Tobey Maguire and Michael Stuhlbarg Explain Their Roles in ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

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Tobey Maguire hasn’t been readily gracing the screen in the years since his tenure as Spider-Man came to close. The actor is admittedly selective in his roles and has moved towards producing films, as well as still selectively starring in films. His latest film as star and producer is Pawn Sacrifice, which sees Maguire stepping into role of Bobby Fischer, the troubled yet brilliant chess prodigy that captured the attention of the world for his tense matches with the Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War. Co-starring in the film is Michael Stuhlbarg, who himself has become a consistently captivating presence on the screen since his breakthrough in the Coen BrothersA Serious Man. I recently got to sit down with the two of them to discuss their roles in Pawn Sacrifice.

“It came about because [producer] Gail Katz came to me and asked me if I was interested in doing a project about Bobby Fischer, says Maguire of the project’s genesis. “I didn’t know a whole lot about Bobby Fischer at the time. I knew that he was a great chess player and some sense that he had a difficult personality or something. In doing some research on Bobby, I discovered some things that gave me pause about, some of the things he said later in his life that are, I don’t know, awful,” the actor says of Bobby Fischer’s robust anti-Semitism.

“But digging into him,” Maguire continued, “the story is quite fascinating – in particular the time we ended up focusing on in the film, which is this really difficult, fragile, paranoid guy at the center of a kind of sports movie trajectory set in this really tense political climate that I thought would be a fascinating framework. So basically, you have a sports movie structured with a character study at the center of it instead of this like kind of front to back biopic. So I thought that was the way to go. And I wanted to layer in as much about Bobby Fischer’s character as possible within that story.”

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For Michael Stuhlbarg, however, finding his character wasn’t quite as easy as it was for the film’s star. “They didn’t know what the character was going to be,” Stuhlbarg said of his early involvement in the film. “At that point, when I came on board, they brought into read for both Father [Bill] Lombardy, the part that Peter [Sarsgaard] played, and for [Paul] Marshall. They knew that Marshall was going to be, probably, an amalgam of a couple different people, at least that’s what they thought he was going to be. When they decided to go with Peter for Father Bill – Peter is a remarkable chess player in his own right, which was perfect for that part. I mean, it sort of served it completely, which was really cool. I learned a lot about chess, because I knew nothing about it, from him and watching him and Tobey together.”

“I started looking up who this guy, Paul Marshall, was and found out some of the most amazing things, Stuhlbarg elaborated. “He was a remarkable mind in his own right. He was a pioneer in the field of intellectual property law in the music business, and worked with Michael Jackson acquiring the Beatles music as well as takeovers of big companies. He was well known in that field.”

For each actor, once they were onboard Pawn Sacrifice, they devoted themselves to all they could possibly absorb about the real life of their characters. “I watched everything,” Maguire explained. “I listened to everything, as far as I know that existed or that I could find. I talked to anybody who would speak to me that knew Bobby Fischer. I read several books on Bobby, and articles. Throughout the whole process would listen to Bobby or watch Bobby. You know, just submerse myself in it.”

“I focused on him,” Stuhlbarg said of his process. “I learned as much as I could about him. I actually found his wife online because she’s a professional photographer. So I wrote her a little note and said, ‘This movie is being made. I’m playing your husband. I just wanted to let you know.’ And she sent me the sweetest e-mail back, started sending me photographs, and we got to speak on the phone a number of times, and sent messages back and forth. She shared all kinds of information about him that was essential to some of the choices I ended up making in the playing of this part.”

Like his co-star, Stuhlbarg also dived extensively into the archival footage of the era. “I watched as much as I could get my hands on,” he said. “There are a couple of great documentaries out there about Bobby and about that particular time. And Paul’s in them. I watched them as often as I could, and tried to absorb from him what it would’ve been like to have been there, to have dealt with Bobby.”

“Bobby,” Maguire said, “I don’t think, spent a lot of time kind of learning or growing past certain things socially. He really was just focused on chess, and was fairly anti-social.”

