Film

Interview: Prolific Actor Michael Stuhlbarg Talks Chicago, Sam Shepard and Call Me By Your Name

Michael Stuhlbarg is the classic definition of a successful working actor, but almost more than that, he’s pure chameleon. You’ve likely seen him in quite a few movies by an impressive line-up of directors and not even realized it was the same actor in all of those roles. After studying acting everywhere from Juilliard to the World Centre for Mime (in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he studied under Marcel Marceau), he spent 10 years as a stage actor—doing everything from Shakespeare to Eugene O’Neill to Martin McDonagh (he got his first Tony nomination for his role in “The Pillowman”). Stuhlbarg landed his first film role in A Price Above Rubies, followed by smaller roles in such films as The Grey Zone and Body of Lies.

Image courtesy of Focus Features

But it was another 10 years before he landed his first major film role, as the lead in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination. Consider for a minute the films he’s made since A Serious Man, as well as the filmmakers who made them: Hugo (Martin Scorsese), Men in Black 3 (Barry Sonnenfeld), Seven Psychopaths (back with his old friend Martin McDonagh), Lincoln (Steven Spielberg), Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen), and Pawn Sacrifice (Ed Zwick). Not to mention his extraordinarily measured performance on “Boardwalk Empire” as Arnold Rothstein (the man who is said to have arranged the whole Chicago Black Sox 1919 World Series scandal).

In just the last two years he has co-starred in such films as Steve Jobs for director Danny Boyle (he played Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Apple Macintosh development team); Trumbo for Jay Roach, in which Stuhlbarg plays actor Edward G. Robinson; the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead for director-star Don Cheadle; Arrival for Denis Villeneuve; and he even popped up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a brief appearance in Doctor Strange.

In many ways Stuhlbarg has owned 2017, beginning with the Luca Guadagnino-directed Sundance hit and Oscar frontrunner Call Me By Your Name (which opens in Chicago this weekend), in which the actor plays the father of a 17-year-old boy (Timothée Chalamet) who falls in love with a slightly older man (Armie Hammer), circa 1983 in Northern Italy. Earlier this year, he had one of the greatest mustaches in television history during his run on “Fargo,” opposite Ewan McGregor. Just last week, he starred in the Guillermo del Toro-directed monster masterpiece The Shape of Water, and next up for him, he re-teams with Steven Spielberg in The Post, a real-life thriller about the publishing of the so-called Pentagon Papers.

Stuhlbarg has stories for days, and I’m happy I got to tap into a couple of them. The film that actually put us in a room together for the first time back in October (I’d interviewed him once on the phone in 2014) was Call Me By Your Name (the film for which Stuhlbarg will likely get an Oscar nomination in January), but we bounce around to a few other topics.

The one upcoming project that is of particular note was his recently completed Netflix film Gore, the true-life story of Gore Vidal, with Stuhlbarg co-starring as the late writer’s longtime partner, Howard Austen. But the film was recently pulled from Netflix’s 2018 roster because Kevin Spacey played the Vidal role. Obviously, this interview was done before any allegations about Spacey arose, and more recently Stuhlbarg has said he understands and supports Netflix’s decision to pull the film, with the hope that one day it may be seen in the light it was intended. Time will tell.

In the meantime, please enjoy my talk with the hardest working man in show business, Michael Stuhlbarg…

Hello, sir. Good to finally meet you.

Nice to meet you too.

We actually spoke on the phone a couple of years ago and talked a great deal about Chicago. You told that great story about seeing a play at Steppenwolf when you were 15, and we actually ended the conversation with the hope that the next time we spoke it would be in person here in Chicago. So here we are.

Fantastic! I have been wanting to get back here for so long. I always want to come back here. This place is amazing to me. I hope to spend more time here.

I remember the play in question was Fool for Love, and now we’ve lost its great writer, Sam Shepard. Was he someone that meant a great deal to you as an actor? I don’t know what your history is with working with him or doing his plays.

I did Fool for Love. I played the old man in college at UCLA. I had seen it here in 1984, then I got to do it in 1986 or ’87. So it lived in such a deep place, that experience, oddly or not, I was able to draw on it. I just dove into his literature—all of his plays. It was one of those things. Everyone had that collection of his plays, and I read them all and I was knocked out and understood on a very deep level how he wrote. Again, oddly or not, I haven’t done one of his plays since then, but I would love to. It’s a part of me that I haven’t gotten a chance to share in a while. I loved his writing for years and admired him as an actor as well as a writer for years. Believe it or not, we had the same agent.

