Art Talk with F. Murray Abraham
F. Murray Abraham accepts the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre at the Harman Center for the Arts Annual Gala. Photo by Kevin Allen
"I was a hoodlum. I was a gang member, and art saved my life." --- F. Murray Abraham
If you've seen Amadeus or Scarface, or even Star Trek: Insurrection, then you know that F. Murray Abraham is a virtuosic actor. His depth of talent is such that he's equally comfortable as the aggrieved merchant Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, or the hapless short-order cook in Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, or guesting on The Good Wife or Louie. Here's what you don't know about Abraham: he's really, really funny, he occasionally gets star-struck, and he used to have a heck of a Texas accent. We spoke with the Oscar-winner by phone when he was in Washington, DC, to receive the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Will Award, which honors an actor for his or her contributions to classical theater. Here are Abraham's thoughts on his favorite roles, the artist's role in the community, and what it was like to win that iconic gold statuette.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience or engagement with the arts?
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM: It was in high school. A teacher invited me to be on the stage. I had never had any connection with it at all. So it was my high school drama teacher…. I think she saved my life. I don't know how she saw in me this talent which I didn't know I had. And it just changed my life completely.
NEA: What happened from there that lead you to act professionally?
ABRAHAM: I just knew as soon as I stepped on the stage. I was about 16, I think. I had been a gang member, a hoodlum, and I just changed everything. I began to read---read for the first time really. [My teacher] introduced me to Shakespeare. And I began to study voice, and I began to change my accent. I don't know if you saw me in the movie Scarface, but I grew up with an accent like that. I speak Spanish. My friends were Chicanos and I worked on getting rid of the accent so I could be a real actor. I was dedicated immediately.
NEA: How did you work on getting rid of the accent?
ABRAHAM: I listened to recordings of great actors. By the way, I still have them. The old vinyl recordings of [Laurence] Olivier and some early stuff by John Barrymore. He was a great actor. I kept listening to them and imitating them. That's how I did it. It’s all on my own. It’s not that big a deal. All you have to do is dedicate yourself and do it. Get off your butt and work.
NEA: In an interview you did when you were playing Shylock in Merchant of Venice last year, you said that as an actor you are both highly technical when you are preparing, but you are also instinctual. Can you please talk about what each of those things mean and how they inform each other?
ABRAHAM: That's a tough trick, because the technique has got to underlie everything you do. It sustains you. If you develop it enough, when you do, you don't think about it, you trust that it will be there so you can focus on achieving something other than the work from moment to moment. That's a little complex. You have to trust that the thing---the reason that you're an artist---is enough to rely on…. If you learn a piece, generally speaking, if people learn a line or two, a poem or something, what they focus on is each word and remembering the language. Rather than focusing on finding the meaning of the language, and not thinking about the words. That's what the trick is. So, if you go for the passion and what this piece that you're doing means to you, then you don't really think about things like a word-to-word memory. It rather becomes guided by inspiration. I don't want to make this too ethereal, but it really is a magical thing. It doesn't always happen, but it's always worth looking for. You have to trust, you have to have faith. That doesn't tell you exactly how, it's a tricky thing. It's like automatic writing.
NEA: I know people generally ask which actors are influences, but I'm interested in knowing if there are certain performances that have influenced your work?
ABRAHAM: [Marlon] Brando was a great influence. He's a genius. He was probably the only authentic genius actor I ever knew, I ever saw. Absolutely. He was an inspiration. He remains an inspiration. I think Sean Penn's performances generally are inspired. I think he's brilliant. But before that there was [Greta] Garbo. People don't give her credit. She was an intellect. She was a smart, great actress. But there are many. I mean, James Dean had a couple of wonderful performances that affected me…. There were some great actors in the silent movies---a wonderful actor in Nosferatu. There are many, many...and women as well as men. I worked with Meryl Streep. We did a reading; we played husband and wife. Have you ever seen her on stage? She's extraordinary---a real, genuine force of nature. It's really marvelous. Also, there are pieces of performances. Sometimes you can just see an average actor, an average performance, and suddenly they'll be a moment of lightning, and it's just inspiring.
