Michael Stuhlbarg Interview “The Serious Man” New Cohen Brothers Film

Michael Stuhlbarg, “A Serious Man” photo taken in Chicago, Oct. 2009. Photo Credit: Sarah Knight Adamson

My interview with Michael Stuhlbarg was the first of the day and as luck may have it while waiting in the chic lobby of the Trump Tower Hotel in Chicago I spotted Michael out of the corner of my eye. I looked over and smiled, he smiled and I walk over and I introduced myself. I started chatting about my sister and her husband as they are both New York Broadway actors and I was almost certain that he may know them. I knew I should trust my instincts, because I was right; we immediately had a connection!

Backstage Notes:

OK ladies, he’s very handsome and has a wonderful calm demeanor. His voice is amazing and you can hear a sample by listening to the audio portion. Too my delight, I knew he was going to sound fantastic on the radio show Hollywood 360, which aired the interview last Saturday evening.

Sarah Adamson: I must tell you that I was very pleased to listen to your answers during the Q&A session last night after the screening of the film, it helped clarify a few things for myself. You play the lead role, Larry Gopnik, in a Minneapolis suburban setting in 1967. Can you tell us a little bit about him and about his story for our readers?

Michael Stuhlbarg: Larry is a physics professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in 1967. He’s very content in his job and loves his wife and loves his children. He doesn’t ask many questions about where he is in his life. Things start to happen to him and everything starts to go awry. He starts to question why these things are happening to him. His friends suggest that he find spiritual advice from his community rabbi and it starts a journey of questioning as to why things that he thought were one way, turned out to be very different.

Sarah Adamson: He seems like a complex character. I know you said you auditioned to be in the fable at the beginning of the film. Can you tell us about that?

Michael Stuhlbarg: Originally, when I auditioned for the movie it was for the part of the husband in the Yiddish parable in the beginning of the movie. So I went to a tutor and I had to learn my entire scene in Yiddish, which was a great challenge. When I presented my scene to Joel and Ethan they laughed a lot which made me really happy. At that point, they weren’t sure whether or not they wanted to find an actor who could speak it phonetically well or one who could speak it fluently. They went with folks who could speak it fluently. And they did a beautiful job. Five or Six months passed and I just put it out of my head until I got a call out of the blue asking, “would you come in (and audition) for Larry and for Uncle Arthur.” I learned three scenes of each of those characters and when I presented them — they laughed again and it made me really happy, again. I kept asking periodically, if I was still in the running for this and eventually, I got a call saying I would be one of these parts. And so I started working on both of them. About six or seven weeks before the shooting started, I got a call from Joel and he said, “we’ll put you out of your misery, you’ll be playing Larry.” And that’s how it happened; it was about an eleven-month journey from the beginning of the first audition to when I actually got the part.

Sarah Adamson: After you got the part of Larry, you said that you had three pages of questions for the Coen brothers. Do any stand out?

Michael Stuhlbarg: When I first got that script and I got the chance to read it I laughed a lot, which is always a great thing to happen when you’re reading something that you’re going to have the opportunity to audition for. There were a lot of terms in there that I was unfamiliar with – things like a get, which is a ritual divorce in the Jewish tradition. They (Coen brothers) answered them all and when they didn’t have an answer, they left it up to me. They are really remarkable that way. When they choose their actors, they love being asked questions because that makes them think about their writing in a different way. When they don’t have an answer they said that you could make it up for yourself. So they create this piece and relinquish it to you and trust you with it, which is a little intimidating, but at the same time, it allows you a great sense of freedom, to trust that instinct that you brought to the character in the first place.

Sarah Adamson: What are the Coen brothers like on and off the set?

Michael Stuhlbarg: (Laughs) On the set, they are very much part of the same kind of head. It’s really hard to differentiate the two. Except for the facts that Joel is the one saying “action” and “cut” and Ethan is usually the one in the back of the room pacing back and forth with his head down, listening very intently as to what it is that we’re doing so he can perhaps take it in and give us feedback.

In between takes, Joel would plop himself down in a chair and be available to anyone that had questions for him. Ethan would often grab his beat up, plastic, string guitar and start sitting there playin’ the blues. It was a very relaxed set. Off the set, (laughs), they’re very sweet guys and very smart but unpretentiously so.

They know so much about so many different kinds of things that every time we’d sit down to have a meal it would always be about something unusual and something fun. They’re very loose, very Zen, very silly and really enjoyable to hang out with…just what I imagined people would think they’d be like.

Sarah Adamson: It appears that the film could possibly be a reflection of the brothers’ childhood. Do you see any similarities now that you’ve gotten to know them?

