You’re going to be seeing a lot of Michael Stuhlbarg in the next month. Then again, that’s not all that unusual these days. Stuhlbarg had taken on the occasional film and TV role before starring in Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man in 2009, but his work as that film’s morally conflicted physics professor changed his career at the age of 41.
Since then, Stuhlbarg has been hard to miss, appearing in films as diverse as Steve Jobs and Doctor Strange and doing memorable work as Arnold Rothstein on Boardwalk Empire and, more recently, appearing as an ineffectual tough guy on Fargo. Stuhlbarg can anchor a film or work as a memorable part of an ensemble, as he does in Luca Guadagnino’s remarkable new film Call Me By Your Name.
Stuhlbarg plays Professor Perlman, an archeology professor and father to Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a young man whose coming of age is complicated by the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), his father’s summer assistant. In some respects, it’s the quintessential Stuhlbarg performance. He lends able to support to every scene in which he appears. Then, when called upon, he owns the screen, delivering a monologue that draws his character from the background to the foreground in one of the film’s most powerful moments. With Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Steven Spielberg’s The Post, it’s one of three major movies in which Stuhlbarg appears this year, all coming out as 2017.
While in Chicago, Stuhlbarg talked to us about the film, his year in facial hair, and more.
Watching this movie I found myself thinking it’s nice that Michael Stuhlbarg is in this, but I don’t know if it needs Michael Stuhlbarg. Then we get, of course, to this amazing scene at the end. Was that your experience reading the script?
I loved what I got to read in the script. I loved the story. We shot more footage of things that Professor Perlman was in, that in the end Luca and probably all of us felt was unnecessary in terms of the story that was foremost meant to be told. There were aspects of him that I found challenging, in terms of what my preparation might be in showing up and being believable as a Latin/Greek scholar, someone who was passionate about archeology and art history and all those things, as well as being fluent in Italian. So there was a lot of stuff to dig into, you never know what’s gonna make it to the screen and what isn’t. The scene at the end of the film with Elio was… That on top of getting to work on a script by James Ivory, to work with Luca, whose films I had seen and knew and thought was a very dynamic filmmaker, I was excited about every aspect of being part of it.
In terms of preparation for the academic lingo you have to spiel off, it’s almost like doing Star Trek or something, I would imagine.
In some ways, yeah. It is its own language, its own world. That’s one of the challenges… one of the great challenges with what I get to do periodically is submerge myself in a world I know nothing about, and try to learn about it and familiarize myself with whatever the lingo happens to be, and convey a passion for it to those around me. This was challenging, because the dialogue could come off as quite dry, and in some cases it’s almost secondary to what the story is. It’s almost background to what’s going on emotionally for the other characters at any particular time. It is really interesting at the same time.
What’d you learn, what was the most interesting thing you learned preparing for this?
I think part of Professor Perlman’s passion for what he did rubbed off me in the sense that it made me remember that all these artifacts, and all these pieces of things… his passion for it reminded me that these were human beings. These are old stories, these were people who were walking the Earth like us, just a number of years ago, who had love, who had passions, who had friendships, who created art in some instances to celebrate their lovers or their loved ones. We find them buried at the bottom of the sea with barnacles all over them, we yank them up, and we look at them as artifacts, but these were things that humans made. There was life before us. Our lives get so tunnel-visioned on just surviving day to day, that to remember that people were living back then, and that they were brilliant, and they were passionate, and they were artistic.
History comes to life for us when we can remember those things, and I’ve always found history to be often quite dry, but it’s wonderful when it’s not. And it’s wonderful when it’s full of blood, full of passion, and you can remember that we are part of the evolutionary chain of the world. So maybe these were some of the things that I was reminded of, yeah.
That’s probably something you discover in the course of acting, as well. Characters wanting the same things across a broad range of material.
We put characters in some cases, historical or famous characters in Shakespeare or elsewhere, on pedestals somewhat. But it’s so helpful to remember that they are human as we are. And that in the doing of it, a teacher of mine once said, “You are enough. Just speaking the words in some ways is enough, because you have your own experiences to draw on, and you will fill it with life differently from if anybody else were to pick up the text and try to fill it up.”
What was the rehearsal process for this, were you on set a long time before?
I was not. Timothee was there about a month early, and I think Armie came and joined a little bit after that. I was one of the last ones to show up, so I didn’t have a lot of rehearsal. We had a couple of days sitting around the rehearsal table, touching on every particular scene, but we didn’t want to delve too much into it because I think spontaneity in the filmmaking was important for all of us, in capturing whatever perhaps our first impulses might have been. It was more like a brief discussion of what every particular scene might have been about, or what we were after, then we left it alone. And then we just did it. Luca had some very strong ideas of what he wanted to do in the approach to the material. And I loved… in his hands, it made all the difference, whereas within another director’s hands it may have been quite different.
As I had mentioned, some of the dryness of the dialogue I was responsible for could have added a lot more weight to a story, to this particular story. But he wanted us to remember that this was one of those summers that was meant to be somewhat idyllic and somewhat buoyant with laughter and light and love. Instead of it being necessarily ponderous or heavy, he wanted things to be light and full of laughter, which I think added such a great breeziness and uplifting sense to the storytelling, which I was really grateful for. And I really didn’t understand it at the beginning, I was curious because I found some of the text I had been given could have been quite melancholy, to say the least. But it gave me some new ways to think about things, and it was a great challenge.
