Michael Stuhlbarg is finely cast in Call Me by Your Name. The quiet, unshowy determination that Stuhlbarg has brought to all of his roles, in the likes of A Serious Man, Blue Jasmine and Miss Sloane, seems to marry expertly with the world of André Aciman’s deliriously romantic novel about the blossoming romance between the 17-year-old Elio and the 24-year-old Oliver, a graduate student who comes to stay for the summer. Elio’s father is a presence in the story, but as Elio’s perspective remains obsessed with Oliver, we don’t get to know the man too well. Until, that is, he sits an emotionally wrecked Elio down to comfort his son on the journey he’s just taken. “Right now you may not want to feel anything … but feel something you did,” he says. “To feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!”
What led to this role?
I received a phone call from my agent saying that Luca was interested in the possibility of working on this together, and so I read it and I loved everything about it.
I loved the idea of working with Luca because I had seen his film, I Am Love, which really knocked me out. The idea of working on a piece that James Ivory had written was a thrill, and something that rarely comes along.
Did you go to the book?
I did, but I didn’t start reading the book until I had already jumped on board. I didn’t know it was a novel, but I found out rather quickly that there was a great cult following to the novel as well. So, I read it and it kind of became a bible for me, as much as the script is during the shooting of the film.
Your character, Elio’s father, is the parent we all dream of having. Did you fall in love with him right away?
Yes. I had been warned by my agent there was a really beautiful speech towards the end of the story, and so when it came along I was very taken with it. I loved the sentiment of most, if not all of the things that he got to say. The sadness that is referenced to the kind of life that perhaps he lived himself, or perhaps he envied his son, that his son had this kind of event in his life that he loved so deeply and profoundly. I loved what he had to say, primarily about how, as we get older, we often, as adults, tend to wear ourselves out somewhat with each new relationship that we get ourselves into. Offering up to his son the idea that he shouldn’t push away what he’s feeling because we can often close ourselves off to the world, that was beautiful.
Was it helpful to you to imagine what this man’s life might have been like in the past?
Absolutely. I think dialogue like that is a gift to an actor, or at least certainly a jumping off place where you can allow it to work on your imagination as to what this person may have gone through. The choices he made. The roads he didn’t follow. Yeah, I think the text does most of the work for you in those instances, which is wonderful when it vibrates with a past.
Not a lot is said by him until that speech, but we get a sense—mostly in looks— that he is aware of what his son’s going through. And he keeps his family joyful.
I think a lot of what was captured had to do with Luca’s take on the film in general, which was he wanted us to think upon these events that we were going to be dramatizing as one of those idyllic summers that one could have had in their youth if they were fortunate enough. I think there was a lightness that he wanted us to bring to things, and lots of laughter. I found him encouraging lots of fun throughout the entire thing; whereas, it could have in other hands been quite a leaden practise or come off in a different way. And, I think that spirit is captured beautifully in a lot of places in the film. That gave me a great jumping off point in terms of a father watching his son go through these kinds of things. Keeping his thoughts perhaps to himself but also getting to witness them at the same time.
I feel very fortunate that these films came into my life in the ways that they did. I love that the work is different. That all are in separate, unique worlds. If I have a choice in the matter I love to shake things up and make things as different as possible, and to lose myself in whichever the world happens to be. Whether it be Northern Italy in 1983, or the kind of make-believe magical realism that Guillermo created in Baltimore, 1962 or the world of The Post too. I love challenges, and all of these were filled with wonderful artists to work with. It’s been a terrific group of projects in the last year.