Arnold Rothstein

played by Michael Stuhlbarg

A strategic thinker and consummate gambler.

Character Bio

A strategic thinker and consummate gambler, Arnold "The Big Bankroll" Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series and never makes a bet he doesn't know he'll win. He has been on both sides of a deal with Nucky, always keeping his options open, as well as nurturing the likes of young gangsters Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky.

Bio

In 2010, Michael Stuhlbarg received a Golden Globe nomination for his starring role in Joel and Ethan Coen's Academy Award®-nominated film 'A Serious Man.' In addition to the Golden Globe nomination, Stuhlbarg was also nominated by the Chicago Film Critics and the London Film Critics for his performance, and he received the prestigious Robert Altman Award at the Independent Sprit Awards for the ensemble performance.

His other films include Ridley Scott's 'Body of Lies,' opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, Boaz Yakin's 'A Price Above Rubies'; Antonio Campos' 'Afterschool,' which was showcased at the 2008 New York and Cannes International Film Festivals, and was released in fall 2009; Sophie Barthes' 'Cold Souls,' with Paul Giamatti and David Strathairn; and Martin Scorsese's short homage to Alfred Hitchcock, 'The Key to Reserva.' He has also made guest appearances on such television series as 'Damages' and 'Ugly Betty.'

In 2005, Stuhlbarg received a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award for Martin McDonagh's 'The Pillowman,' staged by John Crowley.  He has also been honored with the New Dramatists Charles Bowden Actor Award and the Elliot Norton Boston Theatre Award for 'Long Day's Journey into Night.'

Stulhbarg's other Broadway credits include the National Actors Theatre productions of 'Saint Joan,' 'Three Men on a Horse,' 'Timon of Athens' and 'The Government Inspector,' Ronald Harwood's 'Taking Sides,' staged by David Jones, Sam Mendes' revival of 'Cabaret,' and Tom Stoppard's 'The Invention of Love,' staged by Jack O'Brien.

His New York Shakespeare Festival stage credits include 'Twelfth Night,' as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and 'Richard II,' in the lead role. He has starred in a host of off-Broadway productions, playing the title roles in Oskar Eustis' staging of 'Hamlet,' for which he won a Drama League Award, and David Warren's staging of 'The Voysey Inheritance,' for which he received Obie and Callaway Awards and a Lucille Lortel Award nomination.  He has also starred off-Broadway in such shows as 'Cymbeline,' reprising his role in a U.K. stint of the production, 'Old Wicked Songs,' for which he was a Drama League Award recipient, 'Measure for Pleasure,' which earned him a Lucille Lortel Award nomination and 'The Grey Zone.' When playwright Tim Blake Nelson adapted and directed a feature film version of 'The Grey Zone,' Stuhlbarg appeared in the movie as well, playing a different role than the one he played onstage.    

Stuhlbarg received his BFA from The Juilliard School. He also studied at UCLA, the Vilnius Conservatory in Lithuania's Chekhov Studies unit, the British-American Drama Academy at Balliol and Keble Colleges in Oxford, and on a full scholarship with Marcel Marceau.

Interview with Michael Stuhlbarg

HBO

Tell us about Boardwalk Empire's Arnold Rothstein. What kind of man is he?

Michael Stuhlbarg

Arnold is mostly known for allegedly financing the fix of the 1919 World Series. He's a gambler and a bootlegger who's  taking advantage of the passage of the Volstead act to make as much money as he can. He has his fingers in lot of pies.

HBO

What specific research did you do to prepare for the role?

Michael Stuhlbarg

I read all the biographies I could. There's a lot of information out there about him. A lot of it is contradictory, so I had to make choices about what version of Rothstein was suited for a particular scene that had been written.

HBO

Can you name a specific example where you had to choose from the different accounts how you wanted to play the character?

Michael Stuhlbarg

He's often described in outright contradictory terms. Some people thought of him as a young man having a laughing, smiling, open non-poker face. Others described him as having a very cold and gray presence. I would decide how to play him depending on whether it was a private scene or a public scene. Plus, I tried to pick up all the little things I found out about him. He carried around a little black book to keep careful account of the financial transactions he'd made. He drank milk. Didn't smoke or drink. He was very conservatively tailored. And he carried over $100,000 on his person at any particular time.

HBO

Your Rothstein is soft-spoken and teetotaling, yet capable of extreme ruthlessness. What makes him different from the other gangsters on the show?

Michael Stuhlbarg

Arnold Rothstein taught these younger men - Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, who you'll meet on the show shortly - to think of what they did as a business. He had them dress well, speak well. He wanted them to think differently, as businessmen.  He's loosely credited with inventing the floating craps game. And of course, he represents a different ethnic group. Standing apart from the Irish community, the African-American community, the Italian community, Rothstein identified himself as an American, not necessarily as a Jew, but he was still thrown into that category.

HBO

How did Rothstein's Jewishness come into play with respect to his beginnings as a gangster?

Michael Stuhlbarg

It didn't really. Perhaps it affected how other people thought of him, but it was something he was adamant about ignoring. His father owned a very successful cotton goods store that Arnold worked at as a young man, but he lost all the money he made playing high stakes pinochle. Eventually, he got a job selling cigars in Lower Manhattan and learned the gambling trade so well he had mastered all the games by the age of 18. As he built up his bankroll, he'd loan people money at extremely high interest rates-sometimes as high as 48 percent.

HBO

How would you characterize Rothstein's relationship with his protégé Lucky Luciano?

