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Interview: Michael Stuhlbarg

The Heart of Larry

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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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 to that?

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 work.

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 a gift.

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 see it?

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

Partial Michael Stuhlbarg Filmography:
A Price Above Rubies (1998)
The Grey Zone (2001)
Solidarity (2005)
The Key to Reserva (2007)
Afterschool (2008)
Body of Lies (2008)
Cold Souls (2009)
A Serious Man (2009)

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