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.

A Serious Man

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.

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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?

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