Actor Michael Stuhlbarg was going about his business, carving out a sturdy reputation for himself in theater and scoring various roles in television and indie films. Suddenly, the game changed, thanks to the Brothers Coen. Those legendary filmmakers caught Stuhlbarg, sighted in a children’s theater setting in N.Y.C., and saw in him the perfect actor for A Serious Man, their seriously fine dark comedy about a midlife-crisis-ized Jewish man in Minnesota in the late ’60s.
The Coens were right: it’s hard to imagine a more ideal actor for the gig. At 41, Stuhlbarg officially has made the leap into public consciousness and award season graces, and is a logical choice for the festival’s Chopin Virtuoso Awards. Stuhlbarg grew up in Long Beach, but has lived in New York City since 1988, and now anxiously awaits the next phase of a career, which has shifted into a whole other gear. He spoke from that precipice over the phone from home last week.
A Serious Man is a quirky delight, like virtually every Coen brothers movie, yet in another new direction. Has this experience launched you into a whole other level of public attention? These things come and go, in terms of what the public attention is. But I think in some ways, it has opened a number of doors for me, in terms of people knowing who I am. Probably more people have seen this movie than have ever seen me onstage, in the 30 years I’ve been acting. If you think of it that way, I guess it has opened a number of doors.
You play Larry as this strongly fitful and neurotic figure, but really, he has come to this place in his life where everything seems to be coming apart. It’s not that he’s that way by nature. No. I think he probably was level-headed and patient, and enjoyed his work and enjoyed his family. And then the rug gets pulled out from under him.
Did you have any personal memories to draw on from your own background for this characterization? Or was it completely different? No, I wouldn’t say completely different. I went to a Reform Jewish Synagogue growing up. … Some of the characters who peopled the film resonated with me, in terms of the people who I knew in my synagogue. The woman with the teacup, who waddles into the principal’s office, reminded me of a woman in my synagogue. The cinderblock rooms in which the classes took place reminded me of the Jewish Community Center where I spent a lot of time when I was a kid. So there were a lot of things that I found to be very familiar. And yet, at the same time, it was also a uniquely Midwestern story, as well.
It’s hard to think of many other American films with such a strong focus on Jewish life and its particulars. Do you think that helped or hindered the box office factor, or both? I think this film, thus far, has had a pretty successful run, considering that there are very few big name stars in it. Had [there been] more famous people, perhaps more people would see it. I don’t know. [Laughs.] I think Joel and Ethan didn’t care. … You can go to see a big star do a turn as a particular character, but you’re always aware that it’s that particular person. In this case, by handing a number of these parts to unfamiliar faces, it allows the audience to actually pay attention to strangers and to perhaps believe that they are who they are playing, in a different way than when they go to see Burn After Reading, for instance.
You’ve done a lot of work in theater and television, and some film. Are you now tilting more toward the film realm? I think it really depends upon what opportunities come my way. I just throw myself out there and see what sticks. During the last couple of years, it has been a fascinating journey. I have been breaking more into film. I’ve had the chance to work with Ridley Scott [in Body of Lies] and a couple of other great independent films—this film Cold Souls and Afterschool, Antonio Campos’s film. Then this film came along and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. So it has been a lot of being in front of a camera for me.
Do you feel like you’re now in the Coen universe? Well, in some ways I am. I hope to get a chance to work with them again. I’d love for them to throw me another curveball.
So there is no A Serious Man, Part Two in the works? [Laughs.] Well, they left it open, so who knows?
Michael Stuhlbarg—along with Emily Blunt, Carey Mulligan, Saoirse Ronan, and Gabourey Sidibe—will be honored with the Chopin Virtuosos Award on Sunday, February 7, at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.).