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Michael Stuhlbarg on 'Pawn Sacrifice' and getting really into history

"Pawn Sacrifice" actor Michael Stuhlbarg talks about how he has no chess game, becoming a history buff for "Boardwalk Empire" and his time studying under Marcel Marceau.

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?

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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.

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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.

You’ve played real people before, including Lew Wasserman in “Hitchcock” and Edward G. Robinson in the forthcoming “Trumbo.” Not a lot is known, comparatively, about Marshall. How do you approach getting a person right who is relatively obscure?

Each one has their own particular challenges to it. With Edward G. Robinson, he’s a famous movie star in the ’40s and ’50s, so people expect certain kinds of behavior. Whereas with Paul Marshall, some people know him but most likely not as many people. It really just starts with getting as much information about them as you can then trying to filter that information into whatever the piece is. But I always feel a great responsibility to know as much as I can going in.

You have a lot of films out this year, and before “A Serious Man” you were primarily known for your stage work. Are you trying to find some time to get back to theater?

I’d love to, and I’ve been looking to find something. The last play I did was just too long ago, back in 2008. Schedule-wise, of late, it’s been really difficult. I just try to make the best decisions regarding work that I can. I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with a lot of terrific people.

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When you were younger you studied with Marcel Marceau. Can you talk about that experience?

Four of us won a scholarship during my sophomore year at UCLA to study at the World Centre for Mime at Ann Arbor. We learned about the discipline and the craft of physical movement from him and from his students. And I learned pretty quickly that I was not naturally gifted at it. [Laughs] But I had a great appreciation for the discipline and for physical movement and for wanting the freedom to choose where I held the tension in my body, and being able to let it go as well. There’s a great artistry in the stuff he was teaching us.

That seems like it would really apply, and not just in subtle ways, to your acting.

I love physical challenges. I’ve had some significant ones in the theater. I hope to incorporate more of that into my film work as I continue to learn about the medium more with each job.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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