Q & amp;A with the star of ‘A Serious Man’


Joel and Ethan Coen wanted an actor unfamiliar to film audiences to play the lead role of Larry Gopnik in their darkly comic A Serious Man. Although Michael Stuhlbarg might be unfamiliar to moviegoers, the Juilliard-trained actor is certainly not unknown on Broadway, where he has a stunning resume.

He was nominated for a Tony Award and won a Drama Desk Award for his performance as the disturbed brother in The Pillowman. He has played a number of Shakespearean roles, and appeared in both the stage and film versions of Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone, which is set in a Nazi death camp. He has also appeared in supporting roles in the films A Price Above Rubies and the Ridley Scott/Leonardo DiCaprio Mideast thriller Body of Lies.


However, this is his first lead role in a film. Stuhlbarg’s past work leans to drama, but A Serious Man is definitely comedy, albeit of the dark Coen brothers type. Stuhlbarg’s character Larry is deluged with enough troubles to rival Job.

The Jewish Light spoke to Stuhlbarg recently by phone.

Given the story in this film and that it is the Coen brothers, readers are going to want to know: Are you Jewish?

Yes. I went to Yom Kippur services this year with my Dad.

What was it like to work with the Coens? Were you a fan of their work beforehand?

I was absolutely a fan of theirs beforehand. I had heard things about what they would be like and I found this to be very true: Once they choose their actors to play the roles they want them to play, they let the actors do their work and they are very much hands-off in terms of letting us do what it is we feel the role dictates to us. I wrote them about three pages of questions before we started shooting and they answered all of them very generously, and for those questions that they couldn’t answer, they let me answer them. I found them very amiable and very fun.

What do you do think of your character, Larry Gopnik?

I think he was a man who did not question a lot about his life at the beginning of the movie. I think he was content in his work and in his family, and as things start to go a little wrong, he starts to ask questions why these things are happening to him. And I think he changes over the course of this, from somebody who does not think about faith so much to someone who tries to throw these questions at a spiritual guide in his community. And I think he still has questions at the end of the movie.

How did you prepare for this role?

One of the things I was concerned about at the beginning of the process is that Larry is a physics professor, and I was going to be responsible for conveying a couple of complicated ideas to a group of students. I used my resources to find a professor of physics and he very generously explained these subjects to me and helped me get these ideas firmly into my head, so I could do what was being asked of me.

Also, I spent some time with familiarizing myself with the general arc of the character. Because I knew we were going to be shooting out of sequence, I felt is was my responsibility to at least have some idea as to what the events that happened to him over the course of this story meant to him, so that when I showed up on the day, I would remember what it was he had gone through and try to factor that into how I was going to respond.

Do you see the film as a return to an earlier style of the Coen brothers’ films — very dark and very funny?

Yeah, it is sort of a distant cousin of Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski. It fits between them kind of well.

In some ways, this is the Coens’ most autobiographical film, being set in the Minneapolis Jewish community in 1967. What was it like being a part of the much-earlier world of the Coens’?

I enjoyed playing within the confines of the time period. I think they set up those strictures in order to show what the time period was like, with the clothing, the knick-knacks on the shelves, the cars that were driven. It was fun. Part of the thing I love about acting is the chance to throw myself into different periods and imagining what it would be like.

The film was shot on location in Minneapolis. As a New York actor, was it different working in a Midwestern Jewish community?

There are some things that make it unique to that place in the world but there are a lot of similarities to Jewish communities everywhere.