Exclusive Interview: A Serious Man Star Michael Stuhlbarg
In A Serious Man, Michael Stuhlbarg plays a very nice, very ordinary man forced to the end of his rope by a lot of awful but ordinary circumstances, like his brother's mental illness, his wife's affair with a neighbor, and a student's attempt to bribe him for a better grade. And while Stuhlbarg's life is looking nothing but up, snagging his first lead role in a Coen brothers movie, he shares Larry Gopnik's sense of decency and overwhelming niceness, not to mention an easygoing attitude that probably made him a dream actor for the Coens.
A few weeks ago, in our shared home city of New York, I talked to Stuhlbarg about the process of working with Coens and accepting the little guidance they give him, the resonance of the film's central quote in his own life, and how the movie promotional machine compares to the one that exists in Broadway, where Stuhlbarg is a veteran actor. It's clear just how much thought he's put into the character and the movie itself, not to mention how lucky he feels to be part of it at all. A Serious Man opens in limited release this weekend, and is excellent. Read parts of my chat with Stuhlbarg below.
The Coens have a reputation for being very no-nonsense and quiet on set. DId you know that reputation before getting to the set?
I had heard that that had been the case with some of their other films, but I didn't really know what to expect, and I tried to leave myself open to whatever was going to happen. They did pretty much leave their hands off of what I was doing.
When you saw the whole thing put together, was the film the same as the one you thought you were making?
That's interesting. It's never what you expect it to be in my limited experience with film and television. You can intend to do whatever, but I like being surprised with whatever ends up being there. In this case I was very pleased with what they ended up choosing in terms of particular cuts or shots. And it was different from my impression of what it might be.
Did you think it had a different tone?
I did indeed. The very first time I saw it, I was very taken with Carter Burwell's gorgeous music. It really takes you along on the journey in a way I didn't expect this film to be. It could have been directed many different ways. I think the way it came out was right.
Barton Fink feels like it has the most to do with this film. Did you revisit that one specifically before filming started?
I was actually surprised at how different it was when I saw it again than how i remembered it to be. I also remembered how amazing those performances are. That was a very different character too, so there really wasn't much danger in my opinion. My character was not a playwright, and had a very different sort of life. There's a different energy that comes across with being a Midwesterner.
There's a lot of Midwestern actors in the film. What's it like working with them?
Most of the people in New York are very often from somewhere else. I really didn't find that much difference. There's a great warmth and sincerity and kindness in the people that I met in Minneapolis while I was shooting there. They couldn't ahve been nicer. I don't think I had a bad day the whole time I was there.
What was it like being part of the period film shoot taking over the town?
Everybody was really generous. It was sort of like hometown boys make good, coming back. They love the Coen brothers, although some people have a bee in their bonnet about how thick they laid on the accents in Fargo.
Now that you've seen the ilm, are you able to draw your own conclusions about the meaning of some of the more mystifying parts? Specifically with the prologue.
I think the quote at the beginning of the movie--"Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you"-- has resonance for both that first parable and the rest of the movie. It's a goal to shoot for in one's life, and he tries to do that the best that he can. I don't know that there's much more one can do. I've found in my own life, if you try to struggle against what the universe is telling you, you set yourself up for more of a battle.
How does this film resonate with your own experience of Judaism?
I was raised in a reform synagogue. I think we all bring with us a sense of when hard things happen to us, we find ourselves asking questions of why are these things happening to me at this time in my life. I think in that sense, there's a certain resonance that I carry. It's more of a spiritual resonance as opposed to particularly of Judaism.
The movie promotion cycle is such a slog-- you might be doing it for 5 months. How does it copmare to something like for the Tonys?
Thus far it's much more involved, and I've spoken with many more people. My experience at the Tonys was a lot, very quickly, over just a few days, while I was continually responsible for carrying on that performance night after night. As opposed to this, where I did it a year ago, and I don't have to warm up and sustain what's being asked of me night after night. In that sense, the work is done, which is nice actually. i can talk to people from a different headspace.
The Coens seem utterly unfazed by the awards stuff. Did they pass that on to you?
That sort of attitude I find to be very helpful in terms of just taking it for what it iwas. They bring that kind of energy with them. It's admirable, I find. The work is done, and you stand behind your work. If you can carry that with you, the rest is gravy.
This is a very strange, very specifically Jewish movie. Are you concerned that it won't resonate with as may people as, say, Burn After Reading did?
I don't know. It's a different movie obviously. I think you need to take it for what it is. I think that's the truth with all of their movies. Each one is its own beast, and fabulously so, I believe. I think that it's steeped in this particular community, as particular and as specific as the communities of these other films that they've made. I don't think that it's exclusive either. I think it's a universal story.
Even though this movie hasn't come out yet, has it changed the roles available to you?
I think people are starting to become aware of who I am, and hopefully that will open more doors for me that way.
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