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.
In the second half he starts to doubt whether the linguist played by Amy Adams and the scientist Jeremy Renner plays are right that the aliens are peaceful. He starts to side with military intervention. But the film is careful not to paint him as a villainous or hissable naysayer who’s wrong.
Absolutely. He doesn’t want to be the one responsible for letting something happen that could have been stopped. He’s conservative, and he’s cautious as much as he can be until it’s proven otherwise.
You have three big movies out around the same time. In “Miss Sloane,” you’re playing someone who’s more villainous — he runs a lobbying firm that is trying to combat gun control — but even he’s three-dimensional and not a bad guy. For one thing he’s dealing with problems around Jessica Chastain’s character, a lobbyist who stabbed him in the back. We can almost understand where he’s coming from.
I think he feels betrayed by her. He wants to get back at her for the way she abandons him in the midst of something that could be a huge coup for his lobbying firm. He takes it very personally. He’s written to be more overtly emotional than some of the other characters. Although I haven’t seen it yet. [Laughs]
What about “Doctor Strange”?
No, I still haven’t seen that either. [Laughs] I’ve been working. I haven’t had the chance to see anything yet.