Michael Stuhlbarg: Anything But, A Serious Man
October 2, 2009
A very recognizable face to those in the theater community, Michael Stuhlbarg is now making his mark on film with his first leading feature film role for none other than the Coen Brothers. Already a Tony nominee for his performance in “The Pillowman”, followed by a multiple award winning turn in David Mamet’s adaptation of “The Voysey Inheritance”, Stuhlbarg is no stranger to the concept of embodiment of a character. And with Stuhlbarg, each interpretation is more dazzling than the last. Now, as the bewildered, bothered and befuddled Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brothers' A SERIOUS MAN, he tackles, and masters, what is destined to become one of his signature roles.
Larry Gopnik is a physics professor in a quiet suburb of 1967 Minneapolis. A religious man, his community and his life are steeped in the traditions of Judaism. Abundant in his mitzvahs, Larry even allows his unemployed and unemployable nebish of a brother, Arthur, to crash on his couch, listening to him day after day bemoaning the unfairness and unkindness of the world while and night after night hearing the “glug, glug” of Arthur’s mechanical drainage of a sebaceous cyst on the back of his neck, which Arthur likens to the ills of the world descending on him like a plague. But what happens when Larry’s life is turned upside down by his wife announcing she’s leaving him for the paunchy and pompous Sy Ableman and Larry is remanded to the local “Jolly Roger” for residency. Spending his nights covered in nightmare induced sweats, Larry questions his faith, academics, mortality and life and he seeks help in becoming a serious man.
An articulate and humble man with an infectious smile and laugh, Michael Stuhlbarg is nothing like Larry Gopnik. Grateful for the blessings in his life, he welcomes all that the world has to offer and looks forward to each new challenge and gift.
Be it karma, or reward for a mitzvah in his life, Stuhlbarg is more than thankful for the six-degrees manner in which he landed the role of Larry Gopnik. “I worked at a little off-Broadway theater company called the 52nd Street Project which is a theater for kids. The kids are from age 8 to 17. They write plays and then they get professional actors and directors to act them out and then direct them. I met Frances McDormand there. She’s married to Joel [Coen]. We became friendly and that was about it. Then by chance I got cast in a play with Frances; a workshop of a new play at Lincoln Center. So we get to be friendly there and then she invited Joel to come see me in a play at the Atlantic Theater Company - David Mamet’s adaptation of Harley Granville Barker’s play “The Voysey Inheritance.” I think they had seen me in “The Pillowman” on Broadway as well and I got to know them a little bit socially. I always hoped I would get a chance to work with them [the Coen Brothers] but never thought it would. Then I got a call out of the blue to say ‘come in and audition for the part of the husband in the Yiddish parable at the beginning of the movie.’”
For Stuhlbarg, auditioning for the Coens was a real experience. “I had to learn that whole scene in Yiddish. So, I went to a tutor and I learned the whole scene in Yiddish. Then I came back and did it for them and they laughed a lot and that made me really happy. Then they said they weren’t sure at that time if they wanted an actor who could learn [Yiddish] or someone who could speak it fluently. They ended up going with folks who could speak it fluently and rightfully so.”
Undeterred, fate was smiling on Stuhlbarg when the Coens again called him; this time to read for the parts of Larry Gopnik and Uncle Arthur. “I learned three scenes of each. I did all those scenes and they laughed a lot and I was very happy again. Then I kept asking periodically if I was still in the running and I kept hearing back, ‘Yeah, you are.’ Then eventually I heard, ‘You’re going to get one of these parts but they aren’t sure which one you’re going to get’. So I started working on both of them.”
Not having a preference between each role, Stuhlbarg “would have been glad to have done either one. It just so happened that they felt I was more right for Larry and that they had found Richard Kind for Arthur. And about six weeks before they started shooting I got a call from Joel saying, ‘We’ll put you out of your misery. You’re playing Larry.’”
