say, “That was fine, but just think of it—here’s another possibility and here’s another possibility" and try to put them all on film, you know, and they chose the one that they liked best.

G: You’ve said in general about acting that the passion behind the language is what interests you. Which would seem to me to be music to the Coens' ears because like a lot of playwrights—and they are playwrights—there are real rhythms to their dialogue, and the spaces between the dialogue are very precise, and all of that. Do they direct to that at all on the set? Do they try to set a pace or is it kind of scripted beat by beat like a Mamet script would be?

/content/interviews/300/4.jpgMS: No, not at all. In fact, they leave you alone to interpret their music, as you would interpret your own—they just leave you alone to interpret that for yourself. And one of the things that I took away from that was Joel kept saying to me—because I left a lot of air between a lot of these—in a lot of my dialogue— and he said, "What that does—or what it’s gonna do for you—is you’re gonna end up with a performance that’s cut to pieces because you leave room for the editor to sort of snip it on both sides. What you might want to try to do is tie these things together so that you might have one long stream of a really good take as opposed to it being cut up so much." So that was something I took to heart, and I tried to do that a little bit more as the shooting went on. It wasn’t something that I was ever aware of and I thought that that was sort of my job, and in some way I felt those pauses as heavily, if not more so, as the text that I was given. It just seemed to me [Larry] lived in kind of this weighted pause, you know? A lot of where he—yeah. A lot of where he lives was in that—was in those silences. And just sort of bafflement.

G: Yeah. He’s a character who’s always, sort of, waiting for the shoe to drop. At least the shoe he wants to drop.

MS: Yeah. Yeah. And hoping it’s not the bad shoe. You know?

G: Right. You’ve put on and taken off weight with some regularity for roles, as you’ve said. Changing your body changes your carriage and your voice even.

MS: Yeah.

G: Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts in that regard to Larry, your carriage for Larry...

MS: The weight that I put on in terms of did that help me?

G: Yeah. Your physicalization in general.

MS: Yeah.

G: The weight, the carriage.

/content/interviews/300/5.jpgMS: Yeah. Well, I found that—I asked Joel and Ethan about that at the beginning of the process, and they said he never goes to the gym. So eat whatever you want and, you know, don’t go to the gym. So I ate whatever I wanted and I did not go to the gym. And that sort of, you know, feeling a little uncomfortable in my clothes, having my belly hang over a little bit was something that I imagine he just didn’t think about. You know, he probably had five of the same outfits that he wore, you know, all week long in terms of not having to think about what he wears every day. He’s very much a math-head that way. Like Einstein was. So I guess I found some of his physicality in just the doing of things and by putting on those pants that Mary Zophres hemmed up a couple of inches extra and, you know, the physical life sort of seems to take on a life of its own once you put these clothes on and you allow your body to rest in its, you know, natural places under the circumstances that you’ve allowed it to. With Long Day’s Journey Into Night, when I did that I was about thirty pounds lighter than I am now. When I did Pillowman I was fifty pounds heavier than I am now. So those just seem to feel right to me, and strangely I feel they did affect my vocal production in terms of the quality of sound that same out of me and just sort of the sense of presence that I felt when I was so much heavier and the other kind of presence when I was much lighter. That was part of the fun for me.

G: Larry could be called a modern-day Job. And he has an understandable, sort of, reaction to what’s going on around him of “What have I done to deserve this?” underlying and moving through that trouble. But it seems to me that it turns out to be less about what he’s done as what he’s capable of doing if he allows himself to. It seems like part of the cosmic joke in the story that maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that he’ll do something wrong. That he’ll make a mistake. So I guess I wanted to ask if you thought that maybe he earns his bad luck by handling it badly.

MS: I don’t think he handles things terribly badly. I think that he’s—I guess perhaps he’s guilty of not communicating well with his wife and his children. I don’t think he’s responsible, necessarily, for the fact that Judith has feelings for another man.

G: Oh no, no.

MS: Or that, you know, he has to deal with this student who wants to get a better grade. He does what he can with that. And with the tenure, he also, y’know—I guess you might think, “Well, what has this guy done that’s been so bad that all of this stuff is sort of piling on top of him now?" And sometimes bad things happen to good people. I’d like to believe that he’s wondering the same questions we are: “Why is this happening to me? And how do I get myself out of this situation?” He’s tryin’, y’know? But he’s also trying to be a mensch about the whole thing, to not just tear everyone’s life apart. He doesn’t go on a [rampage of] vengeance and strike Sy Ableman down or anything like that. It’s just sort of “Things happen.”

