Joel and Ethan Coen know a lot about the spirit of brotherhood and while their new movie A Serious Man mostly deals with being Jewish in the Midwest during the last ’60s, seen through the travails of physics professor Larry Gopnik, played by theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg, it adds another layer in the form of Larry’s relationship with his brother Arthur, played by Richard Kind, best known for his roles on “Spin City” and “Mad About You.”
As much misfortune as Larry seems to experience in the movie–his wife is leaving him and a student is trying to bribe him for a better grade–Arthur just can’t seem to get any sort of break, having many personal problems, including gambling, which keeps him from getting a job and forcing him to leech off of Larry’s good will. While they’re two very different individuals, some of the best scenes in the movie involve their relationship, and being that we had already spoken with the Coen Brothers (you can read that interview here) we decided it would be a great idea to talk to these two New York actors together in this exclusive interview.
ComingSoon: You’ve never worked with the Coens before, which surprised me.
Richard Kind: I never have, no.
CS: Michael, how did they find you and come to you with this?
Michael Stuhlbarg: I met Francis McDormand… there’s a little theater company off Broadway called the 52th Street Company that the kids write the plays and they get professional actors and directors to come in. We met there once and we did a workshop at Lincoln Center together of a new play. Then Francis brought Joel to see me in a play at the Atlantic Theater Company, David Mamet’s adaptation of Harley Granville-Barker’s “The Voysey Inheritance.”
Richard Kind: That’s a lotta words.
CS: That was in the city?
Stuhlbarg: That was in the Atlantic Theater in New York City. So, he had seen me in a couple plays. I think they had seen me in “The Pillowman” as well. They called me in to audition for the part of the husband in the Yiddish parable at the beginning of “A Serious Man.” I had to learn the scene in Yiddish and did that and it went well, but they ended up with going with actors who could speak it fluently. Then many months passed by and then they asked me to come in to read for both Larry and Uncle Arthur. I’d read six scenes from them and then I kept hearing, “I was in the mix, I was in the mix,” and then eventually it came out that I was going to play Larry.
CS: Richard, you’re kind of the ringer in the movie because I think you’re the name and face that people will be most familiar with in the cast.
Kind: If you don’t call it “a Coen brothers movie,” it is “a Richard Kind movie.”
CS: And most people probably will recognize your voice first, since we hear that a lot before we actually see you in the movie.
Kind: It’s true, yes. I can’t begin to tell you. At a supermarket, if somebody comes up and they go, “The minute I heard your voice I picked my head up and I knew it was you.” So I could be in any state and it’s true, yeah.
CS: So did this just come to you through the normal route of them sending a script to your agent?
Kind: I gotta tell you something, it really is. I mean, when you’re looking at it in hindsight it’s easier to concentrate, to make everything so concentrated. If your nose was just a little bit bigger than Courteney Cox’s you were seen for this movie. I mean, Phil Rosenthal from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the creator, he auditioned for this movie. Steven Brill, who’s a director, he was auditioned for this movie.
CS: All for Uncle Arthur?
Kind: No, for Michael’s part. Everybody and his brother was seen for this movie. They saw a lotta people. We got it. You know, it’s the process. It’s the work that an actor does so that eventually he gets to play.
CS: Did the two of you know each other beforehand or had you ever met?
Stuhlbarg: We met first–it was like a pre-wedding engagement party–but we had worked with many of the same people before, so we had a really nice introduction in New York.
Kind: Yeah, I had also seen him, I think his performance in “Pillowman” is…
CS: I’ve heard such good things about that but I never had a chance to see it while it was still on Broadway.
Kind: I wish you had. I wish you had.
Stuhlbarg: You can actually see the videotape of it at Lincoln Center on file.
Kind: Yeah, but it’s a theatrical experience because this guy wrote it the way that these fairy stories are told, it should not be seen on tape. (To Michael) But let me ask you, were you heavier?
Stuhlbarg: 50 pounds.
Kind: 50, okay. Thank God. For the play he was a lumbering, I mean, I remember him sort of having fat, digit fingers.
Stuhlbarg: Yeah, exactly.
Kind: I’m glad to hear that. But my manager said, “Oh no, no, no, he was a big guy. He’s much, much taller than him.” Well, I remember seeing Keene Curtis. Do you remember Keene Curtis, the actor? He’s in “The Rothschilds.” I thought he was 6’5″. The man, if he’s 5’7″ I’d be surprised. But when I saw him, I thought he was towering and I felt the same about Michael in “The Pillowman.” I mean, I can’t remember anything exact in his performance. I just remembered the whole thing and he was magnificent. I hero-worshipped him a few times about it, so you certainly knew of Stuhlbarg and he was an actor’s actor.
CS: Richard, you’ve obviously done a lot of TV and theater, while Michael, you’ve done a little more theater than TV or movies. The Coens have become known for giving some of the best roles to character actors. Having played the lead in many plays, was it very different doing a lead in a movie like this and did you see this as a very different experience?
