'Fargo' Star Michael Stuhlbarg on Sy's Precarious Position, Mustache and Jewishness

Sy Feltz is in over his head, and the 'Serious Man' Coen Brothers veteran discusses what's gone wrong for this fixer.
Courtesy of FX
Michael Stuhlbarg of 'Fargo'

[This interview contains spoilers for the Wednesday, May 17, episode of FX's Fargo.]

Wednesday's Fargo, titled "The House of Special Purpose," was a rough one for Michael Stuhlbarg's Sy Feltz.

"What is the point of you? You're supposed to be a fixer. Nothing's fixed. Everything's broken," Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor) roared at him, and it was hard to argue. 

Over the course of the past few episodes, Sy has failed to successfully scare Ray (also McGregor) out of his plans to take down his brother, failed to placate the police and had his World's Best Dad mug horribly violated by the mysterious V.M. Varga (David Thewlis). He's had to listen to myriad anti-Semitic slurs, and he watched impotently as two thugs beat up Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in front of him.

It's hard to be Sy Feltz at this moment. 

Ordinary people confronting unfathomable evil and irreversible bad luck has been a favorite Coen Brothers trope, one at the center of several films including A Serious Man, a movie anchored by Stuhlbarg and by Fred Melamed, who played a key role in this Fargo season's detour to Los Angeles and the '70s.

Stuhlbarg got on the phone to talk about missing sharing scenes with Melamed, just how tough a guy Sy Feltz is and just how Jewish he is after an episode in which he dropped Yiddish and Israeli knowledge.

He also discusses the stage direction that helped birth Sy's bushy mustache.

So it's pretty clear by the end of this fifth episode that Sy is, at least at this moment, in over his head.

Yes. I think that's a very appropriate way to put it.

What level of intensity was he ready for? Is the cup scene the moment he realizes that this is something he just wasn't prepared for?

I don't think he would ever have thought anything like that would have happened. I don't think he considered anything like this whole Varga's situation would have happened. I don't think he understands why it's happening, and I think he wants to still believe that it can be changed. He's a hopeful person and I think that, having found himself in a complicated situation, he probably doesn't know what to do. I hope that the audience goes along on that ride with him.

How much a sense do you have of Emmit and Sy's backstory together?

I think Emmit and Sy had worked together, at least I had imagined, that they had been together for at least 10 or 11 years, that they knew each other a very long time and they finish each other's sentences and that their working together with one of those things that just works really well. So they went along with it and it is the public face of the company, and Sy is the one who does all the work behind the scenes and he excels at it. He's a people pleaser and he also knows how to fix things. And to be the bad cop to Emmit's good cop.

In terms of being bad cop, how extreme do you think Sy can get? What does it mean for him to ask Emmit to take the shackles off?

He tried to threaten Ray as much as he could, but he also wanted to respect the fact that Emmit and Ray were brothers and that there was a sense of loyalty there, patience on Emmit's part in terms of how Ray has conducted himself in his life. But I also feel that Sy could probably come up with a way, a creative way, to make Ray understand that his ever-present stepping into Emmit's life has become a burden over the course of years. So my guess is that he now has, when he says shackles off, a kind of free rein to do what he can to make sure that Ray won't bother Emmit again. I'm not sure exactly how that would happen, but I'm sure he'll put his mind to it and come up with something creative.

But when you say creative, when it comes to what Sy would have been willing to do, do you think it's something more violent and aggressive than what he does with his Hummer in the diner parking lot? Is there a violent side to him?

I think with him, in the white collar world, he thinks of himself as a tough guy. Once the real world representing Varga comes into his life, I think he feels out of his depth, so he may talk big, but I don't really know what he would be willing to do. So I guess we'll find out.

Is that a product of big fish in a small town upbringing, do you think? How do you think he got the idea that he was a big man? 

I think he's quite happy in his life. I think he's making more money than he ever thought he would in his life. With 20 odd parking lots that they have in Minnesota, I think he's thrilled with what he's been able to achieve in his life. I think Emmit's charisma probably brought that windfall of cash into his life. We were estimating he makes something like around $2 million or $3 million a year, all things considered. So I don't think he's wanting for anything. With the advent of Varga coming in and what he plans to do, it's just a bigger world out there than I think he figured. He's been probably in that part of the world for most of his life, content and pleased, and feels like within his community that he's achieved much.

When unimaginable forces beset his life, your Serious Man character turned to his Jewishness, but if Sy's Jewishness is already being used against him by Varga to some degree, what does Sy have left, in your mind, as a foundation?

Oh gosh. I think he doesn't want to look at what's really happening. He still thinks the situation can be salvaged. He's playing catch-up and trying to reassert himself back into the world that he and Emmit had built themselves. And I don't think he wants to let go of that. That is his lifeline and he's holding tight to the fact that he doesn't want to necessarily completely accept what's happening to them at the time. So he's going to try to make things better.

Try to make things better for himself or try to make things better in an altruistic way? 

