Thespian seals lead in Coen Brothers film with naïveté

Michael Stuhlbarg seems a little out of place.

The ”goodness gracious”-exclaiming, soft-spoken actor — already popular on and off Broadway on the East Coast but comparatively unknown here — carries a sweet, “aw shucks” air that probably won’t mix well with Hollywood. That personality must have inspired the Coen Brothers, American masters enamored of deceptively naïve characters, to cast him as the lead in A Serious Man.

Hidden talent · Veteran stage actor Michael Stulbarg, who was nominated for a Tony Award in 2005, captured the lead in A Serious Man, the latest black comedy from acclaimed filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. - Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Hidden talent · Veteran stage actor Michael Stulbarg, who was nominated for a Tony Award in 2005, captured the lead in A Serious Man, the latest black comedy from acclaimed filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. - Photo courtesy of Focus Features

In the film, Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor in 1967 Minnesota who finds his life unraveling in the face of divine intervention. While the Coen Brothers’ latest work has something to say about the role of religion in modern life, Stuhlbarg said he was initially attracted to the wit and typically wicked sense of humor with which the filmmakers infused the screenplay.

“I just enjoyed it for its individual nuances,” Stuhlbarg explained. “I didn’t look for a message. I just found it to be so funny. That’s a huge Geiger counter for me in terms of how I respond to stuff. If it makes me laugh, you’ve got me.”

The film opens with a seriously strange scene separate from the main story — a parable about a Jewish couple in old Poland and their run-in with a possible zombie. Long before he auditioned for the part of Larry, Stuhlbarg read for the part of the husband.

“I had to learn that whole part in Yiddish,” Stuhlbarg said, chuckling a little. “So I went to a tutor and learned the whole scene in Yiddish and came back to them and did it. They laughed a lot, and that made me really happy.

Although the directors eventually went with someone already fluent in the language — “and rightfully so,” added the actor — they called Stuhlbarg back to read for the parts of both Larry and his pathetic brother Arthur.

He was at an actor’s retreat six weeks before the film was scheduled to shoot, preparing to play either Larry or Arthur, when Joel Coen called him up with, “We’ll put you out of your misery, you’re playing Larry.”

A Serious Man was shot on location in Minnesota, the same Midwest backdrop as the Coens’ masterpiece Fargo. The filmmakers found their supporting actors locally and most of the film was shot using real locations and extras. Stuhlbarg remarked that shooting a crucial bar mitzvah scene in a real synagogue and with a real congregation made his job as an actor simultaneously easier and stranger.

“As [Larry’s son] Danny comes down from the pulpit after his bar mitzvah, and he’s got his kiddush cup in his hand, and the whole congregation breaks in with adon olam,” Stuhlbarg explained. “It was like being back in synagogue. It was crazy. I just had flashbacks of my bar mitzvah.”

Part of the film’s humor comes from the indifference of the Jewish community to Larry’s growing plight. As with Fargo, the Coens drew characters from their own experiences, leading to some broad sketches of Jews with the potential to offend. Stuhlbarg disagreed with this sentiment.

“There are truths within archetypes, you know. That’s why they’re archetypes,” Stuhlbarg said. “But I think they’re more human than that. Also I think they’re infused with a sense of mischief and a sense of love. It’s also Joel and Ethan who are creating them, and they had a particular experience growing up in their community, and that will reflect what is seen on the screen.”

If anything, Stuhlbarg felt that his character’s plight could hit home with any audience member, regardless of background.

“I guess [Larry] resonates with everybody in the sense that … his life is one thing and then he gets some curveballs thrown at him, and he has to make the best of them and go along as best he can with them,” Stuhlbarg said. “We can all empathize with that when that sometimes happens in our lives.”

Stuhlbarg, who trained at the famous Juilliard School in New York and was nominated for a Tony Award for his work in Martin McDonagh’s dark The Pillowman, also offered some insight into making the transition from stage to screen.

“They really feed off each other in a beautiful way. My film and my television work tend to make my theater work more simple, and my theater work tends to ground me in a way that informs my film and television work. I want to continue to do all of it,” Stuhlbarg said.

With A Serious Man opening Friday after excellent reviews on the festival circuit, and his recent, acclaimed work onstage, Stuhlbarg suddenly finds himself able to more carefully choose his work.

“Some doors opened for me, and … I became a little more discerning about the kind of work that I wanted to do. I’m getting older, and the amount of energy that I have to expel — I am trying to use a little more judiciously,” Stuhlbarg said.