Michael Stuhlbarg Mines Comedy in ‘Serious Man’
by Matt Fagerholm
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Anyone who has seen the side-splitting trailer for the Coen Brother’s fourteenth feature film has been introduced to the charms of actor Michael Stuhlbarg. He’s already a celebrated veteran of the stage, having garnered a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award for his work in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, staged in 2005 by John Crowley. Stuhlbarg has acted in numerous productions on and off-Broadway, including Sam Mendes’ revival of Cabaret, and Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone. His first movie role came in the 2001 adaptation of Blake’s play. Since then, Stuhlbarg has appeared in a variety of film and television roles, most recently in Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls and “Ugly Betty.” Yet in the Coens’ latest dark comedy A Serious Man, Stuhlbarg has a lead role that is sure to make him a household name, at least with the art house crowd.
The world of A Serious Man is inherently autobiographical for Joel and Ethan Coen. The film was shot in the Jewish suburbs of the brothers’ hometown Minneapolis. Both their father and mother were professors, and the film is set in 1967, when the filmmakers were both children. In the film, Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a kindly if complacent physics professor whose life begins to resemble the Old Testament Book of Job, in which God tested a faithful man with a series of trials and tribulations. Larry’s comfortable life suddenly starts to fall apart around him: his wife wants a divorce, his job is threatened by an apparent bribe and anonymous accusations, his children and brother are creating all sorts of problems, and his seductive next-door neighbor torments him by sunbathing in the nude. In his desperation, Larry attempts to consult the help of various rabbis, whose theological wisdom promises to provide meaning in a chaotic existence.
Stuhlbarg spoke with Film Monthly about his experience working with the infamous filmmaking duo, transitioning from stage to screen, and finding the comedy in material that usually wouldn’t be considered a laughing matter.
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: There is a similarity between what they construct in many ways. They’re very specific about what they put on the page, how they put it on the page, the rhythm of their language, the use of punctuation. They would like you to pay attention to it and they’d like you to use it. There’s a difference between the ellipsis and the dash, the um’s and the uh’s. They are all specific, every single one. They are craftsmen at the height of their powers, and they both provide a tremendous sense of humor as well. I guess that’s what I’m drawn to in some ways—the idea that there’s something true and unfortunate underneath dark circumstantial comedy. Another similarity between them is the way they let actors do what they do. They love actors, and they let us take their material and run with it. By providing such strict order, it gives us a kind of freedom to play within that, and allows us a lot of freedom to use our imagination as a jumping off point. They also couldn’t be kinder people.
QUESTION: Is that freedom of imagination on film similar to your experience onstage?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: Well, I think it’s all the more imaginative in terms of the actor’s job night after night, sometimes eight days a week, to tell the same story with the same actors in front of new people each [performance]. It’s our job to bring it to life every night, so we reexamine our given circumstances and notes that we keep for ourselves. Because I might not be in the same place today that I was before, something is going to be different. So those things influence how we do it. If we pay attention to them, we rekindle our imagination and reinvigorate our storytelling. Imagination is the crux of what we do. It’s our responsibility to tell stories in the most fresh and exciting way possible. It’s like acting moment to moment. If a fly comes in [the room], pay attention to it.
QUESTION: Is that something that you miss when you do a film?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: It’s a different kind of thing. My job is the same—to be present, to try to bring the character to life as thoroughly as possible. You just don’t get an immediate reaction. But with the Coen Brothers, they’d be laughing behind the camera, so you do get a reaction that they’ll have to edit out.
QUESTION: In a TIFF interview, you referred to [cinematographer] Roger Deakins as the third Coen Brother. What was your working relationship like with him?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: I absolutely defer to Roger in all occasions. He’s the one who’s the visual eye for the audience, and he’s the one who’s going to capture what we’re doing. That is primary in this particular medium, whereas onstage the director has a more difficult time in terms of guiding the audience’s vision of what is being seen at any particular moment. That’s usually done with light or the set, but with Roger it’s all about where the camera is going to move, and what he can capture within that. [For me,] it’s about how I can do what I need to do within that certain structure and give him what he needs. But he was so generous to me and…[pause]…how would I describe his presence onset? It is a presence simply in the sense that he’s going about his work and his entire focus is on what is best at any particular moment for the film. Light was his primary [focus.] He’d stand there for minutes and minutes on end with his light meter trying to capture the exact moment when it was perfect. In some cases we waited quite a long time. There were overcast days when something was shot at dawn or dusk and Roger would say, “Lets just go and do it.” Apparently there was a scene in No Country for Old Men where a chase happens as the sun is starting to come up. They had to shoot that sequence over the course of weeks at dawn and at dusk. They had a twelve minute period in which they could capture the perfect light.
QUESTION: With a dog?!
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: Yeah, with a dog running all over the place [laughs], so that took them forever to do. We didn’t have any of those necessarily. There was one day out of the whole shoot that was complicated in terms of light because it did not end up being as sunny as they were expecting and that was the day we were pushing Arthur [Richard Kind] in the canoe out to the canadian border.
QUESTION: You were originally considered for multiple characters. What was your character preference when you read the script?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: It doesn’t really matter to me so much. I want to help the director do whatever they want to do. I want to be the best of whatever they want me to be. I would have been glad to do anything in this movie, and it just so happens that I ended up being the guy on the poster. In this case I lucked out, I really did.
