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A Serious Man’s Fred Melamed: ‘I’m Trying to Bring the Pompous, Jewish, Overweight, Rabbinic Figure Back to the Center of American Sexuality’

You’ve seen Fred Melamed before. Indeed, pretty much everybody’s seen Fred Melamed before. “This is my sixteenth or seventeenth film, but people never think they’ve seen me in a movie — I have this face, they think I’m their kid’s orthodontist or something,” says the New York–born actor, who, after years of acclaimed stage work and supporting parts in Woody Allen movies (he notably played Woody’s shrink in Hannah and Her Sisters), gave one of 2009’s most notable performances as Sy Ableman, the deceptively villainous, cuckolding, soft-spoken family friend in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. (His amazing turn even made our Top 30 Performances of 2009 list.) Melamed’s gently authoritative bearing and deep voice have made him a natural to play professors, doctors, and judges, not to mention announcers (he was the announcer for Silk Stalkings and also for “Big Comedy Monday” on the Letterman show, among other things). In fact, fresh off his acclaimed turn in A Serious Man, he will appear tomorrow on Law & Order, playing Judge Bertram Hill. We talked to Melamed about the Coens’ working methods, his own directorial ambitions, and just what exactly A Serious Man means.

Your character in this film is probably one of the most gentle, reassuring villains in recent movie history.
My take on it was that he was sort of Machiavellian. He’s evil, but his method is to get people off guard by being so relaxing: He’s a controller. And the Coen Brothers, as you probably know, write very fully realized worlds. When you read other scripts as an actor, you often say, “What should I do with this?” Very often, your ideas about a character are your own inventions, and they may not necessarily derive from the intention of the writer. But the Coens write very fully realized characters, while also giving you room for invention. So I thought of Sy as someone who gets people to give up control by this very hypnotic way of behaving, by convincing them that everything’s going to be fine. It was in the script that he was a phony, but it was my idea to make him kind of a relaxation Svengali. And he’s not a total bullshit artist: In a way, he totally believes in that ethos. I was only 11 in 1967, but I think at that time, people were genuinely questioning a lot of what had gone on before. And they believed less cynically that actual change could happen, for the betterment of everybody. Part of it was the Dionysian thing. I remember the Living Theater, and that whole notion that we should indulge ourselves in pleasure. So, in the movie, Judith, Larry’s wife, has had enough of him. It’s implied that she’s sexually frustrated. And strangely enough, big, fat, bearlike Sy Ableman knows a thing or two that Larry doesn’t, apparently.

You’ve done a lot of voice acting as well, and the voices in this film are very distinct — between you, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Richard Kind, a viewer could just close their eyes and listen to this movie and have a very vivid experience.
The Coen Brothers did happen to choose people whose sound is distinct. Almost everybody in that movie has massive experience in theater, and theater is largely aural — it’s sound, voices, etc. Film is, of necessity, a visual medium. But Ethan once said to me, “Use your voice more.” I was a little surprised: When I’m acting, I often never think about my voice, even though I’m also a voice actor. Sy was supposed to calm and hypnotize people, and my voice, I’m told, has that quality. I think the Coens also they pay attention to sound mixing, the use of music, and other aural elements more than a lot of directors do. I think that they’re writers before they’re filmmakers. Even though their films are very visually distinctive, they’re great writers at first — to me, anyway. And I think that’s why they pay attention to the sound of things.

Did you talk to them about the real-life inspirations for this story, and for your character?
We did, a little bit. We all felt a special responsibility, because we knew a lot of the people and places and experiences were personally theirs. But I think we were cautious to not ask them questions of a personal nature, unless they wanted to come forward with something. They preserve the mystery of what art is about, by only revealing — to people they work with, to the press — only what they want. For example, they did tell us many times during the filming that Larry’s character is a creation. Yes, their father was a university professor, but he’s not at all the kind of guy who was tread upon, and he still lives in Minneapolis. They actually said specifically that their father was nothing like that. Ethan did say that my character was based on somebody who was a friend of their family, although I think the cuckolding was not an actual thing that happened to their father. But I think my character was a well-known blowhard in the community who was always celebrated as a big deal, while being quite a transparent phony. When you play a character like that, you always want to make him as real as you can. And people who do the worst things rarely look at themselves as being evil. My decision was to make Sy as corrupt as he seems — we do find out that he’s the one writing those letters to the tenure committee, for example — but he also doesn’t like to intimidate people. He thinks that if they just do what he says and relax, everything will be great.

Some have called A Serious Man the Coens’ Woody Allen movie. You’ve been in a lot of Woody Allen movies. What do you think of that?
I’ve read that. I don’t quite get that, but I think what they mean is that: (a) It’s about Jews, and (b) it reveals a bit more about their own personal angst as well as the actual environment they grew up in. People sometimes overpresume that Woody Allen films are like that. But much of what Woody Allen puts in his movies is invention. Same with Philip Roth — anyone who writes about such personal things, people think it’s based on real life. I don’t think, for example, that people sit around wondering if James Cameron has traveled to other worlds. If you’re writing about growing up in a Jewish suburb, and you grew up in a Jewish suburb, people think that all that must have really happened. I remember my mother, back when Portnoy’s Complaint came out, said to me, “You know, I met Philip Roth’s mother ... and she doesn’t have an accent!” The mother in the book had one, so she assumed Philip Roth’s mom must have had one as well.

