Tim Blake Nelson and Michael Stuhlbarg on the Three-Decade Friendship that Led to 'Socrates'

Michael Stuhlbarg and Tim Blake Nelson - Publicity-H 2019
Matt Bockelman

The collaborators, who have known each other since drama school, talk about their play at The Public Theater, working with the Coen brothers and what 2019 America has in common with ancient Greece.

Tim Blake Nelson is worried about Michael Stuhlbarg's sleeping schedule. "Hey Stuhly, how are you feeling? Did you get some sleep?" Nelson asks his friend on a recent morning. "I did," Stuhlbarg responds. "I'm always conscious of it."

If you've seen the new play Socrates at The Public Theater, you'd understand why Nelson is concerned about Stuhlbarg's rest. After more than 10 years away doing films like Call Me by Your Name, The Post, A Serious Man and The Shape of Water, not to mention TV work in shows like Boardwalk EmpireFargo and The Looming Tower, Stuhlbarg is making his return to the New York stage, playing the title role in Nelson's dramatized account of the Greek philosopher's life and death.

Nelson wrote the role with Stuhlbarg in mind, as he does with many projects, though he notes Stuhlbarg is usually busy. "There's not a script I write in which I won't try to find a place for Michael, that's if I didn't specifically write a role for him setting out," says Nelson. In the last film he wrote and directed, Anesthesia, Nelson ended up playing the role he originally wrote for Stuhlbarg himself.

In addition to his writing and directing work, Nelson has been busy working onscreen in projects like the Coen brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs on Netflix and the Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson vehicle The Hustle, which hits theaters in May.

Nelson and Stuhlbarg have been friends since studying a few years apart at Juilliard. They first worked together onstage as actors in Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest off-Broadway in 1991, and later in The Grey Zone, which Nelson wrote for the stage and screen, with Stuhlbarg appearing in both the play and film.

Nelson started writing Socrates in drama school, in an early attempt he calls "haphazard and embarrassing." He picked the topic back up 30 years later — he studied classics at Brown University — investigating it first as a screenplay then as a work for the stage.

Stuhlbarg is the only actor who has read the part, first in Nelson's living room, and in workshops and readings leading up to this production, which runs off-Broadway through May 19.

"Getting to do it has been life-changing, turbulent and tremendous, and probably the most challenging thing I've ever been given the opportunity to do," says Stuhlbarg.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Nelson and Stuhlbarg about balancing stage and screen work, how the Coen brothers changed their careers, and why Socrates resonates in 2019.

The last time you worked together was on The Grey Zone in 2001. Does your collaboration feel the same as back then? How has it changed?

Stuhlbarg It absolutely does. I mean, in some ways, I feel like our relationship hasn't really changed. If anything, it has grown and deepened. And I'm always learning new things about him. We've known each other for, gosh, it must be at least 30 years, and it seems like I'm still learning the most remarkable things about him. Specifically in this process, if you ask him a question about why he's phrased something that may seem awkward in your mouth, he'll give you an exact answer as to why, because he knows how things were phrased back in the time in which he's writing.

Nelson I love collaborating with Michael. I feel like he has become one of a handful of actors on the planet in that upper, upper echelon level. I don't want to name the others in that category, but I could name about five, and Michael is one of them. So, now, as he has ascended and gone to Mount Olympus, I feel like the roles have to merit that. Luckily, Socrates is demanding enough that Michael said, "OK, that one, give me enough time, and I'll clear this space, and I'll do that one."

You mentioned that you wrote this initially as a screenplay, and now it's a play. Do you think if you ever made it into a movie, you two would do it together again?

Nelson That's really going to depend on how the play is received, and I have no control over that. I know that what we are up to as a company — and I include the actors, and of course [director] Doug Hughes and all of the designers — is what we set out to do. The blessing and curse of having done this for 30 years, is that one really can't predict what will land and then persist on its journey, so we'll see. But I think if the play does well, yeah, I'm optimistic that a film could be made.

Michael, how has it been returning to the stage after being away for so long?

