F. Murray Abraham has played kings, gods, classical composers and gangsters. His latest role? Farting grandpa. In the new season on HBO The white lotus, Abraham plays Bert di Grasso, a gruff man who travels to Sicily with his son and grandson to research his origins and flirt with the hotel staff. As the journey drags on, egos collide and misunderstandings grow—and eventually, bodies start turning up on the beautiful Mediterranean beach.
But despite his character’s many obvious flaws, Abraham says playing Burt was one of the highlights of his career. “I would really like to go back to Sicily and shoot The white lotus all over again,” he says TIME. His performance received a lot of praise, as did the second season of the show. Judy Berman, c TIMEwrote that “the ideas are as fresh and provocative as ever,” and that of the “stunning performances” of the season, “[Michael] Imperioli and Abraham are particularly sharp together.”
Below, Abraham reminisces about his Oscar-winning role in Amadeushis increased motivation in his ninth decade and the growth of the Mexican border.
Your character is on the white lotus, Burt is a cocky womanizer. How did you contact him?
They are in my family. I am 83 and come from an era where this was very common. They are funny people: they are so callous, but at the same time loving, kind and generous. But they have a blind spot when it comes to women, no doubt about it. That’s how I was brought up.
What a great relief it is to become a feminist. As a man, I don’t have to carry the world on my shoulders.
You said in a recent interview that the experience of filming The white lotus ranked there in his career with Grand Budapest Hotel. What was so special about it?
You have a good script. You have a family of people working together who like each other and are very nice. Then you have this absolutely fabulous place: I would live in Sicily.
I can’t say enough good about him. If I go on, you won’t believe me. But I would like to do it again.
You called acting “a terrible, terrible profession” in a 1986 interview. Would you agree now?
When it’s bad, it’s terrible. Eighty-five percent of the actors in the union are always out of work. [One study says 90%.] There were times when I was out of work for six, seven months. You begin to doubt yourself, to forget who you are. You can make a living as a waiter; try anyway. But that’s not you.
But when it works, it’s great. I don’t think I’m ever more alive than when I’m on stage. And that’s damn hard to say, because I have a wonderful life, really.
How did you manage to persevere through those difficult times?
I’m dedicated: When I’m not working, I keep fit, do voiceovers, and read. But that’s my wife, to be honest. She never doubted me, never in 60 years. She saved my ass many times.
You’ve delivered both King Lear monologues and crude masturbation jokes. Do you approach them with the same part of your brain?
It is certainly the same craft and the same exuberance. Honestly, if I had a choice, it would always be a comedy. Working with Salieri [whom he played the 1984 film Amadeus], which people don’t mention: they make him out to be a villain. Actually, the older Salieri is pretty funny.
I think what saves so many of the characters I play is that I try to find the humor in them. It’s hard to find humor in Macbeth, I’ll tell you that right now. You won’t. It was the hardest part I’ve ever done. I prefer Lear to Macbeth.
You go to the same well, whether it’s comedy or farce: you’re looking for the truth. So you are making a completely serious farce: you mean these stupid things you say. With Burt, the truth is that masturbation is important every day. Ask any doctor.
Read more: in The white lotusA provocative second season, Sicily is about (rich, unhappy) lovers
Your mother is Italian. What was Italy like for you growing up?
She had never been there: she was a first-generation American. I funded a trip when she was 72 to visit her. She came back and told me that she saw so many people who looked like her family.
But what touched her the most was that in Calabria they are not very rich, but they share what little they have. I found this to be true. I have worked a lot in Italy. I was working with Sophia Loren on a painting in Naples, and my mother was sick at the time in Texas. I asked Sophia if she didn’t mind talking to her – and she talked to her for about half an hour. That’s what they have: that generosity of spirit.