Michael Stuhlbarg

It's very much a student-mentor relationship or, in some ways, father-son. Arnold Rothstein didn't have any children and he saw a hunger in Lucky, as well as Meyer Lansky, that he probably had in his youth. He wants to teach them something with the hopes that they'll thrive.

HBO

In the second episode, there is a chilling scene centered on a billiards ball. How much of your performance in that scene and others is locked in rehearsal and how much is preserved for organic growth on set?

Michael Stuhlbarg

I try to bring in some ideas about what the scene could be and then you just have to let it happen and unfold along with the chemistry between yourself and the other actors. In that particular scene, I was tightly adhering to what was written on the page, having to sink a shot and then say a particular bit of dialogue. You just have to give them a lot of options and let them edit as they see fit.

HBO

The scene ends with Rothstein sinking two balls at once. Was that a camera trick or are you a skilled player?

Michael Stuhlbarg

I had a wonderful billiards teacher, so that was really me. That shot wasn't particularly difficult. It's all geometry.

HBO

Rothstein is one of the best-dressed characters of a well-dressed ensemble. Does the suit make the man?

Michael Stuhlbarg

It goes both ways. The man chooses what to wear to present himself in a particular way. And by showing himself in a particular way, people think of him in a particular way.  Rothstein chooses how he dresses very carefully.

HBO

Was it very different playing a Jewish character with enormous power at his disposal after your turn as the consummate shlimazel, Larry Gopnick in A Serious Man?

Michael Stuhlbarg

Mr. Rothstein has very different DNA than Larry Gopnick does. He sees the world in a completely different way. Rothstein seizes every opportunity to take advantage, whereas Larry finds himself swimming in his surroundings trying to figure out why his world is changing so drastically and so quickly.

HBO

What can we expect to see from Rothstein as the season progresses?

Michael Stuhlbarg

His relationship with Nucky becomes complicated. I'll say that. He's a tenacious man, and we can look forward to seeing much more of him.

Interview With Michael Stuhlbarg

HBO

Arnold Rothstein and Margaret have an uncomfortable encounter at the brokerage office. What does he think about making a deal with the ex-wife of his rival and sometimes business partner?

Michael Stuhlbarg

Nucky and Arnold are not on the best of terms when he bumps into Margaret. Once he realizes that she is nervous about being discovered, Arnold handles it in a delicate way—and tries to take advantage. He thinks, "Well, I have a little bit of power over her at the moment so perhaps I can use this." That's usually his goal—if he finds an opportunity he tries to take advantage of it.

HBO

It's interesting to see their paths cross.

Michael Stuhlbarg

If memory serves, the only time they were together was the New Year's party at the beginning of Season 3 and they didn't interact at all.

HBO

Why does Arnold feel it's necessary to hide his identity?

Michael Stuhlbarg

He was very famous at that time for being a gambler of notoriety and success. If the head of a brokerage firm finds out he has Arnold Rothstein in his office, I think there's going to be some kind of ramification.

HBO

Even though Margaret fumbles her lines, Arnold invests in the Anaconda Realty Trust. Is he aware that there's a scheme going on?

Michael Stuhlbarg

He invests everywhere and believes there's a possibility of making money here. And when he realizes he has a little bit of power over Margaret, he thinks she might be able to help him out with where the stock will go.

HBO

He's already a step ahead.

Michael Stuhlbarg

He thinks extremely quickly, although he may not give that away. He sees the situation as a possible benefit. To him, $50,000 is something but not an awful lot. He takes a lot of chances when investing his money.

HBO

Do you think Arnold follows some sort of code?

Michael Stuhlbarg

Yeah. I think he's an equal opportunity employer; he'll work with anybody. His code is "Money is money." Also, while he's known as a gambler, he doesn't gamble with his gambling. He was a very informed player. Whether it was horses or poker, if he decided to plunk some money down, he knew 90 percent of the time which direction his gambling would go—into his pocket.

HBO

Does that confidence contribute to his poker game with Nucky going awry?

Michael Stuhlbarg

No. I think he let his emotions get the better of him. Arnold wants so badly to get back at Nucky, he misreads him. Nucky plays it very close to his chest during that hand; he's a very cool customer. Arnold, in a rare occasion, let his impatience get the best of him.

HBO

In that episode (40), Nucky tells Meyer Lansky, "I can't rely on a man so blinded by his obsession with winning." Do you agree with that assessment?

Michael Stuhlbarg

I would think that yes, he'd much rather succeed, and win rather than lose. Historically he was a very bad loser. He had a temper on him; he just tended not to show it unless he thought he was being cheated.

HBO

Do you think he wanted in on the Florida plan? Or if he'd won, would he have turned it down?

Michael Stuhlbarg

It's a very similar situation to the first time we met Arnold at the very beginning of the show. Arnold needed booze for a wedding and told Nucky he'd be glad to pay for it. He gets set up at the gambling club Nucky has a share in, and wins so big, Nucky ends up owing him. In this situation, he was probably hoping he could win the half million dollars that Nucky wanted for Florida at the poker table, maybe even from Nucky himself.

HBO

Arnold is typically so even-keeled—unlike any other gangster on the show. We've never even seen him fire a gun.

Michael Stuhlbarg

That's right, though historically he did. He was once in a poker game where there was pounding on the door, guys trying to break in. What he thought at the moment—at least it's recorded as such—was that they were going to get robbed by some thugs. He pulled out his gun and shot through the door. It turned out the men on the other side were policemen. None of them were seriously hurt and when they came in, nobody gave him up. A gun was found outside, but it was never proven to be his. Arnold tends to cover his tracks. He had quick reflexes—in the blink of an eye, he could be across a room.