PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Michael Stuhlbarg

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Michael Stuhlbarg The Tony Award nominee from The Pillowman talks about career opportunities, the acting process and The Voysey Inheritance.
Michael Stuhlbarg stars in The Voysey Inheritance.
Michael Stuhlbarg stars in The Voysey Inheritance. Photo by Monique Carboni

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Actor Michael Stuhlbarg has been working the New York stage for years, earning regular work and consistent praise in plays like The Invention of Love, A Dybbuk, Mad Forest and The Grey Zone.

However, it wasn't until the 2005 Broadway premiere of Martin McDonagh's dark comedy The Pillowman that he received anything like star treatment. He played Billy Crudup's mentally deficient and criminally inclined brother. Michael Stuhlbarg was unrecognizable to the theatre community; normally slim and handsome, he had gained weight and sported a horrible hair-style in service to the role. His work was rewarded with a Tony Award nomination—his first. He was honored again for his current performance, as the morally tortured Edward Voysey, the sole scrupulous member of a corrupt family firm that plays fast and loose with its clients money. Actors' Equity awarded him this year’s Callaway Award for best male performance in a classic play. Stuhlbarg talked to Playbill.com about his suddenly heightened profile.

Playbill.com: In 2005, you received a Tony Award nomination for your work in The Pillowman. Last year, you received the Callaway Award for The Voysey Inheritance. Does it feel to you like your career has entered a new phase?
Michael Stuhlbarg: Yes, indeed. It's been an exciting year and a half for me. Pillowman was a remarkable experience and having all the attention has been wonderful. I feel like people are beginning to take notice, which makes me happy.

Playbill.com: Did you get a lot of new job offers after The Pillowman?
MS: It's interesting. Some more doors opened for me that I haven't felt I've been able to get in before. More in film and television, than theatre. The play ran for about seven months and people came out from Los Angeles; people who I knew who didn't know me. So I got to meet a whole different community of people through doing that play. Playbill.com: You had a role on the television show "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." You were the television censor in the pilot episode. Is that character coming back?
MS: It's sort of up in the air at this point. Aaron Sorkin is the only one who writes the scripts. He has so many characters to juggle, I could come back at any moment. I don't really know if that will happen. I could wake up one morning and get a phone call.

Playbill.com: Did the attention paid The Pillowman lead to Voysey?
MS: It was a separate thing. I've known [director] David Warren periodically over the years, though we've never worked together. I came in and auditioned for them. I've always wanted to work with David Mamet.

Playbill.com: When you got the role, did you go back and read the original text by Harley Granville-Barker?
MS: I did. It was important to me to at least have a sense of where this character came from. I was curious where Mamet wanted to take it, and also to discern where the differences were, in order to try to make informed choices about what came before and what the options were in this version.

Playbill.com: Were there certain parts of the original that are not in the Mamet adaptation that you missed?
MS: Not really. There were passages in which characters carried on for a paragraph or two about things in their life, but it was not necessarily what was needed in terms of storytelling. I think Mamet's adaptation adheres very closely to the heart of the play, but it streamlines the story and keeps the audience on its toes.

Playbill.com: You're on stage the entire time. Have you ever had that experience before?
MS: Once or twice before. I did a two-handed play a few years back called Old Wicked Songs. And I did a play at South Coast Rep called The Hollow Lands by Howard Korder. It's a tremendous kind of exercise in terms of pacing yourself. Also in relaxation and listening and doing the moment-by-moment work.

Playbill.com: Was it difficult to find all the colors in a character who is so reserved and who lives inside himself so much.
MS: I find that, as the other characters come on, whether Edward likes it or not, his colors come out, in terms of who it is he's speaking with. He's the solicitor, he's the young brother, he's the older brother.

Playbill.com: What do you think the play says about what is going on in our society today? Certainly we've had a lot of recent experience with corporations, such as Enron, that have not done right by their clients' money.
MS: Sure. I think everyone can empathize with his situation of having to be stuck between two difficult decisions. That's where Edward lives. Does he bankrupt the firm and shame his family? Or does he remain in the firm and try, through cheating his clients, to help the firm become strong again? It's an interesting predicament. And yes, there are contemporary parallels, but it's a very human story.

Playbill.com: I read somewhere that you make a sketch of every character you play. Did you do that this time?
MS: I did.

Playbill.com: And do you look like your sketch?
MS: Um, I suppose I do. The sketches are really a place to start for me, and sometimes the sketches change in the course of the rehearsal period. I made a couple of sketches for The Pillowman. Usually, they are just for me, but every now and then a designer asks to collaborate. Scott Pask, during Pillowman, would talk to me about what ideas I had about the character and how to shape him. When I was younger, I wanted to be an artist or a cartoonist. It sort of made its way into my acting career.

(Robert Simonson is Playbill.com's senior correspondent. He can be reached at rsimonson@playbill.com.)