Before the Coen brother’s 2009 “A Serious Man,” Michael Stuhlbarg was a relative unknown with lots of stage work and a scattering of film and TV roles. Now he’s a staple character actor, appearing as Arnold Rothstein on “Boardwalk Empire” and stealing scenes in “Hugo,” “Men in Black 3,” “Lincoln” and “Blue Jasmine.” He has four movies out this fall, including “Steve Jobs,” “Trumbo” and “Miles Ahead.” The fourth is “Pawn Sacrifice,” opening Wednesday, Sept. 16, which tells of how the troubled chess god Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) won the World Championship. He plays Paul Marshall, an attorney who teams up with a priest (Peter Sarsgaard) to help Fischer get his act together — while enduring his tantrums and anti-Semitic rants.
How’s your chess game?
I don’t have one. I have no game.
Did you get a chance to play much while making this?
I did. One of the fun things about the experience was not just reading “Bobby Fischer Teaches You Chess,” but having Peter Sarsgaard next to me, who is a ranked chess player himself. He knows the game and we got to play a little bit together. But I got to learn all about something I knew absolutely nothing about.
I imagine as an actor you’re especially prone to getting exposed or even picking up new hobbies.
You make the best of it in some cases. In some cases you get hooked, which I did a little bit with poker while I was playing Arnold Rothstein [on “Boardwalk Empire”]. I got to play billiards as well. Those were curveballs thrown at me wherein I was supposed to look like I knew what I was doing.
My experience with chess is limited and pretty tragic, but I find that playing it allows one to gain insights, some of them unflattering, into one’s personality.
Isn’t that amazing? I found that to be remarkable as well. With every move you make it’s personal. That gave me some insight into Bobby and how his bravado must have been remarkable, why he was so confident. If you make a good move and you feel like you’ve got someone on the run, it must be a remarkable feeling. I felt an infinitesimally small moment of that.
I read that on “Boardwalk Empire,” you so immersed yourself in the history of Arnold Rothstein that the writers would often come to you to fact check the scripts. Is that a typical practice of yours with period pieces?
That was quite an uncommon situation. I had never done a long running piece before. So I was the one who was really responsible for my guy. If I felt that historically something was inaccurate, the least I could do was let them know so they could choose to use it or change it. They had so many characters in the ensemble that I was just trying to be helpful. [Laughs] But normally I do take the responsibility seriously. I want to not just know that stuff for the sake of knowing it, but to help everyone out. I love to collaborate and they were very generous with that desire during filming. As they were during “Pawn Sacrifice.” Ed Zwick [director] and Tobey were really great about my finding information about Paul Marshall and utilizing it in the right way.