Who better to chat with Michael Stuhlbarg, the actor who plays legendary gangster Arnold Rothstein on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire?
Boardwalk Empire is one of the best shows on television at the moment—it is currently renewed for a third season in the US. It is set in Atlantic City in the 1920’s during the time of Prohibition and the story revolves around the lives of politicians, gangsters, government agents and the men and women who weave in and out of their world.
Rothstein is based on an actual historical figure—an enterprising mobster based in New York. He was “The Brain” who ran an organization that included “Legs” Diamond, “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Dutch Schultz. It’s inevitable for this kingpin and Atlantic City’s Treasurer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) engage in some sort of highly lucrative but certainly shady dealings together.
The man surprisingly shunned alcohol and you may have notice a scene in the season one where he takes iced milk. I doubt he ever got teased about it (either that no one lived to tell the tale).
Michael's biggest break was being cast in a Coen Brothers film "A Serious Man," you may have also seen him in Martin Scorsese's Academy Award winning film "Hugo."
Manila Times: How much fun is it to play a legendary gangster (Arnold Rothstein) on an incredibly well made show like Boardwalk Empire?
Michael Stuhlbarg: It’s a great amount of fun but it’s also a great amount of responsibility--at least I take it as such. I’ve tried to delve as deeply as I can into his life, how he lived it, the people he knew, what he did, what influenced him. It changes you somewhat to learn about someone’s life, to get a chance to live in it for as long as I’ve gotten a chance to so far. It’s the longest amount of time I’ve ever spent exploring a character so that’s been a great delight and challenge as an actor. I can’t wait to see where they take the character this season.
How did you learn speak with the cadence and cool deliberate ruthlessness of Arnold Rothstein?
I looked around for any tape on him and couldn’t find anything, so I just used my imagination and took as much of the historical information that I could find. He was raised in a middle class household in New York City in the late 18oo’s.
I tried to just imagine what he would speak like. I saw as many gangster films as I could and let that sort of play around in my imagination. I imagined him to be a man of authority. He didn’t necessarily have to raise his voice. Historically, he was an even-tempered conservative man and didn’t necessarily show his anger unless it was essential to get his way. It was a natural organic process of just trying to figure out what felt right. I would be curious to know how he actually spoke (laughter) someday.
You have some of the best and wittiest one liners
Thank you. It’s been great writing so far.
Aside from Billiards did you have to learn other betting games and other forms of gambling for the role?
Yes, along with getting some tutorials on billiards, I was offered an opportunity to learn more about the game of poker. HBO hired a gentleman to help me learn more about the skills of poker playing. To practice, I have arranged some games of poker with my friends so I can keep up with the kind of mind that plays poker. So yes it’s mostly been about learning poker and billiards it’s been great fun and I’ve been enjoying it. I still have an interest in poker but I very rarely play for real money
Do you win?
I do better now then I did before.
Catch Michael Stuhlbarg on Boardwalk Empire. Second season premieres in Asia on March 8 at 10pm on HBO. Also look out for him in Men in Black 3 and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.