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Actor Michael Stuhlbarg On His Approach To Playing Real-Life Characters


When we say someone's having a breakout year in Hollywood, we're often talking about an ingenue in their 20s starring in a sequel to some big-budget franchise. Well, Michael Stuhlbarg is having a breakout year in Hollywood, and he turns 50 this summer. He was in three of this year's best picture-nominated films, and none of those movies feature superheroes or comic book characters. Quick rundown - in "The Shape Of Water," Michael Stuhlbarg plays a Russian spy. He learned to speak some Russian for that role.


MICHAEL STUHLBARG: (As Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, speaking Russian).

SHAPIRO: The movie "Call Me By Your Name" builds up to a father-to-son speech where Stuhlbarg leaves audiences in tears.


STUHLBARG: (As Mr. Perlman) Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot. Just remember; I'm here.

SHAPIRO: And in "The Post," Stuhlbarg plays the executive editor of The New York Times, Abe Rosenthal.


STUHLBARG: (As Abe Rosenthal) If you're nervous and need a distraction, I do happen to have a copy of today's Times...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Abe...

STUHLBARG: (As Abe Rosenthal) ...Unless you read it already.


SHAPIRO: Now he's playing another real-life character in the Hulu miniseries "The Looming Tower." Here he is as the White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke in the years leading up to 9/11.


STUHLBARG: (As Richard Clarke) He starts throwing bombs, and the press will say he's spilling blood to distract everyone from Monica Lewinsky. That's what they'll say.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Dick, advise the president that some of us aren't into it for the politics. We're into it for America.

STUHLBARG: (As Richard Clarke) I won't be passing that on, but thank you.

SHAPIRO: Michael Stuhlbarg, welcome.

STUHLBARG: Thank you. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: I'm exhausted just listening to that.



SHAPIRO: I know that sometimes these things get filmed years apart. Did you know there was going to be this explosion of Michael Stuhlbargs on the screen?

STUHLBARG: No, no way, no. It's really funny. I mean, I did film "Call Me By Your Name" and "The Shape Of Water" back to back, but "The Post" kind of came out of nowhere, and Mr. Spielberg and all of the producers put that whole project together so quickly that that was just made this past summer and came out before the end of the year.

SHAPIRO: A couple of years ago when the actor Alan Rickman died, I spoke with the actress Dame Helen Mirren, and one of the things she said about him was there are actors whose potential is in their youth, but his potential was in maturity. And I wonder whether you think that's true of you.

STUHLBARG: I guess you might say so. I really didn't know what I was doing in front of a camera for many, many years. I did theater in New York from, jeez, 1992 to 2008. Theater always gave me a kind of venue to let my energy out. And the cinema and television is much more of a contained medium where the camera can pick up even your slightest thoughts. So it's been a process of learning on the job for me.

SHAPIRO: So what was it that flipped the switch, the Coen brothers movie "A Serious Man" in 2008?

STUHLBARG: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, Joel and Ethan brought me in to audition for that movie initially just for a small part in the beginning of the film. At the beginning of the film, there's this Yiddish parable. And I learned all that in Yiddish, brought it in, and they laughed a lot at what I did.

SHAPIRO: Did you know any Yiddish before that?

STUHLBARG: No, I didn't. I went to a tutor, and I learned the scene and tried to do my best. But they cast someone who knows Yiddish, as they should have. And after that, some months went by, and I guess they couldn't find who they were looking for for the parts of Larry and Uncle Arthur. And they saw me, and their confidence in me I think helped me step up and just do the work.

SHAPIRO: So getting the lead in this film was your consolation prize for not getting cast in the Yiddish cameo.

STUHLBARG: Maybe so, yeah.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I'd like to ask you about playing real-life characters because you've done it twice recently. You are Abe Rosenthal in "The Post."


SHAPIRO: He died in 2006. And now in "The Looming Tower," you play Richard Clarke, who is very much alive. How do you approach playing somebody who is well-known and, at least in the case of "The Looming Tower," likely going to watch your performance?

STUHLBARG: I don't know. It's really sort of the same process for me. You gather as much information about that person as you can with the time that you have. Then you just sort of let who they are inform what you do. And there is this great debate amongst those of us who have the opportunity to play real people between, is it a portrait, or is it a photograph, you know? How close is it impression - an impression of someone, or are you trying to be as specific as possible? There are arguments for both camps.

And with Richard Clarke, it was one of those remarkable experiences where you get to actually meet somebody. I met him. We went out to dinner, and we spoke. And he was very generous with allowing me to sort of play catch-up and ask a ton of stupid questions. And I basically just listened.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Do you remember any of the questions you asked him at that dinner?

STUHLBARG: Really dumb things like, where did you get your outfits? You know, where did you shop? What kind of foods do you like? You know, I'm trying to find the minutia of the kinds of daily things that we might actually get to add to a scene.

SHAPIRO: And did any of those things make their way into "The Looming Tower"? Is there a scene where you're eating something that Dick Clarke told you he ate?

STUHLBARG: There is a scene where I'm drinking something that he drank or something that he enjoyed.

SHAPIRO: What was that?

STUHLBARG: A particular scotch. It's an outside-in approach to finding your way to the more important questions about what was going on politically at the time, what was his day-to-day work. You know, you have to start somewhere, and I started with dumb questions in front of someone who I really respected.


SHAPIRO: And as he's answering those questions, are you both listening to the answers and watching what he does with his hands as he's talking and where he cocks his head and things like that?

STUHLBARG: Obviously Mr. Clarke had - there's a lot of videotape out there on him, so I just listened. Then I could go watch him, you know, on C-SPAN giving testimony in front of the 9/11 committee.

SHAPIRO: This was in 2003. Let's listen to this.


RICHARD CLARKE: And the reason I am strident in my criticism of the president of the United States is because by invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism.

SHAPIRO: And then here is you playing Richard Clarke in "The Looming Tower."


CLARKE: (As Richard Clarke) I know you want me to just push a button under my desk and blow [expletive] up, but no such button was provided to me. First I talk to your boss, then I talk to my boss, the president, who may or may not give the order.

SHAPIRO: What are you doing in that moment to play this character, I mean?

STUHLBARG: Mr. Clarke had the weight of the world on his shoulders at that time. He told me that when he was frustrated or angry, he got quiet as opposed to lashing out at people. The more dangerous a situation was, the quieter he got, he said. So I'm making my point. Really, Mr. Clarke was the gatekeeper to the president. So I am being that gatekeeper for the president, and I had to bring him the best information that I could gather. And these people were constantly making things difficult. So I guess I'm just laying down the law in some ways as succinctly and directly as possible.

SHAPIRO: Unless I've missed something, I don't think you've been on the stage since, well, for about the last decade. Is that right?

STUHLBARG: Yeah, that's right.

SHAPIRO: So you were almost exclusively a stage actor, and now you haven't done it for many years.


SHAPIRO: Do you think you'll go back ever?

STUHLBARG: I have plans to within...

SHAPIRO: Oh, really?

STUHLBARG: ...This year.

SHAPIRO: Want to make some news?

STUHLBARG: At the moment, I can't. But I have felt a yearning to get back out there, and I'm really hoping - it looks as though I'll get to do it sometime this year.

SHAPIRO: Michael Stuhlbarg, it's been great talking to you. Thank you.

STUHLBARG: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: That's Michael Stuhlbarg of "The Shape Of Water," "The Post," "Call Me By Your Name" and now "The Looming Tower," which is out next week on Hulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.