QUESTION: How did you personally feel about your character, Larry Gopnik? Is he a man that you like?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: Yeah, I did like him. I thought he was a good guy, I think he was trying to go through his life in as moral and as expected a way as possible. Perhaps he was not the most dynamic teacher or presence, but I don’t think one should fault him for that. I think he loves what he does for a living, and I think he loves his family. He just looks up from what he’s doing and finds his life falling apart, and then goes on this journey where he has to ask questions about why his life is falling apart. But yeah, I liked him very much.
QUESTION: As an actor, how do you manage to find the humor is this character without condescending to him?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: I guess you hold tight to the truth of the situation as best you can, and these are absurd situations, so remaining true in an absurd situation is a challenge. There were a couple occasions when I couldn’t keep a straight face. Adam Arkin and I had that [problem] when we shot our first scene together in the law office. For a half hour, neither of us could keep a straight face. Richard Kind and I were laughing a lot in the scene where I’m on the cot and he’s on the sofa. That’s where the Coens’ live—a serious situation that we find funny because it’s unfortunate in some ways and you can’t believe that someone has to be put through this gauntlet, so to speak.
QUESTION: Have you been a fan of the Coens before? What are your favorite movies?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: Absolutely, I love them all, I really do. Each movie they choose to create has certain similarities to the others, but each one has its own metabolism. They are all very different. Perhaps the most exact similarities are the names of the lawyers, which are repeated over and over again. I think there’s “Tuckman Marsh” in a couple different movies, and possibly a “Solomon Schlutz.”
QUESTION: With the lead role in a Coen Brothers film, did you feel like the pressure was on?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: I tried not to think about it too much. Since the audition process had spanned over a year before they came around and said “you’re playing Larry,” I was working on it significantly. I felt like I had a lot of questions, but my main concern was to not slow production down and cost them any more money than it was going to cost anyway. As it worked out, we ended up finishing a week ahead of schedule and under budget, which was wonderful and I will try to do that in the future as well, if I am fortunate enough to have more jobs like this one. But yeah it is hard not to take into consideration that these are artists at the top of their game, and people I love and respect, so I want to do my best work when I show up.
QUESTION: Was your previous work in theater a matter of choice, or had you always aspired to be in film?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: I think it’s a little bit of both, but mostly I was really lucky to have a bunch of jobs in the theater that I really wanted to do. I love film and television, and I wanted to pursue that as well, but I had these amazing opportunities in the theater. I had been studying theater for years and had grown up on it and wanted to put into practice the things I had learned. I got a chance to play a couple handfulls of great roles, for which I was very grateful. As I got older, people came to see me in these plays, and they’d bring me in to audition for film and TV, and on those few occasions when I was younger and auditioning for film and television, I found that I was ill-equipped to be in front of the camera. I never really understood it, and I had never seen myself on [camera]. I never had the opportunity to understand what that medium was like, but now that I’ve gotten a couple handfulls of these opportunities under my belt, I’m starting to understand how it works.
QUESTION: What could audiences learn about Judaism from this film? Would you consider the film’s depiction of Judaism realistic or exaggerated?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: I don’t think it’s exaggerated or even terribly heightened. I think it’s a particular situation. For people who aren’t familiar with Judaism, they will learn things that they perhaps didn’t know, and even for those people who are versed in Judaism, there are some terms that will be thrown at them that they may not be familiar with, such as an “agunah” or a “gett.”
QUESTION: How did you prepare for the role?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: I just took what was given to me and started asking questions, so in terms of my own preparation, that’s really where I started. I just asked pages and pages of questions and they answered most of them and for the few they didn’t answer, they just let me make my own decision.
QUESTION: Did you consult any rabbis?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: No, I didn’t consult any rabbis, but I did consult a physics professor, because I felt like that was the head that Larry lived in most of the time. It wasn’t his religion. I think his wife was more religious that he was, so the physics was my concern; getting up in front of a group of students and being able to convincingly discuss at length Schrodinger’s cat and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. I took that very seriously.
QUESTION: What was it like working with all those local actors in Minneapolis, and how did it affect your performance?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: They were wonderful, tremendously accomplished actors that have spent their lives working and living in Minneapolis. They are fantastic and so well suited for their parts that it allowed me a glimpse into that Midwestern nature. In their Fargo days, Joel and Ethan called it “Minnesota Nice,” which is a sort of affability, with a kind of inner…[long pause]
QUESTION: Passive aggression?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: Yes, passive aggression is a good way to put it.
QUESTION: Some of the biggest laughs come from the most unexpected lines, such as when Rabbi Scott [Simon Helburg] says, “Look at the parking lot, Larry!” When you read this script, did you see the punch lines, or did they come out naturally when you’re playing with the dialogue?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: You never really know. The great thing about it was I didn’t know how people were going to react to the movie, and that’s just one of those moments that people just seem to like because of the natural rhythm of the language, where it lives within what Simon Helberg so beautifully constructed in the doing of it and what Joel and Ethan put in the rhythm of the speech. The fun part for us is we don’t know what we have until they put it together, play it to an audience and they tell us what we have. Some people think of it as a humorous drama, and some people are calling it a black comedy. It kind of lives in both terrains.
QUESTION: Are audiences meant to look for an ultimate meaning in the film, or should they just go with the flow?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: I just generally tell people to go have fun and let it wash over you. I’m not sure if there is supposed to be a message. It starts with a message in some ways, that quote at the beginning of the movie, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” You get the moral at the beginning and then you see people struggling with that in their lives.
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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