You might not recognize the doomed Larry Epstein from A Serious Man, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, in his new turn in Men in Black III, where he plays an adorably innocent but all-knowing alien. But that's the mark of a serious actor—always looking for a challenge. Stuhlbarg was trained at Juilliard and had a successful career on Broadway before bursting onto the movie scene with the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Here, Stuhlbarg talks about acting with computer generated effects, his career game-changer, and his upcoming appearances in Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated Lincoln and the buzzworthy Hitchcock.
Even though Men in Black III is certainly funny, the movie also has a lot of heart. Your character, Griffin, is sort of the philosopher of the film. What do you look for when you read a script?
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: I think it varies from script to script. I have little control of what's sent to me. I love things that make me laugh and think and that move me. I thought this part was a great combination of light and heart and sweetness.
There's a good deal of special effects in Men in Black III. As a classically trained actor, what's it like working on a movie with special effects?
MS: It's a very big challenge, working with computer generated graphics and such. It's creating something out of thin air. It's quite the challenge. But really, why not?
Though you have a solid background in theater and a long list of film credits, A Serious Man was your debut in the public eye. How did that role come about?
MS: I went in to audition—for a much smaller role, actually—and I was asked to come back to read for Larry and for the character of Uncle Arthur. I ended up being the right person for the role. It was a wonderful surprise.
Many actors speak of being part of a Coen Brothers clan—they compare working on one of their movies to being inducted in to a family. Was that your experience?
MS: Definitely. They have been working with the same people for fifteen years. There are people working with them that have been with them since Blood Simple. I mean, you get to know people and it works, so why change things? It is very much like a family—a loving family at that.
I have to ask you about your two huge upcoming projects. Who are you playing in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln? Can you talk about it?
MS: Oh yes, of course. My character is called George Yeaman. He was a second district attorney Kentucky congressman. He was a Democrat, but voted against party to secure Lincoln the swing votes he needed to pass the thirteenth amendment. It was an important time because he had to get the bill passed before the South reentered the Union. Otherwise, it never would have passed. Yeaman was actually a lame-duck congressman, so his vote was even more crucial.
Did you do a lot of research for Lincoln?
MS: I started with Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which the screenplay for the film is very loosely based on. It focuses on his campaign in 1860, his election, and the selection of his cabinet members, which he chose regardless of their party affiliation. I thought that was fascinating.
Does the film cover all of Lincoln's life?
MS: No, it covers the last four months of his Presidency—or, the last four months of his life, I should say.
You also have Hitchcock coming up—another highly anticipated biopic. What part of the director's career does the film focus on?
MS: It's based on Stephen Rebello's book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. It's about the point in his life after making North by Northwest. He was trying to think about what to do next. He was 60, and a lot of people thought he should retire. It's really a love story, too, between him and his wife, Alma Reville, who was a screenwriter and filmmaker in her own right. It's about them finding Psycho together, and turning this lurid horror book into a great film with a great director. It's about them rekindling their love of films.
You play the Hollywood agent Lew Wasserman in the movie. Is it easier or more difficult to play a character that existed in real life?
MS: It presents a totally different challenge. I do as much research as I can. There is so much information, so as an actor, you have to figure out what is useful to you and what isn't.
Are you making your home here in New York or in L.A.? What are your favorite hangouts in New York?
MS: I live here in New York, but I don't really have time to hang out! That said, I love New York. I like the East and West Villages, the Upper West Side, Central Park. What I love about New York is that it's constantly changing—you can live here for years and something new is always revealing itself to you.
What's next for you? Are you planning a return to theater?
MS: I would love that. I would love to do another play—it's been a while, but right now I'm in the middle of shooting Boardwalk Empire. We're on the fifth episode of the third season and we're wrapping up in September. After that, I don't know what will happen!