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His craft is ‘Serious’ business

Stuhlbarg takes different approach to acting in film

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / October 11, 2009

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As Larry Gopnik, the hero of “A Serious Man,’’ the latest movie from the Coen brothers, Michael Stuhlbarg has the look of someone campaigning to be president of the Eugene Levy Fan Club: horn-rimmed glasses, caterpillar eyebrows, an overall appearance of industrial-strength uncoolness. It’s suburban Minneapolis, c. 1967, and the only thing counter-cultural about Larry, a physics teacher, is his pot-smoking son.

In person, Stuhlbarg (pronounced STOOL-bargh) manages to seem at once amiable and intense. He has the compact build and squashed good looks of a Jewish James Cagney. His velvety voice is far removed from Larry’s increasingly strangulated whine.

It’s easy to see why Stuhlbarg has played such high-profile characters on the stage as Shakespeare’s Richard II, the Dauphin in Shaw’s “Saint Joan,’’ and Edmund Tyrone, in the American Repertory Theater’s 1996 production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’’ which earned him an Elliot Norton Award.

Larry most resembles a very different high-profile character: Job. Such is the inundation of afflictions he has to suffer: financial, marital, fraternal, religious, professional - and that’s not counting the man from the Columbia Record Club who says he’s in arrears for two albums he never ordered. Larry’s a character only a mother can love.

What about the actor who plays him?

“I do like Larry,’’ Stuhlbarg said last week while in Boston to promote the film. “I had a great time living inside his head for a while.’’ He smiled. “Part of the fun, I guess, was because I didn’t have to live there all the time.’’

Sari Lennick, who plays Judy Gopnik, Larry’s wife, sees the character as “a schlemiel and a schlemazel.’’ She was speaking by telephone from Minneapolis. “Here’s this incredibly impotent man. He must say 20 times in the movie, ‘I didn’t do anything, I didn’t do anything.’ That’s right, Larry, you didn’t do anything. So what Michael does with him is truly, truly remarkable.’’

Stuhlbarg, 41, grew up in Long Beach, Calif., went to the University of California at Los Angeles for two years, then got his degree at Juilliard. A 2005 Tony nominee for Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,’’ he’s concentrated on stage work.

That’s beginning to change. He’s done episodes of “Ugly Betty’’ and “Law & Order’’ and had small parts in “Body of Lies’’ and “Cold Souls.’’ His latest project is a series for HBO, “Boardwalk Empire,’’ in which he plays Arnold Rothstein, the man said to have fixed the 1919 World Series. “I hope people see that,’’ he laughed when it’s pointed out how different that role is from Larry.

“I have found over the course of the last couple of years that these two crafts [of acting for stage and acting for screen] do feed each other in a beautiful way. Doing film and television demands a kind of simplicity. If you think something differently, the camera will pick it up.’’

The Coen brothers are famous - and notorious - for the precise organization they bring to everything on screen. Serendipity and improvisation are not their style. The question arises whether they’re as controlling with actors as they are with camera angles and art direction.

Stuhlbarg had nothing but praise for the brothers. “They’re very specific in terms of choosing the actors for these roles,’’ he said. “They spend, I’m guessing, quite a lot of time just trying to find the right tone for the characters that they’ve written. They are exacting in how they put things down on the page, as well. Nothing changed from the first read I had of the screenplay to the very end of it, except for a couple of things being taken out. Then they let us play with that structure.

“If they feel like you’re going in a direction that wasn’t helpful, they’d certainly let you know. But they’d also give you options as well. They’d say, ‘That was great. Here’s another possibility. It could be this thing.’ And we’d do two or three takes of something. Color it a little this way, color it a little that way.’’

The opportunities for coloring were many. Some viewers have seen “A Serious Man’’ as comedy, others as tragedy. Certainly, it has elements of both. Stuhlbarg recalled a moment of particular genre uncertainty at the very beginning of the shoot.

“In knowing what we know about the Coen brothers’ past movies, they all seem to carry with them definite kernels of comedy,’’ he said. “The first day we arrived, after we had done a table read with the entire company, they invited us out to see ‘Burn After Reading,’ which hadn’t been released yet. So we all left that screening thinking, oh gosh, is that how we’re supposed to play this particular story? I just tried to adhere to the truth of whatever the situation was and trust that if they felt I was going too far or didn’t go far enough they’d let me know. Generally, they were very hands off and let us do our thing.’’

Throughout the interview, Stuhlbarg carefully weighed his answers, trying to come up with just the right words. Clearly, he’s a man who respects text. Asked how he would characterize the movie, Stuhlbarg gave the question even more thought than usual. “Here’s a guy,’’ he finally said of Larry, “who’s not trying to be funny. He just is submerged in what he’s doing, then these things keep happening to him and he tries to find his way out of it.

“So . . . a drama with comic elements, perhaps?’’

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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