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Interview: Michael Stuhlbarg on “A Serious Man”

by Mel Valentin

In twenty-five years, Joel and Ethan Coen have made 14 films, prolific by almost any standard (only Woody Allen has made more films in the same time period). They’ve won multiple Academy Awards, Best Original Screenplay for "Fargo," and Best Adapted Screenplay ("No Country for Old Men"), Best Director(s), and Best Picture for "No Country for Old Men." With the exception of science fiction and horror, the Coen Brothers have worked in practically every genre, from noir to musicals, but they’ve avoided making autobiographical or semi-autobiographical films (until now, that is).

The Coen Brothers found inspiration for their latest film, A Serious Man, an existential black comedy, in their childhood, growing up in a Jewish-American community in the Midwest in the mid-1960s. Michael Stuhlbarg, the Coen Brothers pick to play A Serious Man's lead, Larry Gopnik, a physics professors whose personal and professional lives go comically, absurdly awry, stopped into San Francisco last week for an interview. A Drama Desk Award-winner and Tony Award nominee (both for Pillowman), Stuhlbarg makes his debut as a lead actor in A Serious Man.

Q: To start off, I just wanted to say that I absolutely loved it [A Serious Man]. It leaves you thinking what’s going on, especially with the prologue and [ending]. One of the things I love about the Coen Brothers is that there isn’t a lot of sermonizing. The message is there, the themes are there, but they’re interwoven into the story. I loved the stuff about the Heisenberg Principle and you pull back and see the massive blackboard, which made me wonder how many hours it took to write the formula on a board that size.

A: Indeed, to write that, to fill up the board… It really did take that long. Well, I went to a physics professor and he tried to describe [the Heisenberg Principle] to me. There are simple explanations. He wrote out a mathematical equation for me, trying to describe that [the Heisenberg Principle] to me. I took the tail end of that equation and learned it by heart and that’s what I’d write on the blackboard that proves that somehow.

Q: You originally auditioned to play the character in the prologue, correct?

A: That’s correct.

Q: … And then for Richard Kind’s part [Arthur].

A: I [initially] auditioned for the husband in the Yiddish parable at the beginning of the film. I had to learn the whole scene in Yiddish and went to a Yiddish tutor. He helped me to speak the language phonetically as well as possible with my own shortcomings (not knowing Yiddish). I brought it into them [the Coen Brothers]. They laughed a lot. They were happy and that made me feel great. They weren’t sure whether or not they wanted an actor who could do it phonetically or someone who could speak [Yiddish] fluently and they ended up with the [actors] who knew it like the back of their hands and rightfully so.

Five or six months went by and they asked me to come in for both Larry and Arthur at the same time, so I learned three scenes of each character, did those scenes, and they went very well. I would ask periodically in the following weeks if I was still part of the mix. They said that I was. Eventually, they said I was going to get one of these parts. They just weren’t sure which one. Six or seven weeks before we started shooting, I got the call saying we’ll put you out of your misery. You’re playing Larry. I could then just focus on one of [the characters] and do my job.

Q: How does it feel to go from character to character to character within the same movie?

A: Well, I was grateful. I would have done anything. I was just happy to be seen by them. It just so happened that I [was] right for this part. Thank my lucky stars.

Q: It’s hard to imagine someone else in the role after seeing you and Richard Kind [in your respective roles].

A: Absolutely.

Q: You had a good rapport, you had chemistry. Sometimes in films you think these actors playing parts and they don’t have chemistry you two had.

A: I loved Richard. I still love Richard. We had a great time together.

Q: You’re both stage actors. Do you think you bring something different to the movies because of your backgrounds? So many actors now do one or the other, but not both.

A: Well, I think both of us, throughout our lives, have wanted to do both. I can’t speak directly for Richard, but I think we bring our experiences in the theater to the films that we make and the television pieces that we’ve been a part of. We’re used to that repetition, of doing things over and over again, and trying to make them fresh every time even if it’s front of a live audience. It’s the same practice, doing it on a set. It’s just your audience is the camera and the crew, depending on what kind of piece it is, but I think we bring our sea legs of being in the theater with us and being able to repeat things. Learning the craft of doing something eight times a week, in some cases very heavy or physically taxing pieces. I guess we bring that stuff with us.

Q: Could you tell us more about the preparation or research that you did for the role?

A: One of my largest concerns was the physics. My sister is a professor and her husband is a professor. They hooked me up with a physics professor. He helped me find my way through those things. Joel and Ethan also recommended reading Richard Feynman’s book “Surely, You’re Joking Mr. Feynman,” about his adventures in physics which was a really enjoyable read and fantastic in terms of the time period as well. I basically tried to take what they gave me and I asked pages and pages of questions. I asked Joel and Ethan about all the nuances, things I didn’t understand and they gave me answers. In cases where they didn’t have answers, they said you could create that for yourself. When I had the opportunity to meet the other actors, we talked about what our backstories could be together. We only had two days of rehearsals.