With the scene with the Widow Goldfarb, I think he's exploring the avenue of getting a new partner into their company, and perhaps the cash that she would bring along could help support them and make them autonomous to what Varga has to offer. I think he's looking for ways out of a situation at the moment and we'll find out exactly what happens.

You mentioned $2 million or $3 million a year in this particular part of Minnesota. He's doing obviously spectacularly. Does he have dreams that expand beyond this, or does he just want to maintain this? 

I wouldn't think that he does. I would think that he just want to maintain what he has. Perhaps to continue business going well, maybe acquiring more property, which they did the year before, perhaps from a different source now that they're back in the successful column again. My guess is that if the company were to continue to grow they're always probably looking for opportunities but at the same time they have a lot of properties to manage, and he in his boots is probably the one that goes out there and manages all of these pieces of property himself while Emmit is the one who makes the deals over the phone.

When you look at the myriad Coen Brothers influences that float through Noah Hawley's take on Fargo, is A Serious Man just inherently the filter through which you view things?

Not necessarily. I see homages to many of their films in many different ways. And as the season progresses you'll see that there's a number of different films that he pays tribute to throughout this. And I'm excited to see how they will manifest later on in the season. But that's just one particular filter. Of course that A Serious Man experience is one that I brought with me into the making of this, but this was an entirely different kind of guy. And delightfully so.

We know that Sy can drop a little Yiddish or a Menachem Begin reference, but how important is Sy's Jewishness actually to him as a character?

I don't think it's that much of a presence in his life. Perhaps it was something growing up, but the sense I got was he's very much assimilated into the Minnesota culture. And that other than the smattering of Yiddish and perhaps the sense of humor we don't really see him in an observant world at all. At least certainly up until this point.

And yet it's something that raises his hackles, I guess. Varga knows that there are certain buttons he should be pushing, the anti-Semitic buttons. Are they buttons that actually do work to trigger Sy?

I don't know if there is much he can do about it under the circumstances. I obviously think he identifies more as a Minnesotan than he does necessarily as an observant Jew. I think it might surprise him somewhat being called to the carpet for something he doesn't necessarily wear out in the open.

What was your reaction when you realized that Fred Melamed was going to be dropping by Fargo, but in a different city and in a different timeline from the one that you're in? Did you miss having that reunion?

I was delighted. I was really happy. And I was hoping we'd get a chance to do something together. I did get to see him when I was shooting the stuff that I was shooting. He was wonderful in the stuff that I got to see him do thus far. I had such an amazing time working with him on A Serious Man. He holds a very special place in my heart. I hope in the future we'll get to do many, many things together.

The "Peter and the Wolf" introductions at the top of the fourth episode, I thought that was such a nice touch. When you saw that in the script, did it give you any insight into how Noah was viewing Sy?

It charmed me and reminded me so much of my youth because that music just brings you back. I must have had a record very similar to the one that was heard. It was a introduction for children to classical music and to instruments and to that evocative music. I didn't really draw the parallels so much, although it's interesting because Sy seems to be a real combination of a lot of Coen brothers characters to me. The name seems to come from [Sy Ableman from] A Serious Man and then there's a little bit of [Harve Presnell], the wonderful actor who played Wade Gustafson in Fargo. There is a grandfatherly caring quality about him. A bristly-ness and he just seemed to be married to a lot different aspects of different Coen Brothers characters. We kind of took a little bit from a lot of them. But I didn't necessarily draw a parallel. I love that people are just starting to talk about that, a little bit about each character representing those things. I'm sure Noah, who's smarter than I am, has reasons for all of these things, and I'd love to hear him talk about it a little bit more.

Just as a last question, I'm curious about the workshopping process on Sy's mustache and hair. Who had the immediate vision and how quickly did you land on the the right mustache and the right haircut for this particular character?

It very much has everything to do with Noah. I was baffled, I was going in a million different directions, I brought in all these pictures and all these possibilities, things, and he described the character in a particular way, and I thought it would be one thing and it ended up being a combination of different elements. I think there was a seriousness about him that he wanted. He's a right hand man, he's a fixer. He's the business partner, he's the best friend. He's lots of things. Noah just went through a process of elimination, sort of said, "What about ..."

There was a stage direction that had a lot to do with at least having a mustache for me. It described him as something to the effect of being a hockey player who had punched out someone's eye during a hockey game and as a result gets kicked out of the league and ends up being an accountant, or something like that. So there was a sense of him being tough but at the same time he co-mingled that with a sense of efficiency among other things. So he probably has a little bit of a temper and at the same time he wants to put forward a hard exterior. But I think he's also quite an innocent and a softie in places as well. So it's a real interesting combination of elements.

I think the hair provides a kind of humor and echoes back a little bit to John Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski with a bit of a flat top and then we've got a bristly Wade Gustafson mustache going on. Plus a big puffy coat, and then you get Sy. Plus the big boots. You find these things in the doing of them and it was a combination of elements that I think Noah knew ahead of time, that I was very willing to give him what he was looking for.

comments powered by Disqus