G: But there is a pivotal moment towards the end of the film, a climactic moment for him when he’s faced with an ethical—

MS: Yes.

G: And moral crossroads.

MS: Right.

G: And he has, sort of, a moment of weakness.

MS: Yes.

G: And it almost seems like he’s been worn down to that point. Is that how that felt to you in inhabiting him, that had he not suffered through everything else he’d gone through, he would’ve been able to be stronger?

/content/interviews/300/6.jpgMS: I don’t know if he had the money to be stonger. You know? Here was this pile of money that fell in his lap. To do a small evil, he would be able to pay for his brother to have good counsel. I think he makes a decision—perhaps a morally or ethically questionable decision in terms of trying to help someone—because he thinks that that is the lesser of two evils. And there are consequences. Even to the smallest things that we do. Yeah.

G: On a lighter note—

(Both laugh.)

G: What’s it like being number one on the call sheet?

MS: (Laughs heartily.)

G: Dropping grapes in your mouth? Fanning you with palm fronds?

MS: Hardly. It just meant you had to be there every day. You know? Usually at six or seven o’clock in the morning just like a normal workaday fella and, you know, just to be responsible, and I was grateful for that. I really was. I so wanted that opportunity to be responsible, you know? For a weighty journey of a character in a film. It’s something that I put on my list of things I wanted to do, and I’m so grateful that I got a chance to do it.

G: It’s funny. When you gave that answer, it occurred to me that when you’re number one on the call sheet, you also are really setting the tone for the production, at least on the cast side of it.

MS: Often.

G: That’s also your responsibility, isn’t it?

MS: Yeah, sure. Well, in some ways I feel like everyone had their individual responsibility to show up and do their thing. And you know, people who have one scene will show up and want to do the best they can, so it’s my job to remain as open and accessible to them—at least particularly with Larry, who I think is a generally genial guy—to be as open and free and, you know, relieve some of the tensions and stresses that someone might have. If they only have one day to shoot one scene and want to do the best they can, I want to be there for them and give them that because I’ve had, you know, days and days of sitting around and shooting things over and over again—with dialogue and without dialogue. And it’s part of the journey and I just—you’re a team, you know? You are absolutely a team. It’s...the same way doing a play, you know? It’s like tag team. It’s like “Go. It’s your turn. Go out there and do your best.” And it’s like team sports. You know? It’s really that kind of feeling. It’s been so fun to of see some of the cast members again at these screenings and things. 'Cause I miss them, you know? And we didn’t get much time together. In the time that we had, we bonded very quickly and we all loved and wanted to be there so it’s a lot of good.

G: You lived in Minneapolis for this film, right?

MS: That’s right.

G: What’s the nightlife like there?

/content/interviews/300/8.jpgMS: It’s fantastic. Oh it’s fantastic. God. I had never been to Minneapolis before—anywhere, really in the Midwest, except for like Evanston, Illinois and maybe three nights in Chicago, here and there. But the nightlife is fantastic. Everybody should go to Minneapolis and check it out. There’s so much going on there. There’s a really vital art scene and theater scene, and there’s clubs all over the place and great restaurants. It’s a wonderful place to hang for a couple of months, and I really, you know, enjoyed my time and I can’t wait to go back.

G: You’re also embarking on an HBO series.

MS: Right.

G: Boardwalk Empire, in which you play Arnold Rothstein.

MS: Right.

G: He’s a historical character, and there’s at least a span of eight years or so there to play in…

MS: That’s right.

G: And a lot of potential I would think. Are you a regular on the series or a semi-regular?

MS: I’ll be a—I guess you could call me a regular. Seven out of twelve. So yeah. I’ll be in at least seven out of the first twelve episodes.

G: Are you privy to the showrunners' hopeful long-term plans for the series in terms of what historical ground they would get to cover?

MS: No. I get—I don’t know. I can guess. And if I were to guess, it would be an uneducated guess. And that uneducated guess would be that with each episode it’s going to be a month along the journey in that year.

G: Yeah.

MS: So...the first season will go from New Year’s Day, you know, early January, I think, when prohibition had gone into effect and the whole year of 1920. So I imagine it will touch on historical events, and it’ll touch upon these characters’ lives and what they were actually doing. So if that’s the case, in my uneducated guess, I might be around, if it is successful, for hopefully another eight years.

G: Right.

MS: Who knows? You know, at least Larry Rothstein lived to '28. So we’ll see.

G: I know Martin Scorsese directed the pilot, is that right?

MS: Mm-hm.