Did you ever meet him or work with him?

I never met him [clearly getting emotional]. I never met him. I wish I had. I shared an elevator with him once, but I didn’t muster the courage to say hello.

I’m familiar with the concept.

[laughs] His work will live on for ages, and this city is tied in with that experience, you know? The humanity here, I associate it all in a very good, deep place in my life.

I lived in New York briefly in the early ’90s and saw an off-Broadway production of Shepard’s, something called States of Shock.

Oh yeah, sure, I saw it.

John Malkovich was in it.

Michael Wincott too.

That’s exactly right. I don’t even know if it’s considered one of his better works, but I remember it was the only time I ever felt terrified in a theater. I felt like I was going to be hurt somehow by being there; there was a violent electricity in that small space. That’s funny that you saw that.

One of the reasons I remember it so vividly, as well as their performances, was that the audience that night was really vocal. In one case, some guy was screaming, “Boo, boo! You should be ashamed of yourself!” I don’t know what it was that was in his mind about the experience of that particular play, but it hit him in a really primal place, and he had a very violent reaction to it. It was one of those great theatrical experiences you have as an audience member where the audience really responds in a really dark way to something they saw.

About Call Me By Your Name, it’s almost hard to wrap my head around the idea of getting a script written by James Ivory, because he was not the primary writer of his own films. So to get this new script from him, what went through your head?

That never happens.

Can you even think about saying no to something like that?

No, exactly. It’s “By James Ivory.” Okay. Alright. Yes.

Then to have Luca direct it makes perfect sense. This idea of the sensual is not foreign to either of them. Talk about what you remember specifically responding to about your character when you first read the screenplay.

Well, the things he got to say, particularly the stuff at the end when he has the speech with Elio. He says some really beautiful things, particularly about the human experience and how important it is when you’re feeling something so deeply to acknowledge it and celebrate it and to not push it away like we all do when we grow older. I also responded to the challenges that would come my way in terms of learning as much Italian as I could and also the challenge of what it would be like to stand and be believed as a Latin and Greek professor.

I loved the sort of liberal parenting, I loved the sense of humor. And also the tenderness and the sense of humor that he had, that both parents have, in terms of loving their son, but giving him leave to be the person that he is, encouraging him to read and to write and create music—all of the things Elio loved to do by giving him the space to breathe. I think the film allows us, as audience members, places to breathe within its storytelling, which I love so much, whether you just see them riding their bikes in the countryside, taking it in and letting it sit with you.

Michael Stuhlbarg (left) in Call Me By Your Name

There’s something that your character says—it’s almost a throwaway line—but it really hurt to hear him say: “I wish I had been that brave when I was that age” or something like that. It’s not an idea you hear from a lot of parents, of providing their child a world where they can open themselves up to whatever comes their way and not be afraid of it. It seems like a lot of parenting these days is “Be scared of this, be scared of that.”

There’s a lot to be scared of in our lives [laughs].

Oh, I know. Maybe there was slightly less to be scared of in the early ’80s.

Perhaps in certain parts of the world.

People might actually find that shocking today, that attitude.

It was a different time. I remember in the late ’70s, or mid-’70s, waiting on a street corner for my sister to come home from school in suburban Long Beach, California. It didn’t seem unnatural and I don’t think my parents were afraid that anything would happen to me at that time. Times have changed somewhat. There was more of an innocence at that time, and we knew less, and maybe there was a bliss about it because we knew less. You get aspects of that in the film, which are great—a sense of humor, a sense of love, a sense of freedom, a sense of hands-off parenting, that perhaps nowadays wouldn’t be as wise necessarily if you were raising a child in a large city.

How do you film in a place that beautiful and not be constantly distracted by it?

Well, you don’t [laughs]. It’s its own character. You enjoy it really for what it is, and hopefully the audience will as well, those sunlit mornings in the orchard behind the house where there are peaches and fresh fruit and the smell of earth and flies buzzing and you’re wearing your sunglasses. It’s evocative and it acts on you in the doing of it. You have your agendas, you have the things you’re going about to do in any particular moment, in any particular scene, but that affects the doing of it, so it’s a part of the experience.

Obviously, the father/son relationship in this film is key, and I’ve seen Timothée now in three films this year after I’m pretty sure never seeing him before. I saw Hot Summer Nights at SXSW, and Ladybird is playing at this festival too.

