Fred Melamed gives Michael Stuhlbarg an unsolicited hug in “A Serious Man” (Focus Features)
On a rainy evening in early January 2010, in a corner of the bustling lobby of the Hyatt Hotel adjacent to Grand Central Station in Midtown Manhattan, I chatted for nearly two hours with the actor who created the most memorable character to grace the big screen in 2009. No, I wasn’t in the company of Sandra Bullock, Jeff Bridges, Mo’Nique, or Christoph Waltz, but rather Fred Melamed, a 53-year-old who has worked for decades on radio (as a top voiceover artist), stage (including a stint on Broadway), and screen (appearing in no fewer than nine Woody Allen films, among others), and who most recently brought to life the unforgettably unctuous Sy Ableman in the Coen brothers’ best picture Oscar nominee “A Serious Man.”
Fred’s performance, which provides many of the film’s funniest moments, is beginning to develop a cult-like following. It earned a shoutout from Roger Ebert; a plea to Oscar voters from A.O. Scott; and a piece of both a best ensemble nomination from the Gotham Independent Film Awards and the Robert Altman Award from the Indie Spirit Awards. I’ve watched it half a dozen times now — largely because I was so excited to see different relatives’ and friends’ reactions — and the content and delivery crack me up every time. (Indeed, I’m such a fan that I seriously considered dressing up as Sy Ableman for Halloween before remembering that I’m a grown man.)
I asked to speak with Fred for those reasons, and because I realized that his performance was unlikely to garner individual awards attention for a number of reasons—it’s but one part of an ensemble piece; it’s in a comedy; Fred’s not a household name; he made it look so easy; etc. As I wrote in January, I’ve decided to devote at least two posts each year to celebrating individuals—one from “behind-the-scenes” and one from “on-screen”—who I strongly feel deserved more attention than they received over the course of the awards season. For 2009, my behind-the-scenes choice was Eric Steelberg, the cinematographer of both “500 Days of Summer” and “Up in the Air”; as for on-screen talent, no one deserves to be highlighted more than Fred.
Below, you can read a the full transcript of our conversation, which covers everything from Fred’s early years, to his struggles with weight and substance abuse, to his collaborations with Woody Allen and the Coen brothers, to a theological discussion about the meaning of the opening and closing scenes of A Serious Man, to criticisms about the way that film portrays Jews and Judaism. I think you’ll find it—and Fred—to be fascinating. I know I did.
What I’d love to do, if I may, is start all the way at the beginning: where were you born and raised?
Sure. I was born and raised right here in Manhattan—one of the relatively few people that you meet who was actually born and raised here. I was raised on the east side, 72nd Street and 2nd Avenue. I went to Hunter College Elementary School here in the city; and then I went to a prep school called Riverdale up in the Bronx; and then, when I was about sixteen, my father, who had been a television producer for many years, decided that he wanted to be a writer, a novel writer—he had actually decided that a couple of years prior—and was not successful at it, and my family, kind of, fell on hard times financially. So we moved to Florida—where my uncle had a real estate venture that was going and my father joined him—which, for me, was kind of like moving to Mars. I had never lived in the suburbs; it was a very, you know, hard place for me to understand; but I spent the last two years of high school there, and then came back up north to go to college. I went to Hampshire College, sort of a hippie college. At the end of my years there, I met two women—one called Tina Packer and one called Kristen Linklater—and they had just started a company called Shakespeare & Company, a kind of interesting pan-English-speaking company, and I was one of the original members of that company—she actually bought a beautiful house called The Mount, which had been Edith Wharton’s estate up in Lenox, Massachusetts, so we lived there and performed there. And then I decided I needed more training, so I went to Yale Drama School—
Fred as Oedipus in a Hampshire College production of “Oedipus,” circa 1975 (Fred Melamed Collection)
I hope I can cut you off for a minute because I have some specific questions about a number of the things you mentioned. For instance, you mentioned your parents, and I’ve read that the story is actually a little more complex than just that, so I hope you can talk about that…
Oh, I’ll be happy to. It’s actually quite a complex story. I was adopted, and I always knew, from the time that I could talk, that I was adopted. And I think I had the normal curiosity that kids have about that, but I didn’t have any burning, kind of, desire, as some people do, to go hunt out my biological parents. But I used to always ask my mother and father that raised me, you know, “Who were my parents—my biological parents?” And they would say, “Well, we don’t know. We picked you out of a room of children. We liked the way you looked, and you were smiling at us, so we picked you.” And I had no reason to doubt that that was the truth. One day, when I was twenty-seven years old—which is now half my life ago exactly—I came back home— I used to play cards—I was a very serious poker player, and I spent about half my waking hours playing cards—and it was late at night, about, maybe, one-thirty in the morning, and I saw this answer on my answering machine, and it was a woman’s voice, and as soon as I played the answer I could tell that her voice was, sort of, tremulous; there was something definitely going on. She said, “My name is Nancy. Please call me collect at” this number in California. So I thought maybe it was about work or something; I didn’t know. I thought, “Well, I’ll call.” She said, “You can call late.” It’s three hours earlier in California, so it was whatever it was, ten-thirty there. So I called her. And she said to me, “You know that you’re adopted?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Well, I’m your birth mother, your biological mother.” So we talked for probably about five hours that night, all about the circumstances of my nativity, and birth, and who my father was, and who she was. And it turned out that she was an actress and, kind of, a wannabe director. I had worked at the Guthrie Theatre, after I got out of drama school, for a year; and she had worked there. And there was another theater in Florida that I had worked at that she had worked out. And she had been the girlfriend of a man that I became friendly with. I mean, very strange coincidences. So we met shortly after that. She was living out in L.A. and she said, “I’m gonna be coming to New York in a couple of months. Would you like to meet?” And I said, “Yes, I would like to meet.” So I remember showing up in the bar of the Regency Hotel on 57th Street or 59th Street or wherever that is with a shoebox full of pictures of when I was a kid; and she had pictures, too, and all that. You know, it’s funny—nothing else in life is like that experience ’cause you feel connected in some way, but you, kind of, don’t know what to make of it. And I remember I felt that I should be cautious, even though I felt like I liked her. And she said to me that night—it was late at night, maybe ten-thirty at night; we’d been talking all night; and she said to me, “Listen, I’m hungry. I want to get something to eat—nothing fancy, but I’m just hungry. Where can we go to get something to eat late?” So I said, “Well, you want, like, a hamburger?” She said, “Yeah.” Jackson Hole was a big chain all over New York at that time, so I said, “Well, I know this place Jackson Hole. It’s nothing great but, you know, you can get a hamburger.” So we go to Jackson Hole, and she had this very fancy silk blouse on, and she grabbed ahold of the hamburger, and out of the hamburger came squirting about a quart of ketchup all over this red blouse, and I knew that we must be related—there was no doubt in my mind. Sealed the deal for me. So we met, and we became friends, and so on. And there’s much more to tell of that story but I won’t go on with it. So she was an actress; and my biological father—who I didn’t meet until I was fifty, and who recently passed away—was a British psychoanalyst. And, strangely enough— I live in Montauk, which is in the very easternmost tip of Long Island; he lived in Shelter Island, which is about fifteen minutes from where I live, so I got to know him, and his family, and everything.
Well, perhaps the most interesting part of the story, to me, is that he was related to Stella Adler’s family?
Yes, related to the Adlers—mind-boggling, to me, at least. He didn’t really know them, but he was a relative. He was born in London in the thirties, and when the war came he was sent to live with his grandparents in South Africa, and part of the Adler also had lived in South Africa, and, I gather, he or some part of his family became reconnected with them at that point. So I don’t actually know the nature of the connection, but we are distantly related. Stella Adler—of course, the very, very famous drama teacher—taught at Yale, although that was before I got there. The whole thing is, like, such a Movie fo the Week that nobody can believe it.
Did you go to the movies as a kid? And, if so, were there any films or actors that were particular favorites or influences?