NEA: Do you have one in mind, in particular?
ABRAHAM: Well, yeah. A lot of my own. (Laughter) It's also in music. You can be sitting there listening to a concert, and suddenly something will just affect you deeply.... John Turturro did a performance in a Chekhov play not too long ago. It was The Cherry Orchard, and he did a dance when he played it. It was electrifying. I mean, it was marvelous. And you see that kind of thing and you know that what he did three months ago would have been perfectly understandable and thrilling when it was first written 110 years ago. You just know it's eternal. You sense it; you know it when you see it. It just doesn't happen that often, unfortunately. But you know, it's fine. As long as you're open to it, when it happens it changes the temperature.
NEA: You've played such diverse characters over the course of your career in theater, film, TV. I'm curious as to how you choose your roles. What makes you say yes, I really want to be part of this production?.
ABRAHAM: (laughter) Well, you gotta pay the rent…. But also, you do some things for money, but it allows you do some stuff for love. You can't do off-Broadway unless you do some television and some films. It just would be nice if you could make enough money doing good films instead of just mediocre ones or run-of-the-mill stuff. But I've been pretty lucky. I've been doing some pretty good movies... The things that I like to pick and choose from are generally in the theater where I can always work. I just pick the material that's challenging, uplifting…. From now on I would like to do things that are funny. Because I'm really funny. I like to make people laugh. I can. That's what I'd like to do. It's more fun to be funny. At least, I think so.
NEA: Do you have a favorite role that you've done?
ABRAHAM: I think Shylock now is my favorite. It was Cyrano for a long time, and then it was Lear…. It's Chris, also, from The Ritz. I don't know if you know that one... but that was a Terrence McNally play, and I loved Chris. He was a really flamboyant, outrageous gay man, and he was funny. That's where I met Jerry Stiller. It's a movie, if you feel like taking a look at it. It's pretty funny. It takes place in a gay bath house, and it was a very bold thing to do in those days. I think Chris is probably one of my favorites. I've done quite a few of Terrence's plays. He wrote one for me too called Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.
NEA: Oh, I love that play.
ABRAHAM: Well, that was me. He wrote that for me and Kathy Bates…. A lot of my life is in that play.
NEA: So, you're in Washington, DC because you're receiving the Will Award from the Shakespeare Theatre Company. What does that mean to receive this award for making a significant contribution?
ABRAHAM: It's a wonderful compliment. What can I say? I think everyone should get an award. It's like saying, "Congratulations---go on and do more." It's not a retirement thing. It's really neat. It's also a fundraising benefit, which has become very prominent in town. They raised a lot of money at the event. It's really nicely done. But, of course, it's an honor. One of the most delightful things about it were the people they had contacted who came to the show---friends and colleagues from many years ago. People sending me comments from all over the world. It was so sweet. It kind of made me cry. Kevin Spacey would send a nice message. Of course, Tom [Hulce]. People showed up. It was swell seeing a bunch of people I hadn't seen in years, and you know, kind of a little family get-together.
NEA: I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about another award you received---the Academy Award for Best Actor for Amadeus. When you were working on that film, did you have any sense that that was going to be such a huge role for you?
ABRAHAM: Everybody knew it was a huge role. That was universal. That play [by Peter Shaffer] had been, I don't know if you know it, but probably one of the most popular modern plays ever written. It's [translated] in at least 30 languages. It was a very popular play. I'm not exaggerating, by the way. It was included in many of the repertory systems all over the world. So, everyone wanted that role. The man who originated it in England, and the other British actor who came to New York---each person who did that role won the top award in his country. So, I think the writing has something to say for the glory of the performance. So what I'm saying is, everyone wanted that role. I was just very lucky. Of course it had that potential, but as I told you before, you don't think of what it's going to accomplish, you concentrate on the work at hand.