Stuhlbarg: Sure, there are different demands that are asked of you. The difference between doing theater and film – there’s similarities and things with the kind of work that I’m responsible for. I’m responsible for bringing whatever truth I can bring to the character, but the medium changes depending upon the size of the space, whether you’re acting for an 1,000 seat theater or just for a camera. In terms of playing a lead character, there are things you learn in playing larger parts that you bring with you in terms of learning to modulate the character’s arc or journey so that you don’t give away too much too soon, things like that which I could compare to both experiences.
CS: What about shooting out of order? Surely, that must be something that’s tough to get used to after doing plays or television.
Kind: I’m going to speak in regards for Michael. This is a real testament to how great Michael is as an actor and in taking over a role like this, I will tell you as an actor Michael does an enormous amount of homework. That is probably what he does in theater. I got to see it first-hand in what he did with this role. When you do a play, you have a lot of energy expended in the two or two and a half hours. I mean, you live a man’s lifetime in two and a half hours, you go through the journey all in a small amount of time. It’s like taking shampoo and rubbing it and all of a sudden you have so much lather. When you’re doing a movie it’s not like that. Kirk Douglas once said to his son, he said, “You must be in great physical shape to do a movie. It’s the long hours, when you are called upon you have to have all that energy to deliver.” Now, Kirk Douglas is used to those hours and finds out what they are. This man gets thrown into the fire first time out.
Now, he’s no stupid man, he’s worked before. He’s done movies. We all shoot out of order. I know that in “Little Red Riding Hood” she doesn’t get eaten first and then she finds the beds. I know the order of the story. We all know the order of the story. It’s not so unusual. We make our decisions too about what we’re going to do during the filming and how we are. We talk it over with the director and you make your decisions, but you don’t know what it’s like to run a marathon unless you work up to a marathon. Michael ran a marathon and it was the first time he ever did it and it’s really something that you must know how difficult it was and he did it to such a degree and talked about it one time. I remember at dinner once, it’s a difficult thing to go to work everyday… Now, this is something interesting about the Coens: they come so prepared to the table, their script rarely changes. I mean, there’s rare, small, minute rewrites if any. The entire movie has been storyboarded like Hitchcock used to do. Hitchcock was an artist. He used to storyboard and then when he had to start filming he really didn’t like filming. The movie, for him, was already finished before he ever went on set. I believe it’s the same with the Coens. I think they’re a little more liberal with their actors than Hitchcock probably was, but their movie is in essence finished, so when they go to work it’s a nine or ten hour day, maybe twelve, and never into overtime, as opposed to many movies and certainly our TV shows, which go 14 to 17 hours a day and are simply exhausting.
CS: Did you find shooting out of order was easy to jump into that?
Stuhlbarg: Well, you have no choice in the matter, so you would jump in and you do the best you can.
CS: Did you have some idea of when you’d be shooting some of the tougher scenes and whereabouts you were in the script?
Stuhlbarg: They generally tried to be kind to us, you know. I think the first scene we shot was the scene in the embers with Sy Ableman. Yeah, so that was our first day and it went rather smoothly. It was sort of somewhere in the middle. They were pretty kind, but it all depends upon the scheduling, what they can get at any particular time budget-wise, you know, what places that they’re renting to shoot in.
Kind: In fact, they shot on Yom Kippur, which shows you just how religious they are, but I called them like two or three weeks in advance, or maybe in the beginning of their shoot and I said, “Listen, you guys are shooting on this day, not that I’m so religious, but if there’s any way that I can have Yom Kippur off and there’s any way that you can do it, I’d appreciate it.” And they couldn’t. That was the date that a certain location was to be had.
CS: Richard, you mentioned earlier about how some actors carry themselves on stage, and in this, you seem to be doing something completely different with your body. I don’t know if you put on weight or were just carrying yourself differently.
Kind: I actually did. I actually did. They asked me not to go to the gym and they asked me not to lose any weight which is their nice way of saying, “Put on a few pounds.” Which I happily did, it meant salad bars and pizza, but I didn’t go to the gym. I saw it last night, the scene where you’re berating me about playing poker and I’m falling into myself which is sort of how I see Arthur. I mean, he’s not a social person. He’s not a man of the world. He’s a man of himself and it’s not a conscious decision. For Michael, the way he works, it would absolutely be a conscious decision. Don’t you think?
Stuhlbarg: Well, I think it’s just wonderful what you found. You may say it was natural for Arthur, but that’s still something that you found in the process to be in him, that sort of posture. I know that you had mentioned that there were in the resonances of who Arthur reminded you of and the way that the guy who sort of held himself a particular way. It made you behave a particular different way, so you found that. Joel and Ethan could’ve easily said, “No, we want you to be a different way,” or something like that.
CS: I was wondering how much they told about your characters beforehand? Do they just give you the script and let you do your job as actors, or do they kind of have very specific back stories of ideas of what you need to know beforehand?
Stuhlbarg: It’s real collaborative and I think we bring our own…
Kind: We had two days or rehearsal. I’m somebody who loves rehearsal.
CS: That’s very little for a movie like this I would say.