While each of Stuhlbarg’s characters, be they leading roles or stage or supporting roles on screen, is unique unto itself, Larry Gopnik is even more so. According to Stuhlbarg, “I guess in some ways he resonates with everybody in the sense of him going along in his life thinking his life is one thing and then he gets some curve balls thrown at him and he has to make the best of them and sort of go along and do the best he can. We can all empathize when that happens to us in our lives.” Playing a Physics professor though called for a little extra effort from Stuhlbarg, known for his exacting detail with each character. “I knew nothing about Physics, for instance, and I found a physics professor to help me learn about that; to explain Schrodinger’s Paradox, Schrodinger’s Cat, and the uncertainty principle. I asked Joel and Ethan a lot of questions and then found my way into Larry and I guess then tried to put myself in whatever situations Larry found himself in and tried to react and respond as truthfully as possible.”
Extremely accomplished and acclaimed in the theatre world, it seems rather surprising that after his Tony nomination, Stuhlbarg’s popularity swelled in the worlds of television and film as opposed to theatre. “I guess it just became one of those circumstances where people in another medium of film and television heard about the play, came to see the play and I guess found it provocative and were interested. So some doors opened for me in terms of that. Then I started getting some opportunities that I had never had before and I took advantage of those. In terms of the plays that came around, I became a little more discerning in terms of the kind of work that I wanted to do. Theater is deep in my blood and I’ve done it for a very long time and I take it very seriously. When I devote myself to it, I try to do it 100%. I’m getting older and the amount of energy that I have to expel I am trying to use a little bit more judiciously and I’m choosing my projects more judiciously because now more doors have been opened to me. That’s how its gone.”
Be it stage or screen, Stuhlbarg’s approach to every medium is “pretty much the same. It’s my job to bring a character to life. How that character is received is a little different. The person in the back in the second balcony needs to be able to receive what I’m doing in a Broadway house. Whereas if I’m making a film or television show the audience is somewhat smaller and I have to do much, much less. But they really feed off each other in a beautiful way. I know that my film and television work tend to make my theater work more simple and my theater work tends to ground me in a way that informs my film and television work. I want to continue to do all of them.”
It’s well known that at one time in his life, Stuhlbarg envisioned himself as an artist or a cartoonist. While not his primary vocation, Stuhlbarg has still pursued that passion with every character he portrays on stage as prior to a production, he draws a sketch of himself in character. He continued that habit with Larry Gopnik. “It’s a great place for me to start in terms of putting ideas on paper and dreaming that whole wonderful period of time when someone says, ‘You got the part’ and you haven’t started shooting yet or you haven’t started rehearsing it for a play or whatever. It’s kind of a dream time when [the character] can be anything you want it to be. Then over the course of asking questions it becomes more and more defined. I find that to be true with my sketching as well. He could look like this. He could look like that. He could wear a sweater. He could have glasses. His hair could be this way. It could be that way. And it’s sort of fun for me to just put it down and then show it to the designers and see if they respond to it or not. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they could care less because they have strong ideas.” And it’s inevitable that something from Stuhlbarg’s sketches find their way into the character. With Larry, “his pallette was somewhat simple, but yes. I think we all had similar ideas about what he might be like. How far those ideas would be, would be dependent upon the collaboration of the artists involved - Mary Zophres who was our costume designer, Frida AradOttir our hair designer and head of the whole hair company who’s fantastic, and Jean Black who is head of make-up, as well as myself and Joel and Ethan. All of us collaborated together. I drew little curls on top of Larry’s head and we sort of determined which way they would go or what it might look like. I thought Larry might have no glasses and I thought Arthur would have glasses. As it ended up it was the opposite. So, you never know.”
