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'Boardwalk' actor finesses role of real-life mobster

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By Rick Bentley
The Fresno Bee
  • Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Arnold Rothstein, the "gentleman gambler," in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."

    Charles Sykes / Invision

    Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Arnold Rothstein, the "gentleman gambler," in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."

Ask any actor to name the directors they would like to work with and the answer will often include Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg and the Coen Brothers.
Soft-spoken Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays the equally soft-spoken Arnold Rothstein in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," will give you different names because he's already worked with that impressive list of directors.
His work with Scorsese came through "Boardwalk Empire," the cable series set in Atlantic City during the Prohibition era, that's the product of the noted director and writer Terence Winter.
The action centers on Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a politician who has built his power and influence through illegal activities.
The third season of "Boardwalk Empire" hit DVD this week, just in time for the fourth season opener of the HBO series at 9 p.m. Sept. 8 on the premium cable channel.
"Scorsese is a fan of improv and is always pushing actors to think up something that would make the scene more fun. He loves any idea that helps the scene be alive," Stuhlbarg said.
It's been easy for Stuhlbarg to contribute on "Boardwalk Empire" because of the extensive research he did before filming started. Many of the players in "Boardwalk Empire" are based on real people, including Rothstein who is best known for fixing the 1919 World Series that became known as the Black Sox Scandal.
Stuhlbarg discovered that Rothstein thought of himself as an accomplished businessman who was involved with everything from the stock market to selling liquor during Prohibition. He's used that information to play Rothstein as a "gentleman gambler" who did his best to teach the next generation of mobsters the importance of thinking about what they do as being a business.
"One of the blessings of being on the series is that everyone in the writers' room is amiable to those playing historic characters. They allow us to chime in with research we have found. They have utilized some of the found text that these people reportedly said," Stuhlbarg said.
The efforts by the cast have gone into making "Boardwalk Empire" one of the top shows on TV with 10 nominations for this year's primetime Emmy awards.
Stuhlbarg believes viewers like the show because they are fascinated with the larger-than-life personalities of the time period.
"There were tremendous things happening at the time, so many technical advances. There were people -- many who came out of poverty -- who just worked hard to make a place for themselves. T
"hen there were some people who didn't pay attention to the rules. They were willing to do illegal things without being concerned about the huge consequences," Stuhlbarg said.
Stuhlbarg's likes that the TV series gives him more time to work on his character. Generally, he works in films -- "Lincoln," "Hugo," "A Serious Man" -- where he's more restricted by the script.
Although he's found great success in films, Stuhlbarg said getting to be on a TV series -- especially one that has been so highly praised -- is a blessing.
"I just feel like I am a really lucky guy who these talented directors have found places for me," Stuhlbarg said. "I feel honored and blessed."

Watch it
The fourth season of "Boardwalk Empire" begins Sept, 8 on HBO.
Story tags » Television

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