You’ve played characters from many different periods. This one, 1983 is within your memory. Is it easier or harder to get in the mindset of a time that you actually remember?
It’s much more vivid, I can certainly recall the music of the time and perhaps some of the historical stuff that was going on. Although I was quite young, it still was a time when I was cognizant and aware. I was, I guess, around Elio’s age. I guess a little younger or around that time. I don’t remember reminiscing too much about it during the making of it, because it just wasn’t a part of the storytelling for me.
Was this film’s soundtrack your 1983 soundtrack, or did you have–
No, it was all music that I didn’t know.
What was your 1983 soundtrack?
Oh God, I had gone to the US Festival in 1981 or ’82, whenever that was. So all the music that was going on there was the music that influenced and that I loved, where it was a three-day rock festival, one was new wave, one day was heavy metal, and one day was like rock-and-roll, really. It was The Pretenders and David Bowie and the Stray Cats, then on the new wave day there was Wall of Voodoo and Flock of Seagulls, then there was Van Halen was the headliner on the heavy metal day. I remember all that stuff vividly, and I love music from all the different genres so I was… I remember having an amazing time.
Between this and Fargo, this has been a good year for facial hair for you. Is it all you?
It’s all me. I grew … The beard was a collaborative effort by Luca and I. He wanted it to be all irascible and all over my face and un-groomed. The mustache in Fargo and the sideburns and the flat-top were an absolute collaboration with Noah Hawley, and what we thought would be appropriate for that particular guy. It’s just trying to suit the action to the world I suppose.
Did you read the novel before doing this film?
No, I read it during the making of the film. It became a kind of bible for me, because there were parts that obviously that you can’t include in the turning of the novel into a film. So there were questions about certain things that I had, and I tried to mine as much as I could. There’s a moment that Luca — I remember hearing in an interview recently — reminded me of, something that I took from the novel that wasn’t in the script, which was a moment of irreverence at the beginning of that scene at the end of the film, when Elio comes home and they had their talk together. Professor Perlman takes whatever it is he’s working on, whatever thesis he happens to be reading, he takes it and just throws it across the room to land on his desk. That kind of irreverence is like, “Oh my son is here, come over here, fuck work, let’s just talk. And welcome home.” There was something in a small gesture like that, which was in the novel, which that’s the stuff I love, the details that I relish that make something come to life. The smallest things can open up something special.
You came to prominence relatively later than a lot of actors do. Has that given you a different perspective on how you choose your roles and approach your career?
I’ve lived through certain things, I did theater in New York professionally from 1992 until 2008. So that informed who I was, what I was capable of, what I felt like I had to offer. And I think I may not have been ready to make films, necessarily, at a younger age, or if I had, I didn’t have the guidance to understand the medium. I didn’t really understand the simplicity of film work because I’d been studying classical theater and that’s what I had longed to do, which was doing classic plays in New York City, or wherever the work happened to take me.
I think when I was fortunate enough to come along to be considered for a role like the one in A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan had seen me in plays before and knew, I think, my work from a number of things I had done, and that I’d arrived in front of them at a particular time in my life when I was ripe for the role that they had just written. Perhaps things are meant to happen at particular times. I think film and television work has come into my life at a time when I was ready for it, finally. And I was exasperated for years because I would audition for all kinds of things, and I fell between a lot of categories as a young man.
In what way?
I don’t know, you’d have to ask the people who were casting the films, but I guess too tall, too short, too young, too old, not handsome enough, not character-y enough. That’s the nature of the actors: you’re lucky when something comes along that seems to resonate with you that you’re right for. I just have tried to make myself available and accomplished, or possessing enough tools to be able to do a variety of different kinds of things.
Your roles divide almost evenly between historical characters or and fictional characters. Are those different challenges?
They are very different challenges. I feel an obligation playing a historical character, someone who’s either alive or has lived, to know as much about them as I can. So I dive into as much research as I can find about them, given the time that I have to do that. In some cases, there’s a lot of time, and some cases there’s not. Some cases the role is large, and some cases it isn’t. I just finished playing Abe Rosenthal in The Post, and I didn’t have a lot of time for preparation for that, so I dove as deeply as I could given the time that I had to learn about him. Whereas with Arnold Rothstein or with Paul Marshall [in Pawn Sacrifice], I had more time to learn about them and try to factor in as much as I could to utilize in the telling of the story, if it’s useful. If it’s not, then you let it go. Ideally, you want it to come to life, but you also want to pay homage to the people whose shoes you’re trying to fill.
With fictional stuff, the freedom can be just as frightening, [more] than having such rigorous boundaries within a historical character, if you’re trying to create something fresh. I remember working on Fargo, there were a lot of different ways we could have gone with that character. We whittled it away together. The collaborative process is what I love, and I loved with Noah Hawley, talking with him about, “Which way should we go with this? What is this moment about?” He knew where it was going to go, I didn’t know where it was going to go, and just trusting him implicitly and taking a leap of faith.