The Challenges of Being 'A Serious Man'
Actor Michael Stuhlbarg on starring in the Oscar-nominated film "A Serious Man," the Jewish experience in America, and his love-hate relationship with acting.
BY: Sara Shereen Bakhshian
Despite the title of his Oscar nominated film "A Serious Man," actor Michael Stuhlbarg is fairly giddy. That might be because 2010 is looking to be quite the year for him. His role in the acclaimed Coen brothers film is garnering honors like a nomination for a Best Actor Golden Globe and a Chopin Virtuosos Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Stuhlbarg, who is primarily a stage actor, will also be co-starring in Martin Scorsese's new HBO Prohibition era series "Boardwalk Empire," set to premiere in the fall.
During the Virtuosos after party at the Canary Hotel in Santa Barbara, Stuhlbarg spoke to Beliefnet about working with the Coen Brothers, portraying Jewish characters, the new show, and the joy of life.
Some content has been edited for spatial purposes and clarity.
What attracted you to the role of Larry Gopnik in "A Serious Man"?
I would have done anything in the movie. I was just glad that they wanted to see me. But when I got a chance and actually got cast in the part, there were so many wonderful little quirky challenges about getting to play him. I think primarily trying to keep a vibrant emotional life going while sort of keeping a lid on because he doesn't get many opportunities during the course of the story to let out what he's going through. So, it was a wonderful challenge. And getting to work with them every day was a huge treat.
So many people want to work with the Coen brothers. What about the filmmakers intrigued you?
I think one of the things that makes what they do so special is how specific they are in putting their scenes and thoughts down on the page. They're so meticulous about what they want and so specific about how they put it down, including the ellipses between words, and the "ums" and "ahs" and everything on the page, as written, and you're asked to do what they've written. But they also provide some wonderful structure within which one can… expand or improvise. But they're kind, they're smart, and they're so well prepared. By the time we show up on the set, they know where the camera is going to be, they know what each shot is going to look like and we kind of fall into that formula.
They know what they're doing. So, I've been spoiled.
How would you say Gopnik stands out from other Jewish characters in cinema?
I think he's kind of unique in some ways. I found myself describing him as sort of living in a perpetual pause. It seems like there's always some sort of air before he speaks and some air after he speaks and he's constantly in this place of bewilderment about all the things that are happening to him. So, I think that's an interesting character trait for him.
His Judaism is something that I think surprises him during the course of the movie. I think between him and his wife, [she] is the more religious of the two. She was probably the one who insisted having the children go through Hebrew school and [their] Bar Mitzvahs. Larry was mostly concerned with what he did for a living, which was teaching physics. And he probably let his wife take the reins in terms of guiding the family's Judaism. When he is confronted with the things that happened to him, he goes on this sort of spiritual quest. For somebody I imagined who was not particularly religious, he finds himself asking some quite profound spiritual questions about why his life has turned out the way it had.
So, there is this dilemma figuring out an ethnic connection as a Jew and spiritual connection with Judaism?
Yeah, absolutely. I think particularly for American Jews, I guess is another way to talk about it because our history is elsewhere. And coming here and trying to find your identity not only as someone from the Midwest, or from New York, or from California, or wherever, you had this history that we carry along with us in terms of our own identity and then we have this religion that we carry with us.
There are also different sects within the religion in which some people adhere very closely to it and other people don't. So, the Jewish experience in America is quite varied, and this was also a very specific kind of experience for Joel and Ethan that they grew up with. So, it was "their kind of Jews."
Do you feel a sense of responsibility in portraying Jewish characters?
Well yeah, sure. I mean, I think though you have to take it on a case-by-case basis. With Larry, he's one way. He perhaps was not raised particularly religiously, but because his wife welcomes a more disciplined or involved aspect of religion, he went along with it. It's one particular portrayal.
The next character I'm playing in the new HBO series ["Boardwalk Empire"], Arnold Rothstein, is strange, yet kind of similar. Well, it's the 1920's when the TV show takes place, and his father was a very religious man, but Arnold's older brother is actually, or was at one point, studying to be a rabbi. Arnold sort of said: "Let my brother be the Jew. I'm going to be the American." So, he's searching primarily for his American identity if he is searching at all. I mean, he has more of an obsession with money. That's his first love really. He's obsessed with that in trying to make a way for himself in a world that was quite beleaguered and complicated. So, I think perhaps in a similar way, his Judaism is not going to be the main purpose of his life.
What does it feel like to be on an HBO show—one by Martin Scorsese, no less?
The vibes at the moment are really optimistic. We're on schedule, which is great; they've been devoted to the show from Day 1. So, they're really supportive and so there's a lot of great energy around the set. There's so many wonderful actors on the show: Michael Shannon, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Stephen Graham, Vincent Piazza. The list goes on and on. There's so many wonderful New York-based actors who have been doing guest-starring roles in the show. So, it is very textured, and the writing has been fantastic. I really hope people grow to love it because I think there's a lot to love there.
Do you ever worry about being typed-casted as a Jewish character?
Well, I guess it's my job if I feel that way to try to do something about it. Depending on what choices are available to me in trying to make the best decisions I can. I've done a lot of theater work that has been quite diverse. I feel very fortunate to have had many different people think of me in many different ways. So, as an actor that's all you – all I want is diversity. So far in film and television work I have done has not been as diverse, and I hope it grows to be.