In A Serious Man, the latest masterwork from the Coen Brothers, former Broadway actor Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a middle aged man who seeks wisdom from his local rabbis in a time of extreme misfortune. Gopnik has so many questions, those of which are proposed by the film’s “hint of mischief,” but as the answers become more necessary, they constantly allude him.
The Scorecard Review sat down with Michael Stuhlbarg in Chicago’s new Trump Hotel to discuss many issues raised by the film, including how religion influenced the film, what it was like embodying the unfortunate character of Larry Gopnik, and even the meaning behind the rather odd opening sequence.
What do you feel your role and character had to do with the mystery of faith?
I would say almost a physical manifestation of the mystery of faith. He starts out at the beginning of the movie of someone who doesn’t necessarily question anything. Over the course of the movie he becomes a question himself. So if faith is all about throwing yourself into something without any recourse – that is Larry. He tries to do that. He goes to the spiritual leaders and tries to embrace what is the backbone of his religion, and comes out the other end with more questions. The idea of pursuing one’s faith is a total question.
What is your personal background with religion?
I was raised in a reformed Jewish synagogue in Long Beach, California. It was a big part of my life growing up, I went through the usual reformed Jewish stuff that most reformed Jewish kids do. I went to Hebrew school, I was bar mitzvahed, I went to confirmation class, and I went to hang out at this Jewish community center, and went to Jewish camp, even. It was a big part of my life. As I got bit by the acting bug, that sort of became the second half of my religion. I have become a practitioner, more so of acting, because it is such a big part of my life. But what I’ve lived through and what I learned as a child stays with me, as I move through this life.
Did you bring any religious angst into the character?
There are so many beautiful things about religion, and all the time, religion is a hot topic, what it does for people’s lives in both positive and negative aspects. Its original intent must have been about comfort and teaching, and I prefer to think about [religion] as a beautiful thing as opposed to something that separates people. That’s how I choose to think about religion in everyone’s mind. We are all after getting on well with each other. Religion has so many beautiful things about it. America’s sort of a melting pot – not that religions should be mixed together, or anything. There are similarities and differences, and we should enjoy them and celebrate them, live together that way.
How did the Coen Brothers want to establish the mood of 1967, and what was it like trying to live in that time?
It was fantastic. One of the things that I love about being an actor is that they throw you into these different worlds, where you get to play around. And it’s interesting because every story you tell is a human story, it’s just the boundaries that are set up that are different. It’s not so much that I had to do anything different, but when they throw those bits of clothing at you, [our costume designer] did everything for me. She gave me these pants that were a couple of inches too high, shoes, and a belt that was a little too tight. Glasses – Joel and Ethan wanted Larry to have these glasses, and you put them on, and they surround you with people who are dressed in a similar fashion, the cars are from the era, the décor, the knick knacks on the shelves, the houses are all groomed to look of the period. You just do what you’re doing, you end up in that period. You start to understand the confines people might have felt, or the social orders. Give yourself those boundaries, and you start to behave as if you were living in that period.
How did you craft the character of Larry? Did you seek inspiration from any other films?
That’s an interesting question. When I got the part, I sat down and I wrote page after page of just questions for Joel and Ethan, and I sent them about a three-and-a-half page email asking about as many nuances of the character as I could muster. They answered all of those questions, if they didn’t have an answer, they said, “It’s up to you. Whatever you want.” That’s sort of the great thing about working with them is that they give this tremendous sense of order, they throw it at you, and then they sort of let you run with it. It’s respectful on their parts, and also intimidating. You can’t imagine with such ideas, or such specific ideas, that they’d want you to follow them meticulously. And when they put those words on the page, they want you to say what they wrote, down to the punctuation, however, within that stricture, you’re free to bustle around. [As for inspiration from other films], Joel [Coen] suggested I take a look at The Graduate, and also La Dolce Vita because they were of that period. Those central characters are sort of thrown into their situations, banged about within this circuitous paths that they take, things that happen to them. There’s a sense of bafflement.
What characteristic would have perhaps made Larry stronger against the onslaught of the circumstances?
