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Interview with Michael Stuhlbarg

Rothstein frowning

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.

02: The Ivory Tower

Season 1

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