The major talking point about the Coen Brothers' new film A Serious Man
is that it has "no stars" or a cast of "mostly unknowns." The leader of
this unknown cast is Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Larry Gopnik. Larry is
a tenure-track professor and Jewish father living in 1967 Minnesota.
Life doesn't seem too bad until a nearly unending list of terrible
things starts happening to him, including a pending divorce, a car
accident, a gambling brother, ungrateful children, a mysterious
letter-writer, a bribery attempt, a lusty neighbor (on one side) and a
threatening neighbor (on the other), plus a doctor's appointment and a
bar mitzvah under the influence of pot. Larry seeks the help of three
rabbis to help sort his life, and finds that their cryptic advice
doesn't provide any easy answers. Really, the only thing you can do is
laugh, and it's up to Stuhlbarg to shoulder all this stuff and turn it
back into black humor; and he pulls it off. Before landing this rare
leading role, Stuhlbarg appeared in small roles in several films,
including A Price Above Rubies (1998), The Grey Zone (2001), Martin
Scorsese's short film The Key to Reserva (2007), Afterschool (2008),
Ridley Scott's Body of Lies (2008) and Cold Souls (2009). On television,
he has appeared on "Ugly Betty" and "Law & Order." But his foundation is
on the stage, having earned a Tony nomination for "The Pillowman," plus
a few Shakespearian turns in "Richard II" and "Hamlet." The very kind
and pleasant Mr. Stuhlbarg sat down for a brief talk with GreenCine
about his new film.
Q: A Serious Man reminded me of Barton Fink, not because of the
content, but because of my reaction; it's one to be pondered. Like that
prologue... I kept wondering what that was about...
Michael Stuhlbarg: We all were. When we were making it, we
were: "What is this about? Why is this in here?" They just liked the
idea, I think, of starting out with this thing, and it having a kind of
resonance with the quote at the beginning of the movie. "Receive with
simplicity everything that happens to you." In terms of a dybbuk coming
into your life and trying to accept the craziness of it.
Q: You were being considered for both Larry and Uncle Arthur. What
was that process like?
MS: Originally I came in and auditioned for the part of Velvel
the husband in the Yiddish parable at the beginning of the movie. So I
had to learn that whole scene in Yiddish. That was my very first
audition. I was going for a very small part. I went to a tutor and I
learned the whole scene in Yiddish. At that time, they weren't sure
whether that part or any of those parts were going to be played by
actors who could fake it and speak it phonetically, or people who could
speak it fluently. And they ended up going with folks who were part of
the Yiddish theater in New York, and rightfully so. Then the movie went
away for 5 or 6 months. And then I got a call to come in for both Larry
and Arthur. I learned three scenes of each and I went in and did it and
they laughed a lot. That made me feel really happy. Then I asked
periodically as the weeks went on if I was still in the mix. And they
said, "You're still in the mix." Eventually I got a call and they said,
"You're going to get one of these parts. We just don't know which one
yet." Then maybe six weeks before shooting began, I got a call from
Joel: "We'll put you out of your misery. You're playing Larry."
Q: So it was just you waiting at home!
MS: Basically. I had to go about my life over the course of
about 11 months. But it worked out really well. I did what I could and
they didn't want to see me again. They thought it was enough, what I had
done. They had a video camera in the room with them. So they had the
evidence of what I had done that they could go back and look at again,
which I think they did a lot. I was certainly willing to go back in
there, but once they get it in their heads of what they want... Once
they hire the actors they let us do what it is that we do. They're
pretty hands off.
Q: But they have their text that's pretty polished, and they stick
MS: Absolutely. It was the same text at my audition and it
remained that way through the entire shoot. It was finished from day
one. There were a few things that they cut from that script that they
didn't put into the film. But those were few and far between.
Q: I've always been curious about them. But I have interviewed
[cinematographer] Roger Deakins. He's a genius.
MS: That's a good word for him. He was so sweet. I didn't want
to say or do anything to get in his way. He kind of sets the tone in his
weird way. They're sort of all three parts of the same head. It's kind
of hard to explain until you see it. They answer each other's thoughts
and questions. It's like working with three people who know exactly what
they want to do. Roger will stand there for hours with his light meter,
just waiting for the light to be perfect. It was a treat to watch them
Q: Are they approachable, or kind of distant?
MS: Absolutely approachable. They made themselves so available
to me after the decision had been made that I was going to do this. I
sent them three pages of notes, just questions about the script and they
answered them all. And if they didn't answer them, they left it up to
me. In terms of asking them questions on the set, they were always open.
They love being asked questions. Sometimes they'll come upon things that
they hadn't thought of. You can be part of the creative process. I was
reminded of something that was a misread on my part. When Larry
approaches Mrs. Samsky's house and knocks on the door, I thought that it
said -- or maybe it was that I hoped it would say -- that he would come
to the door and knock, but make up his mind that he wasn't going to do
it and leaves. And they shot it two different ways, but my way made it
in the movie, because I had misread it in the script. Then we changed
the text a little bit to say, "I was gonna knock but I thought you
weren't here." It seemed right for him.
