How Michael Stuhlbarg Plumbs Emotion in ‘Trumbo’ and ‘Steve Jobs’

How Michael Stuhlbarg Plumbs Emotion in 'Trumbo' and 'Steve Jobs'
How Michael Stuhlbarg Plumbs Emotion 'Trumbo' and 'Steve Jobs'

Some great actors are contained and reserved. They turn their wattage off and on. Others stay close to their emotions. As I interviewed “Boardwalk Empire” star Michael Stuhlbarg (the gangster Arnold Rothstein) at a Pain Quotidien near his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he was most animated when he accessed a character, their emotions flickering across his face. Suddenly I was looking into the pained, sad eyes of Edward G. Robinson in “Trumbo” or anxious Andy Herzfeld in “Steve Jobs.”

In a crazily competitive year for supporting actors seeking award recognition (many of them leads, to my mind), I hope voters will remember Stuhlbarg. As the great Warner Bros. star (“Little Caesar,” “Double Indemnity”) in Jay Roach’s “Trumbo” over several decades, we see his tragic role in the Hollywood blacklist. It’s where the emotion is in the film.

That’s why theater star Stuhlbarg is a go-to actor beloved by the likes of the Coen Brothers (“A Serious Man”) and is front and center in Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” surfing Aaron Sorkin’s waves of dialogue opposite Michael Fassbender, as well as Ed Zwick’s cold war chess thriller “Pawn Sacrifice.” New York Film Festival audiences also saw him in Don Cheadle’s directorial debut “Miles Ahead,” which Sony Pictures Classics will release in spring 2016. 

Anne Thompson: People think of you as a New York theater actor. You live in Manhattan now, but you grew up in California.

Michael Stuhlbarg: A beach boy, born and raised, but I’ve been here for over half my life. I miss California… I love driving. The work takes me back there, and I go back to see my family often, but theater brought me here and has kept me here this long. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since I’ve done a play, and I’m itching. I do miss being in a room with people and sharing energy.

“Boardwalk” was a constant over the years. A good character to play.

It’s over. We finished last year. It was great fun. It was a little family that I found myself invited to be a part of.
Good writing. Really great people to be with. A challenging character to play. That kind of steady work is a safety net that feels really nice. 

Edward G. Robinson was unusual as a character actor-star. Like him, you have range. You can play all these different parts and inhabit them.

I don’t see a difference between the idea of what an actor does and what someone supposes a character actor is, really. Across the board, they look different. Because of the voice and the looks, I guess you could say they’re a “character actor” or a “leading actor” or whatever. It has more to do with the individual piece than it does with them as a title.  It’s funny, because I’ve had to bounce back and forth between the two — playing supporting parts, and then, all of a sudden, someone will cast me as a lead in something. That’s the way my life has gone. Different people see my different ways, so I act accordingly, I guess.

In a supporting role, you have to nail it?

I do, yeah. You’re given less screen time, so you have to make each moment count. 

Edward G. Robinson in “Trumbo” moved me. I didn’t know as much about the black list and these specific details as I thought I did. While Trumbo was a hero, Robinson couldn’t be one.

You know, he was really put through the wringer. My heart goes out to him. He went to such lengths to do everything he could but name names — and, when he did, they were names that they had already. It was almost like he had to go through a “humiliation gauntlet,” going up in front of the committee so many times. It just seemed like he did everything he could to do anything but that —but he wanted to work; he had to work. That was what he knew, and the idea of not having that in his life, particularly considering the sort of complicated private life he had, which is of course not in the movie.

He seems worthy of his own movie!

He had a longstanding, turbulent relationship with his wife, and his son was quite a turbulent soul himself, and went out of his way to make his parents’ life quite complicated. His wife was constantly threatening to get a divorce throughout their relationship, and had to go to a sanitarium many, many times. He would put her there, she would calm down, bring her back. There was love there, but it was complicated.

I loved his Hollywood mansion. He was rich, with these amazing paintings.

His father told him, at a young age, to live beyond his means, because it would keep him in work. So he took his father’s advice and, as a young man, fell in love with art — as his wife did. That was one of the things they had in common, was art, and it became this renowned collection that people wanted to see. During the war, he’d open his house to anybody and anyone who wanted to come — soldiers back from duty, whatever. He’d show them around, give personal tours to raise money for American causes, things like that. He was a real community activist himself.

The pathos for me was that he cared about the Socialist cause so deeply. He was a true partisan who loved his fellow travelers, and yet he couldn’t win. He was shunned by those he cared about most.

