Actor Michael Stuhlbarg may have received his big break from a starring role in Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man, but ever since then the soft-spoken, good-natured actor has found himself a seriously busy one. Quickly making a name for himself as a highly sought after character actor, Stuhlbarg has popped up in four movies this year, three of them based upon true stories.
After supporting turns in Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs biopic, and Ed Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice, Stuhlbarg appears in another look at a divisive, often misunderstood genius. In Jay Roach’s Trumbo (opening across Canada Friday, November 27, 2015), the Juilliard-trained performer appears as silver screen icon Edward G. Robinson.
Generally regarded as one of the finest actors never to win an Oscar, Robinson isn’t an easy role to play. Despite often appearing most memorably in noirs and gangster films, the Romanian-born actor was a much softer, more charitable figure off screen. A tireless advocate of workers’ rights, Robinson found a kindred spirit in accused Communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. The two men were friendly and travelled in similar circles, but in post-WWII America, being seen as a socialist or communist was strictly verboten within the industry.
Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston) would go before the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee and eventually to prison before being blacklisted in Hollywood. It didn’t stop Trumbo from working though; he wrote plenty of B-movies and even won a pair of Oscars for films he wrote in secret, which he was never able to claim. Robinson, on the other hand, was in a harder spot as a performer and more public figure, and was eventually coerced into naming names of confirmed, and suspected, leftists, Marxists and “potential seditionists” before the House.
“All we’re given in the film are these moments, so I have to really figure out where this guy starts from and figure out how he gets there.”
While the film belongs largely to Cranston and his performance as a steadfast crusader for what he believes is right, it also allows Stuhlbarg and Roach’s all-star cast to look beyond the on-screen personas of Old Hollywood heavyweights, allowing them to portray their often quieter private lives. During an afternoon of press interviews this past September at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, while on a break from shooting Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange, the equally soft-spoken Stuhlbarg explained how he relished the chance to take audiences into Robinson’s inner circle.
“For someone who had been pigeonholed into a particular genre, he was able to escape that off screen,” Stuhlbarg says about a man simply trying to be the best he could be. “He was a very accomplished citizen in his private life and was a very proud American. He hadn’t been born in America, but having found his way into the country, and through making a home here, he always went out of his way to, in his own mind, earn the right to be an American. Not a lot of us do that or think that we have to. Exploring that private side was an interesting aspect of the work on this movie.”
Trumbo opens with Robinson working on a Trumbo-written production, meaning Roach and screenwriter Bruce Cook (adapting Bruce Cook’s book, “Dalton Trumbo”) join the lives of these famous figures just as they are about to be pulled apart. The chance to delve into Robinson’s life prior to the events of the film was something Stuhlbarg found necessary for his understanding of the actor.
“I had to go back and look at all of that information. All we’re given in the film are these moments, so I have to really figure out where this guy starts from and figure out how he gets there. Where he was in his career at the time and the kinds of films he was making at that point is really interesting. In that little fictional film at the start of ours these characters are making, that was something that might have fallen within his body of work, at the time. I love when you can already work with what you’re given, but then you can work backwards on your own to make what you’re doing stronger and get to that starting point. That’s something that’s important to me, no matter what I do.”
“Quite often, I find it’s best to keep whatever is in your head about your character’s perspective to yourself and then you can show the doing of it, rather than having to explain it to people.”
One thing Stuhlbarg didn’t do, however, was talk very much to his fellow cast members, including Louis C.K. and Helen Mirren, to name a few, about how Robinson would react in a given scene, preferring to show the character’s emotions in the moment, rather than overthinking or complicating things.
“I always reacted how I imagined Eddie would, although he probably would have been much more charming,” Stuhlbarg says with a boisterous chuckle. “He was always, from what I could tell, a lovely and charming individual that people wanted to have around them. But we never really spoke [on set] about how we would react to these different forces. Quite often, I find it’s best to keep whatever is in your head about your character’s perspective to yourself and then you can show the doing of it, rather than having to explain it to people. It’s that old saying: ‘it’s better to show than tell,’ and I think that’s true of acting. In those moments, fireworks can happen. If you share too much or you’re conscious of something, you’re in danger of repeating yourself or repeating something you know, as opposed to opening yourself up to something new or something that might take someone else by surprise.”
However, that element of surprise was always part of the joy for the actor; it was the kind of production where showing up to work every day carried with it an equal sense of fun and importance. Being a part of such an immersive experience is something Stuhlbarg will remember for quite some time.
“Everybody impressed me so much,” he gushes about his co-stars and the craftspeople that worked on Trumbo. “Everyone did their homework and showed up ready, accomplished and polished. They were those people on those particular days, and that’s part of the fun of making something like this. You look at Hedda Hopper’s hats; you see John Wayne’s swagger; you get a sense of who these people were and the spell they were able to cast over people, in some ways. It was really fun to pretend.”