The Coen brothers' A Serious Man is a movie about big ideas—fate, knowledge, and the meaning of life, to name a few—but it’s also a film of faces, and of wonderfully idiosyncratic human moments. First among these faces, and one often seen locked in a painfully––and hilariously––look of total bewilderment, is that of Michael Stuhlbarg. Stuhlbarg plays the lead role of Larry Gopnik, a high-school physics teacher for whom the weight of the world has crashed on his shoulders. But he's not the only memorable character in the film. From, to name just a few, Sy Abelman, the unctuous suitor of Gopnik's wife played by Fred Melamed, to Richard Kind's couch-surfing miscreant, Uncle Arthur, to Amy Landecker's foxy symbol of '60s licentiousness, Mrs. Samsky, A Serious Man’s supporting cast is full of rich turns by a group of talented actors carefully chosen for their ability to instantly read as just the sort of people who'd live inside a Coen brothers' universe.
The actors in A Serious Man work together so beautifully, in fact, that the key cast has received a Gotham nomination for Best Ensemble by the Independent Filmmaker Project. The nod is testament to the skills and hard work of casting directors Ellen Chenoweth and Rachel Tanner, who, on A Serious Man, had the dream assignment of casting a film from the ground up. You see, oftentimes casting directors board a project after its been greenlit by the attachment of one or several lead roles. But, says Chenoweth, "For A Serious Man we were able to be completely under the radar. It was the opposite of 'Let’s go get stars for this.' [The Coens] were able to [finance the film] without stars. They didn’t want Dustin Hoffman to play the rabbi." Adds Tenner, "They didn't want it to be Cold Mountain-y, where every role was played by a celebrity." Additionally, they didn’t want the actors to read as "New York-y," says Chenoweth. "They wanted to establish a mid-Western feel." Adds Tenner, "The ['60s] period also had to work, which was more of an issue when looking for the kids."
But while such an approach is thrilling for casting directors, who love to discover talent and spotlight unfamiliar performers, it was also, admits Chenoweth, "a little scary"––particularly when it came to finding a performer able to balance the comedy and pathos of Gopnik's character. "It was tricky, because he had to carry the movie," says Chenoweth. "We looked at everyone who was Jewish or who looked Jewish, was in his 40s, and wasn't a star," says Tenner. "Michael wasn’t the obvious candidate," Chenoweth continues. "We read him for three different parts before we settled on him. We first had him for the Yiddish part, and this was while we were also casting Burn after Reading. Michael's the kind of guy who will go out and learn a whole scene in Yiddish [just for the audition]. He learned it, came it, and he was pretty darn good. The Coens already knew him because he was in a theater company with Fran McDormand [Joel Coen's wife], and they had seen him in a David Mamet play. Cut to a year later and we tried him for the brother. He was so brilliant that we then decided to try him as Larry."
Several of the actors, such as Stuhlbarg, who was acclaimed for his role in the Broadway production of The Pillowman, were known to the casting directors from their stage work. For example, Chenoweth says that Landecker "had done a lot of theater in Chicago and was in the original production of Killer Joe." She adds, "Her father is the Chicago radio DJ John "Records" Landecker, and she's the great grand-daughter of Joseph Nye Welch, [the Special Counsel for the Army] in the McCarthy hearings. He was a famous lawyer and Otto Preminger wound up casting him as the judge in Anatomy of a Murder."
For other parts, the casting directors searched for characters outside of the traditional avenues. Says Tenner, "[Joel and Ethan] are so open, so we saw people from different fields, like a lot of writers and directors. We saw for one of the parts one the creators of Everybody Loves Raymond. He said, 'I haven’t read something this Jewish since my Bar Mitzvah!'" For the divorce lawyer, says Chenoweth, "They kept saying he should be like Robert Bennett [the lawyer who defended Clinton in the Lewinsky case], so finally we said, 'Let's see if Bennett wants to audition.' And he did. He took the train up from D.C., and he gave it a mighty effort. It was a blast to meet him."
Tenner traveled to Minneapolis, where she scoured the local theater community. "They have a big theater community there, and the Guthrie Theater, so we knew there would be a large talent pool," she says. "A lot of the actors came from there. For the day players, I'd go to the synagogues and meet people. It's such a tight-knit community so soon after we started everybody knew about the film. Then we did an open call. We saw 600 kids in order to whittle to find the seven you see in the movie. And then there were people we found like the woman who coughs in the office––she was a grandmother volunteering at the local JCC talent show. The guy who lifts the Torah and says, 'Jesus Christ,' he was the location manager, Tyson Bidner.
Chenoweth, who has been the casting director on almost 70 movies, began her career at New York's Actors Studio. "I came out of New York Theater where I was listening to Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg talk about acting," she says. "Then I went to L.A. in the '80s, when it was a little easier to go out there as a nobody and break into the industry." Among her other credits are Diner, Bugsy, Gran Torino, Meet the Parents and Michael Clayton. Her first film with the Coens was O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and she's cast every one since, including No Country for Old Men. After graduating NYU, Tenner worked in Chicago and then got an internship at a casting agency, which happened to be working on the Coens' The Hudsucker Proxy. Says Chenoweth, "Rachel started her own company in Chicago, and she and I got to be friends as I'd call her when we needed [casting help] out of Chicago." Continues Tenner, "I was thinking about moving to New York, and Ellen was starting Intolerable Cruelty. She said she needed an associate, so I came to New York and we did Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers together."
So, after all of this experience working with the Coens, do Chenoweth and Tenner feel they have an instinctual ability to identify actors who will fit naturally into their movies? "We have a good gauge as to what they’ll respond to," answers Tenner. "We know what they’re going to like," agrees Chenoweth. "For example, they often like a deadpan feel." "Minimal," says Tenner. "They’ll sometimes say [after an audition], 'He made a meal of that scene!'" adds Chenoweth. Like the two women, who during my phone interview played off each other’s words and sometimes finished each others' sentences, the Coens, says Chenoweth, "are startlingly in sync with each other. It's almost like they have a secret language. One will say, 'He has that…' and the other will say, 'Yeah, I know.' They are really serious about what they do, and they don’t make you feel bad if you try something weird. Working with them is a great gig."