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"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you."
"An audience will tell you instantly how they feel when you're in a play."
"I'm hoping people find a certain amount of pathos in the story that perhaps they haven't found in their other movies."
"Usually, what motivates me is a great script, a sense of humor, and lots of surprises."
"Everyone can empathize with the plight that Larry goes through, having surprises thrown at you, and doing your best to deal with them."
"In a couple of places, I had a difficult time keeping a straight face."
"I just love art - from classical painters to absurdly, simple cartoons."
Michael Stuhlbarg  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
October 2009

Nicholas Cage, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Josh Brolin, and Michael Stuhlbarg? All have the distinction of being leading men in the Coen Brother's slate of eccentric dark comedies. The latter of whom, Michael Stuhlbarg, may be the least recognizable. But not for much longer. Particularly, after his standout performance as a Midwestern professor searching for the meaning of life in A Serious Man.

Stuhlbarg grew up in Long Beach, California, and dreamed of becoming a cartoonist. He studied acting at UCLA, the University of London, and the prestigious Julliard School of Acting. Formally trained in the theater arts, Michael honed his craft via Shakespeare, performing in off Broadway productions of "Twelfth Night" and "Hamlet." And he earned a Tony Award nomination for his role in Martin McDonagh's play, "The Pillowman." The recognition would translate into future television and theatrical appearances, from Law & Order to Ugly Betty and The Grey Zone to Body of Lies.

However, it was a chance meeting with Frances McDormand while volunteering at the 52nd Street Project that paid off for Stuhlbarg. McDormand invited her husband, Joel Coen, to one of Michael's plays and later, he found himself in the leading role of Serious. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been steadily gaining Oscar buzz. Says Stuhlbarg, "It's full of surprises, humor, and has a great deal of mischief about it." And in all seriousness, it's a breakout role for a bright and talented young actor.

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

How and when did you decide to get serious about acting?

Oh, my gosh! I still haven't decided! (Laughs).

Actually, I've been doing it since I was about eleven years old. Started in community theater in Long Beach, California, where I grew up, and have kept doing it ever since.

I just loved it. But I would never have expected someone like me would have gotten interested in it because I was a very shy kid. I'm still very shy. And I really wanted to be a cartoonist.

I remember I was signed up to do this summer stock kind of thing and was hoping that I could just build the sets. But they said 'no, everybody has to be in it.' And once I got in and started playing around, I had a great time.

You trained at some really prestigious schools, like Julliard, the University of London, and UCLA. What kind of things did you learn on the job as opposed to the classroom?

I guess you can talk to different actors about this, but I learned the most from doing. There are certain things you learn in classrooms that are invaluable, fantastic, and important. But you don't really find how they are applicable until you find yourself in a situation when you need to use them.

You learn what it's like to be in front of an audience. And there is absolutely no substitute for that because an audience will tell you instantly how they feel when you're in a play. More specifically, you learn how to develop and trust your instincts.

How did the Coen Brothers find you?

Well, I had been participating in a little off Broadway Theater Company in New York called the 52nd Street Project where kids between the ages of nine and seventeen write the plays. And they get professional actors and directors to act and direct them. So, I had volunteered to participate in a couple of shows there and in the time, met Frances McDormand, who is married to Joel Cohen. We became friendly and a few months after that, we were cast in a reading at a play off Broadway. Then, a few years after that, we were cast together in a little workshop up at Lincoln Center.

So, I got to be friendly with Frances first. She invited Joel to come see me in a play that I was doing a couple of years ago off Broadway called "The Voysey Inheritance," a new David Mamet adaptation of an old Harley Granville-Barker play, at the Atlantic Theater Company. I had a nice conversation with Joel after that and when this project came along, they asked me to audition.

The Coen Brothers are known for their slightly off beat stories and quirky characters. How is A Serious Man similar and different from their prior works?

I think it's similar in the sense that it has the same visual vocabulary that their other films have. It's full of surprises, humor, and has a great deal of mischief about it. But I think it's a little different in the sense that its tone is a little more on the serious side, which is surprising since it's a comic story. I'm hoping people find a certain amount of pathos in the story that perhaps they haven't found in their other movies. And it's also a bit of a personal story for them since it's set in the hometown where they grew up.

Do you have a favorite Coen Brother's film?

Oh, I love them all. I could never choose! (Laughs).

Larry Gopnik is a Midwestern professor. Middle class life. Has a family. Everything seems hunky dory. And then things start to fall apart. What can you tell me about him and the changes he undergoes?

