Michael Stuhlbarg found his true calling as a Northwestern ‘cherub’

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Michael Stuhlbarg in “Call Me By Your Name.” | Sony Pictures Classics

A recent return to Chicago to promote his film “Call Me by Your Name” (opening Friday) made Michael Stuhlbargwax nostalgic about time spent in the area when he was much younger.

“Coming to Chicago many years ago changed my life. I came here as a student when I was in high school. Northwestern University has a program for young students interested in the arts called the cherub program. I was a cherub in the summer of 1984.

“When I came here I had the opportunity to see some amazing theater — unlike anything I had experienced before. One production stands out in my mind: Seeing William Petersen in ‘Fool for Love,’Sam Shepard’s play. It opened my eyes to how theater can change you. It was a wonderful time.”

As for “Call Me by Your Name,” Stuhlbarg loved playing Mr. Perlman, the father of Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a teenager who falls in love with Perlman’s twentysomething intern Oliver (Armie Hammer) during a laconic summer in Northern Italy in 1983. Among the challenges for Stuhlbarg was “being believable as an expert on Greco-Roman antiquities,” which is Perlman’s professorial specialty. “A good friend was a classics major in college, so I asked him what his professors were like. That helped, as did meeting with a scholar in Milan.”

This is a big year for Stuhlbarg, as he appears in several films that are getting big awards season buzz. Along with “Call Me by Your Name,” he stars in “The Shape of Water” and “The Post.”

However, the actor noted “it was very freeing being in both ‘Call Me by Your Name’ and ‘The Shape of Water,’ as both those characters are fictional.” Stuhlbarg has been cast as real people in a number of recent movies including “Trumbo” (actor Edgar G. Robinson), “Boardwalk Empire” (gangsterArnold Rothstein), “Lincoln” (U.S. Rep. George Yeaman), “Hitchcock” (studio executive Lew Wasserman), “Steve Jobs” (computer innovator Andy Herzfeld) and the soon-to-be-released “The Post” (New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal).

“It was a huge relief actually to play Perlman, in particular. When you’re playing historical characters you want to honor as much as their life as best you can. With fiction, you don’t have that pressure.”

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