A true professional, Stuhlbarg knows the importance of collaboration on a project, particularly when assuming the look of each character in context with the psychological characteristics and traits. With A SERIOUS MAN, “Mary Zophres, the costume designer, had created for everybody, these amazing clothing boards covered with pictures from the period in Minneapolis exclusive to the communities in which we were working. So when we showed up on the first day to meet her, all our work was done for us. She is brilliant at what she does and the stuff she found was so easy. When we put it on, it just made us feel like we were there. We didn’t do anything, really. The constraint of the pants and the glasses. We had books to look at. We talked a little bit about the social [activities], what was going on at that time. It’s mentioned briefly in Mrs. Samsky’s “The New Freedoms” that she brings up. It’s a fascinating time to find yourself in in terms of dreaming on or thinking about what our country was like at that time. The conformity or perhaps, the beginning of the lack of conformity, and how a work day professor, how his life can sort of veer off and change in some ways; what that means with the context of the political situation in the time of the history of our country. This journey kind of mirrors it a little bit. Sort of like a rough turn, so to speak; a new adventure.”
Over the course of his career, thus far Stuhlbarg has worked with the likes of Sam Mendes, John Crowley, David Mamet and most recently, Martin Scorsese on HBO’s “Broadway Empire.” Now, along comes Joel and Ethan Coen, who prove to be a very different experience. “They are very hands off and very respectful of everybody. From the person who moves a cord from here to here, everyone is just a part of the team. As far as the actors are concerned, they are very discerning in terms of trying to find the right actor for a role. But once they do that they really love to get questions from the actors. So I asked them a ton of questions. And then they just let me do my thing. If they had another idea about possibilities, that was great. ‘Wow, here’s another idea. It could go this way, too. Let’s try this.’ So I would do that. It was all very collaborative and easy.”
Key to A SERIOUS MAN is the authenticity of the entire film and subject matter. For the Coens, that meant shooting in a small Jewish community and enlisting the aid of local Hebrew schools and synagogues for not only physical sets, but calling on congregations as extras and participants in religiously significant scenes and rites. The authenticity “certainly makes our job easier. We don’t have to do anything in terms of thinking about, ‘I have to pretend I’m in a synagogue.’”
And as often happens, reality often lends a little humor to a situation. “We were rehearsing the bar mitzvah scene, when Danny comes down from the pulpit after his bar mitzvah and he’s got his kiddush cup in his hand and the whole congregation breaks in with ‘Adonai Elohaynu’, that hymn we were all singing. And everybody knew it. They were actually all members of the congregation. All of a sudden they said, ‘So, you guys all sing Adonai Elohaynu. Do you know it?’ And the whole congregation jumped in. It’s like you’re back in synagogue. It was crazy. I just had flashbacks of my bar mitzvah.” Of course, the big question is did anybody drop the Torah at any time during shooting these scenes? Thankfully, no.
For Stuhlbarg it was important that Larry Gopnik wasn’t “all geek.” He got to have some physicality, including climbing on a roof to adjust a tv antenna, a memory that brings smiles to his when he talks about it. But perhaps the most joyous, exciting part of filming for Stuhlbarg is that he got to be stunt man for a day during a car accident. “I would have done so much. I was actually in the car when it was hit. That was more scary than being on the roof because I was sort of stunt man for a day. They said, ‘Just get in the car. We’re gonna do something. You’ll be fine. Just keep your seatbelt on.’”
Reflective and penitent, A SERIOUS MAN speaks to the very heart of Michael Stuhlbarg. “The quote at the very beginning of the movie has a lot of resonance both for me and for the little Yiddish parable in the beginning as well as the rest of the film. ‘Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.’ It’s a Talmudic scholar, Rashi, who is quoted. I think it’s a good place to start in terms of understanding what the film is exploring and also a way to live one’s life. I just enjoyed it for its individual nuances. I didn’t look for a meaning behind it. I didn’t look for a message. I just found it to be so funny. I just kept laughing and that’s a huge kind of Geiger counter for me in terms of how I respond to stuff. If it makes me laugh, you got me. That’s where I live - a sense of humor. It saves me from everything.”