Yes, he was. He would’ve given everything to change the situation; he tried, as well. He was kind of delirious. I mean, if you read his biography, people recall how decimated he was, personally. How you would see him and he looked like there was something really wrong with him, because of what he was going through. It’s just a horrible thing to have happen. His heart was very much in the right place.

He makes the point that his face is there. He can’t hide, like Trumbo did.

No, that’s true. Some people could never work again, or not for quite a few years. It was all he knew. Once he found his vocation at a young age, that was his life. He followed it through many ups and downs, and he just didn’t know life without it. But, yes: he ended up, in the divorce, having to sell two-thirds of his art collection.

Jay Roach seems to be an easygoing actor’s director who makes you feel comfortable. 

Very much so. It’s exactly that: he goes out of his way to make sure you have everything you need to do the best work possible; he’s only trying to make your process and your job easier. They found it in the budget for us to play with prosthetics, so I got to wear a fake nose, which was fun — but time-consuming, which I think they were worried about, because of how much time it would take before you can get up and take care of things. But he’s very much a team player, and he’ll go with you all day if he thinks you have more possible takes in you. He’ll just sort of go with it; he wants people to feel like they’re giving their best work. 

Danny Boyle used an unusual rehearsal process for the three-act “Steve Jobs.” Sorkin puts these people together into this intense cauldron of speedy emotion and dialogue.

Well, it was an exhilarating atmosphere. We rehearsed in San Francisco, and we shot each third in a different theater. We would bounce around, but our rehearsal space remained the same. Once we got the words under our belt and felt confident with it, it was thrilling to just keep running with it and running with it and finding new things.

Was Sorkin around?

He was there every day. If he wasn’t with us in the proper room, he was in the next room writing, or listening to what we were doing. He would change things periodically, and, actually, he added some text to the initial script during the rehearsal process.

He’s paying attention to minute details of pausing; what is that like as an actor?

I knew going in how Aaron worked, having done a couple episodes of “Studio 60.” So I knew every comma was important. Every period, ellipses, word, what have you. And I also knew it would move at a great speed, so you have to come in armed with that. It’s a very muscular kind of exchange.

It was a hugely long script that, on the screen, isn’t so long.

No. Thrillingly, it’s a little over two hours. Which blew my mind a bit when I saw it — particularly with how fast the first act is. I was like, “Oh, my God, it’s over already?” It really took me by surprise.

Were there cuts?

No! As far as I know. That act moved like the Dickens.

Did you all get better with each rehearsal?

It just changed each time we tried it. Everyone allowed themselves time to be terrible and try stupid things. Kate was talking the other day about one go-through where they just decided to sit on the ground during the course of the whole thing, as opposed to moving around. They just felt an inspiration to sit down. It didn’t work, so they learned it didn’t work — which they wouldn’t have learned had they not had the rehearsal. But the team was so game and so prepared, and everybody was so excited about the project. One of the fun things in doing it was getting a sense of the accumulation that all that text gives you, particularly for Michael, getting it all thrown at him repetitively. It made us all want to do it as a play — at least a one-night event kind of thing. It was really, really thrilling. It felt like we were doing a play.

You had multiple cameras?

Yeah. He wouldn’t tell us where the cameras were. If we asked, he’d say, “Oh, there’s one up there in the rafters.” Literally. From every angle; you couldn’t be off-camera. you’d be backstage and you’d have no idea where the cameras were. He had a Steadicam following you everywhere, so you were covered. You were absolutely covered.

One thing that amazed me was the degree to which it’s condensed and fictionalized. Your character really exists, but Wozniak never spoke up at one of these meetings and said what he said. He said it to Scully over the phone at a board meeting. So you’re aware of the differences between what happened in real life and the film?

Yes. And I was a little nervous, because this was the first time I’m playing a real person and I actually get to meet the real person. He opened his life, came and spoke to all of us. It helps trying to have the script adhere to the truth that he knew from having lived through the event. Obviously, if you’ve lived through something, you want it to be as true to that as possible. I know that I would as well. But, knowing what the script involved, there is truth throughout the entire script. It may be removed somewhat, or played out-of-context.

Or extended. Winslet’s Joanna wasn’t really at the third launch. But it simplifies everything, in a “journalistic” way, to get at the truth.

Yeah. It seems as if the spirit behind the piece is more about capturing the essence of who these people were. Not telling bold faced lies. You’d have to talk to him, but Aaron knew when he was edging a bit towards white lies or fibs or whatever.

