NEW YORK — Awards season's most valuable player could be headed for the history books.
This year, stage and screen veteran Michael Stuhlbarg stars in three major Oscar contenders: Steven Spielberg's timely newsroom drama The Post (expands nationwide Friday); sensual coming-of-age film Call Me By Your Name (expands nationwide Jan. 19); and Guillermo del Toro's romantic fantasy The Shape of Water (now showing nationwide).
If all three are nominated for best picture, Stuhlbarg, 49, would become only the sixth actor to star in three films up for the Academy Awards' top prize in the same year.
"I hadn't heard that, that's pretty crazy," Stuhlbarg says of the potential milestone. "It's a huge privilege. Each project I enjoyed for its own merits. I'm blindsided that they're all coming out at the same time, but pleased that they're being seen."
Of the three movies, Stuhlbarg has the most screen time in Call Me, playing the benevolent Mr. Perlman, an archaeology professor whose teenage son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), falls for his strapping summer research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer). His performance hits an emotional crescendo late in the film, as Perlman consoles a heartbroken Elio.
Stuhlbarg had a couple of months to prepare for the tear-jerking scene, which is lifted directly from André Aciman's book of the same name and could propel the dark horse into the Oscar race for supporting actor.
Although "intimidating" to shoot, Perlman's speech "falls into my own beliefs about love and generosity, and was something that I looked forward to working on," Stuhlbarg says. "I would like to think if I am fortunate enough to be a parent, I can utilize the way he seems to parent, which is to ... honor and love (your children) for who they are, and accept their individuality."
Call Me director Luca Guadagnino was introduced to Stuhlbarg through the Coen brothers' A Serious Man in 2009 and has followed his work ever since, which has included awards heavyweights Hugo and Arrival, and TV shows Boardwalk Empire and Fargo.
"Every time I was bumping into him (onscreen), it was always a new person I was meeting," Guadagnino says. "One of the great aspects of Michael for me is how transformative he is."
Which holds true in Stuhlbarg's other two Oscar hopefuls. In The Shape of Water, he plays a scientist who is also a Soviet spy at a lab housing a mysterious fish-man who becomes the object of a voiceless custodian's (Sally Hawkins) affections.
While Call Me's idyllic Italian setting required him to learn the language prior to shooting, "I had much more Russian to learn for Shape of Water," Stuhlbarg says. "I had taken some Russian in college and always thought, hopefully, that I'd have the chance to get back into it."
The Post reunites him with Spielberg after Lincoln and required a slightly less exhaustive amount of prep as he researched New York Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal, who was instrumental in the paper's publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
"He was relentless in making that decision and wouldn't have had it any other way," Stuhlbarg says. "He was one of those forces of nature when it came to telling the truth in the news, and we could use a dose of him today."
The soft-spoken actor appears in Hulu's counterterrorism miniseries The Looming Tower next month and allows that he's still playing catch-up on this year's movies. He remarkably hasn't been worn down by the grind of awards season Q&As and luncheons, and through talking about his movies, has found connective tissue between all three.
"It's a wonderful and important time to support each other and hold each other up," Stuhlbarg says. "If these stories encourage compassion, then I'm pleased to have been a part of them."