Why So Serious? The Foghorn Talks to Michael Stuhlbarg, an Actor’s Actor

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Michael Stuhlbarg stars in the Jew-centric new Coen Brother’s film “A Serious Man.”  Illustration by Elizabeth Brown/Foghorn
Michael Stuhlbarg stars in the Jew-centric new Coen Brother’s film “A Serious Man.” Illustration by Elizabeth Brown/Foghorn

Long Beach native Michael Stuhlbarg intently wipes a finger print smudge from an otherwise immaculate glass table.  Stuhlbarg sits, with a pensive grimace in a stuffy Ritz Carlton conference room.  He is rounding his first day of press as new master of both theatre and now film with his break through performance as Larry Gopnik; now gaining public recognition and momentum.  Gopnik is the Jewish wonder-subject of Joel and Ethan Coens’ new film “A Serious Man”.

San Francisco Foghorn: Are you conflicted with religion?

Michael Stuhlbarg: There are always good times and bad times and I’ve found that for me religion, in my experience has been a positive force yet I know it can also be a very dividing force in the world.  I go back and forth about how much I want it in my life and how much it’s a part of me regardless of how much I want it in my life.  There’s always that inner compass that seems to come around to how I was raised while at the same time I live in contemporary society away from Judaism most of the time because a large part of my religion is my work.

SFF: Was there an audition process for this film?

MS: Absolutely.  My first audition was for the part of the husband in the Yiddish parable in the beginning of the movie so I had to learn that whole scene in Yiddish.  I went to a tutor and learned the whole thing phonetically.  He was so sweet about helping me through it all and I brought it to Joel and Ethan and they laughed a lot which made me really happy.  The Coens, at that time where not sure whether or not they wanted to cast an actor who could learn the role phonetically or one that knew how to speak it fluently.  They ended up going with folks, for the Yiddish parable scene, who could speak fluently.  There was though, however a lot of haggling back and forth in terms of what was grammatically correct because these actors learned Yiddish in different parts of the world at different times.  Both were valid but Yiddish is a grabbing language in that it takes a little bit from this and there’s a little German, Polish a little Hebrew so they had to hammer out they’re differences before they shot the scene.  People who speak Yiddish seem to be really tickled by what they did in that scene.  But five or six months go by and I get a call out of the blue and I get a call and they want me to come in and read for Larry and Arthur.  I did it for Joel and Ethan and they laughed again and that made me happy again but I didn’t think it was the same movie!  [Laughing]  I kept asking periodically over the course of weeks if I was still a part of it and the Coens said, “Yeah, yeah, you’re still in the mix, you’re still in the mix.”  Then I got a call saying that I’d get one of these parts but, “we don’t know which one, we’re trying to pair you up with other people to see what’s best for the film.”  Six weeks before shooting I got a call from Joel saying, “We’ll put you out of your misery.  You’re playing Larry.”

SFF: What are your bad habits?

MS: Oh my goodness!

SFF: You have to be honest.

MS: When I work on plays I really like to take my time.  For instance, with Shakespeare, I need to know what I need to know for this part and to be responsible for that and then have the director say, “I know what you’re saying just speed it up a little bit.”

SFF: I feel like that’s a very conscientious thing that would help your work.

MS: I would think so too and in some cases it does but in other cases some people have found it frustrating in terms of rehearsing it because sometimes I’ll stop in the middle of a scene and want to really understand what it is I’m saying as opposed to just going through it one more time for the sake of getting through rehearsal fast.  Rehearsal is, itself, an art form and as a young artists I was never encouraged to take my time.  It is something I learned, instead, over the course of many years to just sort of say,  “look I don’t understand this!!  I need to know now so I can bring it with me the next time that we do this,” as opposed to, “I understand that we’re that the end of rehearsal and there’s another scene that needs to be rehearsed.”  But frankly, if I don’t do this the problem [of knowing] will be here the next time we do the scene.  This kind of thing behooved me to speak up for myself and ask for what I need from a director.  I’m learning still, how to do that.  I just want to please the people that I’m working for.  This too is a habit I have because I want to make them happy and I want them to get the vision they are after.  Yet I know at the same time I know some actors adhere very closely to their own instincts and I do that too but I like to collaborate and try different things.  Very rarely do I hold on to something so tightly that it keeps me from exploring other options.

SFF:  I avert my eyes to well kept hands and point. You’re not a nail bitter, are you?

MS: No.  I used to be.

Michael Stuhlbarg stars in the new film “A Serious Man” by Joel and Ethan Coen.  This month Stuhlbarg is also featured in the gruesome prep school thriller “After School” directed by 25 year old Antonio Campos.  Visit http://foghorn.usfca.edu  for a podcast of the complete interview.

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