Michael Stuhlbarg, star of “A Serious Man”

Michael Stuhlbarg was already an established Broadway star, with a long list of credits and a Tony Award nomination in 2005 for his role in Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” and had done some TV (“Damages” and “Ugly Betty”) and film (in Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” and appearing with Paul Giamatti in 2009’s “Cold Souls”) .

Now, Stuhlbarg finds success in his first starring role, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “A Serious Man,” earning Golden Globe nominations for him and a Best Picture Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a physics professor living in suburban bliss with his family in a Midwestern Jewish community in 1967 when he suddenly finds his entire world crashing all around him.

Stuhlbarg sat down with The Yap to discuss working with the Coens, his experiences in landing the job and whether this is a film about Jews, for Jews.

The Yap: First off, congratulations on the success of “A Serious Man.” Not many actors get a Best Picture nomination for their first lead role.

MS: {laughs} I would imagine not.

The Yap: What was it like when you found out?

MS: I don’t remember exactly what was going on. I got an e-mail, I got a phone call, it was really exciting.

The Yap: How excited or not, were you when you found out?

MS: I really don’t know. A lot of people had really championed the movie, and that’s been really wonderful, but you never really know what’s going to happen, so we were all thrilled about it.

The Yap: How was working with the Coens? I was wondering if they were both always there with their hands in it, or does one or the other take the reins at a given time, or are they arguing over bits?

MS: Usually Joel says “action” and “cut,” and Ethan is usually pacing in the background listening intently. If you have a question you can usually ask either one of them, but there wasn’t a harsh word exchanged between the two of them the entire time we were shooting the movie. They’re really remarkable people, and they’re like two halves of the same head. And they’re so well-planned out in terms of preparation for the film that there was very little to argue about.

The Yap: It was funny, in some of the DVD extras they talked about how this maybe was one of their most personal films. Did that trickle down to you? Did they have expectations for you about your character?

MS: All of us were a little concerned at the beginning in wanting us to honor that, if they wanted us to. But as it turns out they sort of let us individually ask our own questions. If they felt it was important to know about some historical or truthful aspect of the character they would let us know. On the whole, my character’s only parallel is that he was a stand-in for their father, who was an economics professor at the University of Minnesota in 1967. Larry is a physics professor, but the fact that they were both teachers is what they had in common. He might have been loosely based on their father, but for what happens to Larry in the story, it’s purely fictional.

The Yap: Can you tell me a little bit about landing the role? I know you had auditioned for the role of the husband in the film’s opening scene.

MS: That’s right. I originally came in to read for that part, Velvel, the husband in the Yiddish folk tale at the beginning of the movie, so I had to learn that scene entirely in Yiddish. So I went to a tutor, and he helped me figure out the Polish vernacular of this particular brand of Yiddish, and I brought it in and did it for Joel and Ethan. They laughed a lot, and that made me really happy, but they weren’t sure at that point whether or not they wanted to find somebody who spoke Yiddish fluently, or just have an actor speak it phonetically. They ended up going with actors who could speak it fluently, and rightfully so. 

So 4 or 5 months went by and I got a call out of the blue, to read for the parts of Larry and for Uncle Arthur as well. So I learned about 2 or 3 scenes for those characters and brought them in and did them for them, and I kept inquiring periodicalloy whether I was still in the running, and I kept hearing back saying “yeah, you’re in the running, you’re in the running.” Eventually I got a call saying “you’re going to get one of these parts, they just don’t know which one yet.” So I started working on both of them, and about 6 weeks before shooting began, I got a call from Joel saying “I’ll put you out of your misery. You’re playing Larry.”

The Yap: It was funny, because as I was watching the film, it struck me that Larry is an archetypal Coen character. He’s very…I wanted to say spineless, but that’s not the right word. He’s really just jumped into the flow of life, and is completely surprised at all of these things that continually go wrong for him. Can you talk about your take on the character and where you saw him going?

MS: Well, I guess…he starts out in a very pleasant, simple place. He’s content with his work, with his marriage and his children. Then one by one things start to go wrong for him, and he finds himself from not questioning anything to questioning just about everything in his life. It’s a fascinating journey for an actor to take, from, sort of I guess, innocence to experience in some ways, although it doesn’t really get to be experience for him. It’s sort of like he takes this perpetual innocence and he just keeps being baffled as time goes on. I felt the strange sense that he lived in this perpetual pause. Kind of like there was air before everything he said and air after everything he said, like he was constantly like he was trying to understand what was going on with him. So that was great fun to play, and I just sort of tried to keep myself as open as possible as to what was going to happen to him in a particular scene, to try to remain as innocent and guileless as possible, and let myself be truly affected by what was confronting him.

The Yap: We talked about your audition for the opening scene, but I wanted to ask you about your take on that scene and its significance in the film. The Coens took the tack of “eh, we just wanted to start the movie off with this Jewish parable,” but it seems like there is more to it.

MS: {laughs} Well, you really have to take them at their word most of the time. It’s funny. They had been reading apparently a lot of Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories, so I think it was prevalent in their thoughts, I think, to start the film off with a little folk tale that wouldn’t necessarily tie up with the rest of the story. But I find the quote at the beginning of the movie, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” has great resonance both with that parable and with the rest of the film. In terms of when difficult or strange things happen to you, receive them with great simplicity.

The Yap: I did want that this is a very Jewish movie. Being a non-Jew myself, there were times I felt lost in the terminology, but I very quickly caught up. Do you feel this film would resonate on a deeper level with Jewish people?

MS: That’s an interesting question. I feel like it’s a universal story told within a specific locale. You know, the characters might be familiar to perhaps other Jews or those raised in a Jewish community, but at the same time everybody knows someone in the archetype of the fellow that something bad always happens to, or the blowhard, or the adamant wife, or the troubled children. They all fall within archetypes of stories, so I hope it has universal resonance with people, although it does take place within the Jewish community.

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