Michael Stuhlbarg talks quietly in run-on sentences, in a warm voice that’s like the light of dawn spreading into a bedroom. This marks a total change from the frantic, desperate Larry Gopnik he plays in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” who wakes up from a contented middle-class slumber to find everything crumbling around him: his wife is leaving him, his kids ignore him, his job is threatened and he is tempted by a sexy neighbor, Mrs. Samsky. His comic spiritual quest for answers forms the backbone of the movie, but the flesh is Gopnik’s face, the way he moves through the scenes.
Stuhlbarg was born and raised in Long Beach, but his acting career took off in 1989 after graduating from Juilliard, and he’s been working in New York’s theater scene and elsewhere ever since. But it’s only now, in his 40s, that he’s come to Hollywood’s attention. He’s been nominated for a Golden Globe for “A Serious Man,” which itself has been nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture), and now he comes to SBIFF to receive a Virtuoso Award.
Did you ever think and hope you were Hollywood “leading man” material?
It was one of those things that I’d always hoped for. I had done many supporting parts in films, and I’d always hoped to have the opportunity to be on a set for a long time, creating the arc of a character over a long period.
It took a long time to get the lead, didn’t it?
I first auditioned for the part of the husband in the Yiddish folk tale at the beginning of the movie. So I had to go to a tutor to learn that whole scene in Yiddish. I did that, and I brought it in for them. And they enjoyed it very much and laughed a lot and made me very happy, and they weren’t sure at that time that they wanted someone who could speak Yiddish fluently or not. And they ended up casting someone who did speak it fluently, and the whole thing just went away. And at that point I had not read the entire movie. I’d only read that scene. So when the project came back my way and they were interested in seeing me for both the parts of Larry and Uncle Arthur, I finally got a chance to read the entire screenplay. So yeah, I auditioned for both of those roles, and after I was done, I kept inquiring as to whether or not I was still in the mix, and they kept saying, yes, you’re still in the mix. Eventually I got a call saying , yes, you’re gonna get one of these parts, they just don’t know yet. So about six weeks before principal photography was about to begin, I got a call saying, ‘We’re gonna put you out of your misery!’ You’re playing Larry. And that was about 10 or 11 months from audition to the actual shooting.
So there you go. Overnight success!
Growing up in Long Beach, did you have a suburban life and know the Larry Gopniks of the world?
I did have a kind of suburban upbringing, and I do believe there’s a little bit of Larry Gopnik in everybody. We all have those times in our lives when things just start to happen to us and, in some cases, difficult things, and they seem to come pouring on top of our heads, and I think people can sympathize with that. But as for an example of someone I might have seen to base him on, no, not really.
Better yet, did you know any Mrs. Samsky’s?
(laughs) I wish! No, no I did not.
Does Larry become more spiritual by the end or more doubtful?
I think both are there. By trying to find some answers from these rabbis, he finds himself on a kind of spiritual quest by asking these questions. With the act of trying to do something or trying to question what’s going on in his life, it makes him a more spiritual person, because spirituality often is a lot about questioning the things that happen in our lives and about faith. But I think with questioning comes doubts. I think he does the best he can with the hand he is dealt, there’s not much he can do under the circumstance. But what he can do, he tries to do.
You got this role through a long circuitous route. You met Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife and star of “Fargo,” “Blood Simple” and other Coen Brothers movies) first, right?
It was a great little off-Broadway theater company for kids called the 52nd Street Project, and I had volunteered to work with the kids in that project. And I met Frances very briefly there. And then we ended up getting cast together in a couple of readings off-Broadway, and one workshop that lasted quite a long time so we became friendly, and at the same time I was doing a play at the Atlantic Theater, and she came and brought Joel along and we had a very lovely conversation afterwards.
Are you the kind that would say, “I’d love to be in your film. Here’s my card”?
No, I never did that. It’s funny. I was a huge fan of their films, but I never would have taken the initiative to say, “I’d love to be in your movie.” I would have never done that. I tend to be one of these people who likes to let his work speak for himself, and if someone wants to work with me I’m all for it. That just seems to be how I’ve worked up to this point. But I’m grateful they thought of me.
What’s next for you?
I’m in the middle of shooting a new HBO series called “Boardwalk Empire,” which is executive produced, and the pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese. It’s about Atlantic City during the time of Prohibition and is based on a novel by Nelson Johnson. And it focuses on this sort of unofficial governor of Atlantic City played by Steve Buscemi. I’m plying Arnold Rothstein, who is allegedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series. He’s a gambler, a racketeer, a bootlegger, a pool shark and a card shark. He’s involved in insurance and bail bonds. He’s an all-around interesting fellow.
IF YOU GO
VIRTUOSO AWARD presentation to Michael Stuhlbarg, Carey Mulligan, Saoirse Ronan, Emily Blunt and Gabourey Sidibe
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.