People seem to think it’s all or nothing: Either something is based on real life and totally true, or it’s a complete fiction. They have trouble with the in-between.
I’m writing a screenplay now, which I’m trying to direct, and it’s about a man who was a well-known map expert, who was famous for having discovered certain maps, and he was caught stealing from the Beinecke Library at Yale a few years ago. A guy named Forbes Smiley, he was actually a college friend of mine. The screenplay also has references to other things that happened to Forbes Smiley, although most of it is invention. And many of our friends who’ve looked at it are amazed that so much of it is invention. They thought I was going to make a biopic or something. But being able to invent gives you a lot of freedom. By the way, the film is called (Also, a Villager), and that title comes from a program from John Wilkes Booth and Edwin Booth performing Julius Caesar together, two weeks before Lincoln is assassinated. In the program, it lists the dramatis personae, and it says “Edwin Booth as Brutus.” And then “J. Wilkes Booth as Julius Caesar,” but then adds, in parentheses, “(Also, a Villager).” What it means is that after he gets killed as Julius Caesar, he has to show up in a beard and play just a random townsperson. I’m trying to get it made now. I’m at the “This is great, we’re really excited to do it, can you attach Philip Seymour Hoffman to it?” stage.

Did you tell the Coen Brothers about it?
I did. I had started on it a year before A Serious Man, and I even asked them if it would be okay for me to come to set on days when I wasn’t shooting, just to observe how they work, and they were very generous about it. And they also said something that I couldn’t believe: “If you have any ideas or thoughts about things that are in A Serious Man, don’t feel shy about sharing them.” In moviemaking, you never ever get that. At least, I don’t. That’s extremely rare. A character actor like me, usually you show up, you do your thing, and you’re gone. But with them, they have such a collegial idea about making movies, they really are quite open to things. I was shocked at how little direction they give from an acting point of view. Very little. Only if they felt there was an important detail you were leaving out. But they get such great performances out of people — whether it’s Bill Macy or Fran McDormand or John Turturro or Steve Buscemi. Some of the best performances of people’s careers are in their movies. They get you so you feel confident about what you’re doing, and then they let you do your thing.

Who was it that said that “90 percent of directing is casting”?
Exactly. It’s because of this arrangement they have with their studios, that I think Woody Allen also has. They can cast whomever they want. They spend a lot of time casting, much more than most directors do. For True Grit, they’ve been casting the lead role in that — the young girl — for months. I was the first person cast in A Serious Man. I initially read the script long before I knew anything about who was going to play the other parts. This was a long time ago — basically, they were working on A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, and Burn After Reading at the same time. They didn’t know which one they were going to make first. They were screening other actors for Burn After Reading, and they wanted to look at Téa Leoni. So they looked at a scene from a film with her in it. I was also in the scene, and they said, “Oh, yeah, Fred Melamed, he’d be good for Sy Ableman.” I had first read for them back during Barton Fink, for the part of the producer, and they told me I’d come in second, so I guess they remembered me. Ethan said to me, “I want you to be aware, even though we’re casting this movie now, we’re actually getting ready to shoot Burn After Reading, so it’s going to be a year and a half or so before we start shooting this other movie.” I said, “That’s fine, because I’m trying to bring the pompous, Jewish, overweight, rabbinic figure back to the center of American sexuality, where I feel it belongs. That should take me at least a year.” So for a long time, on the movie’s IMDb page, I was the only name listed. And Michael Stuhlbarg was originally considered for the role of the shtetl husband at the beginning of the film. He’s such a compulsive and hardworking actor, so he went and learned phonetic Yiddish and everything. But then they made him read for Larry and also for Richard Kind’s part, the brother. It was only six weeks before they started shooting that they decided he was going to play Larry.

They made the right choice, it seems.
Absolutely. Even though nothing but shit happens to him for the whole film, you need to not get tired of that character. The film could so easily turn into a Jewish complaint, a rant, a television show, and that was something we wanted to avoid. I had a teacher in drama school, who said, “Especially in comedy, as you relax with things, you tend to get bigger with your performance. Remember: As you get better with things, make them deeper, not bigger. Make it truer, more human.” So much happens that’s so outrageous to this guy, but it can’t turn into burlesque. It has to walk right to the edge, but it can’t go over the edge. Great comedy always comes from the characters, instead of the punchlines. I’ve seen that movie God knows how many times, and it’s still haunting to me. There’s something you can’t shake about it. That ending sends you back to the movie. You can’t just walk out of the movie and say, “Well, that was interesting” and go have dinner and forget about it.

I felt like the movie, despite all the awful things that happen to Larry, is actually kind of a fond reminiscence about this character. Once he gets cancer, everything that’s happened to him before will be bathed in nostalgia.
That’s exactly how I feel about it. To me, whether you’re good or you’re bad, whether you’re righteous or not, there’s always going to be something that puts it all in perspective. The tornado for the son and the cancer for the father are those things. Everything that seemed like such bad luck now seems pretty workaday. Originally, when they first conceived it, there was an equal shared story between the son and the father. As they rewrote it, the father’s role became bigger, and the son’s role became lesser. I’ve had a lot of arguments about that ending. This movie, it generates such strong feelings in both directions. That suggests to me that it really is a work of art.

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features