Q: The thing I was thinking about this character is that he's kind
of non-active; everything happens to him. Mostly it's just bad stuff
happening to him. How do you approach a role like that?
MS: It's funny because people have brought this up to me, but
I had never really thought of him as being that passive. I feel like
he's a certain kind of person, and he doesn't necessarily question a lot
in his life. But under the circumstances, he does probably what he can
to get out of these circumstances -- if he has a way out. We're also, as
audience members, privy to just parts of the journey. We don't get to
see the backstories or the arguments that happened -- perhaps -- between
Larry and Judith between the scene when Sy comes over to house, and it
has been established that they're going to get a divorce. We aren't
privy to those things. So I had to create those things for myself, that
I thought might have served the momentum going into the scene.
Q: So you have his whole life fleshed out in your head, and that
comes out in the scene...
MS: Yeah. He does what he can. I think he tries to remain
civil in an uncivil situation.
Q: Does it offend you when people describe this movie has having
"no stars" or "mostly unknowns"?
MS: [Laughs] It's filled with actors! I think on one level, it
allows the audience to really invest in these characters as who they say
they are. One of the treats with having stars in films is getting to
watch really talented people do different kinds of things. But another
side of it is to watch people you don't know, and go, "Wow!" There's a
lot of us in this film who have never done this kind of stuff, who have
never had the chance. So it's a treat for all of us. And an oddity. And
Q: This film is very steeped in Jewish culture and identity. It's
something you don't see very often. Why is that? Are people afraid to
MS: I doubt it. It should be enlightening. And interesting,
hopefully. In terms of assimilated Jewry, which we don't get to see a
lot of, or discussed a lot. At least submerged in -- at least in 1967 --
the severity of the Hebrew school and the context the bar mitzvah and
the memorial service. You're thrown into this unique world. It should be
enlightening for people who don't know anything about it but it also
remains... there is a universality to its specificity, I believe. I
think that's the most interesting storytelling, submerging people in a
culture they're not familiar with, but realizing that we're all human
and we're all going through our own particular troubles and that those
troubles are universal. There might be some terms that some people are
unfamiliar with, but that wouldn't stop them from enjoying the humor and
hopefully the pathos.
Q: There's a term, "gett," in the movie that half the characters
don't even understand.
MS: Yeah! I think that's part of the dichotomy. Assimilated
Jewry, there are all these laws and traditions and rituals that are part
of the Jewish tradition. It's why there are so many denominations of
Judaism as well as in other religions. Each one chooses to use for
themselves what they find to be most useful in terms of living the kind
of lives that they want to live. You get some insight in terms of that.
It's not The Chosen. It's not A Price Above Rubies. It's assimilated
Jewry, and it's how these characters deal with these things.
Q: Probably my favorite part, and the key, I think, to the entire
movie, is the story about the Goy's Teeth.
MS: Me too! That's what those stories are meant to be. To give
us some insight into what other people struggled with and maybe glean
some knowledge to live our lives in a positive way.
Q: Were you spoiled on this one?
MS: I think so. On Body of Lies, I was in D.C. for a week and
I shot two scenes with Mr. [Ridley] Scott. It was thoroughly exciting
when I actually got to do the work. A lot of it was sitting around and
waiting. But when I got to do it, it was all very [snaps]. He knew
exactly what he wanted and I did it over and over and over and over
until it took on a sense of meaninglessness until it had a fluidity to
it. And one of the scenes was cut and the other one was cut in half. A
whole subplot, of Leonardo DiCaprio's wife and them getting a divorce
while he's going through all the stuff he's going through in the Middle
East, was cut from the movie. But this was a tremendous first leading
role to have. That's another thing about what I do for a living. With
each job you take, with each film or television or theater piece you
have to take each piece as it comes and approach it for what it is. And
hope it's not going to be where you just were, the last job you did. You
approach each job afresh and use whatever you have to make it come to
life for yourself and for other people. I'm not going to expect the next
gig that I have to be this one. It isn't. I already know that. I shot a
pilot for a new HBO series called "Boardwalk Empire." It just got picked
up, so I'm going to start shooting that in October. The pilot was
directed by Martin Scorsese. It's co-produced by Mark Wahlberg, Stephen
Levinson, Tim Van Patten, it's written by Terence Winter, who wrote for
"The Sopranos," -- it's his baby -- and it stars Steve Buscemi and Kelly
Macdonald -- both Coen Brothers alumni -- and Michael Shannon, Michael
Pitt, Dabney Coleman, Stephen Graham, Vincent Piazza; it's a fantastic
group of actors. It's based on a book called "Boardwalk Empire," and
it's about Atlantic City on the eve of prohibition. I play Arnold
Rothstein, who was allegedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World
Series. So it's a whole different kind of genre, and period piece, and
it's been really fun so far. But I guess the point of what I was saying
is that it ain't gonna be like what I went through, and it has its own
metabolism, and its own joys and its own hardships. You do your best.
Even if it was an off-Broadway play for no money, I would still give my
heart to it.
September 29, 2009