F. Murray Abraham has played a lot of baddies in his remarkable career. Two-timing drug dealer Omar Suárez in Scarface. The melty-faced Ru’afo in Star Trek: Insurrection. And most famously, the Mozart-hating Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, the role that won Abraham an Oscar in 1985. But none is quite as chillingly ruthless as Bud Grossman, the Chicago talent booker that Abraham plays in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, now available on DVD. He has only a handful of lines, but for anybody who’s ever felt the sting of rejection (i.e., the entire planet), everything about Abraham’s performance is haunting and uncomfortable. “I don’t see a lot of money here,” he declares to struggling folk singer Llewyn. If his blunt dismissal doesn’t ring true, you’ve lived a very charmed life.
Abraham called me from New York City, where he’s in rehearsals for a revival of The Threepenny Opera (the show opens March 12). When I picked up the phone, the first thing I heard was his glorious, thunderous baritone, announcing, “I just squeezed out of rehearsal to talk to you and nobody else!” He was, to the best of my knowledge, wearing pants.
It’s so obvious what you’ve been doing with your morning. You have a certain Brechtian theatricality to your voice.
You’ve been cheating! You’ve been looking at your notes!
How are rehearsals going?
Do you know [director] Martha Clarke’s work at all?
I don’t, no.
I don’t know if you lived through the ’60s, if you’re that old, but it’s very much like the experimental work we were doing back then. It’s all “Try this, try that, what the heck. Let’s put a dog in there. Fly in from the ceiling. Whatever, let’s do everything.” Some people get nervous about it, but I think it’s great. Where are you, anyway?
Me? I’m in Chicago.
How is it out there right now?
It’s cold. Our streets are rubble.
Because of the cold and the salt on the roads?
Yeah. We’ve got a lot of potholes. It’s like post-war Europe.
I’m doing a show with Tracy Letts, Homeland. He likes to tell me, “Don’t complain about the cold in New York.” He was there for the Arctic nexus or whatever the hell you called it.
Right, yeah. He’s a very solid, taciturn man. He said, “During winter, I didn’t leave the house.”
Not many of us did.
I was there in the winter once, and I didn’t think it was that terrible. It was cold, but you kinda expect it. It’s Chicago.
I’m not sure why talking about Chicago winters made me think of this, but I was meaning to ask you before we got started. Are you wearing pants?
It’s not an unfair question.
No, no, it’s not. I suppose I have a history now.
For people who may not have seen the clip, during a press junket for Inside Llewyn Davis last November, you for some reason took off your pants.
What happened there? Were you bored? Was it too stuffy in the studio?
No, no, it was just… Those press junkets can be endless. You do 30 or 40 mini-interviews inside of an hour. They’re nice people, but after a while it’s the same questions over and over and over and over again, and you think, “Let’s make it interesting. What the hell?” Do you know that she actually blushed? I haven’t seen somebody blush in a long time. It was so sweet.
It’s not like you were ruining the shot. We only saw you from the waist up.
Exactly! That’s what I thought.
Hell, for a phone interview, nobody sees you at all. For all I know, you’re not wearing pants right now.
I wish that was true, but I wear pants at the rehearsal. Not everybody does, by the way. It’s a pretty hot show.
Hot as in temperature in the theater?
No, because there’s going to be quite a bit of, well… Berlin in the ’30s was pretty outrageous, and this is an outrageous production. People are naked.
Fortunately, I don’t have to take my clothes off. But plenty of the other actors do. And they’re nice-looking people, too.
So during this pantless interview you did, you were wearing underwear, right?
I was in swimming trunks. As soon as the interview was over, I went swimming.
I was kinda hoping you’d say Fruit of the Loom.
[Laughs.] Oh, that brings back memories.
Those commercials are permanently burned into my subconscious. You played the leaf, right?
That’s right. It was the heyday of commercials. It was nothing but fun. But they never gave us a contract. That’s why I stopped doing them. It was always a day’s pay and residuals, but they never signed us to a contract. So, they kept losing people.
Did they at least keep you supplied in underwear?
No. But it did pay for a lot of rent checks, and a lot of shoes for the kids. It was a way to live in those days, through commercials.
In some of your iconic movie roles, were you wearing Fruit of the Loom underwear?
I’ll tell you something. Whenever I do a role, I try to stay strictly within the perimeters of what I think that character would wear. I really do. From the underwear to the socks. You can just let your imagination wander.
Why let our imaginations wander? Let’s talk specifics. Salieri in Amadeus. What kind of underwear did he wear?
Oh, I was very strict about that. That was a big thing for me. I was very much in the moment. I wore costumes from the period.
And what kind of underwear did composers in 18th-century Vienna prefer?
None! You were free-balling it?
I was, yes.
I suddenly want to watch Amadeus again with that knowledge.
[Laughs.] I’m glad I could help.
How about The Name of the Rose? What does a 14th-century inquisitor wear as an undergarment?
It was so cold that I simply wore long underwear. But, it was a particular color, and that’s nobody’s business.
The whole interview could just be this. What about Scarface? Omar Suárez?
I wore papal underwear.
It was something that I had made up. I got the underwear, and then I had them emboss it. It added so much, and it was my secret. I carried it with me. There was a kind of sadomasochism part of it, too.
That seems very arbitrary, and not all that connected to the character.
I do that a lot with the tough-guy roles. I’ve played quite a few of these so-called killers, and I’ll break up the monotony with some kind of particular underwear that no one would ever suspect this killer would wear.
And that helps the performance?
I’m looking at your IMDb resume right now, and I don’t know which film to ask about next. Serpico, Star Trek: Insurrection, All the President’s Men, Muppets from Space. So many underwear possibilities.
