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A Serious Man - Michael Stuhlbarg interview

Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED, award-winning Broadway actor Michael Stuhlbarg talks about landing the central role of long-suffering physics professor Larry Gopnick in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, working with the brothers and how they compare to Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott.

He also delivers a little insight into what to expect from his next project, Scorsese’s HBO drama Boardwalk Empire

Q. I gather the Coens tortured you in real-life almost as much as they do your central character before they gave you the role?
Michael Stuhlbarg: [Laughs] They did indeed! It was quite a journey for me getting this part. Originally they wanted to see me for a very small part… the part of the husband in the Yiddish parable at the beginning of the movie. But they ended up going with folks who could speak Yiddish fluently because I didn’t. I tried… but I didn’t. Then five months later I got a call to come in for Larry Gopnick or Uncle Arthur and did three scenes as each of those characters. They laughed a lot, which made me very happy, and after my enquiring repeatedly as to whether or not I was still in the running I got a call saying I was going to get one of the parts. They just didn’t know which one yet. Eventually… six or seven weeks before they started shooting they told me: “We’re going to put you out of your misery – you’re playing Larry.” The rest is history…

Q. How much do you have in common with Larry?
Michael Stuhlbarg: I don’t know, actually. It’s a good question. I’ve tried to be a serious man, like Larry… serious about what I do. I’m not sure how much more there is in terms of similarities. I’m from a reformed Jewish community in Long Beach, California, where I grew up, so there’s a similarity in what my upbringing perhaps was. So, there are a few similarities but also quite a few differences.

Q. How was the experience of working with the Coens?
Michael Stuhlbarg: Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. They were very generous to me throughout the entire process. They made themselves available to answer any questions that I might have.

Q. Do they keep a serious set, or are they quite jovial?
Michael Stuhlbarg: Well, they’ve been working together with the same people for years now, so it moves like clockwork. Everything was so well oiled and organised and scheduled. We ended up finishing the shoot a week ahead of schedule. It’s all very jovial. They’re in great spirits most of the time and very zen about the whole thing. In between set-ups Joel just sort of flops down in a chair and makes himself available to talk to people. He sort of seems as cool as a cucumber. Ethan tends to sort of plop down in his chair and plays bluegrass guitar and mellows out. Often I’d sit next to him just listening and enjoying.

Q. How do they compare with filmmakers like Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese, who you’ve also recently worked with?
Michael Stuhlbarg: Well, it’s been interesting. They’re all very, very different, which I guess is to be expected. Joel and Ethan are very hands-off in terms of once they’ve cast someone in a part, they let them run with it and do what they’re going to do. They won’t really interfere too much unless you ask them a lot of questions. They have a very strong idea usually of what they want to do and they will try to find that within the actor. Once they have, they say: “Go to town… have fun.” But they also ask you to use the words that they put on the page and not to mess around with that too much – to use that structure and find freedom in it.

Mr Scorsese is kind of the opposite. He loves to get involved with the actors and say: “Do faster… a little bit more emotion.” He’s very hands-on. But he also loves to improvise, so he loves for people to bring in ideas and play around with things because he likes that sense of spontaneity.

With Mr Scott, my experience with him was brief but fun in that he loves to get people out of their heads. My character was doing three or four things at once. I had two scenes in Body of Lies in which I was on the phone talking to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. One of those was cut out of the film and the other was cut in half, so you won’t see much of me. But that’s par for the course, I hear. In his case, he sort of got me out of my head – I was talking on the phone over here, I was carrying a briefcase, it was raining, so I had to carry an umbrella, and there were 60 extras around me, so I was trying to do a million things at once. But he does it over and over and over and over and over until you aren’t thinking about it, you’re just doing it, and he captures what it is he’s looking for.

Q. With such a successful theatre background as well as more prominent film roles, are you going to continue juggling the two?
Michael Stuhlbarg: I sort of go where the work is. My next job happens to be a television show… the new HBO show called Boardwalk Empire from Martin Scorsese. It’s loosely based on the book by Nelson Johnson and it follows the life and times and birth of Atlantic City. There are some famous characters, such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, in it. It primarily focuses on Steve Buscemi’s character, Enoch Nucky Thompson, who is sort of the unofficial governor of Atlantic City, who sort of gets illegal things for people. I play Arnold Rothstein, who was allegedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series and the whole Chicago Black Sox Scandal. A gambler, bootlegger, racketeer, stable owner, heroin importer… there weren’t many things he didn’t do, so he’s quite an interesting guy.

Q. What’s your favourite Coen brothers film prior to A Serious Man?
Michael Stuhlbarg: Oh gosh, I love ‘em all! They’re all wonderful. And one of the things I love about what they do is how different each of their movies is. They have a similar visual style and a great sense of humour in everything they do, I’m surprised always when each new piece comes out. And I hope people will enjoy that about this film too.