I guess it comes down to the woman lieutenant who supports him no matter what, the father figure-betrayer, the friend who tries to steer him in the right direction, and the partner and child he abandons. It’s like there are many characters who fed into who you’re each playing on the screen.

Absolutely. You have an archetype that helps guide his story whole. I think he told the story to serve those purposes. There are documentaries all over the place, if you’re interested in that.

Your character seems to genuinely love Steve Jobs. And so do Joanna and Steve and Lisa. 

He does! They did, and everyone wanted to provide a mirror for him to maybe see himself a little more clearly in his efforts to change the world — if he wanted to look or listen. I’m sure they all miss their friend terribly, and I’m sure they would have all kinds of funny things to say about these films that are going around. I grew to love and care about [Andy Herzfeld] very much, and I told him during the process to try to accept this all as a kind of celebratory storytelling of people who changed the world.

But he did pay for Lisa’s education. He’s like a surrogate dad or an uncle?

And he did. He continued to pay for it, and he made himself available. If he sees something wrong, he speaks up or does something about it. He’s just one of the people in the world who does that. Completely endearing. But, yeah, that also gets him in trouble, too, sometimes.

Your well-drawn character in “Pawn Sacrifice” is caught in the middle of these crazy chess players.

I had a lot of fun researching Mr. Marshall. I got to meet his wife in the process, which was lovely. He had passed away a year before we started shooting, but she’s a professional photographer, and I found her site online and wrote a note saying, “We’re making a film. I’m playing him; my condolences on his passing.” She wrote me back within half an hour, and started sending me photos, and we became nice correspondents — phone calls, things like that. She shared all kinds of great things that I used as often as I could.

In the overall scheme of things, that was relatively indie. Did it feel like it, with a low budget?

Yeah, it definitely did. Low-budget, guerrilla shooting, we have this amount of time, we have to get the shot — that kind of thing.

What’s next up? 

In Don Cheadle’s film, “Miles Ahead,” I play a music producer who has a young prodigy, played by Keith Stanfield. They’re signing him at Columbia Records, and he wants to get him and Miles together to make some music. It starts at the place where Miles has been in a rut for about five years; this is historically accurate as well. He gets deep into drugs and didn’t know what to do with his music or which direction to turn. Out of that came a sort of “free music” idea. Don uses that as sort of the jumping-off point, and the movie is a cross of many different genres: it’s like a buddy pic and an action pic and a comedy, it has flashbacks. It’s a real poem. He didn’t want it to be a conventional biopic, and so he just threw his audience into the drama of his life at the time. My guy is opportunistic and trying to make a buck, but it gets pretty dangerous pretty quickly, which is kind of fun. 

Cheadle must be an actor’s actor.

Very much so. It was wild to watch him shift. After spending how many years to make this film, he’s been playing the trumpet in private. One of the last days of shooting, he got up there and serenaded us all, and it was mind-blowing. Just intense. He joined a quintet up there on the stage, and you’ll see it; it’s in the film. He plays the saxophone, but he learned trumpet. He’s been working on this project for years, so it’ll knock people’s hats off.

And Denis Villeneuve’s film “Story of Your Life”?

That’s with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. It’s based on a short story by Ted Chiang about aliens coming to the Earth.

So you’re not playing a real person.

[Laughs] I know. For the first time in a while. It’s very realistic sci-fi. What would we do if this were to actually happen? These twelve ships land in twelve different places in the world. All of a sudden, everything political that’s going on on our planet stops, because we’re placed in a situation where these ships are hovering above our countries, and we don’t know what they’re doing here, where they came from, what they want. Amy plays a linguist; Jeremy plays a theoretical physicist; Forest is the head of the military; I’m a sort of mysterious CIA analyst, or something like that, and we’re all charged to figure out how to start communicating. They start welcoming us into their ships to communicate with them, and this evolutionary thing starts to happen. I love Denis’s films, in particular the mood he seems to set and his rhythms. It’s about mystery and being unsettled. 

You wear your emotions close to the surface and reach them quickly. Is that hard to live with, in some ways?

It’s just part of who I am. I inherited that a little bit.

From your parents?

Yeah. It feels like my mom — very much so. She’s a no-bullshit kind of lady; she’s a straight shooter. I’ve always loved that about her. When I think something or feel something, immediately it feels like hers, because she also has that quickness in her mind, and tone.

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