Do any of these films have a particularly interesting underwear story?
Oh, they all do. Every single one of them. But the whole point is that it’s a secret. I can’t give away more secrets.
It’s mine and it’s going to stay mine. It’s nobody’s business but mine. That’s what makes it special.
Okay, fine. Let’s talk about something non-underwear-related. Inside Llewyn Davis.
What can I tell you, handsome?
What underwear were you wearing?
[Laughs.] Nice try!
No, seriously, I think it was one of the best movies of last year.
I’m glad to hear that. I was very disappointed that it was overlooked.
At the Oscars? Yeah, it got bupkis. Does that bug you?
A little. I mean, you’ve got to at least give a nod to the music. It’s a terrific movie, but whatever quibbles you have with it, what about the music? How can you not acknowledge that?
But in a way, is it a relief not to be nominated?
No, no, no, no. Why would you say that?
For the rest of us, watching the show as outsiders, it doesn’t always look like fun for the people involved.
It’s terrific fun. It’s thrilling, in fact. For one thing, you get to meet all these amazing people in one place. You go to the bathroom and you’re peeing next to Gregory Peck. How often does that happen?
It’s the great leveler. People talk about being bored with that, or unimpressed. Well my advice is, don’t go.
What I mean by not fun is that the people who get nominated, at least in recent years, they have a big target on their back. Have you heard all the criticism aimed at Jared Leto?
The kid from Dallas Buyers Club?
He’s getting a backlash for playing a transgender character without actually being transgender himself.
Which seems like weird criticism to have of an actor. That he or she isn’t precisely what they’re portraying.
Isn’t that our job?
That’s exactly it.
What bullshit. What does that mean? Does that mean we have to get rid of every great performance of Othello if they weren’t black?
Imagine if there was an Internet in the ’80s, when you were nominated for Amadeus.
I don’t want to think about it.
People would have been like, “He’s nothing like Salieri! He’s not even from Vienna! He’s from Pittsburgh!”
I was just born there. Actually, I was raised in Texas. Which makes it even more ironic.
Texas and Austria aren’t that similar?
Not at all. Gosh, that’s really upsetting about Leto. It’s silly. It was really a marvelous performance. What hollow, pointless criticism.
You’ve got just one scene in Llewyn Davis. Did you need much prep for that? Or did you just show up on the day of the shoot and wing it?
I never just show up. That’s not the kind of actor I am. I did research. It was pretty well-written, so I don’t know how much more you have to do than rely on the script.
Also, you probably know a few asshole managers and producers you could base the character on.
Oh yeah. There’s one specific producer, who will remain nameless. He has an extraordinary nose for talent, but he’s nothing but a pig. He really is. It’s quite extraordinary. He’s just not able to hide his envy and contempt for talent.
You’ve been an actor for over four decades, so you’ve had your fair share of rejection. Is the first cut always the deepest, or can you still be bruised in your 60s and 70s?
It’s still hard. Who was it that said it? Baby Snooks? What was her real name? The one they based Funny Girl on? What the heck was her name?
Right! She said something along the lines of, “When you get to a certain age, you don’t bounce back so easily anymore.” It always hurts. I’ve found that to be very true.
Your character Grossman gave some good advice, but it was also a little dehumanizing. It was all “cut the beard down to a goatee, stay out of the sun.” Nothing about the music.
Yeah, that’s true.
What’s the worst advice you’ve ever gotten from a producer or talent manager?
Hmm. That’s an interesting question. Sadly enough, the best advice I didn’t take.
Change agents. I’m an extremely loyal man, and I stayed with someone who wasn’t any good, because I was loyal. I shouldn’t have. I should have kept a business head about it. But the worst advice? [Long pause.] I suppose that was to take something I didn’t really want to do because of the money. When an agent says that to you, it’s a mistake. I mean, if you’re desperate, if you’re going to lose your house if you don’t get money fast, that’s one thing. But when your instincts tell you not to do something and you do it anyway because of a paycheck, it’s always a bad idea.
That’s a struggle for a lot of people.
It shouldn’t be. Your instincts are correct. When you begin to doubt your own instincts, you put yourself into the hands of anyone who talks to you. And then you’re essentially a prostitute. When in fact, you should rely on yourself and what you know in your gut to be best. There’s a real power in saying no.
It’s not easy to say no.
It absolutely isn’t. I haven’t always said no when I should have. I’ve done some pictures I don’t even want to talk about.
Like Blood Monkey?
[Laughs.] You’ve seen it?
No, but the Internet tells me things. It was about killer monkeys in Thailand and went straight to DVD?
That was a payday. But it also meant going to a part of the world that I’d never been to. I wanted to see Thailand. So I went. And I had a good time.
Did you at least sleepwalk through that job?
Not at all. Whatever it is, you try to make it live. You try to invest it with more than just the words on the page. You try to make it your own. I have no apologies for any of the movies I’ve made. I have my reasons for doing all of it. And that’s good enough.
There have been a lot of Bible-inspired movies lately, like Noah and Son of God. There’s something about you that seems so suited for a biblical epic. Is there a character from the Bible you’re dying to play?
I’d love to do Judas, but specifically the Judas that Kazantzakis wrote. The one that was already filmed by Scorsese, The Temptation of Christ or whatever it was. In that version, Judas was Jesus’s closest friend, and he was the only one who had the courage and love to betray him. It’s such a wonderful twist to the character. But otherwise, I don’t know. Satan maybe?
Oh my God, yes.
[Laughs.] You like that idea?
Maybe it’s the goatee, maybe it’s your voice. But you need to play Satan.
Yeah, I like that. I could do Satan.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)