Michael Stuhlbarg is the type of actor who can make even the smallest supporting turn memorable. More than once I’ve left a movie thinking, “Eh, it wasn’t great, but at least Michael Stuhlbarg was in it.” (See: Trumbo, Miss Sloane, etc.) But this year Stuhlbarg appears in three of the year’s best and buzziest films: The Shape of WaterCall Me By Your Name, and Steven Spielberg’s The Post. Luca Guadagnino’s Italian-set romance is bound to earn Stuhlbarg his first Oscar nomination for his turn as a tender-hearted father, but his impassioned scientist in Guillermo del Toro’s latest fairy tale is also a performance that will stay with us.

In The Shape of Water, Stuhlbarg plays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, a scientist working at a top-secret government laboratory outside of Baltimore, where he looks after a mysterious amphibious creature (Doug Jones) who was captured in the Amazon and endures violent torture from Michael Shannon’s malicious Agent Strickland. As much as del Toro’s romantic fantasy is a loving celebration of old movies, Dr. Hoffstetler is nothing like the stereotypical mad scientist. He’s sensitive, compassionate, and heroic.

I caught up with Stuhlbarg over the phone to chat about his The Shape of Water character, who he says was partially inspired by a photo he found of Peter Lorre. Stuhlbarg told me about the detailed biography del Toro wrote for his character, a Russian poem that resonated with Hoffstetler’s loneliness, and his thoughts on a Call Me By Your Name sequel.

(Minor spoilers for Stuhlbarg’s character in The Shape of Water follow.)

This film is such a beautiful ode to cinema and a wonderful blend of genres. Did Guillermo del Toro talk to you about any specific movies or characters that inspired your performance?

Well, he wrote us all biographies of our characters, which has never happened to me before. He just sort of loved the characters so much he just kept writing and writing and gave us all this extra material about where they may have come from. In my case, what programs he might have been as a young person in Russia, what brought him to the United States, what his reading predilections are, and what kinds of foods he might love. It was just this wealth of stuff he threw at us and he said, “Use it if it’s helpful and don’t if it’s not.” I don’t think there was any kind of a specific archetype for my character, although I did find a wonderful photograph of Peter Lorre in a film that really captured my imagination, that sort of made me liken Hoffstetler to – if anything it may have been closest to him.

How was that for you as a performer, to create this character with all that background info since you’ve never had that experience before?

It’s wonderful. Usually they just say go away, and you do your own thing. I’m supposed to take care of the acting, and they put the camera where they’re going to put it. And we do our thing together and they give me some direction here and there. But no, he’s in every molecule of this film. He never stopped working on it. It wasn’t as if he finished it, gave it to us, and then just wanted to commit it to film. He was continually creating as we were making it. I love that.

I love all the elements that he’d share with me. I just sorta said, “Is there a place where we can put this in there?” Whether it’s, we had a stack of books in Hoffstetler’s apartment with all the books that he said Hoffstetler may have read, that he had with him, that perhaps he carries with him everywhere he goes. And there was this radio that Hoffstetler has under his arm that he carries out of his apartment, but he leaves at the end. And that’s a wonderful, wonderful detail that might give you a little glimpse into who this man is and what’s important to him. I’m sure there are all kinds of things that I’ll find in repeated viewings that I had no idea he wanted in there.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, Guillermo del Toro, David Hewlett (Fox Searchlight)

I love this character because he has so much compassion for the creature, and he’s not really the kooky, erratic scientist that you’d expect in a typical monster movie. How did you approach playing him as scientist infused with such sympathy? 

It was kind of inevitable that his main concern was the welfare of this remarkable creature that they had come upon, and that he was stuck between two governments, one of which wanted to perhaps find as much about it and kill it. The other one who just wanted to steal it and kill it so that the Americans couldn’t have it. On his part, really his heart is impassioned by trying to keep it alive, trying to protect it, trying to allow it to thrive in the world and if it can’t, let it go at it for itself on its own. It wasn’t difficult to feel compassion for him while he was being continually tortured by Michael Shannon. [Laughs] It gave me something really concrete to play. And a wonderful way to open my heart in the doing of it.

We learn Hoffstetler’s true identity as a Russian eventually, but do you think he initially planned to set this creature free or do you think his intentions changed along the way as he grew to learn more about the creature?

I think they did change. I think he was inevitably brought in as a scientist to help care for it and learn about it. I don’t know if he ever really felt like they would want to kill it. I don’t think his intention was ever to be detrimental except to heal the thing and perhaps to learn about it. He was brought in after he was captured, so he was kind of somewhat helpless in how it has been treated up till that point. But I think he was compelled to, specifically when he saw Elisa’s relationship to it, to get it out of the environment which it found itself.

This movie is really about being an outsider and finding the humanity within everyone despite our differences. How does that theme resonate with you for your character?

He seemed really lonely to me. He was very much an outsider in America at that time and one of the aspects of things that Guillermo wanted me to be mindful of was him really just wanting to go home, to get back to Russia, honestly. To a place where he felt whole perhaps. We created this biography for him that he had been gone from there for quite a while and really just longed to go back home and practice science there. At one point I had found an Anna Akhmatova poem that I was hoping that we could incorporate into the story. The poem is called “I Am Not One of Those Who Left the Land to the Mercy of Its Enemies.” It’s about somebody who stayed in Russia instead of leaving. So there’s a kind of longing on his part to get home again to what is familiar. But yes, I mean the creature is sort of the central version of that. He’s I’m sure longing to go home too.

Fox Searchlight

Speaking of the creature, Doug Jones’ creature costume is so intricate and detailed. What was that like to interact with Doug in his practical effects suit in your scenes together?

It’s fantastic. You know, there’s no pretending necessary, it’s just right there. Doug is extraordinary. It makes absolute sense that he and Guillermo would have wanted to collaborate on at least six films at this point. He’s a remarkably gifted guy and as Michael Shannon has sort of pointed out for me, it’s not just spending four hours of being stuck in the latex and sort of walking through it. Doug also had to sort of take whatever position he was in and being trapped inside this thing, and then act his heart out at the same time. And he really was able to imbue this creature with a great sense of innocence and stature. I think Guillermo had said that he was a combination in the doing of it as if he was, I think he mentioned being a toreador, that there something of great presence and stature in how he did what he did. But Doug is also the sweetest guy in the world. So there was a great sense of, “Are you okay?” and us bringing him juice to make sure he didn’t get dehydrated, but it’s great fun. I don’t think there’s any place he’d rather be.

Before I let you go I want to ask you about Call Me By Your Name. Luca Gudaganino has talked about a sequel. What are your thoughts on the potential for that and has he told you his ideas for your character, Mr. Perlman?

Oh no he hasn’t yet, unfortunately. But I’d be curious to know. I love that he is so in love with these characters that he would even dream of creating a sequel. I think it’s a wonderful idea. We get a sense from the novel, there’s the last 50 pages of the novel in which we fast forward into their lives a little bit. Though we’re not privy to that in this version of the story. But it was a wonderful group of artists working together and I loved what I got to do I would be absolutely curious to know what he has in store for us.

The Shape of Water is now playing in select cities.