I don't think he asks many questions in his life at the beginning of the movie. I think he's a rather simple soul who is satisfied with the life he has made for himself. He's on the verge of getting tenure. And I think when things start to go wrong, he goes on a spiritual quest to discover why these things are happening to him. And he starts asking questions.

At the beginning of the movie, he wouldn't necessarily have asked those kinds of questions. And he's made to confront even the smallest nuances in his life full on.

How important is the time period in conjunction with the location of the film?

I think the time period reflects what Joel and Ethan knew when they grew up. It was around the time they grew up and in the location they grew up - a time when the world was starting to change.

In America, times were changing a lot and you get a sense of that as things are happening to Larry. There's a whole other movement going on in the world. Mostly, it's reflected in Mrs. Samsky's character. She talks about the "new freedoms" and you get a taste of it, but it hasn't quite exploded yet.

Any thoughts on the meaning of the movie?

I'll leave that up to everyone who comes to see it because I think everyone will find their own meaning.

What did you take away from the film?

In terms of working on the movie, I had a great respect for what Joel and Ethan do so beautifully; specifically, how carefully they construct their screenplays and how generous their spirits are for letting actors jump in and swim around in the parts that they create.

They were able to employ a great specificity while also allowing their artists to have a very hand's off artistic experience. If they ever felt we were going down a road they deemed was inappropriate, they would always encourage us to try new things. It was great.

In terms of the story, I think everyone can empathize with the plight that Larry goes through, having surprises thrown at you and doing your best to deal with them. It kind of reflects what life is for all of us. And so, I took away the quote that is at the beginning of the movie: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." It's something I can use in my own life, accepting the things that come along as graciously and gracefully as possible.

How different was this experience from other experiences you've had on feature film sets, stage, and television?

Well, it's the first time I've ever been in a leading role and one of the longest times I've ever been on a set. I've been on some shoots that have lasted over two months, but I wasn't on the set every day. In this case, I was on the set almost every day. And that was a great challenge and a great learning experience for me.

Films are shot out of order and it was my responsibility to familiarize myself, as much as possible, with what I thought the arc of the character was. So that when we were shooting things out of order, I could bring the given circumstances as well as all the things that happened previously.

What was your favorite scene?

I don't think I can pick a certain moment, but there were a couple of occasions where I found myself laughing my head off on the set. I find the story to be very funny. And in a couple of places, I had a difficult time keeping a straight face. It was fine for a while, but then they got a little concerned that I wasn't going to be able to pull it together. But we made it though! (Laughs).

Who or what motivates you as an actor?

Usually, what motivates me is a great script, a sense of humor, and lots of surprises. Scripts with great ideas or thought provoking ideas. I just love to be surprised and love to be challenged. It really gets my fire going because it truly takes something special to keep my interest. When I find those things, I try to hold on to them tightly and squeeze out as much as possible.

With this experience behind you, are you looking to tackle more feature film?

I imagine I'll go where the best work takes me. I would love to do more film work. It's been a fantastic adventure for me and I hope I have many more opportunities. But, I also enjoy the theater and television. They all provide different challenges and I like to keep my options open.

Outside of acting what types of activities are you interested in?

As I mentioned before, I thought I was going to be a cartoonist when I was a kid. So, I have a series of sketch books that I play in occasionally. I paint. I play a couple of instruments. Music is a big part of my life. Also, staying healthy in every sense of the word. And trying to have as much contact with friends and family as much as I can when I'm not working.

Who is your favorite cartoonist?

I admire all cartoonists, but there is an illustrator named Barry Moser who I have tremendous admiration for. In particular, his woodcuts and illustrations, everything from Dante's Inferno to Alice in Wonderland to Frankenstein and the Bible.

I was also a big Bloom County fan as a kid and also admire graphic artists as well. I just love art - from classical painters to absurdly, simple cartoons. It's something I've enjoyed and am amazed at all the devotion that people put into it.

What kind of projects do you have in the pipeline?

Not too long ago, I finished a pilot for a new HBO show called "Boardwalk Empire." It just got picked up a few days ago, so that is what I'll be doing next. It's executive produced and the pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese. It's produced by Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, and Tim Van Patten. It was written and sort of dreamt up by Terrence Winter, who worked on The Sopranos. It stars Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Dabney Coleman, Stephen Graham, and Vincent Piazza. I'm playing Arnold Rothstein, who is allegedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series. It's set in Atlantic City and it's about prohibition.

Sounds incredible.

Yeah, it should be really fun. The pilot was a blast and I'm looking forward to seeing where all these characters go!

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