MVP of the Month: Michael Stuhlbarg

Posted on December 30, 2017 at 1:46 pm

Copyright Fox Searchlight 2017
Movie critics have been releasing their end-of-year top ten lists and mine, like many others, includes three films that feature one of Hollywood’s finest actors, Michael Stuhlbarg. In “The Post” he plays New York Times Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal, friend and rival of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep. In “The Shape of Water,” he plays a scientist at a top-secret government lab who is hiding a secret of his own. And in “Call Me By Your Name” he plays a professor deeply imbued with culture and learning spending the summer with his family in Northern Italy. The wise, compassionate speech he makes to comfort his heartbroken son is one of the most moving scenes ever filmed.

I once had the privilege of interviewing Stuhlbarg. The movie we were talking about was “A Serious Man,” written and directed by the Coen brothers, where he played a professor of physics. In one scene set in a classroom he covers the blackboard with equations, writing so quickly that I assumed it was a camera trick until the shot opened up and it was clear that it was him and he really was writing all of the numbers and Greek letters as though he had been doing it all his life. I asked him about it and his answer was simple, straightforward, and very meaningful. He said that the character would have been able to write all of the equations very fluidly and he wanted to make it look as though he was completely familiar and at ease, and so every night he just wrote them and wrote them and wrote them over and over until it was completely natural.

Copyright Sony PIctures Classics
Stuhlbarg is an immensely talented actor who brings enormous depth to every role. I highly recommend taking a look at “Men in Black 3” to see his gem of a performance as an ineffably sweet alien with extraordinary powers of perception and “Steve Jobs,” where he plays a frustrated computer scientist who finally speaks up to his demanding boss. He is also outstanding in “Trumbo” as Edward G. Robinson, a sophisticated art collector who played tough guys in movies and as actual tough guy Arnold Rothstein in “Boardwalk Empire.”

Stuhlbarg will return to Italy in the upcoming “Gore,” playing the longtime partner of writer and enfant terrible Gore Vidal. I am looking forward to it.

Originally published on HuffPost

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Trumbo

Posted on November 12, 2015 at 5:29 pm

Copyright 2015 Bleeker Street
Copyright 2015 Bleeker Street
The post-WWII era was one of great relief and great fear. The Nazis had been defeated, but at the cost of bringing into the world the horror of atomic weapons. It was a certainty that the next war would be the last. The US could not last as the only superpower. The communists would do anything to get the bomb, and once they had it, no one was safe.

And that is why, just after the United States fought to preserve liberty and freedom of speech, those very ideals began to seem like a threat to our safety. And when there is a threat, there will be demagogues who prey on people’s fears to make themselves more powerful. That was the case in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s when Americans became so terrified of communism that the very idea someone might have been or known a communist was enough to get them fired and blacklisted — unless they were willing to “name names” and give investigators a list of other people to investigate. It was a kind of perverse pyramid scheme.

That is what happened to Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), one of Hollywood’s most successful and highest paid screenwriters. He was also a member of the Communist Party. The idea that somehow screenwriters would brainwash moviegoers into becoming communists was such a threat that he and nine other writers who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee were blacklisted (not allowed to work in Hollywood anymore). Trumbo was sent to prison for contempt (refusal to cooperate).

When he came out, he managed to find work by getting other writers to put their names on the scripts he created (including two Oscar-winners) and by writing scripts at a fraction of his previous salary for a schlock producer (hilariously played by John Goodman).

Director Jay Roach creates the world of Trumbo, fiercely intelligent and committed. Cranston is excellent as Trumbo, every line of his posture and every gesture showing us the the active intelligence of the man who took his own struggle for freedom and turned it into one of the greatest lines in movie history: “I am Spartacus!” As he types madly away from his bathtub (to ease his back pain) and fights to find work for the other blacklisted writers, he never loses his sense of amusement at the folly around him. He is skeptical, even cynical at times but never loses his sense of optimism that even something good can be made better.

Parents should know that this film includes strong language, some crude references, brief non-sexual nudity, drinking, smoking, and drug use, and some tense and disturbing scenes.

Family discussion: What themes of this film are particularly relevant today? What should Trumbo have done? How did his experience influence his films? Why was it important to pay back the money?

If you like this, try: Trumbo’s films, including “Spartacus,” “Roman Holiday,” and “Lonely Are the Brave” and other films about this ear like “The Front” and “Goodnight and Good Luck”

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A Serious Man

Posted on February 9, 2010 at 8:00 am

Larry Gopnik (theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor in 1967 Minneapolis. He covers a blackboard the size of a movie screen with equations, confidently lecturing his students about the uncertainty principle but outside the classroom unable to cope with the uncertainty all around him. He can explain that Schrodinger’s (hypothetical) Cat inside a box may be both dead and alive, but he has a much harder time understanding his wife (who is leaving him), a student who may be attempting to bribe him for a better grade, the tenure committee that will decide his professional fate, all of which has him feeling as though he is in a box and both dead and alive, too. Larry’s son does not seem to care about anything but being able to watch the western sitcom “F Troop.” His daughter seems to spend all of her time washing her hair. His brother (Richard Kind) seems to be either a genius or completely mad, but in either case he does not seem capable of living on his own. Larry wants to be a serious man, and he wants some answers.