I was a huge movie and television fan all my life. I’m one of those typical stories—I had asthma growing up; and I was always rather chunky; and never picked to be on anybody’s sports team—I was one of those kind of kids. [laughs] And I was always good at imitations; and I was very, kind of, verbal; and liked to play with words; and stuff like that. And I loved movies and I loved TV. And it just so happened that my dad—my adoptive father, who was my real father; also now passed away—was a TV producer, so I would often get to go to the studio with him. He produced Car 54, Where Are You?, which is an old, old-time show; and December Bride; and Let’s Pretend; and shows of that era—shows of the late fifties, early sixties. Count Basie Show. So I was fascinated with movies and TV from an early age—really, really liked them. I was an enormous Man from U.N.C.L.E. fan, as many kids my age were—I’m 53 now—so that was a big, exciting thing for me in my life. And when James Bond came along, I was a huge James Bond fan. And then I began to get interested in what you might call, kind of, more serious movies at a very young age. A friend of mine from high school was a big Truffaut fan, and got me involved in both Vittorio de Sica’s films and Truffaut’s films, which I liked very much, so we used to go to film festivals and things like that. And I was also an enormous Hitchcock fan. And, when I was very young, I wanted to be a director—I went through a brief period where I wanted to be a director. My father said, “Oh, you don’t want to do that. It’s too tough.” He said I should be an archeologist [laughs]—which I guess he thought was easier, although being an archeologist is pretty tough out there in the desert.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be an actor? Was there a moment? An experience? Did something bring the desire about? Or did it just, sort of, evolve over time?
Well, I mean, it was a kind of funny thing; I fell into it. Like a lot of actors that you meet—or a lot of other people—I was a musician first. I was one of those people that hand a band in junior high school and high school; and really liked music; and played the guitar, and the bass, and drums, and stuff; and always enjoyed that very much. And then I had a friend—a close friend in high school—who was into directing plays, and he would always say to me, “Be in my play! Be in my play!” And then it so happened that he went to the same college that I did, so he kept me asking me to be in his plays. And I was very flattered by the fact that other people asked me to be in their plays. And where I went to college, which was Hampshire College—this is no longer true, but in those days—you could pretty much do whatever you wanted, so I wish I had studied a, kind of, broader palette of things that I was interested in, but I acted constantly. I never thought that I would do it as a profession; I just liked it. And then, the last year that I was there, I met Tina Packer and Kristen Linklater, and then I thought, “Well,” you know, “this is something that I really enjoy in a deep way. Maybe I could actually do it as a profession.” But, you know, I didn’t actually come to that decision ’til really after college.
Over the years since, you’ve done stage and screen acting, as well as voiceover work, and teaching. Did these things always overlap, or did one thing give way to the next and then to the next?
No. I’ll tell you the honest truth about that. What happened with me was I went to Yale, and at Yale we were educated strictly as theater actors. I was in the last class that came in under Robert Brustein—while I was there, Lloyd Richards came and began, but my class was the last class that actually had Brustein as both an admittance judge and as a teacher—so his imprimatur was still very much on Yale when I was there, and there was no education whatsoever in film acting or anything like that. It was all theater acting, the presumption being—not an entirely correct presumption, but the presumption being—that if you were adept at that you could find your way into acting in movies and other things. Yale is a small drama school—there were only twelve people in my acting class the year that I graduated; I graduated in ’81. The year that I was in, David Alan Grier was in my class; Kathy Borowitz, who was also in our movie, who’s married to John Turturro. John Turturro, Fran McDormand, Rock Dutton, and a number of other very famous actors were in the class below us. I was one of the people who was typed at being good at comic stuff, and Yale worked largely like a repertory company—there was a repertory company attached to it—so Yale had many strengths, and one of those strengths was that you got to act a lot, you were on your feet a lot, but one of the, kind of, not so good parts about it, at least for me, was they constantly, sort of, used you to do the things that you were strong at and the things that you were less good at it you were not as encouraged to work on as perhaps you might have been in less performance-oriented schools. Anyway, after I got into Yale, I went to the Guthrie. And after that, I was in Amadeus on tour for a year—a bus-and-truck tour of Amadeus—and then I did it on Broadway. So I was in Amadeus for, like, seventeen months—a super-long time—and it drove me nuts. I couldn’t handle doing a long-run; it began to really, really get to me, and I began to have a terrible problem with stage fright after about, maybe, nine months in it, where I had to marshal every ounce of strength that I had to get on stage, and I had to resort to taking drugs and stuff like that. This was after many years of being an actor, and having devoted myself to being a stage actor.
Fred, bottom row/second from left, with his castmates from the Broadway production of “Amadeus” in 1983 (Fred Melamed Collection)
To what do you attribute that?
Well, I’ll give you the answer to that, although it’s a complicated answer. I think it has to do the reason that I chose to be an actor. I think, to reduce it to a very, sort of, reductive, psychological answer, I chose to be an actor, as some people to, because I wanted to lift the spirits of my family, of certain depressed members of my family, and I felt greatly empowered with the ability to do that—except, ultimately, I resented it, and it was too much of a yoke for me. Also, it was my orientation towards acting; I thought that an actor had to be superhuman, not human, which I now no longer feel, but as a young guy that was, kind of, the way I looked at it. And it began to be burdensome. If I was doing a comedy, the audience would laugh most of the time in the same places, and I began to, strangely, resent the fact that they would do that [laughs], which is, of course, crazy. Some people become relaxed in a long-run, and they get better, and they find new things to discover; for me, it wasn’t working that way. It took all my concentration and dedication to get myself to simply do the best I could, and that wasn’t as good as I felt I owed the audience. And, after that, I said, “That’s it. I don’t want to be a stage actor anymore.” And I thought, “Oh, I’ve made this horrible mistake.” I was so ashamed. I thought, you know, “This is terrible. People have told me not to be an actor, and I said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and I became an actor, and I was on Broadway.” And I was a young guy—I was twenty-six or -seven years old—and I had a gig on Broadway, and I had friends that would have been, you know, elated to have a Broadway job in a big Tony-winning play like Amadeus, and I was miserable even though I loved the play. So I thought, “Oh, man, this is awful. What am I gonna do?” And then I began to go into a very, very dark period of depression—which I think had a little bit to do with that but mostly to do with my own inner demons, my own inner problems and things—and really didn’t want to appear before people anymore. Simultaneously, I became very successful as a voice actor, which I was fortunate to do because it allowed me to make a very good living—I mean, I made a lot of money doing that.
How did it start?
Well, my initial agent that I had when I got out of drama school left the agency that she had worked with—which was an agency that didn’t handle people for commercials, only for plays and movies—and she went to an agency that was very strong in voiceover actors, and commercials, and stuff like that. So I thought, “Well, I’m here, I might as well make a few extra schekels” seeing what I could do. So, very soon out of the box, I was lucky to get some very big accounts. I got MCI—this was before people laughed when you said “MCI” [laughs]—MCI, and Mercedes-Benz, and some other very large accounts, as a voiceover actor, relatively soon after starting. And I thought, “Well, this is great, you know? I can make three or four hundred thousand dollars a year and work, maybe, ten days a year.” Also, at the time, I got extremely, extremely heavy; I, for many years of my life, weighed over four hundred pounds—not that I’m any sort of, you know, bodybuilder today, but I was at the point where not only was my health, you know, seriously effected by it, but I was ashamed. And, also, it limited very significantly the kind of parts that I could play. I mean, to be frank with you, I had to wrestle with a lot of my own problems and defects of character—addiction and other difficulties. I have two kids, both of whom have autism, and that came into it. But, you know, people deal with things in life. But, for me, this kept me from being— I had a period in the late-eighties, early-nineties where I became very active in movies, as well as doing voiceovers, which I enjoyed. I started to become active in that stuff again, which I really, really liked. But I regret—I shouldn’t say “I regret,” but I feel that I wish I had a chance— I’ve been in, probably, like, maybe, twenty films altogether—and scads as a voice actor in television shows and stuff like that, but that’s strictly as a voice actor, which is a very limited kind of acting. I wish, honestly, that I had done much more acting, because I truly enjoy it so much. And, also, in that period, I was writing a lot, and that’s another thing that I enjoy, that I, you know, pursue.
Fred in a scene from the 1987 film “Suspect” (TriStar Pictures)
I don’t know if you’d call it a formal collaboration or if it just kept happening time after time, but I know that throughout the eighties and nineties you ended up working several times with Woody Allen. How did that come about? And what was that like for you?
Well, he chose to use me, and he pursued me—well, I don’t mean ‘pursued’ me like it was any kind of great pursuit—but he chose to put me in a lot of his movies, for which I’m very grateful. And I enjoyed him. We had, you know, a sort of a relationship where he would call and I didn’t have to audition—he or Juliet Taylor, who would cast all his films, would call, and would say, “Well, it’s this kind of a role,” and “Are you interested?” And I’d say, “Sure!”
How did it first start with you two?
When I first got out of school, he was making Hannah and Her Sisters—I think I was out maybe a year or so, and I think I had just come back from the tour of Amadeus—and Juliet Taylor had seen me audition. There used to be—I think there still are—these big auditions they had for kids in drama school called “League Auditions,” where agents and casting directors come to, sort of, a centralized audition. And she had seen me—I chose to do comic stuff in that—and she, I guess, thought I was funny, and so she called and said, “Woody has a role in this new film. Are you a Woody Allen fan?” And I was a huge, huge Woody Allen fan—enormous. And it also so happens that my family was very close to the Roberts family—Tony Roberts’ dad, whose name was Ken Roberts, and my dad were best friends for years and years and years, so I knew Tony Roberts very well growing up, and I had always admired the fact that he had been in all these Woody Allen films. [laughs] Anyway, the first film was Hannah and Her Sisters, and I had a small part—well, my parts in his films are generally quite small, but he called me many times—and I played a doctor in that, and I got to know him a little bit as a result of that, and he’s a very, very interesting person that I enjoy.
What do you make of him? He’s, kind of, an enigma, a lot of people say…
I think he is an enigma. I mean, what I think about him is he loves working, he loves writing and making movies, and he’s smart enough and wealthy enough that he can live in a world that is, to some degree, a world that he likes, as people that are either very talented, or very wealthy, or very fortunate can do. I don’t mean that it’s a totally, you know, isolated world, but I think a lot of things that people are forced to deal with or even things that many people like to deal with he really doesn’t like to deal with. He doesn’t like social obligations, in the sense that many people do—I mean, I think that’s obvious. He likes sports—he enjoys watching sports on television. He enjoys writing. He enjoys talking about certain things. But he’s a very, very serious person. You know, I was surprised when I first met him that he never cracks a joke, and I took it upon myself to always try and, like, make jokes to him, make him laugh, and was not always but occasionally successful. I remember one particular occasion where he called me in to do a movie, and I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years—it was actually not too long ago—I hadn’t seen him for a few years, and in the intervening years I had unfortunately gotten very heavy [laughs]; I had gained, like, sixty pounds. But he was lovely and sweet like he always is, and he said, “Fred! Fred! How are you? It’s great to see you! What have you been doing since I’ve seen you?” And I said, “Well, Woody, I’m sure you’ve seen all of my exercise videos that are flooding the stores now!” And there was stone silence—he had no idea that I was four hundred pounds and I was making a joke because four hundred pound people don’t usually make exercise videos. He said, “Oh, that’s, that’s terrific!” Absolutely no idea. Not that he doesn’t have a sense of humor; it just wasn’t in his, sort of, script of the way that things should go. But he’s a very interesting person. I think a lot of people were surprised when they met Soon-Yi. Soon-Yi gives him a run for his money—she’s a very, very alive, interesting person with a lot of opinions—maybe because of that horrible stereotype of what Asian women are like, or because she’s younger than him. But she really is an interesting, to me, well-suited partner for him. Very funny, and encourages him to do things, which I think is good for him. He’s a genius, but like many geniuses he’s different, in certain respects, than a lot of people.
Fred knew he’d ‘made it’ when MAD Magazine parodied his character from the 1986 film “Hannah and Her Sisters” (MAD Magazine)
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that, to some extent, he’s responsible—though a few steps removed—for you coming to the attention of the Coen brothers…
Yes! That’s quite true. He’s not responsible, in general, for my coming to their attention, but responsible for them, kind of, considering me for A Serious Man. The way that I first came into contact with the Coen Brothers was, as I explained, I went to drama school with Fran McDormand, who is, of course, Joel’s wife; and John Turturro and Kathy Borowitz, who are all frequent collaborators of the Coen brothers; and I also knew John Goodman from years ago, long before he was famous and all that. So I, kind of, knew some people in their ‘orbit,’ you might say. And twenty years ago I’d auditioned for Barton Fink—their movie Barton Fink—and I auditioned for the role of Jack Lipnick, who was that very pushy film producer. And I didn’t get the role—it was gotten by a wonderful actor, a man called Michael Lerner, really a genius actor who actually had a cameo in A Serious Man also.
Did he really?
Yeah. He’s the guy who has the heart attack when they go to the law office. Gets the papers ready, and he smokes his pipe, and then all of a sudden— Yeah, that’s Michael Lerner. But he got that role, and he was terrific in it—he was actually nominated for an Oscar—this was in 1991 or 1990. According to Ethan Coen, I placed—I came in second. I was a little younger than he was. But they remembered me from that. And then there was another situation some years after that when they were making Hudsucker Proxy, and they were interested in me for a role in that, and I was doing something else—I couldn’t do it.
There was a strange, kind of, request for what that part would entail, wasn’t there?
Oh, yes, you heard about that?! Yes. The role, which was not a particularly big role but it was, kind of, a memorable role, was— I was supposed to appear in a diaper and a sash—I was supposed to be, like, a New Year’s baby. And I said that, you know, “On no grounds will I consider doing any form of gratuitous nudity unless I lose some weight.” But, as it turned out, I was not able to do it anyway. So that was Hudsucker Proxy. And then this movie— It’s interesting, they happened to have been working on writing three movies at the same time: No Country for Old Men; our movie, A Serious Man; and Burn After Reading. They’re very interesting in their writing methods; they work on more than one script at once simultaneously often, which is amazing to me because one is more than enough for me. But I think when they get stuck on one they just move to another; there’s always new stuff to do. Their whole writing thing is fascinating to me—how they work—and I’ve talked to them about it quite a bit. But, anyway, they were working on three movies simultaneously, and they knew when they were writing it that Burn After Reading was gonna be a star-studded movie, so when you have a movie like that you have to schedule when you can do it based on—I mean, look at all the big stars who are in it—when they could get all of those people together. So they made No Country first and A Serious Man last, but that was a total accident; it was just because of the availability was in the middle. So while they were screening footage for— There was a particular part that they wanted to cast in Burn After Reading, and they were looking at Tea Leoni for a part in that, and the movie that they were screening I happened to be in with her—
Which was that? Hollywood Ending?
Hollywood Ending, yeah. So while they were looking at it, they just looked at the scene, and one of them said to the other, “Oh, there’s Fred Melamed. Remember? Maybe he’d be good for this part.” So shortly after that—this was quite a while ago; this was almost three years ago—I was at home in Montauk and I got a call directly from them, not my agent, just a call—
Fred and Woody Allen in a scene from the 2002 film “Hollywood Ending” (DreamWorks)
It was one of the Coen brothers?
It was actually their casting director, but with them there. They work with wonderful, wonderful—in my view—well, everybody that works with them is pretty wonderful, but their casting directors, at least the ones that I’m familiar with, are terrific, Rachel Tenner and Ellen Chenoweth. Anyway, there I am, and I get a call, and Rachel Tenner says, “Hi, Fred, it’s Rachel Tenner. I have Joel Coen on the phone here. Are you busy?” “Uh, I- I- I’ll see if I can pencil you in.” So Joel gets on, he says “Hi,” duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, “Listen, we have this part that we think maybe you’d be good for. Would you be interested in reading it?” I said, “Well, of course, by all means!” So they sent it over to me, and I read it, and I thought, “Gee, what an interesting, you know, movie this is!” And only after I read it, and thought about it, did I realize how good the part was, aside from how interesting the movie was. I mean, it was such a good part.
I hope I can just interject for one second to ask you something that I was thinking about. On the one hand, having the Coen brothers calling you and telling you that you’re perfect for a part in one of their films has got to be the ultimate compliment. On the other hand, you then read it and see the part is Sy Ableman! [laughs] What do you do?
Right. Well, that was what I told, you know, all of my friends—or what they told me. I mean, everybody who read the movie, including my own movie, said, “This guy is the most, you know, obnoxious, opinionated, insufferable windbag in cinema history; you were born to play him! You must play this part!” [laughs] Kathy Borowitz actually asked me on the plane, “Was he written for you?” [laughs] Which he wasn’t. But, I mean, you know, parts that are like that don’t come along that often in your lifetime—at least they haven’t in mine—such a beautifully written part, so funny and also so evil at the same time. You know, just great. So I read it, and I loved it, and they said, “Well, we want to come in and put you on tape.” So I said, you know, I’d be thrilled to, so I came into the city, and I read it. And I’d made a specific decision about how I wanted to play it—I always try and prepare a lot and know what I’m doing when I’m auditioning for things—and, you know, they were laughing, and I really got the idea that they really liked it and stuff. So Ethan said to me, “That was terrific. We really, really liked it. But we just want to make you aware—” And it had said in the script—it described him—it said, “He’s a pompous, overweight, Jewish loudmouth who talks like a rabbi,” I think was how they described it in the script. So Ethan said to me, “You know, that was fantastic, but I just want to make you aware that we’re working on another movie now which we’ve just started shooting, and we have to shoot it and then it’s gonna be a year of post ’til we can even start this movie, so it’s probably gonna be not for another sixteen months ’til we even start this.” So I said, “Well, that’s okay. I have my own personal project: I’m trying to move the whole overweight, pompous, Jewish, rabbinical thing back to the center of American sexuality where I feel that it really belongs, which ought to take me about a year—at least a year.” Uphill battle. I’m still working on it.
You had all that time to think about the part, and even before the audition you were thinking about the part, so in your opinion, who is Sy Ableman, other than just “a pompous, overweight, Jewish loudmouth who talks like a rabbi,” and what’s his story?
Well, I mean, even though I’ve described him in a rather judgmental way, the truth of the matter is that whenever you play a character you try and look at the character as a person looks at themselves, you try and look at the character from his point of view. And I think as evil as he might appear to some people— I mean, after all, he’s evil because he’s deceptive. It’s not that he does such bad things; it’s that he does them in such a misleading way, that he attempts to mislead. But I think he genuinely believes that he knows what’s best, like all really evil people do, you know? I think few people in this world, no matter how calamitous what they do turns out to be, set out to be evil; they just think that they know what’s best, and that if only everybody would listen to them and do things their way the world would be so much better for all. So Sy Ableman, even though he is selfish, obviously, I think genuinely believes that he would be such a better steward of everything in Larry’s life—his wife, his children, his house—than Larry could ever be that why even argue about it? It’s so obvious. And what’s so maddening, but also what, sort of, makes Sy Ableman unbearable or, I don’t know, interesting, if he is, in fact, interesting, is his method is to almost hypnotize people. His method is to be so soft, to be so massaging of people that they can’t reckon in their mind that he’s trying to do something really, really wrong. So I was trying to play him like he was, sort of, massaging everyone; that was his M.O. When I approach a character, I do the, sort of, Michael Chekhov way of looking at it, where characters have what Michael Chekhov called an “essential gesture”— which doesn’t necessarily mean a physical gesture; it’s kind of a metaphoric way that they behave. So his way is to kind of— It’s not exactly ‘charm,’ it’s more like ‘manipulate,’ but the manipulation is a gentle—he hopes—pleasurable manipulation, and if they’ll just relax enough he’ll push them out of the way.
Fred and Sari Lennick in a scene from “A Serious Man” (Focus Features)
Even just his, or your, delivery of lines and words—“Laaaaarry,” or “of cooooourse,” or “everything’s gonna be fiiiiine”—is sort of hypnotic…
Yeah. You know, honestly, people often say to me about my voice—stepping up my voice—and I never think about it. I just— It’s like if you’re pretty; you know, if you think about being pretty, you stop being pretty. It’s part of me, so when it’s useful it just gets used.
You didn’t manipulate it at all?
So that was really it…
Yeah. What I’m thinking is—what I’m trying to do to Larry is—say to him, “Larry, you know I’d never hurt you. You know I love you. Listen, I know this is hard for you, Larry, but, believe me, it’s for the best.” And when I think that way, that’s the way it comes out. It’s not that I tell my voice to do anything; it just comes out that way. But, in some parts, you know, it’s still me, but some characters don’t accomplish things that way so, you know, they wouldn’t talk that way.
I find it interesting that you used the word ‘evil’ because I looked at him and I said, “This guy’s a pain in the ass,” and if I were Larry I’d tell him to go play in traffic, but the only thing that, to me, would be ‘evil’—and I wasn’t certain if this was even something we could attribute to him—was if the letters to the tenure committee that Judith says Sy had written on Larry’s behalf were, in fact, the anonymous letters that were demeaning Larry…
I can tell you what I think, but I can’t tell you what the Coens think. Actually, I probably shouldn’t tell you what I think! You know, it’s confusing because, on the one hand, Judith says, “He thought so very highly of you that he wrote letters to the tenure committee.” On the other hand, after I’m dead, Arlen still says to him, “You know, the letters have still been coming.” Although it could be that I mailed them late enough—that’s possible.
So they never said to you whether or not you were the one mailing those letters?
’Cause that was never clear to me. I mean, it could be the father of the student who was accused of cheating…
It could be. I have my idea in my head of what it was, but I prefer to let the audience guess or infer whatever they think. But when I say ‘evil,’ all I really mean by evil is ‘selfish.’ After all, what is evil? It’s just people being selfish. And the reason Sy Ableman was not a difficult character for me to play was— I don’t know if this is true of everybody else, but in my family and in my schooling I encountered dozens of people who said to me, “Don’t worry. I know what’s best for you and for everybody else. Let me just be the boss and everything will be great.” This was something I encountered every day of my life. So Sy Ableman, even though he was doing it with adults, not children, was not such a very atypical character, as far as characters in my life went. Also, that, kind of, pained way that he had of doing it [laughs] came from somebody in my family. I had an uncle—my uncle Jerry, also now long-dead—who was the sweetest, nicest guy, but he always had this look of, like, pain on his face, and the nicer he was the greater the look of pain. I don’t know, it just was him. And I somehow got the idea, when I was, kind of, getting the part ready, “It would be great to somehow put Uncle Jerry in there, that pained look.”
Fred in a scene from “A Serious Man” (Focus Features)
And I heard Harold Bloom, also?
They told me— It actually says in the script, “He looks like Harold Bloom.” And Harold Bloom was at Yale when I was at Yale, but I’d actually never gone to a Harold Bloom lecture, so I downloaded all of these pictures from the Internet and there was Sy Ableman. You know, a little older than me, but that same, kind of, hangdog look—all these flowery words coming out of this pained face!
Considering all of these faults of Sy, why, then, does Judith prefer him over Larry? Larry’s not perfect, but he’s trying…
Well, again, I can give you my speculation, but it’s only speculation. Ethan—when asked about the budget of this picture, which was seven million dollars, which is very limited by most people’s standards—he said, “Well, Fred Melamed is the sex star of this picture. When you have Fred Melamed as the sex star, seven million dollars is a lot for the movie.” [laughs] So he inferred to me through certain things that he said, although I don’t know if he said this to other people, that, perhaps, Judith is not fully happy with Larry in that department. Why, I have no idea. Who knows?
Larry doesn’t seem very assertive…
Maybe. He’s certainly nice; he’s considerate. But who knows? That’s, maybe, a rather glib answer. I think a more obvious, maybe, correct answer is Larry’s not very ambitious. You know, he likes his physics; I think he’s interested in physics, although he doesn’t seem to be a great communicator of it—he’s certainly not like going to, you know, a Richard Feynman lecture—the kids are, like, yawning while he’s writing the equations up there. But he’s not ambitious. He likes his life—he likes his children, but he doesn’t seem all that involved with his children, he doesn’t seem all that involved with his wife, he’s not all that involved with his temple—he doesn’t seem to be all that involved in all that much. He, kind of, seems to take it for granted—at least, that’s the way it seems to me. So, with Sy, she’s getting somebody who (a) has, kind of, a high-profile—a ‘macher,’ as they say in Yiddish—kind of a bigger deal in their little St. Louis Park, you know, schul community; and, also, at least as far as lip-service goes, maybe he’s more attentive—maybe he, you know, asks her how she’s doing, he asks her about things, he buys her flowers. Who knows?
Who is the eponymous ‘serious man’?
It’s me, without a doubt. Without a doubt. It’s said in the script about six times. The rabbi says, “Sy Ableman was a serious man.” And Larry says at the end, when he’s desperately trying to get in to see Marshak, the most lofty rabbi, “I’ve tried to be a serious man,” but he can’t even bring himself to say, “I’ve been a serious man.”
Fred and Michael Stuhlbarg in a scene from “A Serious Man” (Focus Features)
So what does it mean to be a ‘serious man’?
Well, you mean in the world of this movie or in the real world?
Well, according to the perception that Sy and Larry seem to share…
Well, I think it’s used ironically in the movie. I think a person who is held up as an object of esteem or an object that deserves esteem, like Sy Ableman, is revealed to be utterly selfish and self-interested in the end, but he’s lionized within the community because he does certain things. I mean, at his funeral [laughs], the rabbi says, “Not only was he a good person”—he uses the Hebrew word for ‘a good person’—but he says, “maybe he was even a Lamed-Vovnik!” Which, for people who aren’t Jewish or don’t know what that means, there are supposed to be thirty-six people alive in the world at any one time who are so good, who are so beyond good, that their righteousness alone keeps the world alive. You know, which is like calling—I don’t know, I can’t think of someone who’s a used-car salesman anymore—Sy Sperling, the toupee guy, is one of the people on whose moral character the whole world revolves, one of the great people of all time. [laughs] People have often said, you know, “What does the beginning quote have to do with the movie?” And all that—
Do you mean the opening vignette or quote?
The quote. Well, also the vignette. You know, it mystifies me when people say they don’t understand what the opening vignette has to do with the rest of the movie—
What do you make of it?
Well, I mean, what happens? After all, what happens is— First of all, it’s about Jews—not assimilated Jews, or supposedly assimilated Jews, as the Jews in A Serious Man are, but Jews as we, sort of, might imagine, you know, stereotypical Jews to be back in the day. They’re Jews who live in a shtetl; dirt-poor; scraping a living together; bound by not only religion but superstition of all kinds—a belief in ghosts, ‘dybbuks,’ and other things like that; and largely subject to traditions and ways of doing things that have no basis in what we think of as scientific, you know, fact. So there they are, not on the wide-open plains of Minnesota but in a tiny little house in Poland or wherever they’re supposed to be there, and the wife does something of an extreme nature—I don’t want to spoil it in case anybody hasn’t seen the movie—based on a suspicion that most people would regard as superstitious, right? And she’s convinced—she’s willing to take this action that might completely alter their lives— Instead of looking at a simpler answer, she’s looking for cosmic-meanings in things, and what she supposes as the cosmic-meaning of an event compels her to do something which is irrevocable and terrible. Larry, also, is looking for cosmic-meanings for the collapse of his life. You know, in Judaism they say that there’s a ‘covenant’—they use the expression ‘covenant.’ Now, a covenant means an agreement between God and man. I’m talking about Judaism as if I know anything about it, and the truth of the matter is I know precious little about it [laughs], but my understanding of the covenant is that man is supposed to be righteous, is supposed to follow the ten commandments—and what is God’s side of the bargain in the covenant? Well, when I asked that of a rabbi, he said, “God’s side of the bargain is that He will hear our prayers.” Not that He will grant us what we need or want, but His ear will be ours. That seems like a gyp; that doesn’t seem like a very good deal for old man, that deal, does it? If we are the ‘chosen’ people, what are we chosen to do? Well, the answer most people are given in Hebrew school is chosen to be an example, chosen to lead the world. I mean, if you look at the history of the world, we may have been chosen for extra hatred, extra punishment, extra vilification, extra trial, extra persecution. Larry would like to believe, as most people would like to believe, as most people would like to believe, that if he followed a defined set of rules—if he just followed them—he would have an ironclad assurance that he would be protected from misfortune. And who wouldn’t want to believe that, right? But experience shows us again, and again, and again that the righteous—even the innocent—are punished for reasons that we cannot divine, reasons we cannot understand. I have two children with autism; they were born with that; what in the hell could they ever have done to deserve that? Everybody knows people that have gotten cancer, or worse, or all kinds of things; you cannot fathom why these things happen, right? So is there a rhyme or reason? If there is, all we can say for sure is, “We don’t understand it.” There may be such a thing as God’s will, but why certain things happen, particularly what seems inequitable, unfair, punishing, wrong—why that stuff happens—we have no good answer for. Larry would like to understand—and more than that amend his behavior—so that he would be protected from all of these horrible things going wrong. But the fact is even if you act utterly righteously you have no protection.
I think that’s very interesting, and I think it reaches the same conclusion that I reached watching it, but I actually came it a different way and I’d love to get your take on it. I looked at the vignette and then the rest of the movie and said, “Here’s a guy—the man who helped the husband on the side of the road, who’s now coming by for a bowl of soup to warm himself—and he’s done a good thing, he’s done the right thing, and what does he get in return for it? He gets murdered—or stabbed, and we can safely assume he’ll eventually bleed out and die. And Larry, also, tries to do everything right, to whatever extent he’s capable—tries to be an honorable professor who won’t compromise his grading standards; tries to be a decent husband and father, at least by keeping the peace; and what does he get in return for it? At the end of the movie, we see that he’s presumably about to receive a fatal diagnosis. And the son, too—what has the son done? He’s just had his Bar Mitzvah; he’s just gotten the message, hopefully, from the rabbi; he’s back in Hebrew school; he’s trying to return the money to the kid who he took it from; and what does he get in return for it? We can reasonably conclude that he and his class are about to get wiped out by the rapidly approaching tornado…
It sure looks that way.
So the thing that I saw in common was that no matter what you do you can’t stop what’s coming—which struck me as interesting because, as you mentioned, they wrote this film at the same time as No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading, which essentially have the same message. In fact, they explicitly state it in No Country for Old Men—I think Ellis, the old guy in the cabin, says it—and I believe there’s a similar exchange in Burn After Reading. So, I don’t know, perhaps it’s overanalyzing—
I don’t think so. I think you’re absolutely right about that. And, after all, what is the thing that’s coming to all of us, whether we’re good or not? I mean, that’s the final shot, right? I mean, death comes to everybody. Now, by the way, I don’t think the message of that is, “Therefore, be a prick”—I don’t think. I think what it means is, “You can’t look for an otherworldly reward, like a Heavenly reward, and you can’t expect that even if you are righteous things are gonna always go your way.” It means—I mean, this is the way I think of it—“You live better; you get certain things better; but you still are subject.” I mean, let’s talk about the ending for a minute because both the beginning and the ending people were thrown by. I love the ending. Now not everybody does [laughs] but, to me, I love it, and I’ll tell you why. Larry has all these terrible problems, right? Except then, when you get a problem like a doctor saying to you, “Well, come in. You have something in your X-ray that we can only discuss in the office,” or you’re looking down the end of the block and there’s a tornado that’s, like, the biggest thing you’ve ever seen, you know, in nature, well, then all of the other problems that seemed so consuming and terrible— It’s, like, you have nostalgia for the good old days of those kind of problems, you know? And, ultimately, we all stand facing the big problem—that’s where we all are. Also, the thing that I love so much about that ending of that movie, and I also love this about No Country—and Ethan did say to me that they wrote them simultaneously and he thoughts one effected the other—
Oh, he did?
That ending— Well, let me put it this way. When you see a lot of movies—and I’m particularly interested in this because I’m writing this movie and write movies—everybody yearns for a resolution in a movie or a story of any kind. And, generally, the resolution allows you to go back to your life—you’ve experienced something; you may have had a cathartic feeling; you may have had a sympathetic feeling; you may have had a happy feeling; you may have had a sad feeling—but, in some sense, you’re delivered back to your life with this changed mood. This ending sends you back to the movie; you keep thinking about this movie. And that’s partly because of the movie, but it’s also partly because of the ending. The Coen brothers’ movies, especially some of them—I love this one, I love Barton Fink, I love The Man Who Wasn’t There, those are some of my favorites of their movies, Fargo—they get into this, kind of, space between your conscious and your unconscious mind, at least mine, and they, kind of, rattle around in there, and, I don’t know, they stay with you.
Well, this one provokes debate, it provokes anger, it provokes discussion—it is almost like a rabbinical sermon that you may not agree with or fully understand, but that you discuss and debate…
I mean, I think it’s definitely provocative and I think it’s, kind of, like a litmus test: I think anybody who believes in God will not be convinced that God doesn’t exist from this movie, and if you don’t believe in God or if you’re skeptical about God you’re not gonna get any, you know— So I don’t think it really changes anybody’s mind, but I think what it does do is it gets into your head and it recurs—you know, its images and its ideas recur—and, to me, that’s how you tell an effective work of art; it gets in you and it bounces around in there. And, by the way, I will say in earnest that I don’t think is an easy movie to sit through; there’s a lot in this movie that’s uncomfortable. I mean, some of it is very funny; some of it is pleasurable; but a lot of it is challenging. Some people resent that because they feel like, “Well, if I’m going to be entertained, it should be pleasurable all the way through.” There are other people who have more of a thrill-ride idea about it, that, you know, “Some of it should be challenging.” But it’s not an easy movie, at all, to be an audience member for. I must have seen it seven or eight times, and my wife has seen it also, and we still talk about it—and I know every word of it. You know, there’s a lot to it.
Let me preface my next question by saying that the focus of my Web site is the Oscar race, the awards season, and the awards process, so I talk to a lot of Academy members; I also talk to a lot of other people, just as a moviegoer; and I talk to a lot of Jewish people, being a Jewish person myself. My sense, from talking to people in each of these are all different circles—which sometimes overlap—is that there are a lot of people who love the movie, who adore it, and who think it’s genius; but there are also a lot of people out there—especially Jewish people, as I’m sure you’re aware—who say that it doesn’t offer a very flattering portrait of what it’s like to be a Jew in America, and some of whom go to the extent of saying that they find it even anti-Semitic. I don’t think I’d go that far, but I can understand their frustration when they say, “Is there any character in this movie who one would aspire to be like? Is there any character in this movie who is presented without, sort of, an embarrassing flaw?” I have it near the top of my top 10 list of the best movies of the year, so I’m not trying to knock the movie, but I’m just curious how the Coens or you, as Jewish people, might respond to that…
No, I think it’s a valid criticism, and it’s one that, kind of, has no answer, you know? Philip Roth, who I’m a great fan of, had much the same thing said about many of his novels. After all, it’s a milieu that they’re writing about that’s familiar to them. But I don’t think there’s much of an answer that can be made to that. I mean, you could make the argument, “Who in The Godfather is somebody that is to be emulated?” Nevertheless, I’ve seen The Godfather two hundred times, and every time it comes on television I still watch it because there’s something about it that’s truthful, even though some of it is exaggerated. I mean, I don’t think the real Gambinos or whoever they were—I don’t think a lot of them were as good-looking, or as heroic, or gave the kind of deep thought to certain things that, maybe, certain people do in The Godfather, or the, kind of, dramatic, sort of, you know, considerations of things. But there’s something very true about what’s in that movie. What’s true about it? Well, for example, one thing that’s true about The Godfather is it shows people can be very evil, at one level, and at the same time love their families, right? That’s a truth.
Yeah. It’s funny you mention Bernie Madoff—I’m doing a film about Bernie Madoff.
Are you really?
Yeah. Well, if it works out. Somebody just approached me about it.
When you see it, you know that that’s true. So—not to sound more pompous than I do already—
No, no, no…
But what is the function of a movie? Well, it’s certainly to entertain you, but part of the entertainment and part of its value is that it shows you something true.
I agree. I think that part of the issue that people have with A Serious Man, though, is that the Coens seem to have renounced their Judaism, and so it’s effectively like having an outsider criticize the religion—they say they’re not observant, and I think Joel has even converted or is raising his child as whatever Frances McDormand is. And, look, Precious is getting nailed for the same thing—that’s a film by black people presenting a portrait of black life that’s not very flattering, and a lot of black people are angry about that because they say that others may make the mistake of believing that it’s representative of the culture at large when, in fact, it’s not…
I mean, to be perfectly frank about it—and maybe I shouldn’t be so frank since we’re being recorded, but to be perfectly frank about it—I do think that there are a lot of people who are Jewish who are in great positions of authority and power in the movie business, and rarely do we examine ourselves in movies, and if we do it tends to be examination at arms-length—we tend to look at the Orchard Street Jews or Jews not quite so close to home, you might say.
Well, you know, Jews ran four of the five major Hollywood studios during most of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and which was the first one to put out a film about anti-Semitism? 20th Century Fox, the only one run by a non-Jew…
Right. I mean, they outdid the goyem when it comes to grandness—I mean, go to Hillcrest Country Club sometime. So, to be honest with you, I have heard—and this wouldn’t surprise me if it were true—that people in positions of very significant authority in Hollywood have been offended by the movie. Not necessarily ‘offended’ by it, but they are concerned that it shows a picture of our people—Jewish people—that is not very flattering to the world. And I don’t think they’re wrong for saying that. I also think that there is something of an obsession among Jewish people—and I think I can say this as a Jew—about, “What is it gonna mean for the Jews?” “How are the Jews gonna fare in it?” “How is it gonna effect the Jews?” And while I deeply, deeply resent and loathe anti-Semitism—I mean, I deeply do—I can’t imagine anybody really getting whatever anti-Semitic suspicions they have or tendencies they have reinforced by this film. I mean, after all, what are the, sort of, hackneyed visions of Jewish people that anti-Semites have? Well, they’re supposed to be money-hungry; they’re supposed to be cheap; they’re supposed to rule the world—rule all the banks and everything like that. Well, in this movie, I mean, there are a lot of people who look Jewish, but you have Jewish actors playing Jewish people. And, I have to say [laughs], I have been surprised how much has been made about how ugly everybody is supposed to be in this movie—I mean, it’s Jewish actors, you know, and there are some people with big noses, and hairy ears, and all that, but, you know, if you look at The Godfather or any other movie that’s about an ethnic group—or Precious—you know, not everybody is movie star handsome, especially when they’re trying to be accurate about it. I mean, some people have said— There was one particular reviewer, Ella I forget her last name, who reviewed for the Voice, who said, you know, it showed every kind of unpleasant Jew there is—pushy Jews, fat Jews, duh-duh-duh-duh Jews, and some people say that Larry is ineffectual and, therefore, sort of, a caricature of an ineffectual Jew. Well, all of those characters—fat, selfish, ineffectual—are true of Christians, are true of Muslims, are true of—
True, but I guess what the critics say is, “We take enough crap from outsiders. Do we really need our own people practicing self-immolation?” Because, whether the Coens like it or not, they are, technically, Jewish—
I don’t think they resent it at all. I mean, I’m making certain presumptions, but I think culturally they feel entirely Jewish, but Midwestern Jewish, which is a somewhat different thing from being an east coast or a west coast Jew. They tend to be much more like Midwesterners in that they are circumspect; you know, they’re not effusive. I think of Jews as being more like me—more talkative and effusive, you know, with our hands and of that, can’t shut ’em up, that kind of stuff—whereas they are more like Midwesterners. But, in terms of the amount of passion that they feel about things—and maybe this is a stereotype, too, I don’t know—but I think they’re very Jewish in that. And they feel themselves to be very Jewish. I don’t think they’ve renounced their Judaism in any, kind of, formal way. I think, maybe, the idea that God can be petitioned through prayer, or that God will take care of you if you’re righteous, if you follow the Torah and the commandments—I’ve forgotten the world for the Jewish law—that idea maybe they are skeptical about. But, gosh, I think everybody is. And I’ve read a lot of Jewish writers—rabbis and others—who say the questioning nature of this movie, even the cynicism of this movie, is part of what makes it so Jewish. In other words, I don’t think those people are wrong. I don’t think this paints a flattering picture of Jews. But, you know, does Fargo paint a flattering picture of people from Minnesota? Does No Country for Old Men paint a flattering picture of people from Marfa, Texas? Well, people could say they’re misanthropic. I would say they love the good in people and they don’t like the bad in people, and sometimes they find more bad than good. [laughs] I think there are anti-Semitic people in the world—I’m not trying to say that there aren’t; I mean, I certainly think there are—but I don’t think those people are very influenced by Coen brothers movies.
Or that they would make it very far into this one, with all the various Yiddish and Jewish cultural references…
Look, I’ve used this example before, but you and I have both seen The Godfather, right?
Now, I speak about three words of Italian. If you understand Italian, and if you’ve grown up with people like those that are in that movie, and you know what that cooking smells like—and I’ve been around it enough to know something about it—you will get a different level of intimacy from that experience. But can you enjoy it? Can I enjoy it? For sure! There’s a ton in that we can appreciate—even when they’re speaking Italian.
But do you think that parts of it go over our head?
So it’s a different experience. I mean, I can’t imagine— I have an uncle, who’s not Jewish, married to my aunt, who is Jewish, and if they went to see this movie together I wonder if he would even be able to think about some of the questions that we’re discussing and debating today because I suspect he would be more focused on trying to understand the context of some of the situations, and rituals, and things like that…
Well, I mean, I think some of it is mysterious, a little bit, but I don’t think it’s that— The more specific a story’s milieu is, the more specific its framework is, in a way, that makes it more universal to people. And even though people may not know Hebrew—I mean, I don’t know any Hebrew, I was never Bar Mitzvahed, or any of that stuff—I mean, it’s familiar to me because I’ve heard it a million times, but I actually don’t know what a lot of it means; and I know what a Bar Mitzvah is, having gone to Bar Mitzvahs; but, you know, I only learned as an adult what a lot of that stuff meant. I mean, I thought a Bar Mitzvah was more like a fancy birthday party where you got presents—and, in fact, that’s what it is; I mean, the idea that you become a part of the congregation, and that you’re an adult in a certain sense, while it was in the language, I never saw it in any of my cousins’ new ways of acting, you know, or anything like that. So I don’t think this movie is quite as— I mean, I think it may be a little bit exotic to some people who are unfamiliar with it, but I think it’s also exotic to Jews because there’s a lot in the movie that’s not—
Well, how about Jews in Minnesota—that’s a niche group…
Yeah. Well, to me, it’s an interesting group. It’s funny—when I first got out of school, I lived in Minnesota for a year; I was working at the Guthrie. So when I went back, when we made the movie, I got to see a lot of my, you know, friends that I had been friends with many years before that. The tenor of Minnesota, the flavor of Minnesota is largely Scandinavian—at least I feel like it is—but the Jewish people that you meet there don’t seem out of place; they’ve just, sort of, adapted. You feel much more like it’s a shtetl, you feel much more like it’s a separate— Even though St. Louis Park, where they’re from—people think that it’s a Jewish place; it’s not. It’s about, maybe, a third Jewish. There’s many other ethnic groups there. But there’s few enough Jews in Minnesota—and specifically in Minneapolis—that if you don’t know somebody, you know his dentist is your cousin, or you know somebody bought a car from— “Who is Ron Meshbesher?” “Well, he’s the attorney that everybody uses when they get into—” You know? It’s not that big a community. So, in a way, they’re not really so mixed, they’re not really so assimilated. You feel that much more there than you do living, like, in New York. I mean, I grew up thinking that most people were Jewish ’cause I grew up in Manhattan.
Do you have a favorite scene or line of dialogue that you delivered as Sy Ableman—something that you enjoyed either doing it or watching it later?
There were so many. I have to say, honestly, I had such a good time making it. It was so much fun, and it was so funny to me. The first day that we shot the scene in Embers—which is the scene where Judith and I, sort of, bully Larry out of the house to move into The Jolly Roger Motel—was the first scene we shot. And that’s the scene where [laughs] I tell him to count to ten, you know, to control his, whatever, his temper. All that stuff. That, to me—I remember when we were doing that—was hysterically funny. It was our first day on the set, and Michael was laughing, and I knew Michael—we had rehearsed a little bit for, you know, a couple of days before that—and I knew already that Michael was a really, really good actor. And we had worked the night before, just ’cause we knew everybody was gonna be nervous—it was the first day and stuff—but, you know, he actually cracked up a few times, which was great—
I hope it’s gonna be in the outtakes on the DVD…
You know, usually when you get the first release DVD they don’t put a ton of stuff on it, so I’m hoping that one day there’ll be a Criterion DVD where you’ll see all the— I mean, I’m not sure what’s— I read one thing about what’s gonna be on this new one. But I hope there’s a good directors’ track, too. I always like that.
Fred participates in a Variety Q&A with his friend and “A Serious Man” co-star Michael Stuhlbarg (Life Magazine)
Yeah. But I don’t know—they tend not to be too expressive about their films once they’ve made them…
Well, I mean, I’ve listened to their directors’ track for The Man Who Wasn’t There, talking with Billy Bob Thornton. But I’ll tell you a funny thing about directors, in general, which I think most people who are not filmmakers, kind of, don’t know, which is that—especially in cases of people like the Coen brothers, who write most of their own movies, as well as making them—a lot of the stuff that impresses us, that sticks in our mind as being the heart and soul of the film, to them is long passed by the time they make the movie. They wrote it, they thought about it, and then they, kind of, give the movie over to the actors after they’ve written it. And the directing process is more about solving problems. Like, I remember saying to Ethan [laughs]— For some reason The Man Who Wasn’t There escaped me. I had just never seen it. And it got a very lukewarm critical reception—at least, what I thought was lukewarm. I went home while we were making the movie—I worked for three weeks, and then I went home for two weeks, and then I came back for three weeks—so in the two week period that I went home— I have a big home theater at home, and I have a high-def DVR box to record movies, so I recorded it. And I thought, “Man, what a great movie this is! I think this is such a beautiful movie.” I was so shocked that it was not a big hit. Well, for one thing, it came out in 2001, right after the terrorist attacks; and a lot of people, kind of, found the Billy Bob Thornton character so passive that they didn’t like it as a movie. I loved it! So I said to— We were online— Joel and Ethan, unlike some directors, eat with everybody else—you sit down, you know, there’s a craft service thing, you sit, it’s like a big cafeteria, and we yap, have fun, you know, they’re great, they’re wonderful. So I said to Ethan, “You know, I just saw The Man Who Wasn’t There. I never saw it before. What a great film that was! That was a fantastic film.” And then he launched off into, “Oh, you know,” this “went wrong,” and “We had such a hard time doing” that, and “Billy Bob’s wig never fit right,” and duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh. For them, it’s a series of obstacles that are to be overcome. The beautiful part of it, that we see, is like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” But, you know, the real part that I remember is we could never get the light to be right. That’s the funny thing about being a director—it’s problem solving; it’s getting your vision, but getting your vision made in spite of all the things you have to deal with. I’ll tell you a great story about that, if I might—I know I’m going on, and on, and on. My favorite story about directing was told to me by James Gray—I’m sure you know James Gray, the director.
I think he just did Two Lovers this year…
Yes. Two Lovers just came out. He’s a very interesting guy, and he said—I keep talking about The Godfather, which is one of my favorite movies—“Remember in The Godfather there’s that great character Luca Brasi? Well, the guy who played Luca Brasi was not an actor; he was a wrestler—a well-known wrestler by the name of Lenny Montana, a big star in the fifties and early sixties. Francis loved Lenny Montana, and, particularly because there’s a scene, you probably remember, where he gets garroted, he gets killed with a garrot and his eyes, kind of, bulge out of his head, and, because he had been a wrestler, he had the ability to do this unbelievably well. So Francis really, really wanted him in the movie—but he was not really an actor, and he was very nervous. And the first day of shooting was the scene where he’s supposed to come in to Marlon Brando, because Marlon Brando has paid him the great honor of inviting him to his daughter’s wedding, and he’s supposed to say thank you very much for inviting me, and that’s the scene. So he had a line, and the line was, “I want to thank you for the great honor of inviting me to your daughter’s wedding.” That was the line he was supposed to say. And Marlon Brando was being difficult and he wrote, like, “Screw you” on a piece of paper, and taped it to his head, and, you know, was trying to make trouble, as he enjoyed doing. So Lenny Montana was extremely nervous—it was his first scene; it was with Marlon Brando; he was not an actor; and he couldn’t get his line straight. He could never get the line straight. They shot it, and shot it, and shot it like fifty times, and he could never get it right. He’d say, “I want to thank you for inviting me to the wedding of your daughter on your daughter’s wedding day— on the day of your daughter’s wedding—” Right? So, if you actually look at the scene, what he says is, “Godfather, I want to thank you for inviting me to your daughter’s wedding on the day of your daughter’s wedding.” Right? So they did it fifty times, and Francis said, “I got it.” And Robert Evans said, “What do you mean you got it? He didn’t do it!” “No, no, I got it, I got it.” And Robert Evans said, “You can’t stop. He never did it right once. You gotta get it!” Francis said, “Trust me.” So they do a brief setup right outside, right after they shoot the scene, of Lenny Montana—Luca Brasi—practicing the speech as if he’s very nervous. Not in the script. He says, “You’re sitting here, and you practice.” “Godfather, I want to thank you for inviting me to your daughter’s wedding. Godfather, I want to thank you for inviting me to your daughter’s wedding.” So, in the movie, you see him practicing, and then the next scene he goes in, and he says it, and he’s so nervous he goes, “I want to thank you for inviting me to your daughter’s wedding on the day of your daughter’s wedding.” And it’s great! Because what James Gray says—correctly—is a film is like wild horses: it always gets away from you. There’s so many things involved when you’re on a set that happen. You know, and sometimes you get a very happy accident—a lot of times—but sometimes you get not so happy accidents. So a great director—and I saw the Coens do this a zillion times—uses things that happen accidentally to tell the story.
That’s a great story, and it actually leads very well into my next question. I’ve interviewed a few people who have worked with the Coens—Javier Bardem, Roger Deakins, and others—and, if I remember correctly, what I tended to hear was that they do a lot of pre-production work and then come onto the set and have very little to say—give very little direction. Was that your experience in your own dealings with them and when you observed them working with others?
Well, I did, in fact, find that to be true. I was very surprised at it because, you know, I knew that they control their movies so fully and they get such great performances out of people. I mean, if you look at, certainly, Fran McDormand’s work, if you look at the work of John Turturro, if you look at the work of John Goodman, if you look at the work of Steve Buscemi—in my view, some of the best performances of these people—and these are people who often give great performances, but—some of their all time best have been in the Coen brothers’ movies. So I was very surprised to learn that the way that they get these performances out of people is they write very, very well-realized characters in their screenplays; and they give them a world to inhabit that is very plausible, that feels very real; and then they like them to be creative. This is probably the most tired observation that actors make every day but, believe it or not, good screenplays are extremely rare. It’s hard to write a good screenplay—very hard—and you don’t come across one very often, and when you do it makes you really sit up, and you go, “Wow!” You know, nine times out of ten, when you get a screenplay you think, “Okay, well what the hell am I gonna do with this? I have to do something with it.” I mean, you always have to do something with it, but it’s problematic. When you get a great screenplay, it inspires you and you think, “Oh, I could do this!” Or “I could do that!” Or “I could do this!” And it’s exciting to you; it’s not, like, a problem—at least, that’s the way that it feels to me. So I was surprised to learn—and I only learned this after my own experience and then asking other people that had worked with them—you know, “Is it always the same?” And they said, “Yeah, that’s the way that it is.” They create this great atmosphere where you feel, kind of, loose, and you feel like they have great faith in you. But they write you something very strong, and then they give it up to you; they say, “Okay, now we want to see what you have to do with it.” And, if they you’re going a little bit down a wrong alley, you know, they’ll tell you, but it’s very gentle. You always feel, with them—at least, I did and the people that I observed them with—you always feel that they have great faith in you.
How did it come to be that you observed the Coens at work even when you were not yourself in scenes?
Well, for a long time, I’ve been writing different things—some movies—and I had an idea for a movie a couple of years ago. It’s a made up story, but it was inspired by the true story of a friend of mine who was very famous in the world of rare maps—I won’t tell you the whole story now, but I wanted to make this movie about him. He was found to have been stealing extremely valuable maps, and it shocked everybody that knew him because he was such a great person, as a human being. Anyway, I had an idea to make a movie based on his story, influenced by his story. When I got the call to do the Coen brothers’ movie, I was in the middle of writing it, and I thought I would really like to direct this movie myself. So, while we were doing the movie, I had many days where I wasn’t working—where I was, you know, just there in Minneapolis, and, you know, you can do whatever you want—so, in the first week that we were shooting, I said, “Listen, would you mind very much if, on days when I’m not working, if I came down and just hung out? Because I see the way that you work with Roger”—Deakins, the cinematographer—“and other people on the movie, and the actors—it’s, you know, very, very—from my point of view—unusual, and I see the great results you get out of people. Would it be okay if I just came?” And they said, “Absolutely,” you know? “You’re more than welcome. Any day you want to come, come down.” And they said another thing to me which was shocking—they said, “Any time you have an idea about anything, don’t feel shy.” Which, in the movie business, you just don’t hear that—it’s not an insult or anything, but just nobody says that. Directors are already, like, overwhelmed with people, you know, giving them opinions and also asking them questions, so this is something you never, ever, ever hear. I only actually gave my opinion about one thing, and they actually wound taking it, which was completely shocking! [laughs]
Fred on the set of “A Serious Man” with directors Ethan Coel, left, and Joel Coen, right (Fred Melamed Collection)
I have to ask what that was…
What happened was early on, when we all got the scripts, the motel was called The Jolly Roger—it’s a minor point, but I just thought it was a great name for a motel, especially since it, kind of, infantilizes Larry, it’s so sad and pathetic. I just thought it was great. So then, when we got to Minneapolis— You know, with scripts, you get revisions, and they’re different colors—that’s the way it’s usually done. You get a buff copy, and you get a salmon copy— And when they’re trying to tell you what version it is it’s always by the color. So, the first revision, the only important change was— There was a couple of name changes of characters, and they had changed the name of The Jolly Roger to The Aqua City Motel. And I thought, “What the hell? Aqua City? What’s that mean?” So I said to Ethan, “How come you changed it?” He said, “Well, we found this actual motel called The Aqua City, and it’s period correct, and we can save, you know, like, five thousand dollars if we just make it that way.” And we had one day of rehearsal, and I said, “Listen, forgive me for being a big-mouth, but it’s so, so much better to have The Jolly Roger, I think—it’s so much stronger, it’s so much funnier.” And they, kind of, looked back and forth at each other and, you know, they didn’t render any decision or anything, and, you know, Ethan said, “Well, I don’t know, I don’t know.” And then, like, two weeks later, we saw in the scene shop they were working on a sign that said, “Jolly Roger.” So they decided that that was true. I said they could CGI it, you know? It’s only in two or three shots, the motel. But I guess probably it was cheaper to make a real motel sign than to CGI it. But, anyway, that was the only thing I remember that any actor asked for. You know, their scripts are so beautiful that you don’t really want to change any line. Sometimes I would make a mistake, you know, and say the wrong line, just ’cause I got it wrong, but you’d find that what they wrote was, like, always better than whatever you came up with.
The scene that was in the trailer, in which Sy is in Larry’s classroom and starts banging Larry’s head against his chalkboard—what’s that about?
Well, you mean the dream sequence?
Yeah. What do you think the meaning of it is?
Well, I think Sy is unmasked in that scene. You know, if you remember the beginning of the scene, he’s demonstrating on the blackboard Heisinger’s Uncertainty Principle—or at least he’s attempting to—and the last thing he says is, “So you can never really understand it, but you will be responsible for it on the mid-term.” [laughs] And then, when everybody leaves the room except for me, he realizes that I’ve been sitting there listening the whole time, and he says, “Well, did you understand that?” And I say, “Yeah, of course. Except I know what’s going on—I actually know what’s going on.” And he says, “Well, maybe in Heaven—” He uses the Hebrew word for it. And I say, “No, no, in this world! In this world I knew what was going on.” And I think he realizes then that he made this big mistake in thinking that maybe I actually had been a righteous man and that, maybe, Judith had something. I think it’s just a realization that he had swallowed the community view hook, line, and sinker, and that really, maybe, he should have had a little faith in himself and his own judgment. I mean, the next thing I say after I tell him that is, you know, what I’ve done to his wife—a very unflattering description of how I’ve behaved with his wife—which is probably the most painful thing you can hear if you love somebody. So I think it’s his suspicions revealed to be true—that he’s been taken advantage of and misled.
Fred and Michael Stuhlbarg in “A Serious Man” (Focus Features)
One final question: After stepping away from acting for a while, you came back, made this film, and your work has been very critically embraced—you’ve got the dean of film criticism, Roger Ebert, singing your praises; you’ve got a film critic for the New York Times, A.O. Scott, putting you on his list of people who most deserve an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor; you’ve got the best ensemble nomination from the Gotham Independent Film Awards. You must be struck by everything that’s going on. Looking forward, what’s your outlook? How has this changed things? And what do you hope to do as a result?
Well, what I hope to do is what I’ve always hoped to do, which is to work on projects that are interesting to me and support my family [laughs]—I know that sounds a little pedestrian, but that’s the truth of it, is to work on stuff that I think is good; that I like; that has, you know, meaning to me; and that I can make a living at. And this movie has reminded me, in a personal way, what’s so great about acting—how great it is. And I don’t just mean the plaudits that I was fortunate enough to receive because I felt that way before I got any of them. Just doing it was so pleasurable, so much fun.
Richard Kind, Amy Landecker, Joel Coen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred, and Ethan Coen at the U.S. premiere of “A Serious Man” (Life Magazine)