G: Yeah. And I understand it was more like a film shoot than a TV shoot.

Absolutely. Yeah. It was, you know, an hour-long pilot that took two-plus months to shoot. And they allowed him, and everyone, to take their time in trying to make decisions about what the future is going to be cause it’s constantly bubbling. I think they’re going to do the same thing with this that they did with The Sopranos, which was hold on to the episodes and not release them so that when they learn things about the characters, you know, five or six episodes in, they can go back and insert some scenes back into the first and second episodes if they deem it fit. And then release it all as of next Fall. So that’s the plan.

G: Sounds great.

MS: Yeah.

G: Key to Reserva I have to ask about.

MS: Yeah!

G: What a unique project that—

MS: (Laughs). It was.

G: It had to have seemed like the coolest student film ever.

MS: (Laughs.) Absolutely. Absolutely.

G: I’m curious how you happened to be pulled into that and what—

/content/interviews/300/9.jpgMS: I just auditioned for it. You know? Ellen Lewis cast, and she brought me in to audition for it. She said it’s going to be this champagne commercial—Cava Freixenet champagne, sparkling wine—and they, I guess, hired Marty to do whatever he wanted. And a premise was come upon—Ted Griffin, I think, created the premise of it would be as if Mr. Scorsese had found three-and-a-half pages of a Hitchcock script, of which the rest has gone into oblivion. And he was going to shoot these three-and-a-half pages as if he thought Hitchcock would have shot them back then, but to shoot it now. So it’s called The Key to Reserva, and you can find it on the web at the Freixenet know, you can Google it somehow or another, and find it on there. The English language version of it.

G: And you’re the urbane villain a la James Mason, I suppose.

MS: Absolutely. I am “a la James Mason.” Simon Baker is a la Cary Grant. Kelly O’Hara is a la Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint. Christopher Denham is sort of Leonard from North By Northwest, the Martin Landau character, and Richard Easton plays the Leo G. Carroll sort of copy character in North by Northwest. And we just sort of filmed the dumbshow climax of what this movie was.

G: Yeah.

MS: In a shit hanger out in New Jersey for three days. Yeah, in front of a big green screen, yeah.

G: It seemed like a warehouse or something.

MS: Absolutely.

G: Amazing.

MS: It was really fun.

G: You’ve worked with a number of prominent stage and screen directors, but I’m also curious how much contact you’ve had with some of the playwrights of the plays that you’ve appeared in in New York, like McDonagh or Mamet or Stoppard. Have they ever been about when you’ve worked on those—

MS: Absolutely. Mr. Mamet made himself available to us; although he was shooting his series The Unit in Los Angeles, we would send questions his way if we had questions for him, and then he came to see the show when he had time, which was really generous on his part. Martin McDonagh was there for the entire rehearsal process of The Pillowman and he’s become a really lovely friend of mine, so that’s been wonderful. Tom Stoppard was also a part of the rehearsal process for Invention of Love and couldn’t have been sweeter and threw us parties and stuff, and I’d really love to work with him again. And Tony Kushner, as well, who was the playwright-in-residence at the Juilliard school when I was there, and I did Millennium Approaches with him at school, and then I ended up doing two versions of his play, his adaptation of Ansky’s Dybbuk at the Hartford Stage Company and then at The Public Theatre in New York. So Tony’s become a friend as well. These are people that I adore and have such respect for and would do anything to work with again, you know?

G: It seems to me The Pillowman would have potential as a film. I don’t know—

MS: Absolutely.

G: If it’s been discussed…

/content/interviews/300/7.jpgMS: It has been. And I think Martin is the one you’d speak to about that. I think he doesn’t want to make it into a film. I think he wants to keep it a play. Maybe he’ll change his mind eventually, but he tends to be one to make bold declarations about things, then to reverse his thoughts about stuff, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someday he decides to make a movie of it. Maybe after it’s been thoroughly exorcised. I don’t know; I mean it seems to be one of those plays that could go on and on and on for generations, really, because it is a timeless play and it’s a wonderful play. If it is made into a film, it would be fun to, you know, have the opportunity to tackle that part again. Cause it was a great challenge for me.

G: If someone were to make Fame about Juilliard…

MS: Right.

G: What would the story be like? How would you describe that experience?

MS: Well Fame takes place, if I remember correctly within the high school of the performing arts…

G: That’s true.

