In finishing up our coverage of LA Film Fest 2014 complete with interviews featuring stellar work to watch for, we here at Starpulse.com wanted to go out with a bang. And no single performance at this year’s fest showed originality, creativity and command of a character more than actor Michael Stuhlbarg in a film called "Cut Bank." Playing a hermit recluse named Derby Milton who comes out of hiding (“we thought you were dead!”) in search of his strange missing postal package, Stuhlbarg’s Oscar worthy turn is a cross between Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men" and George Harvey in "The Lovely Bones." So funny (he speaks with an undeniable stutter!), so odd (he sports coke bottle glasses and a ball cap!) and so intense (he’s small, but lethal folks!) is his performance that he literally steals the movie from underneath a slew of equally amazing actors (John Malkovich, Bruce Dern, Billy Bob Thornton) – it’s the best work of this year’s fest by far. So in celebration of such quality of work we sought out the talented Stuhlbarg for a little one-on-one insight and interview time and we got lucky indeed. What follows is a Starpulse.com Exclusive Q&A with Michael all about the evolution of the enigma that is Derby Milton – from his look to stuttering speech – and what he was like to play. Plus we also get a little past work Coen Bros. insight from Michael as well, who of course played the quirky lead in their previous film "A Serious Man." It’s an exclusive interview you won’t read anywhere else - we humbly bow before the greatness of...
So how did you get involved in "Cut Bank?"
Michael Stuhlbarg: My agent had her eye on this script for a while and I had heard from her and read in the trades that it had gone through a number of different possible incarnations. Other cast members having been attached to it and I think it was supposed to be shot a couple years earlier, but it had been on the Hollywood blacklist for a number of years. My agent brought it to my attention and she thought there was a role in it that I could really sink my teeth into. And then she brought the idea of using me up to the director Matt Shakman and he had seen me by chance in a play I had done in New York called "The Pillowman." Apparently he thought it was a really good idea and I got an offer. And when I read it…(laughs)…I loved the idea of getting chance to bring it to life.
Can you talk about the evolution of the character of Derby Milton in specifics and how much of it was in the script vs. what you brought to the character?
MS: With the look of how he came about that is often something that if it’s not delineated in the script, like it wasn’t in this script, as to what he wore for instance you find yourself in collaboration with the costume designer and in dialogue with the director and you start playing. And that’s exactly what we did. We started playing with different possibilities and what we thought he could be. Trying to match all the different nuances of what his character was or could be - just trying to get a sense of what feels right. However a lot of who he is was on the page. Roberto (Patino, Screenwriter) constructed him very carefully full of little nuances, which is something that I love to do as an actor. When someone is so specific about the little quirks that belong to a person and a character – it’s a great place to start and then try to work backwards. To find out the reason why he wears Coke bottle glasses or he rubs the soft part of his hand between his index finger and thumb. That’s the fun part for me. To take the specifics, many of which were given and some of which weren’t, and just try to marry the two together, build a biography and hopefully an inner life starts to creep up.
The voice and stutter...
MS: We figured he was very much a part of that part of the world – Northern Montana almost on the border of Canada where Cut Bank is. The stutter was something that Roberto had written in, so you had to take that into consideration. Plus because he lived in the kind of place he lived we took the hints that it gave us and wondered what his evolution was? There’s an Indian community not far from there as well and I sort of imagined he may have come from the Blackfoot tribe or one of the other tribes that lives close by. He lived alone in this house that had gone into huge disrepair and apparently everyone thought he was dead, so I thought there’s another clue to what has happened to him and what made him what he was.
Also how much input did you have into Derby’s house and surroundings?
MS: Well, it certainly sets up who he is and who he was. When I first read the script Matt had included this sort of look book series of photographs that were impressions of Derby and other characters in the story. A lot of what Roberto had written, essences of it were in this look book. So I got a sense of what Derby was going to look like and perhaps the environment which he lived. And then when I got to see the set for the first time it actually looked different then I had expected because we bring our own impressions. But I was also captivated to think okay here’s another aspect of my character. Are there things that I can utilize considering the surroundings? But all these things have an effect on you. You stand in a particular room and if it’s supposed to be your room you take on parts of the energy that’s in the room. You feel one way down in the basement with all his projects and it’s quite dark and dense. And then the upstairs has a whole other kind of strange feel to it. One of the most amazing things about acting in films in general is that there’s very little we have to do except show up, but the environment that we’re going to be in does a lot of the work for us too.
You have an unforgettable scene in the film with Bruce Dern – what was that like to shoot?
MS: Bruce is remarkable. He is as unpredictable as you can get – he’s alive in everything he does. He interested in the work and admires interest in other artists as well. So to get to just watch him do his thing and the freeform jazz of it all was a great lesson for me. I was basically just the guy in the room when he was going at it (laughs), so I got to watch and learn and listen. Getting to watch people you admire you can learn a lot if you choose to and I hope to bring some of the things that I’ve learned working with him to some of my future work.
And as a final question I’d be remiss not to ask about the Coen Bros. film "A Serious Man." Since you were the lead in that film and basically their muse can you talk a bit about working on it with them and specifically their process as directors?
MS: They’re very sweet guys, number one. Socially, I found if you asked them questions they made it easy. They’re very well prepared in terms of having thought through every possible aspect and incarnation of what something can be and they also spend a lot of time trying to choosing their actors very carefully. Once they find them they let them have free reign because they feel like they’re very much in the wheelhouse of who the character is supposed to be. And they don’t usually do a lot of takes, they just let you have a go at it and since they are the ones that edit their own movies it makes their job easy in the editing room in terms of piecing the whole thing together. But they’re very collaborative, they answered every question that I had and I had a lot of questions in terms of where this guy came from, who he was and what the spirit of the thing was meant to be. When I showed up I was pretty ready to dive in and do it and we just went about doing it – I trusted them implicitly.
By the way what’s next for you?
MS: We’re in the middle of finishing up our last season of "Boardwalk Empire" and as well I made another film last winter with Ed Zwick called "Pawn Sacrifice" about the 1972 World Chess Championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. And that we’re hoping will premiere sometime in October.
Please keep an eye out film fans for this stellar turn by Michael in "Cut Bank" when it eventually hits theaters – it’s amazing! In the meantime stay tuned to Starpulse.com for our final wrap up of our coverage of this year’s LA Film Fest.