December 10, 2019

“Boardwalk Empire’s” Michael Stuhlbarg

“Boardwalk Empire,” the new HBO series, included in its Sept. 19 premiere a scene of five mob bosses gloating about the money to be made in illegal alcohol. The time is the onset of Prohibition in early 1920, the setting a lavish private dinner party at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlantic City.

Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi (known most recently for his role in HBO’s “The Sopranos”), is an only slightly fictionalized version of the crooked politician who once ran that city, and the gangsters are a multiethnic bunch—Irish-, Italian- and Jewish-American. The Jewish member of the group is Arnold Rothstein (played by Michael Stuhlbarg of “A Serious Man”) who, we learn, “runs New York” and cuts an elegant, almost reserved, figure among the cruder bosses Johnny Torrio, Big Jim Colosimo and Lucky Luciano.

The scene is a telling one about Rothstein, who plans to use Nucky as a supplier of his contraband booze but waves away a waiter serving wine, as he sips from a china coffee cup and calmly explains he is a teetotaler: “I like to stay sharp at the tables.”

Rothstein’s eschewing of liquor has nothing to do with Jewish prohibitions against drunkenness and “everything to do with his wanting to have a clear head and to take advantage of others whose heads are not so clear,” Stuhlbarg, 42, said in a phone interview from his Manhattan home. “He’s giving the others the knowledge that he will always be on point, and he will not let alcohol fog his vision in terms of what he’s come to accomplish.”

Stuhlbarg was hand picked by the show’s executive producer, Martin Scorsese, to play the Jewish kingpin—aka The Brain, Mr. Big, The Fixer, The Man Uptown and The Bankroll.

The series’ time line begins just months after Rothstein allegedly helped fix the 1919 baseball world series, and his notoriety inspired such fictional characters as Meyer Wolfsheim in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”  Rich Cohen’s book “Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams” describes Rothstein not only as the Moses of Jewish gangsters but also as the founding father of American organized crime, the man who transformed the work of a bunch of thugs into a corporate system and who first saw a business opportunity in Prohibition. Rothstein, Cohen wrote, “understood the truths of early century capitalism (hypocrisy, exclusion, greed) and came to dominate them.” He was, also, the son of well-to-do parents who taught his hoodlum protégés to attire themselves fashionably—Luciano once said he “taught me how to dress.”

Stuhlbarg, as does Rothstein, cuts the most elegant figure at Nucky’s table, wearing a three-piece pinstripe suit and his signature bowtie. The actor likens playing the gangster to taking on the role of “a character of high station—a king of sorts—regal.”

“[Rothstein] has been described as having been mild-mannered, conservative in habit and always calm,” added the soft-spoken Stuhlbarg. “He didn’t fidget or curse, he never chewed gum, he didn’t smoke, he sipped water; he drank milk; he ate figs.”

The Jewish kingpin never had to claw his way out of immigrant poverty like his protégé Meyer Lansky, who will appear later in the “Boardwalk” season. Rothstein’s father, Abraham, a wealthy businessman and pillar of his New York Jewish community, was known as “Abe the Just,” Stuhlbarg said. “People would come to Abe when they had problems, and Arnold’s older brother, Harry, was studying to become a rabbi. But Arnold, early on, is known to have said, ‘Let Harry be the Jew; I’ll be the American.’ ” 

Like many American Jews of his time, Rothstein viewed assimilation as the ticket:  “While he developed strong relationships with other Jewish gangsters, he was happy to work with all kinds of people,” Stuhlbarg said.  “He didn’t care where they were from or what they looked like if they could help him make a buck.”

“Boardwalk Empire” creator Terence Winter did not know of Stuhlbarg’s Jewish background—nor of his lauded turn as a beleaguered Jewish physicist in “A Serious Man”—when he cast the actor in the series. The Coen brothers’ film had not yet been released, Winter explained. But “from the moment he first auditioned, I knew we’d found our Arnold Rothstein. Michael is a terrific actor who brings a rare combination of intelligence, ruthlessness and humor to this role.  He has a natural intensity that compels an audience to watch him closely.”

In contrast to Rothstein, who, Stuhlbarg says, “practically excommunicated himself from his religion,” Stuhlbarg embraced his Judaism while growing up in Long Beach, where he became bar mitzvah and was confirmed at Temple Israel, attended Camp Komaroff and first began acting in plays at the local Jewish Community Center. 

After graduating from Juilliard in 1992, he starred in Tony Kushner’s adaptation of “A Dybbuk,” portrayed the lead character in Tim Blake Nelson’s Holocaust drama, “The Grey Zone,” won a Tony nomination in 2005 for his chilling turn as a survivor of child torture in “The Pillowman” and got a major break when Joel and Ethan Coen chose him, after multiple, grueling auditions, to star in “A Serious Man.”

Landing the role of Rothstein was somewhat less arduous: Scorsese had previously hired Stuhlbarg to portray a Hitchcockian villain in an elaborate champagne commercial and in 2009 invited him to videotape an audition for “Empire.” By the time, many months later, [that] the call came that he had secured the part, Stuhlbarg had only several months to prepare. He immediately immersed himself in researching Rothstein, starting with the book that inspired the series, Nelson Johnson’s history of the time, “Boardwalk Empire:  The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City.”

The problem was that Rothstein was not discussed in the book, so Stuhlbarg read every biography he could find about the New York crime boss. He said he especially enjoys playing real-life characters: “It’s like trying on a suit of clothes. You start speaking the words of a particular character, or moving around as they move, and you start to find things that they bring out in you.”

Like the real gangster, Stuhlbarg’s Rothstein is a contradictory, even opaque figure: a mobster who never got his hands dirty (no brain-splattering for Stuhlbarg’s character). He is a high-stakes gambler who hated risk—we learn he has unabashedly cheated in one of Thompson’s card games. And although he eschewed liquor, he succumbed to another kind of vice: “He was a gambling addict,” Stuhlbarg said.

“He also loved the feel of money, and he carried huge amounts of it—something like $100,000—on his person at any particular time. He was paradoxically described as having a nonpoker face, yet he’s a poker shark; of having smiling eyes in one description and being a cold, gray presence in another. All that leaves a lot open for interpretation.”

Stuhlbarg usually sketches portraits of his fictional characters in order to get into a role, but photographs of the real Rothstein helped him devise his “Empire” performance. In one picture, the gangster has “an openness to his face, yet he is writing in his notorious little black book with his elbows close to his side,” Stuhlbarg said. “There was something telling about the juxtaposition of that face and his very closed kind of body.” 

Because the actor could find no recordings of Rothstein’s voice, he turned for inspiration to a scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part II”: “Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasberg, says he’s loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the world series in 1919,” the actor recalled. “I think there was something in Strasberg’s demeanor that suggested he was emulating Rothstein himself; something quite controlled about his manner of speech, and how he weighs what he says.”

“Boardwalk Empire” premieres Sept. 19 on HBO.