Is Michael Stuhlbarg the Most Underrated Actor Alive?
The character actor par excellence opens up about his dynamic turn in “Shirley,” the age-gap controversy of “Call Me By Your Name” and its rumored sequel.
Michael Stuhlbarg elevates everything he’s in—a fact once again confirmed by Shirley, an excellent new biographical film about The Haunting of Hill House writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) from Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker.
As Jackson’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman, an esteemed critic and professor at Vermont’s Bennington College, Stuhlbarg exudes formidable intellect, sharp wit, daunting imperiousness, and a unique mixture of staunch loyalty and brazen unfaithfulness, energizing a marital dynamic that’s further complicated by the couple’s decision to welcome two boarders—aspiring academic Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young)—into their home. Their crowded household is soon ripe with combustible hothouse passions, as the women form an uneasy bond while contending with everyday sexist indignities at the hands of their ambitious, and alternately kind and callous, male partners.
Like the two movies for which he’s arguably best known—2009’s A Serious Man (his breakout role) and 2017’s Call Me By Your Name—Shirley is an opportunity for the 51-year-old Stuhlbarg to play a learned scholar, as well as to demonstrate the impressive versatility that’s made him one of Hollywood’s most sought-after character actors. Both charming and cruel, demanding and lenient, self-interested and compassionate, his Hyman contains fascinating layers that are only slowly revealed as Decker’s dreamy, expressionistic drama unfolds. A canny, complex performance that never turns out to be quite what one expects, it’s yet another feather in the cap of the acclaimed artist, who since bursting onto the film scene more than a decade ago has amassed a varied resume (from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Lincoln to Steve Jobs, Arrival and The Shape of Water) which rivals that of any actor working today.
Ahead of his latest’s June 5 VOD release, we spoke with the candid, thoughtful Stuhlbarg about pausing professionally during the pandemic, collaborating with the distinctive Decker, the age-gap controversy that’s dogged Call Me By Your Name, and whether he’s interested in participating in that romance’s long-discussed sequel.
How are you doing during the pandemic?
I am in New Orleans right now. I came down here to make a new Showtime series called Your Honor with Bryan Cranston, written by Peter Moffat and directed by Ed Berger, and a wonderful cast of actors like Carmen Ejogo, Amy Landecker, Hope Davis, Isiah Whitlock and a wonderful, wonderful group of people. This happened [the pandemic], and we stopped work about two months ago. I am staying here at the moment, because I normally exist in New York and New York was pretty bad at that time. I decided to sit still. So I’m dealing [laughs]. I’m writing and I’m walking a lot, and trying to be optimistic and smart at the same time, basically. That’s where I’m at right now.
Now that states are beginning to re-open, do you have any idea when things might start up again?
Things are at present in limbo. However, as soon as it makes sense, they will pick up again. Obviously, their biggest priority is that no one be put in any danger whatsoever. We’ve made it through a large portion of creating the first season. We still have, I think, five or six weeks left. So it doesn’t make sense to begin until the environment in which we need to create what we’re doing is safe for everybody. My guess is as good as anybody’s. I would love to start back up again when it’s smart to, but I don’t want anyone to become ill.
How did you get involved with Shirley? Were you actively looking to work with Josephine Decker following Madeline’s Madeline—or do projects still find you, more than you find them?
This one found me. I was unaware of Josephine’s work up until that point. However, I had recently met someone who had worked with her before, and I saw the film that they had made together. I found it to have a wonderful dreamlike quality and sensibility that I had not necessarily come across before. I read the script and we discussed what it would be like working on it together, and I heard that Elisabeth Moss would be participating in it, and that all sounded like a lot of fun to me, so I just took a leap into making it. And it was great, great fun.
As you said, Decker is a uniquely expressionistic director, whose camera is probing and voyeuristic and dreamy, and yet also very much engaged with actors, and their faces and headspaces. Given that style, what was your collaboration like?
I think it’s a combination of elements. One is, absolutely, what you’re suggesting—the way she likes to shoot. In this instance, she worked with Sturla [Brandth Grøvlen], our cinematographer, who she had never worked with before. In some ways, I think it took them a while to figure out, together, how they wanted to create this cinematic language, having not worked together before and given what this particular story might demand. I had read somewhere that Sturla had said that the visual vocabulary for a film is usually established early on, and maintained. Whereas in this instance, with each scene we tackled, he had to kind of go with what the scene was calling for, and combine his own instincts with what Josephine was asking of, or relaying to, him. So I think it was challenging visually, cinematically, physically that way.
Stanley Edgar Hyman is best remembered as Shirley’s husband, but he was a famed critic and writer (for The New Yorker) in his own right. What was your research like for Stanley, especially given the imaginative creative process you’ve just described?
