Michael Stuhlbarg is what actors call an actor’s actor. The Julliard trained Cali native cut his teeth in the US theatre world before The Coen Brothers handed him his breakout film role in their existential black comedy A Serious Man, for which Stuhlbarg was nominated for a Golden Globe award. But academy voters weren’t the only ones who noticed. Stuhlbarg’s performance caught the eye of former Sopranos scribe Terrence Winter who cast the actor as the real life New York crime boss Arnold Rothstein in his award winning HBO crime drama Boardwalk Empire. Pedestrian caught up with Stuhlbarg to discuss the enduring fascination with gangsters, the challenges of playing a historical figure and the perks of portraying a pool shark.
How would you describe Arnold Rothstein? He’s a man of drive and contradictions; he’s so many different things to so many people. He is mostly known for allegedly having fixed the 1919 World Series, famously called The Black Sox Scandal, in which the Chicago White Sox were reportedly each paid $10,000 to throw the series. But we don’t know to what extent he was actually involved. He was also a gambler, he was a bootlegger, and he was the architect for the future drug trade in the United States. He owned horses and a stable, he was involved in bail bonds and insurance. There was very little he didn’t do. His nicknames were ‘The Brain’, ‘The big bankroll’, ‘The man uptown’, and he was a multi-millionaire in the 1920s, so you can imagine what he would be like if he were around today.
When you take a real-life character like Rothstein, the further into a show you go, is he likely to become more fictionalised in terms of events? Not necessarily – actually, I am hoping the opposite will happen. There are things that historically were known or observed about Rothstein, that we haven’t, as an audience, gotten to see yet. And it’s an opportunity, I think, to show more of what his contradictions are, of what his private life is like, of who he is away from his work, and how much or how little the people in his life mean to him. Those personal moments are the things I am really interested in and I would love the opportunity to get to explore them.

Do you feel an extra pressure because he was a real-life character, to play him a certain way, or be true to certain narratives? I do feel a pressure to be true. I feel a responsibility, and happily so – there’s just so much information out there about him and I have to utilise it as much as possible, and to incorporate it and infuse the character with what is given to me from that information. I say well, okay, the scene is about this; what do I know about him? How can I infuse what I know into what they are asking for? I love playing a character that was real. I feel that it grounds me, in truths and structure that I find helpful. I can say: ‘Okay, he did that and that, and here’s a strange thing, he did that. Okay, he’s human’. I can find that there is freedom in a lack of structure too, but it depends on the project.
Why do you think the gangster genre is so enduringly popular? I don’t really know, but I think maybe it’s because they carry guns, maybe it’s because they dealt in illegal substances, and maybe it’s because they didn’t let rules or laws limit their lives – they took advantage of opportunities. Essentially, they did things that were illegal and that always interests us.
Is it a genre you have always been interested in? I have been, but now that I have been living in it for a while, in many ways, it’s a lot less glamorous in the doing of it than it might seem to those looking in from the outside. Imagine the day to day rhythm of their lives. Imagine that they had, like Rothstein did, to have 25, 30, 40 different companies that he was running all at the same time – it was a day-to-day grind trying to keep them all afloat.

How did he keep them afloat? Eventually, he got involved in the drugs trade. He closed a load of his gambling dens, he backed out of the bootlegging business a little more; but he still had his bail bonds business, he had his insurance business, he had his stable. And they all needed a constant influx of cash and constant attention. So he found drugs. He had no moral apprehension about it – he started importing opium and heroin. And he got deep in it; he was the one who created the international drug trade, importing drugs into America. The odd thing about Rothstein was that he kept putting his own money back into the business – whatever he earned, he put his money back into it. And his demise came before he ever saw any of the money that he earned; he built this empire and then never got to enjoy it. It’s probably why no one really knows him. I think that had he lived longer, he would have been probably the most famous gangster that ever lived. He died, possibly accidentally, or maybe it was a vendetta, aged 46 [in 1928]. If the show progresses a year at a time, I might be around for a little while. But that doesn’t mean they have to tell my story…
Did you have to learn some new card skills for the role? Absolutely! The producers were kind enough to hire a poker tutor and a billiards tutor – it was like an amazing gambling boot camp. I did get to learn some of the trick shots, but sadly I can’t play brilliantly for real.
But do you and Vincent Piazza (Lucky Luciano) play poker together now? We have done, yes! What a great excuse we now have to play pool and poker together all the time.
What are the greatest things and what are the biggest challenges of being in such a big epic show that keeps hopefully returning? You have a constant job for however long it lasts, which is great. Part of the challenge though is when you drop it for six months, and then you have to pick it up again. I often need to be reminded who I was when I left it. So I pick up biographies of Rothstein which have really become my touchstones, my bibles about him. I have lots of notes, of photographs, and of films I watch and I have to re-immerse myself in it all. Before we started filming season two, I was actually scared – I couldn’t remember what I’d done first time around, and I had to go back and remember how to do it. But you put yourself in the new situation and you give it a go, and you’re surprised when some of it sticks. I guess it’s healthier than not being able to shed the person you play.
Pedestrian has ten copies of Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Second Season on DVD or Blu-ray to give away. To win, email ashley@pedestriangroup.com.au with your Prohibition era crime boss nickname.