Michael Stuhlbarg On His Ever-Surprising Screen Career, from A Serious Man to Dopesick

Michael Stuhlbarg On His Ever-Surprising Screen Career, from A Serious Man to Dopesick thumbnail

Take one look at Michael Stuhlbarg’s résumé over the past year, and you’ll find an actor willing to take on some controversial parts. In both Hulu’s Dopesick, for which he’s nominated for the supporting-actor Emmy, and HBO Max’s The Staircase, the 54-year-old played characters based on real-life people who then came out against the projects, either directly or more publicly. In the case of Dopesick, in fact, Stuhlbarg received a letter from David Sackler’s lawyers during production on the show, which tackles the origins of the opioid epidemic and closely follows the Sackler family, who founded Purdue Pharma. The decision made was to not respond: “Engaging with the Sacklers, because of issues of litigation and otherwise, it’s a slippery slope,” Stuhlbarg says on this week’s Little Gold Men (listen below). “I try to take the advice of those people I’m working with.”

That ethos sums up a big part of Stuhlbarg’s career: This is a working actor who, over decades, has learned to navigate a tough business by focusing strictly on his craft and getting the job done. He finds he still doesn’t have much choice, in terms of going from project to project, but since his breakout in Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man in 2010, he’s gotten to work with some of the best directors around, in meaty and complex roles: Guillermo del Toro, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Luca Guadagnino, and so on.

In Dopesick, Stuhlbarg brings an unsettling physicality and vocal pattern for Sackler, the product of a long research period and a certain level of interpretation. It’s one of many situations where he didn’t expect to be considered for the part—and, given the biographical nature of the story, felt extra pressure to get it right. “The fun lies in the details of things—it helps everything I do to pay as close attention and to learn as much as I can, understanding that we are telling a particular version of the story and hoping that, whether or not the person I’m playing is going to watch it, I honor what it was that they went through,” Stuhlbarg says. “I really try to not judge who it is I’m playing. I’m stepping into someone’s shoes and trying to navigate what it must have been like under their circumstances to do what it was they were doing.”

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During our conversation, Stuhlbarg reflected on his big movie break in A Serious Man, having already established himself as a Tony-nominated Broadway mainstay but, until then, seemingly unable to break through Hollywood. Through his access to the Coens as the film’s lead, he got a front-row seat to the process of great moviemaking: “Joel told me that he found that my rhythms were a particular way…. It was the beginning of a learning process of understanding how films are made, what film acting is. I really think it has everything to do with my just being ready to enter that world at that time after struggling for a number of years and not understanding why I hadn’t been utilized much. I don’t think I knew.”

Flash-forward a little over a decade, and Stuhlbarg gets quite a showcase in Dopesick, brilliantly playing the series’s big pharma villain. You sense he’s still figuring things out, though, on the cruise—and in the best way. The actor credits much of the strength and spontaneity of his performance to his surprise at being cast in the part in the first place. It pushed him to give it his all, to try new things. “I’m always looking for something that will be frightening, or something you don’t necessarily see yourself in, but someone else does,” he says. “The fact that someone else will see you in a particular role can be enough to give you the impetus to want to give it a try.”

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