An Interview with Actor F. Murray Abraham

An Explosive, Generative and Dangerous Time
An Interview with Actor F. Murray Abraham

What attracts you to a role like Galileo?

First of all it’s Brecht. I mean it’s Brecht, that’s an opener. I think that total period of the Italian Renaissance is extravagant. What was happening in the world at that time, it’s just an explosive, generative and really dangerous time and it seems so parallel to what’s happening in our world right now. It’s a time where very few independent thinkers, men, women, are willing to go against the grain. Galileo is such a person, willing to seek after the truth and share it with humanity. The problem is a segment of humanity refuses such truth. The truth could be quite straightforward, like the dropping of a stone, something that you would think impossible to deny and yet this segment not only denies it but is willing to persecute you for the inconvenience of your fact that happens to contradict their wishes. And it continues throughout the world, throughout the ages, right up to our very own age. And with each age we need to find someone who is willing to stand up and say no, or in this case, to say no up to a point before caving in for the sake of his own life. It’s very tricky.

I lived through the HUAC period. I was quite a young boy at the time but the idea that anyone would spill their guts on their friends just to save their own skin has always been repulsive to me. Galileo did not do that. He only betrayed himself, but in the play he makes it much, much bigger than that, the betrayal was huge. What he had to sacrifice in terms of his self-esteem, his idea of science—which is truth—and his idea of an obligation of a scientist to humanity. That’s examined clearly is this play and I think in terms of the destructive inventions and creations, if you can call a destructive thing a creation. The power that we have now to destroy the world many times over is in our hands, and that power is the responsibility of the men and women who created it, but they don’t see it that way. And neither do the governments that sponsor this kind of production. They think there is no responsibility except to the experiment itself, except to the theory, except to the development and the discovery of whatever it is. And then to have a scientist simply absolve himself, to try to say it has nothing to do with me but only to do with the object itself, that to me is denying responsibility—our responsibility to each other. That’s why I really love this character.

How do you prepare for such iconic characters as Shylock, Salieri or Galileo?

It’s great because the material is all there. First of all you go right to the internet these days; I was just there when you called. A lot of research. But the research, because of that period there’s so much art to look at, so much music available, and if you are going to do the work you’ve got to do that, you’ve got to immerse yourself in it. And it’s terrific because you can look at what they looked like, what they dressed like. Not that we are going to do that but it’s important to know what they lived like. It helps a lot. Research.

Are Brecht’s theories on acting helpful in your preparation/thinking on performing Galileo?

Well, I don’t know about that. I’ll take whatever information I can find from whatever quarter. But essentially…I trust myself. I trust that his ideas about acting are secondary to the material he has written. I depend on the written word and to me it is sacred and that’s what I go to. I try to find the truth in that. Sometimes these playwrights can fool themselves. Chekhov fooled himself, he really didn’t know what he had, he had one idea and Stanislavski had another and it turns out Stanislavski was right. The point is the material itself speaks and that is what I’m going to put my faith and trust in. Of course his theories are important and I’m familiar with them and I’m looking at them now, but in the end I’m going to trust my own instinct.

You’ve worked in film, television, documentaries and experimental work. What keeps drawing you back to theatre as a primary means of expression?

Yeah, I did live soap opera, can you believe it? Can you believe it? Oh God almighty, you can’t see it, that’s too long ago. But it’s amazing: it’s like nineteen million people watching you as you do it! That one shot that I did, the first time I did it, the first time I was so nervous. But do you realize that one time I must have had four lines on the thing on CBS. More people saw me at that moment than they ever will for the rest of my life.

[Theatre] is where the truth lives in acting, it’s the only place where it really lives, because there is nothing between you and the audience, there’s nothing. It’s a mutual effort, each show is different because each audience is different. In a movie, the film can be running in an empty house and it would be the same as if it was a full house; it’s the same movie, they don’t need the audience. I need the audience. The actor depends on it. Some actors don’t, some actors act as though they are not even aware of the audience. That’s not why I do it. What that enables you to do is to test yourself, to find out if something really works, at that moment. And each moment is different and it tests you. I’ve been doing this for fifty years. And the way I act now is very different from the way I did fifty years ago, not only because I know more and trained and worked for all these years, but because the times change and either you change with them or you die. And the only way to know if you have changed with the times and if you are reaching that audience is to get up off your arse, get up on your feet and do it—and if they don’t like it, they’ll let you know. And that’s why: you’ve got to test yourself. That’s why you do the great parts, that’s the only way you find out, if you’re up to measure with the greatest actors who ever lived. Every time I do a classical role I am testing myself against everyone who’s ever done it. Every Lear, every Macbeth, every Romeo, not that I played Romeo, I’m not a Romeo. But you get my drift. There are certain people, the greatest in the world, this Burbage was the greatest Lear—well that was four hundred years ago but his memory is still there and the test is there and it’s the only way really to expand yourself. It’s a dangerous game and I think that’s what makes it exciting, and when you fail, which I have, it’s enormous, it’s devastating. You know because everyone has an idea of how certain great roles should be played, they’ve grown up with it, they’re familiar with it, they have favorites whether they want to admit it or not. The point is they are measuring you against those other people so they go in with their knives out, or they go in with a pre-conceived idea, and either you can change their minds or you can be shot down. I’ve had some great reviews, I’ve had some pretty bad reviews too but you’ve got to do, get up there, try it, whatever happens, you may get shot down, but so what, you learn from it.

You’ve had such a distinguished and extraordinary career. Does the art of acting get easier or trickier over time? Can you talk about your development over the years?

Oh man, it’s really changed a lot. It’s changed as…I’ve been married to the same woman for fifty years now, that’s an achievement as far as I’m concerned, that has affected my life, it affects my acting; I’ve had children, that affects it; now I have a grandchild, that affects it; it’s all been positive. I’ve lost two brothers to the military; that’s affected me. Yes, things have changed. The stingy nature of this world and even in our own wonderful country, the closed-fisted idea that education is at the bottom of the list, that health care is at the bottom of the list and war is at the top, I don’t know if that has changed too much but that has certainly changed me in terms of politics. That affects the work, it all affects the work. But what has not changed is my extraordinary passion for my work. This play that we’re about to start rehearsing makes me so nervous. I don’t think it’s changed much from when I started. I’m just as jumpy, I get up at three or four o’clock in the morning, I’m wide awake, I go to the script because I can’t sleep. I mean can you believe it? After all these years, it’s just like the first time. Isn’t that amazing?