Actor Michael Stuhlbarg has two new movies with gay content debuting this month at Landmark Theatre in Chicago: The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name.
Back in 2009, he rose to attention playing a university professor named Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man. Notable parts in the movies Blue Jasmine, Trumbo, Steve Jobs and Doctor Strange followed.
He was nominated for a Tony Award in the stage play The Pillowman and has had a numerous television appearances in Fargo, Ugly Betty, and Boardwalk Empire.
Stuhlbarg sat down to talk about his recent breakout roles recently at his hotel.
Windy City Times: So you are a classically trained actor?
Michael Stuhlbarg: Yes, I went to the Juilliard School. I started doing theater as a young kid in Long Beach, California. I continued through high school and into college at UCLA. I auditioned for Juilliard and went there.
I discovered that I had a great love for classical theater. I stayed in New York to apply what I learned in school. From 1999 to 2008 I did the bulk of my theater work. Periodically I was called in to audition for television and film. I was making most of my living as a theater actor in New York.
The Coen brothers came along and had seen me in a couple of plays. They asked me to audition for A Serious Man, and that changed my life!
WCT: How did you get involved with Call Me By Your Name?
MS: I got a call from agent saying that Luca Guadagnino wanted to know if I was interested in working on the piece. They sent me the script and I read it. I fell in love with it. There were so many aspects to the story that I was dazzled by the opportunity to be involved with. There was James Ivory's script and the story itself. I had seen Luca's films before and I loved his movies.
WCT: Had you read the book?
MS: I read the book when we were making the film. I didn't even know it was a book when I first read the script. Apparently it had this cult following and people loved it.
WCT: There was a lot of nudity in the book that didn't happen in the film. Why not?
MS: I think the way that Luca wanted to tell the story served the screenplay in a way that he didn't feel it was necessary.
The boys go along with their intimacy and share their experience, but there is nothing gratuitous about it. It is simple and beautiful. It's artfully done. The whole experience allows you to go along for the ride in a beautiful way.
WCT: Talk about your character.
MS: I play Professor Perlman, who teaches Latin and Greek. He's a scholar that has interest in archaeology as well as art history. He's American, but spends his time in the north of Italy in a little town about 45 minutes from Milan. Every summer he invites a young grad student to come help him with his correspondence while he takes some time off. He has a young son who is about 17 years old named Elio.
We watch Elio as he meets this grad student played by Armie Hammer and a friendship blossoms until they find they have great feelings for each other. Everyone goes along for the ride. I get to watch as Elio's father with certain private feelings of my own about what he is experiencing. In a very liberal sense I try to be present as a parent, yet at the same time let him experience what he is going through.
I check in with him and converse with him later in the film about what he is going through. My character tries to be a friend as well as parent.
WCT: Many LGBT kids don't have parents like your character so it brought me to tears.
MS: It is a moving story.
WCT: You had a lot of screen time with a nice monologue. Was that another reason to do this role?
MS: Absolutely! It a beautiful part in what the story is about and what being human is about. How wonderful to get encourage to feel things in the deepest most profound way that we can, to not push those feelings away as an adult, which we so often do.
WCT: With your character's speech, it seems like he knows nothing at first. Was that an interesting way to break up the dialogue?
MS: Well, it is written that way, in a beautiful, slow, methodical way. It was almost taken verbatim from the novel in that section. The book provides more insight to what Elio and Perlman are going through within the dialogue, but in the film you get to watch it and see it slowly unfold.
It does take its time and sneaks up on you a little with the things he has to say. It has a resonance on a number of different levels.
WCT: Do you have many LGBT friends in the business?
MS: Yes, colleagues and friends. The most profound experiences I have had in my life were from professors and friendships have all been from the community.
WCT: How was it working with Jill Soloway in Transparent?
MS: She is amazing. I worked with her very minimally, but she provided a comfort on the set and an ownership to the material that I rarely come across in making a film or a television show. She imbues the actors with all of the power. The camera is constantly rolling and she is throwing ideas at you. It is very collaborative process that makes you feel you own the work in a deeper way than I have ever experienced before.
WCT: Will there be more Doctor Strange?
MS: I don't know. It would be amazing if it did. I loved the character I got to play. There was little to see of him at the beginning but there is a really interesting trajectory to him later on.
WCT: You have The Post with Steven Spielberg and several movies coming out. Could you have worked with some bigger names? Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are in it!
MS: [laughs] It is wonderful. They are all coming out within a few weeks of each other, Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water and The Post.
Next year I have a new limited television series called The Looming Tower on the Hulu Network, which is based on a book by Lawrence Wright about the rise of Al-Qaeda and the bureaucracy in the CIA that led to 9/11 happening. Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard, and Alec Baldwin are all a part of it.
I also just finished a piece about Gore Vidal where I am back in Italy again.
WCT: Are you ever intimidated by all of these celebrities?
MS: Honestly, everybody seems to be approaching the work in the same way. I have the hugest respect for some of these people that I have worked with this year like Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, and Timothee Chalamet. Guillermo del Toro and Luca Guadagnino are masters and people I have grown to love.
It can be terrifying to meet them but it is also a human experience to share the intimate space of creating a story together. It becomes a very humbling experience most of the time.
WCT: Why should people go see Call Me By Your Name?
MS: The ride is a delight and you take a vacation together. The film lives and breathes northern Italy. It is evocative, funny, buoyant, light, and moving. I think it has so much to offer in terms of storytelling. It's heart is in a beautiful, loving place.
WCT: I cried.
MS: Me, too!
The Shape of Water is running at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St., this week. Call Me By Your Name starts Thursday, Dec. 14, at the same venue.