And when we were there for The white lotus, Etna was exploding! It’s common: people don’t just put up with it, it’s part of the day. Sometimes the very fine ash, small, almost pebbles, covers a large part of the city. And they just go ahead and clean and do their job. But that’s why some of the wines, because of this lava land, are so delicious.
From left, Murray Abraham, Eleonora Romandini and Michael Imperioli in The White Lotus.
One of the things Mike White does so well The white lotus is to reveal class dynamics and show how terribly wealthy tourists treat the locals. Did this subject affect the way you and your colleagues interacted with people in the city?
You are asking the wrong man because I come from a professional background and have great sympathy for the working man and woman. So that wasn’t a problem.
I don’t know how it affected some of the other people. I can tell you this about Jennifer [Coolidge]: This woman will fit in anywhere. When I was walking down the street on my days off looking for a place to eat or have a cup of coffee, sometimes people would come out of their little shops and say, “Where’s Jennifer? Tell Jennifer to come to my store.
You talked about where you come from miners and steel workers. How might this professional background influence your approach to acting?
My father was a self-taught mechanic: he really learned by just trying. And his dedication to doing something right, I think, is the root of my approach to work and acting. I’m very methodical: I really want to know everything I can about this person.
In addition to The white lotuspeople recently liked you as CW Longbottom as mythical quest, and earned an Emmy nomination for voicing Khonshu Moon Knight. Do you feel this is a special period in your career?
It feels like that, doesn’t it? yes Lots of sun, it’s very nice.
I’m not far from Washington Square and someone came up to me trying to find out who I was. Someone else came up and said, “Don’t you know who that is? He’s the voice of Khonshu!” That’s my claim to fame: I’m the voice of a comic character. Everything else means nothing. Shakespeare, no—Khonshu! Yes, this is a special time. And I hope it doesn’t stop.
Do you feel more or less motivated in your acting than you have in recent decades?
More ▼. I feel like my time is running out. There is a lot of work. If I live to be 100, that’s only 17 years. Time is not enough. So I am looking forward to my work now as always. That’s what’s so amazing about my luck. There’s a lot of talent out there and it just can’t be arrested, as we say in the business.
You’ve played heroes, villains, comic relief, and everything in between. When you pick up a script these days, what are the qualities you look for?
You want a great script and a great character. I would like to be a hero, a lover. An 83-year-old man who discovers love. Adults don’t get a fair shake for this. You are still capable of love. I would love to see that happen.
As much as I love Shakespeare, Moliere, Beckett and Pinter, there’s nothing like a new screenplay. It’s absolutely exciting because you’re creating something where there was nothing before.
You grew up in El Paso, two blocks from the Rio Grande. What perspective did that upbringing give you on current immigration debates?
This is a tragedy. I practically lived in Juárez: I went to school and had dinner with the people who lived there. It wasn’t dangerous. Some of them didn’t speak English very well and I learned a little Spanish from them. Now, it’s a different world. I think it is a real tragedy that the border is not a place for free exchange between cultures.
You are also part Syrian and a speaker of Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. Have the Arab roles you’ve played changed over the course of your career?
I think initially because of my name I had a lot of Jewish parts. Some of the best performances of my life were my portraits of Jews, like Roy Cohn [in Angels in America], a character I have no respect for. Once it became known that I was Syrian, they started offering me Arab roles. The Jewish parts are much richer. They don’t paint Arabs very well. They’re usually bad guys.
I also have to ask you about your amazing episode of Curb your enthusiasmin which you play yourself and perform a complete Hamiltona rap-style number opposite Lin-Manuel Miranda. What was that?
i have to tell you [musical choreographer Susan] Stroman really made me learn that dance number. I worked hard to get it.
Boy, this show is almost completely improved. Did you know that? The rehearsal is: “Here are a few lines. Now we’re going to film it. It was very impressive.
You are a long-time theater teacher. What advice do you give your students?
I still teach once or twice a year, for free: I just do it because I like it. I begin and end each class with the words, “Don’t be afraid.” That’s it.
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