He’s in the ads and on the posters, standing upright on a roof, his arms elbowed out, fists on his waist, like some neurotic Clark Kent. There’s a TV antenna behind him, and a lot of blue sky.
The dark clouds are all in Michael Stuhlbarg’s eyes.
“Larry Gopnik discovers that life isn’t what he expected,” says the heretofore unknown movie star about the poor schmo he plays, the title character, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “A Serious Man.” “He has this crisis of faith, this crisis of life.”
For Stuhlbarg, a Tony-nominated New York stage actor (for “The Pillowman”) whose work on camera has been mostly confined to episodic TV (a “Law & Order” here, a “Law & Order” there) and a few films, getting a role in a Coen Brothers project was a big deal (“I’ve been a fan of theirs forever,” he says). And getting the lead?
“Trepidatious,” says Stuhlbarg, laughing, on the phone from San Francisco recently. “A Serious Man” is set in the suburban Midwest in 1967, and chronicles the Job-like travails of a mild-mannered physics professor, husband, and dad.
Originally, Stuhlbarg was called to meet with the Coens about a part in “A Serious Man’s” prologue, set in a 19th-century Polish shtetl, the dialogue entirely in Yiddish. “I had to go to a tutor and learn the whole scene phonetically, which was a real challenge — wonderfully so,” he says. “And I went in and auditioned for them and they laughed a lot … But they weren’t sure at that point whether they wanted to go with an actor who could learn it phonetically, or someone who could speak it fluently. They ended up going with folks who could speak it fluently, and rightfully so.”
And Stuhlbarg thought that was that. He met with the Coens, he made them laugh. On to the next job.
“Five or six months passed by, and then I got another call, out of the blue, saying we’d like you to come in and audition for both Larry and another part, Uncle Arthur,” Stuhlbarg recalls. “So I learned three scenes of each, and I came in and I did the scenes and they laughed a lot again. …
“I would check in periodically to ask if I was still in the mix, and I heard, ‘Yep, you’re still in the mix, still in the mix.’ And eventually I got a call saying, ‘You’re going to get one of these parts. We just don’t know which one.'”
Six weeks before shooting began in Minneapolis last year, Stuhlbarg finally heard.
“I got a call from Joel,” he recalls. “‘We’ll put you out of your misery, you’re playing Larry.’ And so I had my answer, and the rest is this.”
“This” is a Coens-esque mix of the comic and the surreal, of tragedy and strange turns. Steeped in Jewish-American culture, and infused with more than a little pot haze (it’s the ’60s, after all, and Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” figures prominently in the soundtrack and the script), “A Serious Man” is painfully funny. And funnily painful, too.
“The quote at the very beginning of the movie has a lot of resonance for me in terms of what ‘A Serious Man’ is about,” the actor says. “‘Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.’
“That’s from a Talmudic scholar, and I think it’s a good place to start in terms of understanding what the film is exploring, and also just a way to live one’s life.”