Q: That was my other question. Coming from a theater background, you might have weeks or months [to rehearse]…

A: Exactly. We had to prepare on our own and then show up. That’s usually how it goes. You show up. We touched on every single scene once in the two days we had to rehearse it. Then we just did it. We played on the set and found the physical life [of the characters] there.

Q: How did you see his quest? Everything is imploding on him. He’s trying to search for answers through the three rabbis and it becomes this quest through the rabbis.

A: When the idea of going to the rabbis was presented to him, I think he sort of rolled his eyes, as something like “What’s the rabbi going to tell me?” She says, “If I knew, I’d be the rabbi.” Which is light-hearted. I think he tries to take it to heart. It certainly couldn’t hurt to get a rabbinical perspective on what was going on his life, so he tries to see Rabbi Nachter and gets to see Rabbi Scott first. I think he’s really sincere in his visits. He tries to utilize whatever bits of knowledge or offers of knowledge given to him and he takes and runs with them and tries to apply them. In the next scene, we see him in after Rabbi Scott, the scene with Adam Arkin’s character [as Gopnik’s divorce attorney], the first time they get to speak to each other. He tries to take Rabbi Scott’s words and make them his own, see things from a new perspective. It doesn’t really work. Then he goes to see Rabbi Nachter. You know what happens with that. He doesn’t quite make it to Marshak, so he’s left to his own devices, but at least he tries.

Q: As a related questions – his son does get to see Marshak, and they have that exchange and you think, wait, where’s that dialogue coming from, and I wondered, obviously outside the film, whether [Larry and his son] have a conversation about what Marshak said. What did he say? Especially since Larry is still looking for answers, for words of wisdom.

I guess there’s a connection between Larry, as man of science, his world becoming disordered, and turning back to tradition.

A: Right, things didn’t make sense anymore, like math makes sense, like physics makes sense, even the Heisenberg Principle.

Q: Someone called it the “certainty of uncertainty.”
A: There you go. Absolutely.

Q: Did the Coens talk to you at all about why they chose “F-Troop?”

A: No. I imagine it was on TV when they were growing up and they probably watched a lot of it. That’s my guess.

Q: I wondered how much of Danny was based on the Coens. Their father was a professor, I believe.

A: Both their parents were professors. Their father was a professor at the University of Minnesota. I’m not sure about their mother. All the characters are a kind of mix of people [from their lives]. I think Danny is probably a mix of Joel and Ethan in some ways and also a fictional representation.

Q: There’s the character that curses all the time…

A: Yeah, I loved that.

Q: One of the things that just, and it’s just a minor thing, but it amused the hell out of me were the constant phone calls from the Columbia Record Club, so I have to ask whether you were ever a member of the Columbia Record Club. At a certain point, it seemed like a rite of passage for everyone.

A: I remember those pieces of paper coming through the mail almost every week, but I never actually joined, but I wanted to join. I remember on occasion I brought one of those K-Tel records. What was it? [It was] some disco album or some collection. It was on TV. As for the Columbia Record Club, no, I was never a member.

Q: The other interesting part was the relationship between the professor who keeps coming in to give him potentially bad news, the way he delivers that, as well. It sort of reminded me of the Office Space character, the Gary Cole character, hemming and hawing. You know he's bad news every time he shows up. He never enters the office. He always just stays there and there's always that aspect that other people are overhearing the conversation.

A: Yeah, he's funny. He was wonderful, really fun to be with, too, Ari.

Q: Is “The Mentaculus” [in the film] real?

A: That was a real thing. Apparently, Joel and Ethan had a friend who wrote this thing called “The Mentaculus,” that's exactly where they took it from. That's a piece of truth. He kind of went mad in the process. It was a much more serious story, I guess, than it shows in the movie, but that was based in truth. Absolutely, stranger than fiction.

Q: Is the brother character a mathematician? That's the assumption.

A: Arthur? Yeah, yeah.

Q: And smarter than Larry. I got the sense that he was a failed genius and didn't have the social skills.

A: He couldn't acclimate.

Q: Did you and Richard talk about what the brothers' relationship was? Larry's obviously protective of him.

A: I think Larry idolized his brother Arthur as a young man. He was the star of the family and then probably through the course of his own genius started to go mad. He couldn't acclimate himself socially to people, and I think as a result of that, probably pulled inward. He just went into the math, into the science. As a result, he kind of disappeared into himself. I think Larry was not as bright, and loved and respected his brother and understands that sort of fierce anger that his brother must have felt at the fact that his life was just … He was the smart one. He was the star and his life turned to nothing. I think Larry understood that deeply and probably that's why he allowed him to live in the house. That's why he invited him to live with him in the motel. He's taking care of his brother. I don't think that their parents were still alive. That's the sense that we sort of got and created together.

Q: In your research, in talking to the Coen brothers, did you discuss the themes or ideas running through A Serious Man?

