There's a scene in season two of "Boardwalk Empire" where Arnold Rothstein, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, gives Nucky Thompson a little gambling lesson. It's one of the many cold, calculating moments from the normally stoic Rothstein.
Which is why the actor's role in the family-friendly "Hugo" likely came as a shock to "Boardwalk" fans. In the Best Picture-nominated film (which is available on DVD and Blu-ray on February 27), Stuhlbarg plays Rene Tabard, an author obsessed with the works of filmmaker Georges Melies. While Rene is far from the criminal mastermind the 43-year-old actor portrays on the Emmy-winning HBO series, Stuhlbarg's ambition and dedication to the character still shines through.
Moviefone recently spoke with the actor about his experience on "Hugo," working with Martin Scorsese, and playing an alien in "Men in Black 3." Also, good luck getting any "Boardwalk" season three news out of him -- he doesn't "know anything yet."
One of the many great things about "Hugo" is the attention to detail -- especially with regard to the sets and props. What was your reaction to seeing these things up close for the first time?
It was like being in a pop-up book, except it was real life. They were so remarkably real and detail-oriented; every aspect had been thought through. It was like being a child in a funhouse -- you're just sort of walking around agog. You didn't have to do anything, it was all done for you. That's part of the joy of getting to do a movie like this: submerging yourself in a world that they created that all came from Brian Selznick's book ["The Invention of Hugo Cabret"]. Extraordinary. Just extraordinary.
Did you have a particular favorite set?
I got to visit a couple of the sets that I wasn't personally in; the train station was just stunning. It was enormous -- it looked like Grand Central Station. Size-wise, it was probably around the same size. It was just amazing. I was also privy to get to visit some of the other sets like Hugo's bedroom and Monsieur Labisse's bookstore, which was really beautiful as well.
A lot of my sets were real locations. The library was this extraordinarily beautiful library in France that looked like it was out of a storybook. They were all beautiful places to explore. My character's own office, that he brings the children into, with all the memorabilia in it, was like a museum.
Other than the sets, what was the best thing about working on this movie?
I think it's always a challenge to adapt a beautiful literary work into a fresh, alive film. I think being a part of that process of trying to capture the essence and the joy of a piece of literature and trying to give it it's own fresh life, I think the film succeeds that way beautifully. I feel like that was a tremendous part of this process, of learning what the adaptation process is about. Also, the sense of bringing life to something is always a challenge. But I love the story, I love learning about [Georges] Melies and the first movies ever made, and to get the chance to explore that was perhaps a little less cynical than the world we live in today.
Your character's completely jubilant when he meets Georges, both as a child and as an adult. Is there someone for you personally that would elicit that type of reaction?
Oh my goodness, I have many heroes. You know, getting to be with Marty -- I grew up admiring his films all my life -- so, to be in the same room with him; often you find yourself pinching yourself, just saying "I kinda can't believe I am here doing this." He's so generous and so engaged in the work. You really feel like a collaborator with him. He's just as much in awe at the making of the projects he's a part of as anybody else. You feel like you're a part of something big. That's been one of the biggest, most beautiful surprises and delights is that I felt like I was apart of something, not just a hero worshiper.
Yeah, in all of the Scorsese interviews I've seen for "Hugo," he's so happy and enthusiastic.
Yeah! Any sense of intimidation goes out the window pretty quickly, because he's always interested, and that's what I find so fun. His enthusiasm is so infectious. It was amazing.
You worked with the Coen bros. on "A Serious Man." The Coens are known for having everything meticulously laid out for actors. Is it the same vibe with Scorsese, or is he more improvisational?
It was a very different kind of experience. I think Marty knows exactly what he wants when he sees it, but he also loves to improvise and make things very fresh. So in some ways, he will improvise with something on the set. I am sure he has very strong ideas of the way he wants things to look, but that doesn't stop him from getting what he wants. I remember the one day in which we were shooting that very final, long shot of the movie when the camera takes us through the window to the post-Gala celebration, and it sort of visits all the different characters in the film. We must have shot that sequence 17 times, so he knew pretty much what he wanted to do, but in the creation of it, we sort of found it on the day. So there's always with Marty a sense of plan, but also a sense of improvisation in the doing of it.
Well, what about Marty working on a family-friendly film like "Hugo" versus Marty working on something more violent -- say, the pilot episode of "Boardwalk Empire"? Is there a big difference there?
I think the enthusiasm is always there. He chooses his projects very well. I think that shows because everything he does is kind of a celebration, whether it's a very dark piece or a very child family-friendly piece. He's always full of interest.
Speaking of "Boardwalk," your former HBO co-star Michael Pitt has a nice little cameo in "Hugo" as a projectionist. Did you know he was going to be in it beforehand?
No. In fact, I found out Michael participated in it after I was done. I didn't know he was going to be a part of it, which was really fun to find out.
So for season three of "Boardwalk Empire," you guys are going to jump a year-and-a-half and start in 1923, right?
That's right. It starts New Year's Eve 1922 going into 1923.
What can we expect from Arnold Rothstein this season?
Well, I don't really know [laughs]. They haven't let me know anything yet. That's sort of part of the fun of that piece, is that we don't know where it's going to go. So I have no idea. Give me a couple of months and I'll be able to tell you more -- if they'll let me.
Knowing the way the real-life Arnold Rothstein dies (he was murdered in 1928), is that something you just have to block out when you're playing the character?
I suppose it depends on how much time -- if we are fortunate enough to tell these stories for a number of years. Eventually, I will have to come to terms with [his death], but at the moment, it's still early enough in his life for me to block that out.
Going back to films, you have "Men In Black 3" coming out. Can you tell us a little about your character, Griffin? Is he an alien or an agent?
He is a character we meet from another part of the galaxy, so I guess in that sense, he is alien to the earth. But his character is sort of slowly revealed to us over the course of the film, so I don't want to say too much about him. But I had a great time playing him.
More:TV Canada Hugo Academy Awards Hugo Oscars Arnold Rothstein Michael Stuhlbarg Best Picture 2011
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