Michael Stuhlbarg on Managing an Unstable Genius in ‘Pawn Sacrifice’
WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.
Ever since he made his cinematic breakthrough in the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” actor Michael Stuhlbarg has presented us with an array of characters he completely disappears into in movies like “Men in Black 3,” “Lincoln,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Cut Bank” and “Steve Jobs.” In “Pawn Sacrifice,” the Julliard trained actor portrays Paul Marshall, the manager and attorney to chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (played by Tobey Maguire). Bobby proves to be a hard man to get control of, and Stuhlbarg makes you see how exhausting it was for Paul as he was determined not to lose his most famous client even as the chess genius descended into madness
Stuhlbarg was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Pawn Sacrifice” press day, and he talked in depth about he prepared to play a character who is based on a real-life person. Always a daunting task for any actor, Stuhlbarg appeared to handle this task with what seems like relative ease.
Ben Kenber: Your character of Paul Marshall reminded me a bit of Paul Giamatti’s character of Jerry Heller in “Straight Outta Compton” as both men are managers and forced to manage their clients under increasingly difficult circumstances. In your research, did you look a lot at different managers and how they worked with their clients?
Michael Stuhlbarg: Not so much. I stuck primarily with who Mr. Marshall was. It seemed to be enough. And also, particularly with what the script was asking of the dramatic situation, I just sort of threw myself into it and sort of said how can I get him into the next room if I need to get him there. And how can I please him as much as I can? Because it behooves all of us that he gets where he needs to go and he gets what he asks for. I tried to reason with him and just sort of placed myself in that dramatic context, so that was the dramatic result.
BK: Like Edward G. Robinson (whom he plays “Trumbo”), your character is based on a real-life person, but it’s a person most people don’t know as well as Bobby Fischer. Did this make your job as an actor harder or easier?
MS: The job is the same either way. I imagine I didn’t have to necessarily push myself to behave too much like Paul Marshall because not too many people, I believe, out there would have known him or perhaps fewer people would have known someone like him, Bobby Fischer or Edward G. Robinson. So I didn’t worry about that too much, but on the flipside of that is I tried to get as much video on him as I could so that I knew who he was, and I could listen to his rhythms and hear where he came from and try to embody it is truthfully as I could. At the same time, I was trying to be truthful to the situation.
BK: As an actor, would you say it’s more like working from the inside out or the outside in?
MS: I guess it has to be a marriage of both honestly. You ask questions enough about what you would do in a particular situation that a character finds himself in and you go from there. If he wore a particular pair of glasses which Paul did, it’s then let’s put on those glasses and how does it make me behave. Does it make me behave differently? Perhaps it does. Perhaps I hold my head a little differently. There are the outside influences that will change the way I behave, and there are questions that I could ask that he may have had to ask in his life that may also change me internally. So, I guess it’s always kind of a combination of the two for me.
Like the best character actors working in movies today, Michael Stuhlbarg shows no signs of slowing down as he has a number of projects coming up. It will be fascinating to see which role he will bring to life next.
“Pawn Sacrifice” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.
PLEASE CHECK OUT THE VIDEO INTERVIEW I DID WITH STUHLBARG WHICH I DID FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED DOWN BELOW: