F. Murray Abraham

The Soul of the American Actor

Recently brought Shylock to life in "The Merchant of Venice" in New York City, and on a National Tour with Theatre for a New Audience. Performances included: Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts (Pace University), Chicago’s Bank of America Theater, Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre, and in Los Angeles at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage at Santa Monica College. He played Shylock in 2007 for Theatre for a New Audience at the Duke Theatre in New York City, and also at The Swan Theatre, as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Mr. Abraham made his Broadway debut in "The Man in the Glass Booth" directed by Harold Pinter; he appeared in the 20th anniversary production of "The Caretaker;" "Waiting for Godot" directed by Mike Nichols, with Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Bill Erwin (Lincoln Center Theatre); "Teibele and the Demon" (Drama Desk Award); "Uncle Vanya" (Obie); "A Life in the Theatre" "Drama Desk Award); and has appeared in plays by Sophocles, Aristophanes, Jonson, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett, Miller, McNally Guare, and Shepard. Mr. Abraham has done experimental work with Joe Chaikin, Pina Bausch, Richard Foreman, Andrei Serban, and Linda Mussman. His film and TV work includes as Salieri in Milos Foreman’s "Amadeus" (Oscar, Golden Globe, LA Film Critics Award, BAFTA nom., Albert Schweitzer Award), "Scarface," "All the President’s Men," :Star Trek: Insurrection," "Finding Forrester," "The Name of the Rose," and many European films with Lena Wertmuller, Sophia Lauren, Max von Sydow, "Law and Order," "Bored to Death," "The Good Wife," "Saving Grace," and as Blessed John Henry in "The Unseen World." Mr. Abraham received a recent OBIE award for Sustained Excellence of Performance, the "Premio per gli Italiani del Mondo" Prize, the John H. Finley Award, the Sir John Gielgud Award, and has taught theatre at Brooklyn College.

You recently completed a new film, "The Unseen World" about Dr. Newman, directed by Liana Marabini, with Nastassja Kinski, dealing with the friendship between Newman and fellow Oratorian Ambrose St John.

F. Murray Abraham as ShylockI was pleased to discover the man. There’s so many schools named for him. It was by sheer coincidence. I decided to grab a couple of classical novels, one of them happened to be Brave New World; it was an old copy. I have an extensive library, a couple of thousand books. You begin to think, I should cull the library if you have so many. I looked through them; they were 50 cent paperbacks. And there was a copy of Brave New World. It was falling apart. There was an extensive quote from Newman about Thomas Merton. I had great admiration, it turns out for Brave New World. Thomas Merton was originally protestant, who had turned to Catholicism. It was a confluence of the coincidences I don’t dismiss.

I had so little time to prepare the normal way I have of putting it all together, my regular kind of research and go very deeply. The director from Romania had planned on a specific script at the very last minute; then she chose not to do it. She wanted to rewrite the script so it would be about after his conversion. It had been a story of his life up to then, but she ran out of time so she suggested to me this part of his life. I looked something like this man in a white wig; it’s remarkable. I looked into the mystical well of religiosity, I kept trying to locate God everywhere. I’d look here and there, and finally I found a church nearby that practices what they teach. I wonder if people are asking today what would Christ to do in this day and age.

I discovered, any real manner of faith, any person who is truly a seeker, whatever faith they are studying or practice, has terrible moments of doubt. I discovered and read the letters of Mother Theresa. She had that kind of open doubt; it’s so reassuring. What it told me is we’re allowed to doubt. There’s also a way out of doubt, because you are tested. There are constant tests when you look at the world today, and you wonder how can God exist and let these things exist.

You had played Shylock here and then in London.

Yes, and I’m going to enter him again. In Chicago and Boston, and then here in the city again. I liked the experience so much I had to take the opportunity to do it one last time. I think there’s room for both of us. (referring to the Broadway production starring Al Pacino)

What did it take merge with Shylock and his world?

I did quite a bit of reading, research. I simply imagine him as a Palestinian. I also have been working with songs from "The Rothschilds." It’s ironic, a family which made its wealth on arms was applauded the way it was. There’s a great song in that show the central character sings about breaking down the walls. I think that applies to any race under the heel of any other.

What surprised you about the depth of Shylock’s journey – and the affect it has on his principles and yours?

Shylock is a universal role in those terms. Does Shylock have any doubts? I played the rabbi who created the Golem. (in a NY Shakespeare production in Central Park). What Shylock has done is the same kind of thing. He has transgressed and stepped over the line. He doesn’t want to admit it. But Shylock is aware of what’s he doing. Once he steps across the line, he lost. He’s lost since he realizes he can’t take someone’s flesh and he knows it. The rabbi in "The Golem" is not allowed to give life. How dare he! He believe it’s necessary at the time. It’s one of the most difficult decisions, and Shylock realizes he’s letting down his faith. The logical conclusion is he has to give up his faith. That’s the worst moment. I do have some real problems when he is asked about it in the court. Is he content? He says: "I am content." I still don’t how it can be said. Which is the merchant? Which is the Jew?

You’ve given your heart, your soul to this art – what does it give you?

It’s close to a religion as it can be but its not enough. I still need more. That’s why I’ve become deeply religious. I want to believe God is everywhere. I feel that is what’s been driving my work – the communication with an audience – it’s a communication that goes beyond religion, beyond politics – it goes to the core of each person. It has to do with a universal humanity – that’s exactly what I feel.

Why do you keep challenging yourself?

I have no choice. Once you stop, you’re dead. That’s what separates the great actors from the ones who aren’t willing to go there. I think if you focus only on film, I think you’re called a film actor. You have to be on the stage. You have to work with the classics, to test yourself. And throw yourself to the lions. Doing the classics, they’re going to compare you with the greatest actors who have ever lived. That’s what greatness is – that’s the test. What a great thing! You’re trying to do roles which every great actor has tried. Yes, it can be scary, but its as simple as that. All you can do is not to be afraid.