Hostiles is coming out soon.

Exactly. Did you two do anything to cement that bond even before you started to shoot? Did you have the opportunity to spend time together?

I had seen him in a John Patrick Shanley play that was playing at Manhattan Theater Club called Prodigal Son, so I knew what he was capable of coming into this. I didn’t know he had been cast in this when I decided to take the job, but I knew when I found out, I thought it was perfect, and that was the first thing I had seen him in. When we got together, there just seemed to be a natural rapport with the two of us that we both just left with.

There was something about all of us together, we all just hit it off right away and had a lot of fun, talked about our insecurities about what we were responsible for. I can’t pinpoint at the moment a particular incidence where we felt like there were things we wanted to reverberate in our relationship; we just noticed some similarities of things that we had about ourselves, and felt like it was pretty good casting on Luca’s part to want us to be a part of this. We were a good pair, I think, as well as Armie and Timothée were an amazing pair together.

You made reference earlier to this amazing monologue at the end of the film that’s made to be comforting, but in a strange way, that’s the moment when I lost it. You were being comforting to all of us. You made me wish my father had said things to me. How do you prepare for that particular scene, because there’s a lot riding on that moment.

In this instance, it was one of those fortunate times when we shot most of the film in chronological order, so I had the six or seven weeks to live with it and be alone with it and think on every aspect of it and to try it a million different ways and to watch the relationship grow between Timothée and Armie’s characters and to think on how what I was seeing in front of me might have felt for Professor Perlman.

So on the day, I was really ready to just do it, and we didn’t have that many takes of it. I think there was perhaps a more emotional version of it. I think in the end, a simpler version was what Luca went for and rightfully so. And it’s almost verbatim from the novel. The novel is extraordinary. We took a lot of what we were given almost directly from it. It’s a wonderful story.

We saw The Shape of Water recently, and in any other film, your character is the villain. And as much as he is what he is, and I won’t say what he is exactly, his ultimate goal is still science over everything else, and we appreciate that in this day where science doesn’t seem to mean as much. Give me your best Guillermo [del Toro, director] story.

[laughs] Oh my god. He’s a general. He’s a bear hugger; he’s just a big ball of love, and he couldn’t have been more loving throughout the entire experience. He helped finance the film out of his own pocket to make it happen. He wanted these people involved in this movie, and he made it happen by sheer will. And his filmmaking is the same exact way. Every day, he was so tenacious about getting certain shots, and he was such a wonder to watch and to ride the wave of his passion throughout, because it didn’t stop.

There were some really hard shooting days, and I think he would agree, I think I read somewhere that it was one of the most difficult shoots he’s ever had. There were long nights of freezing rain, and the climax of the film with Shannon and me, that whole thing, was one of the more difficult nights I’ve had to spend. Then the next day, he’s like, “Come to breakfast. We’ll go out and have breakfast together and have brunch. Try this, I love this.” He’s so passionate about everything, and it’s so infectious and it makes you want to give him everything you can. He’s just like, “Let’s make something great together.” And that’s what this is about. That’s why I do it. I don’t know how he found me or why he wanted me to be a part of this, but I’m so glad he did. I hope we get to work together over and over again, because I love him.

Did you and Michael Shannon ever have a scene together in “Boardwalk Empire”?

One scene [laughs]. One scene. I think it might have been the very first episode of “Boardwalk.” He was in a phone booth on one side of a lobby, and I was walking across the lobby in another place. He’s talking to another agent over the phone, and they’re talking about if they think the same person is Rothstein. He said, “Does he look tall to you?” Some off-the-cuff remark. But no, we never had anything else to do together.

I did want to ask you about one other thing you had coming up. Obviously you’re working with Spielberg again in The Post, but this film you’re doing about Gore Vidal, and you’re playing his 50-year partner.

It’s a year in Gore Vidal’s life when he was running for the Senate in California, in 1982 I think it was. After the campaign in which he lost, he goes back to Ravello to sort of lick his wounds and drink himself to death, practically, in our version of the story. And he couldn’t write. So Howard Austen, the character I played, basically wants to buoy his spirits somehow, and after finding a piece of fan mail, invites someone to come cheer his spirits, someone who is writing about similar material that Gore has written about. So it’s through a kind of love story between Gore and a young writer that Howard brings Gore back to life again.

Alright, it was great to meet you in person.

You too. Take care.

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