Stuhlbarg It wasn't a conscious decision to stay away, honestly. About 10 years ago, the Coen brothers cast me in their film A Serious Man, and all of a sudden doors opened to me that had never been opened before. The opportunities that were coming my way were wonderful; they just happened to be in the worlds of film and television. I've missed the camaraderie. I've missed the instant gratification of whether or not an audience believes you, or is enjoying what you're doing. It continues to keep me honest. And I've also been curious to see how 10 years of film and television work might have an effect on what it is I can bring onstage, and that has also been a learning experience. There are going to be technical demands doing a play that are unnecessary for thinking before a camera.

Michael, you mentioned how getting cast in A Serious Man opened doors for you onscreen, and Tim, you've also worked with the Coens on O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. How has your experience with the Coen brothers informed your work together?

Nelson On one level, which is a more crass and mercantile response, that they put me in such prominent roles has changed my life in terms of the opportunities that have come my way. And those opportunities have just made me better at what I do, just by virtue of the people with whom I've gotten to work — people like Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis and Sean Penn, and just extraordinary artists.

What one learns from the Coens typically, is a meticulous approach, not only in terms of their language, but also their visual storytelling style, which is resolutely theirs. And while I never want to try and ape that for what it is, I have learned a lot from their rigorous approach and that notion, that in a Coen brothers movie, every frame could be a still photograph you'd hang on a wall. That kind of thoroughness is something I apply to the words in my plays since working with the Coen brothers. Everything gets pored over and everything is for a purpose, and everything is intended, and everything is raw in a very specific way.

Stuhlbarg As Tim seems to have suggested, for instance, the script I received to read and audition with for A Serious Man never changed. Not a word, not a punctuation mark from that time to the time it was shot.

Nelson I definitely didn't take that from the Coens.

Stuhlbarg And that's OK. This is another beast altogether. They changed my life. They gave me an opportunity, and I will always be in debt to them for that. And I try to take the gift that I've been given and apply myself to whatever work happens to come my way in as thorough and responsible a way as possible and make things matter. With everything that Joel and Ethan make, it is unique, it is new for them. And in being new for them, it's new for us. I've wanted to have the same kind of outlook in terms of a life and a career — to tackle things that may be completely different and that will surprise me and therefore hopefully surprise an audience. Yes, they've absolutely imprinted themselves on my life, and I'm all the more grateful for having had that experience.

Socrates is such an ancient story, but it also feels relevant in 2019. How do you hope this play starts conversations about what's going on in our country right now?

Nelson I did not write this play about Trump or Trump's America. I started writing this before Trump even came down that escalator to announce his candidacy. However, I think that as writers and actors — just like painters and musicians, singer-songwriters, whoever you are if you try to create — you have antennae up. You're catching stuff in the air, and you're trying to organize it and put it into your medium. So when I was writing this, I was tuned into certain frequencies as I was moving the dial around, and I caught some of the stuff that was about to encourage Trump to take that escalator ride and eventually to win — even though I don't think he ever imagined he was going to win.

As I kept writing and doing workshops of the play, I was watching what was going on with the election and into Trump's presidency, I started to zero in on that frequency. I am trying to catch as much of that stuff as I can that can responsibly be put into the telling of this man's life, without it ever being false. I haven't put anything in the play that relates to what's going on today that I don't believe was also true in Athens.

Stuhlbarg What happens nightly in the play is what happens daily in our world, which is this man asking these questions every day without claiming anything. He presents questions, and the questions that are presented, we have answers for those questions, and maybe those answers frighten us, maybe they reveal things to us. A lot of what the play is, for me, is us working together to find the best way to live in this country. How can we each individually enjoy, progress and learn daily without harming each other, with as much kindness and love and responsibility as possible?

As Tim has said in the words of Plato, "When democracy was young and messy and full of nervous wrath." That nervous wrath still exists today, every day, and it's only up to us to do something about it. We just have to be brave enough to stand up and ask the questions like Socrates does every single day.

Socrates runs through May 19 at The Public Theater in New York.