MS: And Juilliard is a college where those students would be asked to take their arts, whatever their art is, to the next level, which is—you know, Juilliard is an interesting place, and there was a ten-year age difference in my class, the youngest seventeen and the oldest twenty-seven in the beginning of my time there, and we spent four years together. You know, it’s like any college in the sense that the class—well, it started out with eighteen, and it ended up with fourteen. So, you know, they had cuts, and they got rid of some of the students that were in my class. I’m not exactly certain how that would be captured other than to sort of—for an audience to—you know I’ve thought about it on occasion, because I think it’s such a fascinating place to be. And there are so many different people from all over the world there, and they are so good at what they do. You know, I was at UCLA for two years and I transferred and started over at Juilliard, and I got a B.F.A. while I was there, so I had to take humanities courses that they were—it was a fairly new, thriving humanities program that was going on their at the time, so we were writing papers and doing stuff at the same time that we were responsible for all of our other things—

G: The conservatory.

/content/interviews/300/2.jpgMS: Conservatory stuff of voice and speech and movement and plays and stuff. So you’d get to see people grow and change over the course of four years and, you know, usually around the third year they start to invite people in to see the students’ work. At least in the drama division, they tried to keep the outside world out for two years, so they can just let the students do what they do and really try to do what they’re being asked to do: to try new things. And you’d see struggle, you’d see talent, you’d see anger, you’d see great sadness, you’d see miracles within a rehearsal room that’ll never be seen, you know? There’s so much that goes on in those rehearsal rooms that no one will ever see that is remarkable. And then, you know, the students get out and they become professionals and they are thrown into the world and asked to do things that perhaps they were—that they took for granted for four years,, because in those four years they were asked to stretch and try new things, you know? The actor who was perhaps a stereotypical leading man was asked to do different kinds of things because perhaps they felt that out in the real world he would be seen as what he looked like as opposed to what he’s capable of doing.

G: Right.

MS: So you’d see a lot of interesting things. I think it would be an interesting piece, and I’ve thought about my time there, you know, over and over again over the course of the years, and it was a magic time and there wasn’t anywhere else that I wanted to be.

G: Your bio says that you also studied with Marcel Marceau. How did that come about?

MS: I entered a contest at UCLA. He, the year before, had given out a full, one-year scholarship to study with him in France for one student.

G: Wow.

MS: And so it was this same contest again, and I didn’t know anything about mime. And I still don’t know anything, really, about mime, but I wanted the opportunity to see what I could learn. And he couldn’t make up his mind between the four of us that made it to the finals, and he said, “I want all four of you. Come to Ann Arbor, Michigan for the summer and study with my students, and I’ll be there too, and we’ll have classes with me and classes with them. So we spent about five weeks there the year before I went to Juilliard studying with him and learning about the discipline that goes into that kind of art form. And I learned I could never be a mime and that I wasn’t very good at it, but I was in the best shape of my life by the end of that summer. Those people are really miracles. You know, when they do it, well, there’s nothing like a single person on stage telling a story by themselves with nothing but their body.

G: Yeah.

MS: You know? It’s really silly, and at the same time, remarkable.

G: Yeah.

MS: And I am grateful to have had even a little time with him. For a mime, he was quite a gregarious spirit and so passionate about what he did, and that was enough to just sort of glean that from him, you know?

G: Though you ended up not being part of the scene, you ended up auditioning for the prologue—

MS: Right.

/content/interviews/300/10.jpgG: To A Serious Man. And I’m curious what your take is on—I have my own take, and I’m sure as many people as see the film will have as many different takes on how it relates to the rest of the film. The Coens coyly claim it has nothing to do with the rest of the film.

MS: Mm-hm.

G: We know that they like to mislead.

MS: (Laughs.)

G: I’m just curious what your take is.

MS: On the?

G: On the relationship of the fable to—

MS: The rest of the story? I—

G: To Larry’s story.

MS: Well, I seem to relate both halves of the movie—because it seems like, although only a short prologue, it’s significant—

G: Yes.

MS: In the telling of the story. Both in weight and in prelude. I find the quote at the beginning of the movie—the Rashi quote “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”—is kind of the key to both halves of the movie. In the sense that here’s this thing that happens to this man: his cart was ruined, this gentleman came along, helped him put stuff back in the cart, fixed the wheel, and has invited him over for some soup to thank him. And then, you know, suspicion comes in. And this situation becomes complicated. And in Larry’s portion of the story, he takes the same thing and sort of, you know, tries to receive with simplicity the things that happen to him, and struggles with it…

G: I’m out of time.

MS: Okay.

G: So thank you very much.

MS: My pleasure.

G: Great talking to you.

MS: Absolutely. You as well.

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