Michael Stuhlbarg can be forgiven for feeling like Larry Gopnik these days. Luckless Larry, his character in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, does all the right things but can’t catch a break. So it goes with the Academy Awards: Doubling the Best Picture nominations from five to ten gave A Serious Man a shot at the top honor, but the number of performer nominations was unchanged. The Coens get another chance at Oscar glory, for Picture and Screenplay, while Stuhlbarg, everyone’s No. 6 pick, is stuck peddling the DVD and Blu-ray, which are available this week.
But the actor, 41, isn’t complaining. He did a get a Golden Globe nomination for the part, his first starring role in a feature. Last year he added an appearance on Ugly Betty to his expanding TV resume, which includes a guest shot on Damages and three episodes of The American Experience, along with the inevitable Law & Order and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Inevitable, that is, if you’re a stage actor who’s been collared by Dick Wolf’s local casting agents, which is where they, and the Coens, first sighted Stuhlbarg.
The actor is such the quintessential New York thespian that it comes as a surprise to learn that he was born in Long Beach, CA. He’s been treading the boards since the early 90s. Reviewing his resume (which includes an apprenticeship as a mime under the tutelage of Marcel Marceau) it appears I first saw him on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love (2001), spotlighting Tony winners Richard Easton and Robert Sean Leonard, then as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in a 2002 Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night, where the stardust of Zach Braff and Jimmy Smits got in the way. In 2004’s Belle Epoque, at Lincoln Center, he and the rest of the cast were somewhat upstaged by the salon-type evocation of the title period.
Everyone took notice of his Broadway breakthrough, Martin McDonagh’s fantasy-laced police state thriller The Pillowman (2005). But even if I had remembered his earlier appearances more clearly I wouldn’t have recognized him in his tour-de-force as the pitiably tormented brother of short story writer Billy Crudup (pictured below). Stuhlbarg gained 25 lbs. for the part and submerged himself in an unforgettable characterization, which earned a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination. Then again, that’s always his way—until we talked last week I realized I had no idea what his normal speaking voice was like, given his facility with accents and dialects.
He could not have been more different whooping it up in the delightful Public Theater production Measure for Pleasure (2006), a Restoration-style romp. In David Mamet’s 2007 adaptation of the century-old drama The Voysey Inheritance for the Atlantic Theater Company he suffered the sins of the fathers, trying to restore family honor in the wake of an all-encompassing swindle. Mamet had Enron in mind for his retelling but the show clearly anticipates the later Madoff scandal, and I think about Stuhlbarg’s pained, Obie-winning performance when I see his sons on TV.
In 2008, again under the stars at the Delacorte in Central Park, but this time as the headliner, the big one, Hamlet. Jude Law gave a stripped-to-the-bone performance as the great Dane earlier this season but the frenetic humor and intelligence Stuhlbarg brought to the part were equally compelling. Which brings us to his latest transformation as the meek and trod-upon Larry Gopnik, in the Coens’ peculiarly gripping comedy of sorts. It’s a film that’s always asking, to be or not to be?
What’s it like to be caught up in the whole awards season bubble?
It was great fun, like getting invited to a big party with people you’ve seen your whole life. There were a lot of people I was afraid to speak with at the Golden Globes (laughs) but I did get a chance to speak with Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm, from Mad Men, who couldn’t have been nicer. I met Eli Roth, Brendan Fraser, who sort of popped up to say hello, Anna Kendrick…
Other than Fraser did they know who you were?
I don’t know. (Laughs.) You’d have to ask them.
You are a chameleon type of actor, in the film and also in your stage work. You left New York on a high note, with Hamlet. Did the experience live up to your expectations?
I don’t think it could ever live up to what you think it’s going to be. I carried that one in my back pocket with me since I was 14. One has so many thoughts about what you think it might be that the actual doing of it tends to be a much different experience, or so I’d read many times regarding Hamlet. But I was grateful for the opportunity to give it a go before I got too much older.
Do you approach a stage role differently than a film or TV one?
It’s basically the same general idea of just asking a lot of questions, taking what you’re given, and trying to run with it. It’s all about cracking open your imagination and letting it run wild for a while. Although I find that with each job I take in whatever medium it’s in it’s like learning to ride a bicycle all over again. It doesn’t get any easier trying to bring these characters to life.
I understand you like to make sketches of your characters. How closely did your picture match the Larry in the finished film?
He came pretty close, actually. During the audition process I was trying out as well for the part of Uncle Arthur, Larry’s brother, played by Richard Kind. In my mind Larry was the one who did not have glasses. That was pretty much the only thing that I switched around between the two characters.
Did you show the pictures to the Coen brothers?
I showed them to Joel and Ethan, and also to Fríða Aradóttir, who headed our hair department. She sort of followed that drawing and we stumbled upon what it ended up being.
Coen brothers movies are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike. But his one is even farther out in some ways. How did they help you find the very closed-in character of Larry Gopnik?
I sent them a 3½ page email full of questions, which they went through with a fine-toothed comb. Those questions they didn’t have answers for they let me figure out myself. But they were very respectful of my own process and letting me swim around and try things. On the whole they were hands-off and very supportive. I have to say too that simply showing up on set in Minnesota, where I’d never been, really helped me use my imagination.
How did you prepare to work with them?
I brushed up on my Coen brothers vocabulary as best I could. (Laughs.) Special features of some of the DVDs that are available really helped. A lot of things other actors said turned out to be the case for me as well. There’s a wonderful little anecdote that Peter Stormare shares about Fargo, about a line that went something like “we’re going to the pancakes house.” He thought it was a mistake in the text, so he corrected it during shooting. Ethan came up to him and said, “Why are you saying it like that?” “I thought it was a typo,” Stormare replied, to which Ethan said, “There are no typos.” (Laughs.) Everything is put down for a reason, wonderfully so.
Where will we see you next?
I’m in the middle of shooting a new HBO series, Boardwalk Empire. Martin Scorsese is the executive producer and director of the pilot episode, and Terence Winter of The Sopranos is its creator. It’s about the birth and high times of Atlantic City during Prohibition. I’m playing Arnold Rothstein, who was allegedly behind the “Black Sox” fixing of the 1919 World Series.
You’d worked with Scorsese on The Key to Reserva (2007), his Hitchcock-themed mini-movie for Freixenet wine. How do the Coens and Scorsese compare?
It’s great, but in a different way. Marty’s very hands on in how he likes things to be, and isn’t shy about jumping in there to raise the metabolism of a scene. Joel and Ethan are much more laid back—but just as fun.