F. Murray Abraham is one of the finest and most prolific actors working today. His screen career has spanned over 40 years and he’s been in over 100 productions in film and television. He’s worked with directors like Guillermo del Toro, Brian de Palma, Wes Anderson (in the upcoming The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Milos Forman, in whose movie Amadeus Abraham won a Best Actor Oscar. The venerable screen presence has added another couple of heavy-hitting directors to his list in the form of the Coen Brothers in their movie Inside Llewyn Davis, now playing nationwide. In it, Abraham plays the record producer in Chicago who can literally make or break the career of Oscar Isaac’s titular folk singer. We spoke to Abraham about working with the Coen Brothers, about people who’ve blocked doors for him, about his regular role on Showtime’s Homeland, and even about his memorable turn as the villain Ru’afo in Star Trek: Insurrection.
NERDIST: This is the first film you’ve made with Joel and Ethan Coen, but this isn’t the first time you’ve worked with them, right?
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM: No, I’ve done six plays for Ethan.
N: How was your experience working with them on film?
FMA: As far as I’m concerned, I could work with them forever. It was a treat. It was a pleasure. Every actor, I think, everyone will tell you the same thing. It’s fun.
N: People call the Coen Brothers “the two-headed director” because of how in sync they always are. Did you find that to be true as well?
FMA: There’s never any argument. They really do work in tandem. I imagine it’s the way they write as well. There’s no question but they know exactly what they want. They don’t impose their will. They really present you the script and make a few suggestions, but most of all they trust you.
N: You play a very pivotal role in the film, being the man Llewyn needs to impress to get his career going, but in the movie while he’s playing you have to remain as motionless and tell-free as possible. How was that for you to do? He’s obviously doing a great job of playing and yet you have to show no emotion at all.
FMA: Yeah, it was tough because it’s a very touching song. The first time he played it, I almost started to weep, which is not the right thing. He delivered every time, one take each time that long, moving end-shot. It was wonderful to see. I think he did it four times. It tore his heart out every time. I don’t know if you know that he played it live. He was playing and singing. It’s not prerecorded at all.
N: That’s amazing.
FMA: Isn’t it?
N: Your character is sort of the gatekeeper to him and a lot of other people in his position. Have you experienced anybody like that in your own life that you kind of could draw on?
FMA: My whole life, these people who’ve held the keys to the kingdom. I don’t have to do it anymore, but for most of my life it’s that. You come in, your heart’s on your sleeve and they just say, “No. No, you stink,” and you know you’re good. After a while you think, “Geez, am I really any good? Am I lying to myself?” It’s tough because nobody wants to buy your act. I mean, I’ve got some friends, good friends, with a lot of chops, can’t get a break; twenty, thirty, forty years’ experience.
N: Is it just a power trip for those people, or are they actually looking for something specific and just not seeing it?
FMA: That’s a very good question. I don’t know. I really can’t tell you, because some of them just are insensitive or they’re cruel or they’re envious, but they also have a nose for talent. You have to give them credit for that. My character has to make a quick decision and it’s either right or wrong. Maybe he’s right in terms of that particular moment. He says it, “It’s not going to sell.” He knows those things. I’ve met people like that who have that kind of facility, that kind of acumen.
N: Do you know a lot about the folk music of the early ’60s?
FMA: I grew up with that period. That was terrific. We’d have hootenannies. You would just get together with a bunch of people, get some wine, and someone with guitars would come out, and we would just sing together. It was very communal. It was a nice thing. It was all acoustic. There was something warm about that. Now of course, Pete Seeger was a big promoter of that kind of thing. He’d get people to sing together by the masses, by the thousands. A real great talent for that kind of thing. It was a fun time. After a while, into the ‘60s, it became serious folk songs, Dylan and some of those great, great lyrics. It was a good time to be around.
N: I feel like that was really one of the only times that American folk music was also the most financially successful music style.
FMA: When you say financially successful, you have to remember it was around for a while until people like Bud, my character, started to promote it as a financial investment. He really, as much as I dislike that kind of person, deserves, I think, the credit for it. Although he became a greedy pig of a man. I mean, Dylan had a lawsuit against him for years, and he wasn’t the only one. It’s too bad because it started from a good place.
N: You’ve worked with lots of different directors, and I take it you’d work with the Coen Brothers again–
FMA: Are you kidding? Tomorrow. I feel the same way about Wes Anderson. I’d work with him anytime, anyplace; he’s terrific.
N: Is there something specific you look for in a director or directors you work with?
FMA: I want them to know more than I do about my character. At least as much. I also want them to have a clear idea of what they finally want the film to accomplish. Because if that’s clear enough in their minds, it allows us to do kind of improvisations around it. He knows the parameters, and someone who has that kind of grasp of the idea gives you a confidence to simply not monitor yourself.
It’s important to believe that the director knows what’s good. That way, you don’t have to check up on yourself. If he asks or she asks you to try it again with something else in mind, you absolutely believe that they know what they’re talking about. It doesn’t take long for you to realize that a director doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and then that’s when the performance becomes studied. Good performance, but it limits the possibility of greatness.
N: When you’re being directed, though, do you feel stifled when they’re like, “No, you have to do it exactly like this”? That’s the opposite end of that spectrum of knowing what they want.
FMA: It’s awful when that happens. It really is. It happens and sometimes they’re very famous directors, but they know what they want, and they’d rather treat you like a marionette than a contributor to their film. Sometimes it works out for them, but you don’t want to work with them too many times.
N: You’re a regular cast member on Homeland this season; how was it to come into a show that was already so established and celebrated?
FMA: It’s such a good show. When you have good material, it makes it a lot easier. That one, and The Good Wife, I appear on at least once a season. It’s a treat because the material is so good. When you have that, then, what is that, 80%? Just learn the lines and do it.
N: Your character on Homeland is a black ops specialist, which is kind of a cool title. Do you like where there are layers to the character so you know maybe what’s going on, but the audience does not?
FMA: I’ve got to tell you the truth. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s a secret from me too. They’re stringing me along. It’s a real pleasure. I play the mystery that I really am experiencing. I think my potential is limitless. It’s neat. I think they’re inventing as the go along. I think that’s a neat way to be.
N: Say your character is revealed to be a big bad guy, would you have to think back kind of tinker what you’ve done because you’ve been a bad guy the whole time?
FMA: I think he’s so mysterious that he can get away with just about anything. He really can. What is his background? Where did he come from? How many people has he killed, and how has he killed them? What instruments? How many friends has he lost on these missions that he’s gone on? I think he’s lost quite a few.
N: Seeing as we’re the Nerdist, I have to ask you about playing a bad guy in a Star Trek movie. How was that experience?
FMA: It was just a treat. That’s one of the best sets in Hollywood. They’re terrific people; just so welcoming. It’s a four and half hour makeup, and they were just always looking after your comfort, helping and good food. On the set, I don’t know if you know that that director [Jonathan Frakes] is a singer. He’s a baritone. Me with all my makeup, he and I used to sing from Oklahoma. I had a great time on that. I wish it had been more successful. I really do.
It was a treat to do the press tour for it. Patrick [Stewart]’s a friend of mine, and he lives in Brooklyn, not far from where I do. I’m in Manhattan, but touring with him to publicize the film, it was great to see those fans: Germany, England, all over the place, sincere fans. I think that was great.
You can watch F. Murray Abraham be secretive and mysterious on Homeland, which just wrapped up its third season, and see him pass judgment on a folk musician in Inside Llewyn Davis, in theaters now.