If the Coen brothers’ new comedy-drama Inside Llewyn Davis is fundamentally about being chosen for success, F. Murray Abraham’s character is doing the choosing. Playing Bud Grossman, a music executive for whom the title character auditions, Abraham is the gatekeeper to a kind of validation that every artists hopes to receive, and the embodiment of the often intangible, always unpredictable forces that turn some performers into stars and leave others wanting. It’s something the Academy Award winner can relate to intimately, especially after decades of fighting for parts, and losing at least as many times as he won.
The Amadeus and Homeland actor sat down with Spinoff Online at the recent Los Angeles press day for Inside Llewyn Davis to talk about both his role in the film, and his relationship to the ongoing struggle artists face. In addition to deconstructing the merciless honesty of his character’s critique of poor Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac), Abraham discussed his real-life experiences on the other side of that conversation, and explored the keys not just to survival, but success, in a business that is often cruel and unforgiving.
Spinoff Online: When you join a movie where your work is basically concentrated into one scene —
F. Murray Abraham: One day’s work.
— What kind of work do you have to do to fulfill the demands of the role?
It’s the same thing I do with Shakespeare, or whatever, any play. If the words are any good, you can’t go wrong. Just learn the words, that’s all. I mean, I hate to say it that simply, but it’s true, and that material is really good. And, when they get through with the script, that’s the script – they’ve hammered it out, and it works, especially with someone like Oscar. You know, it’s neat to be able to talk like this about a project that you really like, because if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be here – I’ll tell you right now. It’s not worth the time. But this, this in particular, and these guys are just — and you can ask any actor who’s worked with them — you want to work with them again and again. It’s just a treat. It’s the same thing with Wes Anderson – you just think, this is heaven! It doesn’t happen all of the time. But no, the preparation is the same for anything. If it’s there, you learn the lines and just do it – and trust that these two guys, it’s not just one guy directing, it’s both, but almost with one voice. They asked me to tinker with it just a little, but I think we did it in four days, three or four, and [Oscar] sang each time. And he sang his ass off each time too. It’s heartbreaking that after the end of him playing his guts out, you say, “no.”
What I found interesting about your character is that I think he has compassion for Llewyn – he clearly recognizes that he has talent. Is it just a matter of reading the lines, or do you have to do work to give dimensionality to a line like, “I don’t see any money?”
Well, considering the way my profession works, I’ve run up against that for many, many, many years, people like that. Some of them are more compassionate than others, but there are very clear images I have of people who are like that. They’re not pleasant, but I played one quite accurately in this one. And it’s part of the actors’ craft, I suppose. But the idea that he can be so devastating to this man, simply with the truth, it was important for me to try to deliver it like that.
Do you see him as being kind?
No, I think he’s being absolutely merciless. I think he’s doing exactly what he thinks is right: “You may have talent, but this is not going to sell. I’ll tell you right now, you may as well stop wasting your time.” Shave, join as part of a Peter, Paul and Mary, whatever group. But I think he thinks he’s doing what’s best, not only for him, but for this guy. Of course, when you’re a singer, when you’re a performer, that’s not how you see it. All you want is somebody to say, “here’s a job.”
Oscar Isaac and the Coens themselves agreed that as filmmakers they’ve never had to compromise in the way that Llewyn has to consider doing. What insights do you think they have about that idea looking at it from the outside?
Well, that’s it, what you just said. Their perspective is ideal. They really are able to look at it objectively, they know what it takes, and they delivered. That’s why they were able to wrap it together so nicely. But it’s more than that; they really are filmmakers. I think what we’re forgetting, or taking for granted, is storytelling. I don’t know why we overlook that ancient tradition – here’s a story. There’s a beginning, there’s a middle and there’s an end. It’s that magical thing that happens when you say, “Once upon a time,” and everyone goes, “yes?” And that’s what these guys do with every film they make – is tell a real story. And it’s a pleasure.
One of the admirable things about the film is how literal and direct it handles its story, and its characters. What to you is this story about ultimately?
It’s a real entrée into the existence of an artist, of what he has to face, what his life is like. This is just one week out of 52. He does this all of the time, and what you begin to understand is how hard it is to simply hang in there, what it takes. And I think it’s pretty uncompromising about how he refuses to put up with certain things – his frustration with his family, his sister, begins to surface, his friends that he seems to take advantage of. But, it’s really interesting how they introduce the cat into it – suddenly, it is important to him, and not just because of his friends. You realize he does have some heart, but he can really show it only with an animal. I think that was a brilliant idea, and sweet. How do you maintain your humanity, and your hope, and your faith in yourself as an artist? And go from one rejection to another – how do you do that? That’s what this examines. Because look at the stories of great artists, of Van Gogh cutting off his ear – what does that mean to you? That’s what this guy is close to doing! When he says, I’m going to go back on the ocean and be a seaman, what does that say? It’s almost like giving up – I have to do this, I will do it. He commits himself. That’s like cutting off your ear.
The movie also compares success between artists – watching a guy with less substance or talent move up while Llewyn still struggles. If you have been told some of the things that Llewyn is about your own career, how tough is it to watch others achieve the success that maybe you think you’ve earned or deserve?
It’s hard to keep from being bitter. I teach from time to time, master classes, for free, to give myself a real shot in the arm, because my student remind me of that passion which I need from time to time. But I let them know that they have to watch out so that they don’t become bitter. I mean, really, the time that they put in is not wasted even if they decide to back off from the profession for a while. But it’s very hard not to be bitter – I’ve worked with them, and you can smell it, and you can see it. It’s destructive, self-destructive, and destructive to those around you too. And you can see them becoming bitter. And there are so many times when you think, “how could he get that part? I’m perfect for that part!” And then if you’re really honest about it and you take a look at the performance, you think, he got it because, well, he’s better (laughs). That’s a very important thing to understand. But also, I teach them when you get bad notices – and you’re going to get them, I’ve had some real doozies – perhaps it’s some consolation that a lot of people get a lot of joy out of your bad notices (laughs).
When do you feel like you made the transition from being the guy who watches others move on to the big leagues to being the one who moves on yourself?
I’m not sure. It’s an interesting question – I’d have to think about it. But I can tell you, back to Bud, about that scene, when we talk about people who have rejected me, or rejected other people, not many are willing to take the time that Bud did with him as you pointed out. It’s just “no, thank you,” and that’s it, generally. Because they haven’t got that much time – there are a lot of people out there auditioning, coming in and going out. But he did take the time. But there’s another factor in that scene which should be entertained, and it’s that he did it in a theater – a theater I happen to have performed in, and it’s empty. And there’s something about an empty theatre that is unlike anything else. It is completely empty. Not like an empty church – there is always the presence of God in church. But this theatre needs someone in it to bring it to life, and when he says, “shall I play here?” I say, “no, play in the theater,” and it’s a big step. I don’t know if the audience understands how important that is, that you’re going out there alone, with this guy as your audience, and you’re going to play your ass off. And it’s in this place that was very still, with the tables and the chairs, and the boys did a very brilliant thing when they did that. And I think it contributed greatly to that moment in that film – which is apparently pivotal. And you know, when you consider it was just a day’s work, it was an extraordinary accomplishment.
With all of the things that you bring to a role because of your experience, do you have to do more work or less when you approach each new one?
Well, that’s a very good question – you have to do more. Because if you don’t, you begin cheating, you begin repeating. You have to be very careful – or I do – because you think, that felt so good the last time, I’ll try it again. But no. You’ve got to find something else. This character is what we’re talking about, not the other character.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens Friday in select cities.
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