NEA: And what was it like when you were sitting there in the auditorium and they announced your name?
ABRAHAM: It was very exciting---what can I tell you? I was there with my wife and… every actor wants to be in that place, that kind of situation. I had never had any doubts that I would be famous. But, you see, that's what every actor feels. But in that case, it was true. I was there, at least for a few minutes. It was terrific. I was surrounded by so many of my peers. I got to meet a bunch of my hero actors I had been worshiping from afar. I mean there they were---Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster---they were all there! They were chumming around with me as if I were one of the guys. It was really swell.
NEA: is there anyone that still makes you a little star-struck today?
ABRAHAM: I remember meeting Elizabeth Taylor. It was at one of these Oscar gatherings. She passed by and I just froze. These eyes, this wonderful smile. I said, “You look great!" She said, “Thanks!” But she's gone now. [And] Sean Connery. I've done a couple of movies with him, and I'm in a movie with his son, so I knew him. We were doing an important scene in Finding Forrester. I remember this so distinctly. It was an emotional scene. We were working together and he was acting and I'm acting and the camera's over my shoulder on him. In the middle of this very important emotional scene I felt myself say to myself, "Geez, that's Sean Connery." (Laughter) That's a true story. I almost felt like bursting out laughing. So, yeah, I did used to be star struck, there are some people.
NEA: I want to get philosophical for a moment. What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?
ABRAHAM: It's the only source of truth in our society. That's what the role of the artist is: the truth. Because you're not going to find it in politicians’ mouths. You’re not going to find it in even theologians’ mouths…. They all have an agenda. They've all forgotten the truth…. I think the artist---the real artist---is the source of the truth. And I have a feeling it's the only source.
NEA: Do you think the community has a responsibility to the artist? And if so, what is it?
ABRAHAM: Absolutely! I think that's one of the reasons the politicians don't support the arts more. Because the arts do examine the truth, and that's the last thing a politician wants. I certainly do think it's a responsibility of society. I think the fact that we have cave paintings should point us to the reality of the need for art. If cave men and women, thousands and thousands of years ago, felt the need to put paintings on the walls, doesn't that mean there's something in us that needs art? It does to me…. Art saved my life. I was a hoodlum. I was a gang member, and art saved my life. What more can I say?
NEA: At the NEA, we say Art Works, referring to the work of art itself, the fact that art is transformative, and the fact that artists are workers. What does the phrase "Art Works" mean to you?
ABRAHAM: I believe it. I believe that art works. It worked for me, and it is my work. I can't imagine life without art. Art works. It really does make us better people because it reminds us of the truth, which is always inside of us. Art wakes it up in us. Yes, art works. I don't know how else to say it.
NEA: Any advice for emerging artists?
ABRAHAM: If you don't love it, get out. You really have to keep reminding yourself, because you can sometimes stay in this artist’s world out of habit. And if you don't have any success after a while, you begin to get bitter. And that can only infect the work, so you really have to really love it. It’s the only thing that sustains you and your passion for it. And you can always step out of the business for a while, get your footing and try something else. Because the business will always be there when you come back to it. And that's true for art, too. It sounds like an off-hand thing to say, but it’s true. I really believe it. I've been doing it for 50 years and I'm as passionate now, really as passionate, as I ever was.
NEA: Is there anything you wanted to add?
ABRAHAM: I'm really grateful for being able to do my work. I wish there were more of it around for my fellow actors, and for everybody! It would be great to see the WPA [Works Progress Administration] come back. Open up the world... that's what I'd like to say! Let's re-introduce the WPA. Let's fix our infrastructure. Let's fix the highways, the bridges. Let's build more hospitals. Let’s put artists to work. Let's spend some of this money on art working rather than on ammunition and guns and war.