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F. Murray Abraham Talks ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

The actor on 1960s New York, the Coen Brothers, and, of course, Homeland

Stephanie Butnick
December 01, 2013
F. Murray Abraham as Dar Adal on Homeland. (IMDb)
F. Murray Abraham as Dar Adal on Homeland. (IMDb)

Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is a looming presence throughout Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ newest film, constantly referenced by the hapless protagonist, aspiring folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), as the man who holds the keys to getting his solo career off the ground. Just like Bob Dylan’s similarly-named real-life manager Albert Grossman, the character owns The Gate of Horn, the Chicago club where singers like Janis Joplin got their start, which is the fictional Davis’ last chance at making it big.

But unlike Grossman—who notoriously took a 25 percent commission from his artists at a time when other managers took 15 percent, and who took out a life insurance policy on Janis Joplin when he found out the singer was doing drugs against his orders—the on-screen iteration seems a bit more benevolent, if equally bottom-line driven.

Tablet film columnist J. Hoberman described the scene when Davis finally meets Grossman:

Later, Llewyn goes on the road to Chicago with a feline cat and a human one (John Goodman as a hideous jazz junkie hipster), hoping to land a gig at the Gate of Horn or at least get representation from the owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). A stand-in for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, this imposing figure is singularly unimpressed by Llewyn’s heartfelt and not unoriginal rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane,” crassly remarking only “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

Still, he seems thoughtful in his dismissal of Davis’ performance, almost fatherly, not writing him off completely. I spoke to F. Murray Abraham over the phone while he was in Los Angeles promoting the film, and he explained the inspiration for his take on the famously cantankerous Grossman.

“I was really trying to make an amalgam of the people who had rejected me. Some of them have been very generous in their rejection, some of them have not,” Abraham explained, pointing out that while direct and calculated, his character recognized Davis’ talent—even if it wasn’t going to make him any money.

“I was hoping to give him something more than just that blank predictable person; there’s more to him than that,” he said. “He’s basically still kind of a selfish person—he knows what he wants and needs, and goes and gets it.”

But as cruel as Grossman’s dismissal may have been, Abraham understood the reasoning behind it. “I think he was right about this guy. As much talent as he had, it wasn’t the right time for him,” he told me.

“That’s hard for anyone to hear. That’s hard for an actor to hear.”

While Abraham may have been mining inspiration from his early days as an actor, rejection is something the 74-year-old actor likely hasn’t heard lately. After winning the Academy Award for best actor for his performance as Antonio Salieri in 1984’s Amadeus, Abraham spent the next several decades working mostly in television and theater (he spoke with Vox Tablet in 2007 when he played the lead in simultaneous New York productions of The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta). He’s recently gained a zeitgeisty—and well-deserved—popularity among a new generation of TV fans with his guest role on CBS’ The Good Wife and now-recurring role as a CIA black ops specialist on Showtime’s Homeland.

And then, of course, the Coen Brothers called, cementing his role in the canon of American popular culture.

“When the Coen brothers want to do something with you, you say yes before they finish talking. I think any actor would tell you that,” Abraham said, laughing.

One of the more surprising—and cinematically powerful—elements of the film is that for all Bud Grossman’s name and kingmaker status is thrown around, he appears in only that one, very brief, scene. It’s as fleeting as Davis’ shot at stardom (no spoilers here, the film is characteristically Coen; they’ve described it as “an odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere”).

“All I had was that one scene with my friend Oscar,” Abraham explained. “It was a day’s work. I wouldn’t have done that for anyone else than the Coen brothers.”

“He and I have done some Shakespeare together,” Abraham said of Oscar Isaac, who not only brings Llewyn Davis to life but makes him likable even as he mooches off friends, crashes on couches, and pushes his hosts to the outer limits of hospitality. “But I didn’t know he could sing or play the guitar.”

The scene between Abraham and Isaac (!) showcases one of Isaac’s most sincere—and desperately beautiful—performances. “It was really something,” Abraham explained. “And he sang it every single time. He played the guitar and sang his heart out.”

They filmed the scene in just four takes.

Abraham, it turns out, is no stranger to the 1960s folk music scene. Moving from Los Angeles to New York City in the early 60s to pursue his acting career, he naturally fell into step with the creative energy of the folk scene.

“Folk music was really important to us,” he said, asking if I knew what a Hootenanny was (I didn’t). “It’s really as funny as it sounds. We’d get together in peoples’ apartments or outside and we’d sing. It was really folky.”

“It was all acoustics. It was very human.”

Abraham’s big, expressive face and booming baritone allow him to embody nearly any character he chooses, which is why seeing him as the blunt, straight-shooting Bud Grossman can be a bit jarring to fans of Homeland, who regularly tune in to watch Abraham as Dar Adal, the black ops specialist who has managed to remain a mystery even as he becomes more and more involved with the CIA’s daily operation.

“I’m not too sure what Dar Adal is doing. The scripts keep on surprising me,” Abraham explained, a sentiment with which I energetically agreed. (We spoke on a Sunday, several hours before Homeland would air on the East Coast.)

I confessed to being a Homeland fan (in my defense, it was a few episodes ago), and Abraham seemed genuinely delighted. “The people who like Homeland are rabid, they’re really serious,” he said. “It’s great to see that kind of devotion.”

For Abraham, who started out in a guest role last season that ultimately developed into a recurring character, the set of Homeland is like a New York theater scene reunion. “Mandy [Patinkin] and I go way back, we’ve known each other for a long time.”

Still, while the two cut their teeth in powerhouse on-stage roles, Abraham admitted he’s never sang on set with Patinkin, who plays Saul Berenson, the show’s moral barometer—and who sang the Shehecheyanu on The Colbert Report back in October. Abraham, who just finished shooting his guest role on The Good Wife (the Homeland fans on the crew begged him not to spoil anything) said he and Christine Baransky would sing duets in between takes.

“I wish you could sit in on a day,” he told me, “You would say, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.