By Dave Karger
Updated October 19, 2011 at 11:00 PM EDT
Jojo Whilden

The new financial-crisis drama Margin Call boasts a fantastic cast, including Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Penn Badgley, and Demi Moore. (They’re all so good that they were just nominated for the Best Ensemble Performance prize at the Gotham Awards.) But the one moment that really knocked me out took place not on Wall Street, but on a New York City stoop. In the memorable scene, Stanley Tucci, playing an engineer-turned-finanical analyst, talks to Bettany about a bridge he helped build, and the amount of driving time it’s saved the residents of Ohio and West Virginia who use it. (Sample line: “That’s 6,708,240,000 miles that haven’t had to be driven…that’s 134,164,800 hours, or 559,020 days.”) The movie is released in theaters and on demand on October 21; in the meantime, check out the clip below:

So how did Tucci, a stage veteran and Oscar nominee of course, manage to memorize such a mouthful? I quizzed him about his impressive scene.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first reaction when you saw the scene in the script?

STANLEY TUCCI: It was a few pages. And all numbers, which aren’t my forte. I thought it was beautiful. I just knew that it was going to take a long time to memorize it, just because of the numbers. So I worked on it for a couple of weeks. I worked on it every day for a little bit.

Obviously you’re no stranger to memorizing lines. But was this different?

The numbers are very real to the character, but still they’re an abstraction. There’s nothing emotional connected to the numbers, but there’s something emotional connected to the speech. This bridge and these numbers that made up this bridge really meant something to him, because they really made a difference in the world. So at first I looked at it kind of abstractly. But as you do it over and over and over again, those numbers have significance. Emotional significance. It’s not just an idiot savant rattling off numbers. I mean, he’s probably close to a savant, but there’s a true emotionality there. So in order to get there, you just have to keep doing it over and over again and find that emotionality.

Once you were on the set, did you have trouble or did you know it cold?

No, I knew it cold. I didn’t need cards or anything like that. Of course I made a few mistakes along the way. But it became easier than I thought it was going to be. And I was also working with a great actor, Paul Bettany, who was really listening. The poor guy, having to listen to that over and over again.

There are moments in the speech where it feels like your character knows these figures by heart, but then there were also times when I could see the wheels turning in his head coming up with them.

Good, that’s what I wanted. I wanted it to be that some of them, yes, he knows by rote, and others he’s making them up there because he’s calculating them in his head.

So if I were to get out a calculator and do the math, would they all add up?

I didn’t check it. I believed it.

More: Read Owen Gleiberman’s Margin Call review