I would like to think of him as a strong individual, he makes one choice at the end of the movie … that is an unfortunate choice. There are consequences to that choice, then he thinks of it as, perhaps, a lesser evil to create a greater good. Someone said in the previous night’s Q&A that they were disappointed in Larry for making that decision, but he is somewhat punished for it. Whether its by the hands of Coens, or a bigger man, we don’t know. It’s an unfortunate thing, but that happens to us in our lives. Sometimes we have to make decisions that there’s no easy way out.
Can you think of any of your own experiences that are similar to Larry’s where everything seems to be going wrong, where it could be bad luck or a higher being trying to screw you over?
Just being an actor is quite a road to hoe. People say to you, “If you can do something else, do it. Because you’re going to suffer.” That was sort of the commencement speech given to me when I got out of school. “Don’t suffer, because there’s going to be enough suffering along the road trying to be an artist.” [The speaker] was right. Try to be good to yourself, during the journey. And you just find yourself walking down the street after some audition where someone was disrespectful to you for whatever reason and you think “Why am I putting myself through this, and why did I want to do this with my life?” There’s something in us who stick to it, you just look up and you laugh – you have to keep your sense of humor, otherwise, you’re doomed. I was blessed with parents who gave me a very helpful sense of humor, because you find that there are good times and low times, and that those low times build your character. They are the thing that make you appreciate those good times all the more.
In the smaller roles you’ve had up to this point, you’ve played Jewish characters before. What made the role of Larry different both in the perspective of creating a Jewish character and his relationship with the faith?
Larry is an interesting case in that I wouldn’t call him a religious Jew at all. He is assimilated and a secular Jew, and I think he married a woman who was very devout, and I think she was the one who made most of the decisions about the raising of their kids, and the kind of synagogue they were going to put their children in. I think he is sort of the picture of the modern day secular Jew. He finds himself going to temple when his wife drags him there, and has perhaps learned more things about religion because his wife brought him there, but I don’t think it’s something that he devotes himself to. Yet when he finds himself in certain situations where things start to go wrong, it is suggested to him that they go visit his spiritual adviser, and he goes along for the ride, and tries to apply the knowledge that is given to him. I’m not sure he finds it entirely helpful.
Did the Coens have a set interpretation of the opening sequence or do you have your own?
There’s a quote at the very beginning of the film, which says “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” And I think that has a kind of resonance with both that beginning parable which is set probably in Poland. I am sure that smarter people than I will come up with great connections of why [the Coens] threw these two stories together. I think it was them having a go with a sense of mischief. They always throw in a healthy does of mischief into everything they do.
How did class placement influence Larry, and in a larger part, the narrative?
I’m not sure if Larry thinks too much about his circumstance in terms of being a member of a perhaps bourgeois class. I think that he is doing what he wants to do, I think he’s an intellectual. I think he is thoroughly satisfied within the realm that he has set for himself. I think his brother is the more brilliant of the tow, but perhaps has struggled because he is not as socially adept as Larry is. I don’t think Larry wishes he was someplace else. I think he is content with his lot.
Was the story of Job from the Old Testament an influence on the story of A Serious Man?
That is a comparison that is being made, but I would be surprised if Joel and Ethan even thought of that at all.
How did the Coens bring the child actors into their universe?
I think it’s our jobs as the actors within the movie to let them do what they do so beautifully and stay in the situation. These are young actors who are fantastically grounded. They’re very talented people. Not only are they great actors, but Aaron Wolff, who plays my son in the film, is a cello prodigy. He’s a fantastic musician. They both, Jessica and Aaron, they naturally captured the spirit of their characters. The Coens let their camera and the lighting and Roger Deakins guide us all and really be the sort of fish eye for the audience to see what the story is going to be. We just find this situation and live in it, and they see it and show it from their own perspectives.
Do you see any personal connection between Larry and Danny?
I think Danny goes on his own particular journey. I think he is made to do his bar mitzvah. I don’t think if he was left to his own devices if he would be studying for his own bar mitzvah. I think his mom insisted on it, and he takes that and runs with it. I think he’s probably into the music scene at the time, the counter culture. It’ll be interesting, maybe he’ll end up making movies about Jewish men in St. Louis Park.
Is that connection supposed to be made?
I don’t know. There is certainly connection in the fact that Ethan and Joel were 12 in 1967, and raised in a Jewish community.