Michael Stuhlbarg: Well, I think it comes from a very personal place. Yet, it also is mixed with a very healthy dose of fiction, which they apply to everything they create. Joel and Ethan were raised in St. Louis Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They went to a conservative Synagogue growing up and their father was a professor at the University of Minnesota. He was an economics professor, whereas Larry was a physics professor. So I was, I guess, the makeshift version of their father. I think that’s where the similarities end. I think that was more of a jumping off point for them. Danny, my son in the movie, played by Aaron Wolff, was about the age that Joel and Ethan would have been around 1976. So, there are some similarities. Plus, some of Danny’s friends in the movie are the names of people Joel and Ethan actually grew up with. Mrs. Samsky, who is a character in the movie, she was someone in their congregation growing up.

Sarah Adamson: The scene in your office with the student that is trying to bribe you for a better grade is so upsetting. You state very clearly, “I didn’t leave anything! I know where everything is!” Clearly, your character has been developed enough by this point that we know he’s right. Can you talk about Larry for a little bit and give us some more insight into his character because he is just awesome.

Michael Stuhlbarg: Thank you! Well, at the beginning of the story, he was in a very non-questioning place in his life. He was enthralled in the world of physics in which he submerged himself. He didn’t necessarily have that open, or a ready communication with his wife or his children on a consistent basis. Once things start to go wrong with him, he starts to look up from the life he’s been living and starts to question everything. He starts to look at his children differently. He starts to listen to them differently. He starts to understand his wife and brother in a different way. And it’s sort of like he’s been an ostrich and his head pops up and he starts to look around and all the sudden he becomes a question himself. He starts to question everything.

Sarah Adamson: Exactly, I felt the character was so deep. The script is so deep there are so many meanings.

Michael Stuhlbarg: I think so too. People have been coming to see the movie more than once and finding new things every time, which has been great. There’s so much to glean in there.

Sarah Adamson: Do you have a line that you could recite for us?

Michael Stuhlbarg: One line that Larry seems to say over and over again is that he ‘didn’t do anything.’ He’s placed in these situations where he’s being blamed for a number of things.

Sarah Adamson: I agree. His kids really are obnoxious. This poor guy, he is a good man. He is so serious he seems like the kind of guy that flosses every night but all the sudden, all these things start to happen.

Michael Stuhlbarg: I think he loves his kids but he’s not really involved in their lives. Someone asked me what I’d take away from this experience that Larry goes on and I came up with this thought that if/when I have children of my own I will try to be more involved in their lives and to be more present for them. I feel like he’s been so involved with his daily life of teaching and his work that they’ve grown up without him and they seem to be on their own journeys. When he wakes up from his journey, they’ve gone their own ways and grown up without him. That’s something that sort of resonates with me a little bit.

Sarah Adamson: Could you talk about Richard Kind, who plays Uncle Arthur in the movie?

Michael Stuhlbarg: Of course, he plays my brother in the movie. Richard and I had met once before at a social occasion and we had actually worked with same director at one point and had many friends in common. When we were cast together we had a really lovely time catching up and telling stories about people we knew and had a really amazing time trying to build a back-story for these two guys and what we thought their relationship was like. He’s one of the most naturally funny and talented people I’ve ever met. He has such a great inner sense of humor that he brings with him in everything that he does. I could just sit back and let him take the stage and enjoy what it is that he does. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with him.

Sarah Adamson: He was amazing to watch as well; particularly, in a few of those scenes where you are almost on top of each other in your living quarters.

Michael Stuhlbarg: (Laughs) It was fun. That was one of those occasions…there was a point in the film where our characters find ourselves banished to the living room. I’m on a cot and he’s on a sofa and we’re just lying there and we’re both in our own particular predicaments and he just has one line that he tosses off to me. Maybe it was just because of where we were in the shooting schedule in the making of the movie but we had a really difficult time not laughing during the course of that particular scene. He just had one line and I just kept laughing my head off time after time. We probably wasted about a half an hour just because I could not keep a straight face during the course of the scene. Anyone that has the chance to work with Richard beware, he’ll make you laugh.

Sarah Adamson: Touching on the differences of stage acting and acting on film, would you like to tell us about that?

Michael Stuhlbarg: That’s been an interesting question to address lately. I find that my work is pretty much the same. It’s my job to bring the character to life in whatever medium it happens to be. If it’s in the theatre, there are different technical demands than there are when I’m in front of a camera. In the theatre, it’s important for me to be able to be as clear for the person in the second balcony as it is to be clear to the person in the front row and to find a balance so that my performance can be enjoyed-often by people that are 150 feet away from each other. Whereas in front of a camera, its a much more intimate experience so I try to do my work and then bring it to whatever challenge is placed in front of me. I feel like my work is pretty much the same.

Sarah Adamson: Is there anything else you’d like our listeners to know about the film?

Michael Stuhlbarg: Come and enjoy it! I think it’s a universal story even though it’s set in a particular community. I think there is a lot to let wash over you. Come with an open mind, have fun and don’t worry if there are things you don’t understand because it doesn’t really matter. It’s a universal story about somebody who goes through very human things and comes out with questions on the side but there’s a lot of humor on the way so come and enjoy!

Sarah Adamson: Michael, thank you so much for chatting with me today, it has certainly been a pleasure meeting you and best of luck with the film!