Michael Stuhlbarg is getting into character

One of America's great actors returns to Broadway as a Russian oligarch in Patriots.

Written by
Raven Snook
Michael Stuhlbarg
Photograph: Emilio Madrid | Michael Stuhlbarg

It was an unexpectedly dramatic way to return to Broadway. The night before the first preview of Patriots—which chronicles how the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky helped Vladimir Putin rise to power—the play’s star, Michael Stuhlbarg, was randomly attacked near Central Park. Fortunately, he was fine. Stuhlbarg even pursued his assailant: a fitting move, given how Berezovsky always went after his enemies.

Patriots is Stuhlbarg's first Broadway performance since he earned a 2005 Tony nomination for his chilling turn in The Pillowman. Since then, he's become a sought-after character actor on television and in films, equally adept at icy villains, blustery braggarts and sympathetic victims. Berezovsky is all three at once and, like many of Stuhlbarg's most acclaimed performances—Richard Sackler in Dopesick, Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire, Edward G. Robinson in Trumbo—he's also a real-life figure. 

A wunderkind mathematician who became a bully of a billionaire, Berezovsky survived political animosity (and an assassination attempt) as he used his money, influence and power to remake his homeland. Installing Putin as president was part of his plan, but the two men turned out to have very different visions for Mother Russia. Stuhlbarg says he feels "a great responsibility" to get Berezovsky right in Patriots, a 2022 work by recent history specialist Peter Morgan (The Crown).

A few days before Patriots’ first performance and the assault that landed Stuhlbarg in the headlines, he talked with TONY about his Broadway homecoming, his bromance with Tim Blake Nelson and why he loves being called a character actor. 

You've done some theater beyond Broadway since The Pillowman, including Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park and Socrates at the Public Theater. Why is Patriots the show that brought you back to Broadway?

A couple of years ago, Peter had sent it to me, but I was unavailable to participate at that time. So, when it came back, it was an exciting opportunity. I am always looking to do theater. I’ve never completely walked away from it. It’s just scheduling. Aside from that, the play’s massive in scope and full of character and humor. I didn’t know much [about Berezovsky] but I found myself getting sucked into the story and intrigued by who this guy was, particularly in regard to Vladimir Putin and how their lives came together and, eventually, created a ladder to where we are today.

As an actor, how do you approach playing Berezovsky, a real person that most audiences won’t be familiar with? Does that allow you to divorce yourself from impersonation?

As I watched interviews of him online and read about the things he was involved in, I started to understand that what Peter has constructed is more of a dreamlike nature. Strict adherence to who he was isn’t necessarily a huge part of the DNA of telling this story. However, I always feel a great responsibility to try to know as much as I can, so I can understand where the author has chosen to deviate from what their real history may have been. I start with what’s true, what’s real; I ask as many questions as I can, and I keep asking until I’m either exhausted or the questions fade. The pages in my script are so covered with notes that I can barely see what’s there. But sometimes the flow of the language is enough. In some ways, kind of like in Shakespeare, language is a character in this play.

In an interview you did with TONY back in 2005, you talked about drawing your Pillowman character as a way of getting into his head. Did you do that with Berezovsky?

Every job that comes along is like a blank canvas. You may get an emotional impulse; you may have a physical impulse. That character in The Pillowman was fictional; this guy is real. You know what the person looks like when they're real. So, I've surrounded myself with photographs that are evocative of his nature. I haven't found myself drawing him too much. There have been a few occasions when I tried to draw a mixture of what I look like combined with what he looks like. But I also understand that I don't have to look just like him. As you said, not many people know much about him. 

Before he became an oligarch, Berezovsky was an impressive mathematician. How’d you like math in school?

He spent 30 years at least in math and science and got a PhD in applied mathematics. He had a brilliant mind and was very ambitious and obsessed with, as he says in the play, "establishing a cognitive basis for common human errors." As for me, I was never a math-head. Oddly, I have had math and science come into my life in terms of roles. I've played a computer scientist [in Steve Jobs] and a physicist [in A Serious Man]. It’s great fun to dive into as an adult because these are subjects I was hugely intimidated by as a kid.

Some of your castmates—including Will Keen, who plays Putin—did Patriots in London to great acclaim. What’s it been like joining the production?

There are four folks who came over with the show; the rest is an American company. They've been so generous and so game in terms of re-exploring things. They are so much fun to be with, and I learn from them every day. Whenever you re-rehearse something, it is a bit jarring. I once did a production of Long Day's Journey Into Night at the American Repertory Theater, and we had four different fathers during the course of the run. Having to re-engage with an entirely new person, and to ask all the questions you asked before and to create new relationships—it can be uncomfortable, but it can also be thrilling.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Boris Berezovsky in Patriots
Photograph: Courtesy Matthew MurphyMichael Stuhlbarg in Patriots

Patriots has only become more relevant since its premiere two years ago. Putin was just reelected, and it’s a contentious presidential election year in the US. Do you think the show will resonate differently from how it did in London?

Yes, all those things will have reverberations for the audience. Also, because it’s an American audience with a different ear and a different sensibility. To have this play here will be interesting, I think, for those who did it in London. None of us know necessarily what to expect. 

Your last New York stage appearance was Socrates, by your longtime friend and collaborator, Tim Blake Nelson, a fellow actor who also writes. Do you have playwriting ambitions?

Actually, I have been writing on my own during all this crazy life that we’ve been living over the last number of years. I’ve had time on my hands, so I’ve been writing and I’m hoping to birth that sometime later this year. I’ve had wonderful opportunities to take part in other people’s visions of things, but I think there was always an element of me that wanted to be involved in something from the ground up: the editing process, the taking away, the adding, the constant changes.  So I wrote a play. I guess it’s a natural progression for someone who loves to draw and paint. I’m excited to share it when it’s ready.

Did Nelson encourage you?

Oh, sure. He’s been one of the largest influences in my life in New York. I’ve known him since 1988, when I came here to go to school. He was creating theater and just doing whatever he was curious about, and that caught my eye instantly. I admired him and I let him know, and he and I hit it off. I’m grateful that he keeps involving me in what he’s doing.

You cut your teeth in classics. Are there dream stage roles that you haven’t yet tackled?

Oh, my gosh, yes, there's a ton. Recently, I did a reading with friends of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which was extraordinary. Tom Wingfield [from The Glass Menagerie], getting a touch of what he's like, or Willy Loman [from Death of a Salesman]. Those are all roles that I would love to play. I'm a big fan of Jack Tanner in Man and Superman. And more Shakespeare. These are all things that I've never stopped loving and never stopped having ambitions to do.

You’re often called a character actor. Do you embrace or reject that label?

You know, it is what it is. What I do is create character. No matter the size of the role, it’s about sifting through the evidence in front of me and making decisions and feeling it out. I love the idea of shaping a character into what makes the most sense or what is engaging or fun or accessible. To just show up as myself on stage or in a film, that would be odd. Part of the fun for me is the masks that I wear, whether it’s a haircut or a false nose or a mustache or a beard or whatever. When I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and I don’t recognize myself, it gives me freedom to do anything. That’s the magic of this art; those things can free you in a way that can surprise you. And when you are surprised, you can surprise other people. So “character actor” is accurate in terms of what I do.

Some people seem to think “character actor” is reductive.

Well, it's funny, because this is a big old character role in the middle of Patriots. Call it a character lead. I always seek out material that will move me or challenge me or make me laugh, and this does all those things. 

Patriots is playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through June 23, 2024. You can buy tickets here.

Michael Stuhlbarg in Socrates
Photograph: Joan Marcus | Michael Stuhlbarg in Socrates

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