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Michael Stuhlbarg's 'fragile balancing act' in playing a supportive dad in 'Call Me by Your Name'

Michael Stuhlbarg's 'fragile balancing act' in playing a supportive dad in 'Call Me by Your Name'
"The role seemed complicated, weighty and loving. All that seemed amazing to me,” Michael Stuhlbarg says of playing the father in "Call Me by Your Name." (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Luca Guadagnino didn’t have to work too hard to convince Michael Stuhlbarg to join the cast of his latest film, “Call Me by Your Name,” and not just because the 49-year-old character actor was already a fan of Guadagnino’s “I Am Love.”

“James Ivory had written the script, it was being shot in Northern Italy and the role seemed complicated, weighty and loving,” says Stuhlbarg, in his soft, precise voice. “All that seemed amazing to me.”

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“Luca said something to us at the very beginning of the process, which was he wanted us to tell this story with love and lightness as if it was one of the most ideal summers,” Stuhlbarg said, adding that it gave him “kind of freedom to, to have a sillier, and a lighter side to some of the more weighty scenes, which I loved.”

In “Call Me,” Stuhlbarg plays Mr. Perlman, a gentle professor and parent to a teenage son (Timothée Chalamet) who swoons over his father’s older, visiting grad student (Armie Hammer). On paper, Stuhlbarg’s is a typical supporting role, the parent who appears to be unaware of the burning affair that’s unfolding. But his quietly delivered advice at the film’s end is the kind of hard-to-forget soliloquy of which every actor dreams.

When you first heard about Mr. Perlman did you think it was a nice, ancillary Dad role? Or had you been tipped off to the existence of a pivotal speech?

Actually, I’d been warned a little bit by my agent. She said, “There’s a speech at the end of this. Just go through it.”

When the script arrived did you flip straight to the good part?

No. I read it in order and I was quite taken with it all.

What’s it like to play a character who appears oblivious but is actually quite perceptive?

I didn’t think of him as being oblivious — I thought of him as being quite liberal in terms of keeping his distance. He loves his son deeply. But he’s doing that fragile balancing act of raising a young man who will be leaving home soon. So he’s giving him free range of his own world, encouraging him to spread his wings.

From your bristly mustache in “Fargo” to your tidy whiskers in “Boardwalk Empire,” facial hair transforms you. How did you arrive upon Mr. Perlman’s unkempt beard?

Luca handed me a bunch of wonderfully diverse photographs when I first arrived, all which suggested an essence of who the man was, the life he lived and the world in which he functioned. I’d been growing my beard out just in case. We talked about making it neater but Luca loved that it had grown up my cheeks and was going down my neck, that it was free-form.

The film was shot in the tiny town of Lombardy. Did that inform your performance?

The town is plaintive, quiet and yet it comes alive on the weekends. People promenade around the center in their nice weekend garb. But it’s quite small and it kind of casts its spell on you. You put on a different pair of shoes, that affects you. I found myself wearing Mr. Perlman’s plain, brown Sperry Top-Siders wherever I went, feeling the cobblestones under my feet and wandering through the streets and how quiet and peaceful it was. Stepping out into the morning air, it seemed automatically how life should be lived.

Does Mr. Perlman have a first name?

We called him Sam, or Samuel. Once someone called out, Sammy! But I’m not sure [he has a name] in the book.

In a way, Sammy’s supportive final speech is as much about revealing things about himself as it is about comforting his son.

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It does suggest that. You get glimpses of the road not taken — or perhaps the road that was taken away from him. He’s content within his own family but also, as we grow to learn, he’s made some choices in his own life. He doesn’t elaborate on it, although perhaps someday maybe he will.

In the sequel that Luca Guadagnino’s been talking about?

Well there’s 50 pages at the very end of the novel in which it leaps forward 20 years and you find out some things that have happened. I think it’s something he’s seriously interested in exploring.

You really manage to avoid the clichés of the brilliant American academic abroad. Did you think about that at all?

No, I didn’t! What are those? Perhaps if you were to see the rest of the scenes, maybe those clichés are all there. [laughs] Maybe Luca helped me [by editing them out]. I probably fell into all of them.

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