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Authenticity plays a huge factor in Pawn Sacrifice, as does turning chess into a high-stakes match, something that isn’t quite an easy feat to pull off. “It’s something that Ed Zwick and I talked about a bit,” Maguire elaborated on the process behind the tension in the chess scenes. “And that’s how do you dramatize games of chess and make it engaging for anybody who might be watching it? We knew that is was largely going to be silent. It is actually interesting if you know the stories of the people coming into the match, and you know what’s at stake for them, and you know, in Bobby’s case, what could throw him off his game and he becomes his own challenger as well as his challenger in front of him.”

“We do use,” Maguire continued, “whether it’s cinematically or with expression or somebody whispering to help us understand what just happened, so we’re employing all these different tactics to try an engage an audience without having to understand anything about chess.”

“We got to go to Reykjavík to shoot some exteriors,” Stuhlbarg elaborated about the film’s authenticity, “and while we were there we rushed over to the building where the event actually happened, saw the stage, saw what the space itself looked like, and brought with that with us on the journey we were going to be taking because we shot that part at the very beginning. Those are the details. People say, ‘God is in the details,’ and I agree with that in terms of the joy, and the love, and the spirit, and the fun. It’s all in actually trying to, perhaps, make it real, as real as it was or give its own sense of life. I love that kind of stuff. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff.”

At the heart of Pawn Sacrifice is a story about external political conflict and the internal struggle of Bobby Fischer trying to keep his demons at bay. “In terms of the political importance of that match and the way that sort of got positioned,” Maguire says of the film’s dual conflict, “that wasn’t, from a character point of view, that wasn’t Bobby’s concern. For a storytelling point of view, it’s very important because that’s the reality of what was happening and was part of several things that I think caught our attention and made it so popular and why America and the world was hanging on the edge of their seats watching this chess match.

“I think he had an awareness of that,” Maguire continued, “but I don’t think he really concerned about that. He was really concerned with beating Boris Spassky. In my own sort of process, my own interpretation, he was using his leverage to negotiate better conditions and money and that sort of stuff, but I also think he was afraid, which we talk about in the film, but I think he was afraid of losing but he was equally afraid of winning. Maybe not equally, but he was also afraid of winning because that was sort of it because he’s reached all the goals in his life. I do think even before that he knew that he was the best player, believed that wholeheartedly without question, and, you know, he’s a good judge of it because he knows the level of play for everybody. I think that enough of him wanted to demonstrate that, wanted to prove it to other people, and maybe to some degree himself.”

But Maguire even ponders the internal fears of Fischer, “He probably had a fear like, ‘Okay, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna beat this guy, but what if I don’t? Anything can happen. What if I win? What do I have to work on after that? I’ve done it all.’ And maybe having a sense that he’s trouble as well. I don’t know if he had a clear conscious idea of what that was, but maybe he had a felt sense of like, ‘If I don’t study chess for 14 hours a day, what do I do with myself?’”

“I love the challenge and I also love the structure of their lives, the things that these people did, the remarkable things that these people did. They could all have their own biopics,” Stuhlbarg says of the various historical figures he’s played over the years. “I thoroughly enjoyed learning about them all, and hold them all on a kind of pedestal because they all kind of achieved, whether it was Lew Wasserman, or Edward G. Robinson, or Paul Marshall, or Andy Hertzfeld, or Arnold Rothstein. They’re all remarkable guys, and they’ve all done remarkable things. All had a kind of genius for what it was that they did. To walk around a while in their shoes is a treat, and it’s fun for me to try.”

Despite playing a chess master on screen, don’t expect Maguire to be enrolling in any tournaments anytime soon. “What I learned through this movie is that I’m not a good chess player,” the actor said. “I know enough about it to not play. It was sort of discouraging as I was learning about chess and talking to international masters and grandmasters about the game, what it takes to be really, really good at the game.”

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