So, like a character in a fable or a fairy tale, he brings his questions to three rabbis, a young one who wants him to see everything as an expression of God’s will, an experienced one who tells him a mesmerizing but pointless story about a non-Jew’s teeth and tells him to do good works, and one who is very old and remote and is too busy thinking to talk to him. Internally, he becomes more stressed but his reactions are passive and conciliatory. The audience feels a sense of helplessness and dread as it seems we are more aware of the disasters heading for Larry than he is. A record company calls to tell him he needs to pay for the records he ordered. He says he has not ordered anything and they tell him that under the terms of their agreement not doing anything means ordering. And Larry is as poorly equipped to resolve that problem as he is to stop his wife from leaving him for a neighbor who somehow has the confidence, admiration, and deference he wishes for. Throughout the movie, there are many close-ups of ears, but no one seems to be listening to what is going on in front of them. He goes up on the roof to adjust the antennae, but still has trouble receiving the signal.

Under pressure, he begins to make some compromises that are contrary to his values, and that increases his stress and sense of losing control. As he searches for some sense of meaning or connection or even (he is a scientist after all) rationality, he does not realize that the answer is what he tells his students: that everything is uncertain but you are still responsible for it on the midterm.

Much has been made of the fact that for the first time Joel and Ethan Coen have made a film with autobiographical elements. Like Larry’s children, the Coen brothers grew up in a Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in the 1960’s, and like Larry, their father was a professor. But you get the feeling that they have once again appropriated and embraced and tweaked a genre just for the fun of it, and that it has no more meaning to them than any of the others. As Larry says, the stories are just illustrative; the math is how it really works.

Once again, as with Wes Anderson, meticulous and imaginative production design and a level of opacity far beyond most mainstream releases is often confused with profundity. Perhaps this is an ink blot for us to project our own questions on. Or perhaps it is their version of what Larry tells his students, and our midterm is coming up.

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Drama Spiritual films

Interview: Michael Stuhlbarg of ‘A Serious Man’

Posted on October 8, 2009 at 8:00 am

Michael Stuhlbarg stars in the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” as a professor in  1960’s Minneapolis who struggles with professional and family problems.

NM: You conveyed so much in your body language when you get hugged by the Sy character. How did you create that physicality?

MS: You know what? It just happens. It just naturally happened that way. We did it once and everyone laughed and it was like the blessing for the whole movie. You do as much preparation as you can and then when you get yourself into the space and you’re asked to just do it you leave yourself open to what happens.

NM: In a conventional movie, we would have had some sort of explanation, probably very simplistic, about what led to the strained relationship between your character Larry and his wife Judith. But in the Coen brothers movies, we seldom get that kind of clarity. Did you and the actress who played your wife come to some kind of understanding about the history of your characters’ relationship?

MS: Absolutely. Sari Lennick and I got together and talked about what those things were for us. Since they didn’t explore it in front of the camera we felt like we needed to bring something to ground us in what we were going to do so we discussed that thoroughly.

NM: You said that the director of photography, Roger Deakins, is almost like a third director because the Coens wait until he thinks the light is perfect before shooting. How do you, as someone trained in theater, where there is prolonged concentration, stay ready so that you can jump into the scene the moment the sunlight is what Deakins has been waiting for?

MS: It’s just one of those things that comes with doing film work. The light is all important in terms of capturing a particular moment and part of the challenge of the job for me is to be ready. I did my work before hand and hoped that when I got in front of the camera the work would pay off.

NM: One of the movie’s greatest strengths is the specificity of the production design which does a lot to tell us who these characters are. How was your performance helped by the make-up, hair, and clothing that seem so perfect for a middle-class suburb in 1967?

MS: Fríða Aradóttir helped me with the hair and Jean Black helped me with the make-up. We did a “haggard chart” to keep track of the various stages of misery that my character was experiencing. Jean and Fríða have been working with the Coens forever. Fríða is very tall and Icelandic and Jean is short and from Texas, so they are really quite a pair, kind of opposites but they work so beautifully together. So I just threw myself at their mercy and we just played. Jean and I sat down with the script together and marked out what Larry might be like physically and how haggard he might be on an given day.
Costume designer Mary Zophres gave me the shell for my character by finding those clothes.

NM: I was very impressed with your physical and verbal fluency with the very complex physics material your character has to lecture on. How did you manage that?

MS: Just a lot of practice! I sat in my hotel room in Minneapolis and just wrote it out over and over and over until I didn’t have to think about it so much any more, until it was just part of my natural instinct.

NM: Was there one scene that was especially challenging for you?

MS: There were a couple of moments that I just couldn’t stop laughing. I just find the story so funny. My first scene with Adam Arkin, in his law office, we were both just laughing our heads off. I would start and then he would start and it took us over half an hour just to calm down. And then with Richard Kind, the scene where he is on the sofa and I am on a cot in the living room, and he says “Boy, you should have worn a hat,” that just made me giggle. And then there was the constant challenge to try to monitor the emotional emotional journey that Larry was on and I had to trust that Joel would tell me if I went too far. He did on one occasion when I gave him the option of getting a little teary, but he said that is probably what is going on with him, but put a lid on it.

NM: What do you think the response will be to this movie, especially from non-Jews, who will find much of it unfamiliar?

MS: I hope that people will just come and have a good time. There may be a word here or there that they may not understand but so much of it is universal of someone who goes these troubles and tries to find an answer to his questions and has trouble trying to get them.

NM: What inspires you?

MS: I love a sense of humor, I love intelligence, I love specificity, I love surprises. I’m inspired to get out of bed in the morning and fill my day with good things.

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