Michael Stuhlbarg: “I don’t know if I’ve ever played someone who I’ve had absolute contempt for”

Actor Michael Stuhlbarg

“Sometimes the work can be so hard that you have to remind yourself why you took the job in the first place” – Michael Stuhlbarg

Actor Michael Stuhlbarg has been a recognizable face on television (Boardwalk Empire) and film (Hugo), and he continues to be a go-to actor for all kinds of prestigious filmmakers. One of his most recent roles is in The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro. While talking about the film with Slant, Stuhlbarg spoke about his parents’ opinion on his career and whether or not it’s important for him to “like” his characters.

Stuhlbarg reveals that del Toro gave him a resource for his character that he had never received from any other director. He says, “Guillermo did a really interesting thing that no other director has ever done for me, in the whole 30 years that I’ve been doing this, which is that he wrote out a biography of the character beforehand. A biography is most often created by the actor to fill in the blanks of what’s given to you text-wise and to enrich the life that you hope to present to viewers, but his was filled with things that I never would’ve come up with. Where they came from, what they lived through, their preferences for food. The smallest, most delicate things. He said, ‘Use it if it’s valuable, or don’t; create your own things.’ I just devoured it, and utilized the generosity of his love for his characters.

Like many other actors, Stuhlbarg points out that his parents were concerned about his career choice — but they were encouraging and supportive. He recalls, “They were concerned, like all parents would be, for their young kid. [Laughs] But they saw me in a play in high school, and I guess they thought I was pretty good, so they said, ‘Let’s support him.’ They told me to give it a shot. But they never pressured me to be anything other than who I was. They encouraged me to try everything, to do everything, but to be safe in the process.

When asked if he has to like all the characters that he plays, Stuhlbarg replies:

If you’ve got a choice in the matter, I guess you can decide not to play somebody. It helps to find something in your character that you like, but it may also be a challenge to play someone who you have contempt for. I don’t know if I’ve ever played someone who I’ve had absolute contempt for. I’m not sure if I necessarily want to put that out there. Unless it was a piece in the puzzle of the story that was necessary. But sometimes the work can be so hard that you have to remind yourself why you took the job in the first place... It’s different, but there’s always an element, if you’re lucky, where you can say: ‘This resonates with me,’ or ‘This is something that I want to be heard.’ There has always been an element of that, or joy, or something in the story for me.

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