Getting Serious: An Interview with Michael Stuhlbargby Judge Clark Douglas
Judge Clark Douglas: We're joined today by actor Michael Stuhlbarg, the lead actor in the Coen Brothers' most recent film, A Serious Man, a role he received a Golden Globe nomination for. Michael, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Michael Stuhlbarg: Sure, it's my pleasure.
CD: Tell us a little bit about how you got involved with this film. I understand you auditioned for more than one role to begin with.
MS: That's right. Originally, Joel and Ethan brought me in to read for the part of Velvel, who's the husband in this sort of Yiddish folk tale at the beginning of the movie. So I had to learn that whole scene in Yiddish, which I do not speak... (laughs) So I went to a tutor, and learned the whole scene in Yiddish phonetically, and brought it back and did it for Joel and Ethan. They laughed a lot, so that made me happy. They weren't sure at that point whether they wanted to hire someone who could speak Yiddish fluently or an actor to speak it phonetically, and they ended up going with folks who could speak it fluently, and rightfully so. So the project kind of went away for me for about 5 or 6 months.
Then I got another call out of the blue saying, "We'd like to see you for both the parts of Larry and Uncle Arthur," (which is the part that Richard Kind ended up playing), so I learned about three scenes for each of those characters. I brought them in, and did it again, and they laughed again, and that made me happy again. I kept inquiring after my audition whether or not I was still in the running, and I kept hearing back, "Yeah, you're still in the running, you're still in the running." Eventually, they said, "We'll you're going to get one of these parts, we just don't know which one yet." So, I started working on both parts, and then about six or seven weeks before we started principal photography, I got a call from Joel saying, "We'll put you out of your misery; you're playing Larry." So that's sort of how it happened for me.
CD: The film is very intriguing in the way it's functioning on several levels simultaneously: it's exploring challenging questions of faith, it's illustrating some of the scientific principles that Larry is teaching his students and it's a comedy deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Is there a particular element of that mixture that you respond to most strongly?
MS: Hmmm... that I respond to most strongly? Well, I felt like each portion of the film has its own particular resonances. On one level, we can all understand what it's like to have difficult things happen to us and have to do our best to sort of pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make the best of whatever the situation may be, so I think of it as a universal story in that sense. Also, I myself was raised in Reformed Jewish upbringing, so I brought that experience with me in terms of being able to tell this particular story. And... oh, I don't know, I love comedy. (laughs) So, you know, I feel like there was a lot of laughter in the telling of the story as well. I hope that people found it... though in some cases difficult to watch, that it was humorous as well.
CD: There are some who have suggested that Larry is a very passive character, but watching the film again I really don't feel like he is. To me, he seems to be someone who is doing more or less everything he feels he can do to keep his life together under the circumstances.
MS: I agree.
CD: What are your feelings on how Larry responds to the various situations he is placed in, and how much do his actions differ (if any) from how you might respond in such a situation?
MS: Well, I think Larry's a very patient guy, he's at a very happy, unquestioning place somewhat at the beginning of the film and then as things start to go wrong, he takes sort of a turn of having to address things that he never thought he'd have to address. I probably wouldn't have necessarily been as patient as him. I think he tries on a number of levels to remain as civil as possible under the circumstances, and I don't know if I were under similar circumstances that I would be able to hold my tongue as vigilantly as he does or to remain as moral as long as possible. Under the circumstances, I think he does the best he can, and that resonates with me as well.
CD: The films of the Coen Brothers are so precise; in the case of "A Serious Man" it doesn't feel like there's a single moment or line of dialogue that isn't meant to be there.
CD: Working with them, how much creative freedom do you feel you have as an an actor, with filmmakers who are so precise and so attentive to detail?
MS: I think it's interesting, because I often find great creative freedom when you have a very rigid structure. Strangely enough, when you have a kind of dictated order within which to bustle, I find you can use that rigid structure as a wonderful jumping-off point for one's imagination. I loved how specific they were in putting their words down on the page and just tried to, you know, run with it.
CD: How much affection do you feel the Coens have for their characters? Because on the one hand, their characters seem to have been very lovingly crafted, but on they other hand they're notorious for tormenting their protagonists... particularly your character in this film!
MS: (laughs) Yes. Well, I think there's a great amount of affection for all the characters they create, as well as a healthy dose of fiction in there as well. It's also been talked about that this is a very personal film of theirs. On one level it is, as there are a lot of resonances in terms of their own upbringing. Yet at the same time, there's a healthy dose of fiction. So I do think they take great pleasure in torturing their characters as much as they take joy in constructing them.
CD: A two-part question of sorts: Is there a scene in the film that you regard as your favorite, and is there a scene that you found to be particularly challenging for you as an actor?
MS: I remember when I first saw the film, my favorite scene was the whole "Goy's Teeth" story...
CD: That's a wonderful sequence.
MS: (laughs) It seemed to me to be quintessential Coen Brothers. Absurd, filled with great music, wonderfully creative visually... that remains a high point in this film for me. The second part of your question was whether there was a challenging scene... well, there were two scenes in particular that I felt like... I couldn't stop laughing during the course of shooting them, which was a difficult but interesting challenge. The first scene was with Adam Arkin, the lawyer, in his office, in which I tell him about the "get", the religious divorce... both of us were sort of susceptible to laughter during the shooting of the scene. I would start to laugh and then stop, he would start to laugh and stop, so it took us a little bit longer to shoot that particular scene. Also, the scene with Richard Kind where both of us are in our pajamas and I'm on the cot in the living room. He looks over at me and I've been sunburned from staying out on the roof all day and he says, "Boy, you should have worn a hat." (laughs) There's something about that which just made me laugh on that particular day...
CD: Can you tell us what's on the horizon for you in the the near future?
MS: Sure. At the moment, I'm in the middle of shooting a new HBO series called Boardwalk Empire...
CD: Ah, Martin Scorsese directed the pilot, I believe?
MS: That's right! We've shot the pilot, we're on episode 6 right now. We're shooting here in Brooklyn. It's about the evolution, birth and high times of Atlantic City, set on the eve of prohibition, and it involves historical characters like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and my character... Arnold Rothstein, who was allegedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series. It sort of combines history with historical fiction.
CD: Sounds like a fascinating program; definitely something we'll look forward to seeing.
CD: Michael, again, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. A Serious Man is a really wonderful film, your performance in it is superb and we greatly appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about it.
MS: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
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