It is absolutely, as you suggest, a process. My knowledge about both of them, Shirley and Stanley, was pretty much nothing when I started. So I started to learn things. You start to research and you learn that she wrote short stories and novels. They kept tremendous correspondence between each other when they were young and courting. Stanley’s a literary critic and, the screenwriter Walter Bernstein and Stanley grew up together—I wonder if I can get ahold of Walter? Oh, I’m able to, and then Walter tells me all kinds of things about what Stanley was like as a kid. Then I read about [author and playwright] Joan Schenkar, who was actually a student of Stanley’s, and she babysat for them, so I look her up and I try to get in touch with her, and we have a great conversation about what they were actually like. Then I read Shirley’s short stories and find Stanley’s literary criticism and I read all those things in the time I’m given [laughs]. And I’m learning the script at the same time.
You marry what you learn about who the true people were with our screenplay, which is somewhat twice removed, being based on a fictional novel that uses their life as a jumping-off point, and mixes in healthy portions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? You start to take all that information, apply it to what you’re doing, and see if any of it is useful in us telling this story. And what you see is what you get in the process.
Shirley and Stanley had an unconventional and volatile relationship, with Stanley having multiple affairs throughout the marriage, even as he remained an ardent supporter of Shirley. How do you reconcile those things? What do you think kept them together?
I think they chose the life they created together. They chose it every day. They woke up, they had respective places to work, they both were hammering away at their typewriters, apparently, all day long, and the kids kind of had no guidance in many ways [laughs], at least from what I’ve learned. In some ways, they were both possessed by their art form, and at the same time, they chose to have children. They had different gifts that they could appreciate in each other. And even considering Stanley’s infidelity, they had loyalty toward each other as individuals and as creative spirits. Apparently, she knew about his infidelities, and he told her about them, so there were no secrets there. And it was something that they accepted in each other. So whatever perspective we apply on what they chose to do doesn’t really matter.
What I found was two desperately passionate, loving individuals who chose to be together because it served them in what it was they wanted of their lives. She had the greatest respect for him, and needed him for her work. And he had the greatest respect for her art form, which he couldn’t do, and which he didn’t understand how she did. It exhilarated them, and I think gave them an existence that was full of fun and mischief, as well as probably despair and heartbreak. And at the same time, they just seemed to need each other so much, and they became dependent upon each other. So they stayed together, and kept going, and we got a little bit of a glimpse into that relationship.
In Shirley, as in Call Me By Your Name and A Serious Man, you play an academic. Is that a particular niche for you—and do you know why those parts are such good fits?
I don’t know. A good role’s a good role, honestly, to me. And even if they’re all the same profession, they’re hardly the same individual. They all have different, diverse interests, one being Greek and Roman scholarship and archaeology, another one being literary criticism, and another one being physics. I have a passion for the work that I do. I love being challenged, and trying to get inside other people’s minds. I’d like to think of myself as a passionate person within the work that I do. So perhaps there’s that. There’s a desire and a wonder in what it is that I get to do that some of these characters have. I didn’t set out to create a menagerie of professors [laughs]. But I’m pleased to have been thought of because they’ve been fascinating stories to tell, and each one very, very different.
Is there a film you’re most often recognized for—A Serious Man, perhaps? Or does it change?
It does change, depending upon the season, or what people happen to be watching at any particular moment. Some people know me from Boardwalk Empire, and in some cases it’s Men in Black 3, or A Serious Man. It really depends on what the season is, and what’s being shown, and what someone may have heard about and wants to see, when I happen to come across their path. But yeah, I guess everybody will tend to have an idea of who you are, and I’ve always tried to take it as a challenge for this lifestyle, or this profession, to shake that up as much as possible. So, number one, it makes what I do all the more interesting, to try to be as different as possible with each thing. And then maybe to open people’s minds up to seeing different sides of what I’m capable of.
You received widespread acclaim for Call Me By Your Name, which continues to be hounded by questions about the “appropriateness” of the film’s age-gap romance. Are you surprised by the longevity of that controversy?
It’s an interesting question. When people fall in love with each other, age has very little to do with it, in my limited experience in observing things around me in life, as well as in my own experience. This was a coming-of-age story, and I’d like to think these were two individuals who fell for each other in the way that they did in a time when they were open to each other. So I don’t think about the age aspect of it too much. I’m sure people have strong opinions about it, and I don’t really have anything valuable, necessarily, to add to it. Because when I think of their story, I think of it as individuals. I don’t think of it in terms of their ages.
Would you be interested in revisiting your Call Me By Your Name role, should the sequel materialize?
In terms of a sequel and revisiting the story and their love, I would love to be a part of that, if it’s meant to happen. André Aciman, who wrote the novel, just published his sequel to it, called Find Me, and he asked me to do the audio book of it, which was delightful, and hugely moving to be back in that world again. Because the world was so evocative, and I loved that guy, and getting to be him. I hope that, if it’s meant to be and everybody wants to be a part of it, and there’s a new story to be told there, or something valuable to create, it would be miraculous to be a part of it again.