A: We really didn't talk about thematic elements too much. I just tried to be aware of the nuances of each particular scene I was going to be a part of and to play them thoroughly, submerged in them without any sense of what the exterior was going to be like. I didn't want to be in observation of what I was doing. I wanted to be in it. So I didn't talk too much about theme and let other people sort of bring that up to me. A lot of the other actors who would come in would start talking about what things mean and what do you think that first thing in the beginning means? It was nice to sort of hear other people pontificate on it, but I never offered my opinion, and I just sort of let it be what it is. Sometimes it's best just to let things wash over you and then make the connections afterwards.

Q: How do the Coens direct? How much information do they give you or do they give you any?

A: Well, I asked them a ton of questions at the beginning of the process and they gave me a lot of answers. Those questions that they didn't answer they sort of left up to me to make up for myself. They answered my questions. They didn't offer a lot of how to play something. I would just sort of start and they would look at each other and say, 'Yeah, yeah, that's good. That's right. Want to do it again? Sure.' So we'd do it again. On occasion, I would shift things up or if it was an emotional scene, go through something, and they'd say, 'That would be great,' or, 'That's terrific. That's probably where he is right now, but you have to put a lid on that, because at this point in the story, it's important for the audience not to be privy to that yet. That'll crack out in a couple of moments. So keep a lid on it, but keep it going.' That kind of thing, so they were helpful and they were hands off, too.

Q: A character like this seems defined by what he doesn't do and how reactive he is. I felt that the film is really about [Larry’s] reaction; maybe two-thirds of the film seems to be cutting to your character. It almost seems like the dialogue is an afterthought or secondary to the rest of the performance. Was it a different challenge for you?

A: It's interesting, because that has come up a number of times, the idea of him being a sort of reactive character and somewhat passive, but I sort of found that we're only privy to certain glimpses of what it is that he goes through. There are big chunks of time that are missing from the story, days in cases where we don't see what happened or we don't see the discussions that have gone on between Judith and Larry behind closed doors. All we see are the results of those things, which help sort of the surprise that the audience gets when they see these scenes lined up next to each other. They cut from one to the next, but there are chunks missing. Within those chunks, I imagined that Larry had had words with people and that he did what he could within the confines of his own moral and ethical code. I felt like to remain a gentleman, to remain a mensch, to remain an adult, he would try to approach these situations as an adult, and put a lid on the things he was really feeling. I wouldn't necessarily call it passive, but I would say that he's dealing with each situation as maturely as possible within the circumstance.

Q: Your film career is just starting, but you have an extensive stage resume. What is it you're looking for when you read a script or a play? It is the words? Is it the character?

A: I look for intelligence and humor and fun language and emotional resonance in terms of the pieces that hit me in a very deep place, at least within the theater. In films, I haven't had a lot of opportunity. In the theater, I've been stretched in many different directions, in a lot of different kind of things, from tragedy to comedy, contemporary, classical, small parts to leading roles, some character stuff, and I enjoy the hiding and the masks and the dialects and stuff like that. At the same time, I'm becoming more and more, I guess, okay with doing things that are closer to myself. Pillowman, that character, Michael in The Pillowman, is a victim of torture and I found him to be a comfort eater, so I put on – I was 50 pounds heavier than I am now, doing it. He's a survivor and he's also got a cute sense of humor and he's not what you think he is at the beginning of the piece. There's a lot of rage there and there's a lot of pathos and humor. It depends upon the piece, but I've gone to dark places and I've gone to light places and I guess I'm open to do more of both.

Q: I was just thinking more along the lines of now that you've had the lead role in this, hopefully you'll do more film.

A: Sure. I hope so, yeah. I'm in this television show now. Did I tell you about that? I'm sorry. I've spoken about it a lot today. I just finished shooting the pilot of a new HBO show called “Boardwalk Empire.” It just got picked up, so I'll be a part of that. I start shooting the rest of that in October. Martin Scorsese (who also executive produced) shot the pilot. Mark Wahlberg, Steven Levinson, and Tim Van Patten are producing it. Terrence Winter, who wrote for The Sopranos, is writing it and it's sort of his creation. It's based on a book called Boardwalk Empire about the life and times of Atlantic City and it stars Steve Buscemi and Michael Shannon and Michael Pitt and Kelly MacDonald and Bill Pullman (?-partially obscured by beep) and myself and Vincent Piazza. I'm playing Arnold Rothstein, who was allegedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series. I just got the thumbs up that we're on. Nice people and a really interesting subject.

Q: Interesting choice for Arnold Rothstein. He's usually played by [a physically large actor].

A: Yeah. It's funny. Historically, he was sort of a trimmer mouse of a man. As his life went on and on and his marriage started to fall apart and his debts became larger, he put on a bit of a paunch. So if I get to live with him for eight years, I'll probably try to evolve over the course of that time and put on that weight myself, which would be a great challenge.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=2845
originally posted: 10/08/09 03:31:20
last updated: 10/09/09 05:07:18
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