Michael Stuhlbarg is everywhere right now. He has a small role in “Doctor Strange” as a surgeon. He plays the head of a lobbying firm battling against gun control in “Miss Sloane,” starring Jessica Chastain. And he’s a stressed-out CIA operative in “Arrival,” in which government agents try to find a way to communicate with aliens who’ve showed up on our planet. His character is tasked with playing the middle man between a linguist (Amy Adams) and a scientist (Jeremy Renner) working to decipher their language and the military (represented by Forest Whitaker), who aren’t sure if our guests are benevolent or belligerent.
Stuhlbarg, best known for headlining the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” and playing Arnold Rothstein on “Boardwalk Empire,” talks to us about how “Arrival” comes out at an interesting time and being too busy to watch his films. (Though he has seen “Arrival.”)
Watching “Arrival” right now is a bit surreal, as it depicts the world powers treating, at least at first, the presence of aliens with diplomacy and caution instead of trying to blow them up right off the bat. I might just be feeling a bit pessimistic to think that might happen these days.
Who knows how we would handle such a thing? I’d like to believe we would be careful, that we would take our time, that we would bring as much kindness and positivity into our interactions with a foreign being. I’m hopeful and I’m optimistic, generally. But it’s hard to say, because people panic. [Laughs]
You’re not playing a scientist or even one of the military leaders. You’re the CIA operative who has to be the medium between them. How did you approach someone who has to know how to take to both sides?
I imagined my guy dealt with geniuses all the time. His job was to take responsibility for all the information, to make sure it was disseminated properly, to make sure everybody who needs to know what's going on knows what’s going on. They could drop my guy in the middle of wherever and he will organize things.
When you talked to operatives in similar positions, what did you find?
They have so much information to sift through — so much reading, so much compilation, so much responsibility in terms of relaying information. My guy is more of an organizer. He’s useful in terms of organizing things making sure the right people got the right information.