Kind: Most movies don’t get rehearsal. I like rehearsing more than doing the play. I love rehearsing, I really do, and I know Michael does.
CS: You don’t have to worry about the audience there.
Kind: It’s the truth. But, it’s sort of funny you don’t have to worry about the result. You get to try, you get to play. I love to argue with the director, I really do because the more I argue the more that he has to convince me and then the more resonant that remains with me and I really take that. I love that. I love the luxury of doing it. You don’t always have it, but sometimes you do. But, we had two days where we really worked pretty hard. I’m not saying we didn’t really rehearse, we just read across a table, but we got to talk about it and that was the day, I have a friend who had a sort of a neuro abnormality. He would stand against a wall and he would sort of massage his hands in a nervous way and then he’d just pick right up and start talking again. It was a weird thing. So, just talking about anecdotes, I talked about this and he was a brilliant man. I said, “Wouldn’t it be neat to do that?” And, “Ah, yeah, yeah, try it.” So, I’m looking through the script and it was when I get to the scene in the hotel room where I start breaking down and I thought, “This was a good place.” So, I do it that day and this cracks me up. I don’t even know whether you know this.
Kind: So I start doing it and then I go to Joel and I go, “So, what do you think?” He goes, “Yeah! I didn’t think it would work at all. It does! I looked at it in the camera.” He goes, “I saw you sitting on the bed. Oh yeah, I think we should do it.” I didn’t even try sitting on the bed. That was it. Now, it’s an enormous choice. That’s not a haphazard, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if you did” it’s an enormous, odd choice for him to be standing against a wall like that rather than sitting on the bed sobbing which is obvious and, “Yeah. Sure. I didn’t think it would work. I looked into the camera.” That’s what he said, “I looked at it in the camera, it looks great.”
CS: Both being New York theater and TV actors, what was the experience like working in Minnesota with a lot of first-time local actors?
Stuhlbarg: I think there were a lot of local actors, but I think they were all people who had been acting for a while although I’m not sure how long the kids had been doing what they do.
Kind: Yet they were so good.
Stuhlbarg: Yeah, they were fantastic. I hadn’t spent much time in the Midwest, so getting to spend time in Minneapolis was fantastic. It’s such a beautiful part of the country that I’d never been to before.
Kind: Can I ask you about the guy who played Arlen? Was he a local actor?
Stuhlbarg: He was. Ari I think is his name.
Kind: Yeah, I loved his performance. I thought he was great. Was he very easy? Let me put it this way did he absolutely give that performance right from the get-go?
Stuhlbarg: Pretty much. Yeah, he found his way through it and he was very loose with the text in many different ways.
Kind: Loose with the text.
Stuhlbarg: Yeah, I mean, he used what they gave him, but he broke it up in so many different ways.
Kind: Interesting because I’m line perfect and I’m not always line perfect. I’m line perfect, word perfect in this movie. I adored him. I really thought he was great.
CS: You just saw it for the first time at the premiere here? That’s the first time you’ve seen it?
Kind: No, I actually saw it, but in a setting that I didn’t like. It was with like three other people and I think it’s a very funny movie. Look, it’s a very rich movie so last night hit me much, much more. Having an audience there helped a lot.
CS: I assume you’re both Jewish, and I wanted to talk about your own experiences with Rabbis, which was one of the themes of the movie. Have you ever had a Rabbi tell you something that sounded very wise and then realized that he probably got that advice from a song, like we see in this movie? When I was younger, I’d take everything the Rabbi said very seriously, but then as I got older, I realized that a lot of what they were saying sounded deep and meaningful but didn’t really make any sense. What were your own experiences?
Kind: Well, I have a question. Were you the type of kid who what the doctor said was the right result, what the teacher said was right? Or, you weren’t?
CS: I was the opposite.
Kind: Okay, then you’re the kinda guy who would do what you just described. I’m not. I was always taught, “The doctor is correct. Your teacher’s correct. The rabbi is correct.” It’s not until years later actually when I think I went to Second City and you find out how to have another perspective on the world and that not all adults are right. Now I look at parents who are just, I go, “Oh my God, what they’re going to do to their children.” Yet, these children are being taught to obey their parents.
CS: Did you have any of those kinds of experiences?
Stuhlbarg: No, really. I have never gone to a rabbi to seek spiritual guidance like Larry does. The word rabbi is a teacher I guess, so in one sense they’re a spiritual guide, but in another sense they are meant to, I guess teach and instruct. So, they sort of combine the two together. No, I guess the quick answer is no.
Kind: There was a rabbi at my temple who happened to be an uncle by marriage, but brilliant, brilliant, brilliant rabbi who’s now a head rabbi he actually spoke at the national 9/11 thing when Billy Graham spoke. He represented the Jewish community. So his successor was always looked at as second-rate, because here’s this brilliant man who went to D.C., but his guy was an idiot. So not only was he looked at as second place, but he really was third place as an idiot. But I didn’t realize that until I got older because you had to obey the rabbi.
A Serious Man opens in select cities on Friday, October 2.