Interview: A Serious Man's Fred Melamed

By Jessica Elgot, November 16, 2009
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Fred Melamed as Sy Abelman in the Coen brother's movie A Serious Man

Fred Melamed as Sy Abelman in the Coen brother's movie A Serious Man

The Coen brothers' A Serious Man has been hailed as their "Jewish masterpiece", but its cast is a far cry from the celeb-fest of Burn After Reading and No Country For Old Men.

Fred Melamed, despite starring in nine Woody Allen movies, is one of the cast of relative unknowns. He plays slimy love rival Sy Abelman to Michael Stuhlbarg’s protagonist Larry Gopnik, and he has been nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award for his work.

He talks to the JC about working with the Coens and Woody Allen, how his faith was shaken by his sons’ autism, and his irritation with Israelis who tell him how to pronounce his surname.

Jewish Chronicle: You’ve worked with two of the most celebrated Jewish directing talents, Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. How do they differ? What are their methods like? And have you noticed any similarities?

Fred Melamed: The Coens and Woody have something in common, which almost no other director shares. If they stay within their modest budgets, they pretty much have carte blanche and are left entirely alone to write and produce their films as they see fit.

That is a freedom just not accorded to anyone else. They also both practice detailed, rigorous pre-production, and have a penchant for working with the same family of film makers over and over, though Woody has somewhat shaken this up recently with his European films. They are both able to produce film after film, because they have streamlined their methods and have strong working relationships.

Woody was famous for never going into expensive overtime on the set. The rumour was that we always quit at 6pm so that he could make his daily analyst’s appointment, but I think the truth was more that he planned everything so well, and he liked a quiet, manageable private life to support his art.

Woody never seemed to care that much about his own script. He’d always tell me, “if you don’t like it, or have something better, say whatever you want.” The Coens, rightly, prefer you to say their words, and they are invariably better than whatever the actors come up with. To me the Coens are brilliant writers first, then make brilliant films from what they’ve written.

JC: Does A Serious Man have a resonance for you? What was it like for you growing up? Do you identify with the characters in the movie? Have you ever had any jokes made about your surname?

FM: Unlike the Coens, I was raised by non-believers who found most of Judaism either incomprehensible or off-putting. They had a certain nostalgia for family holidays, but we never went to temple except to attend the bar mitzvah of a cousin, and when I was asked if I wanted to attend Hebrew School, I said no, and thus had no religious training.

I actually believe this helped me to develop a belief in God when I grew up, as I had no early, forced dogma to overcome.

I don’t really know of the Jewish tradition of comedy, only the Jewish tradition of not keeping your mouth shut. Complaining about all that is hard, unfair or ridiculous in life--having strong feelings, and not being able to suppress them. That, to me, is Jewish.

Fred Melamed

I certainly identify with the characters in the film. They want to be good and kind, and at the same time, also be selfish and do what’s best for themselves. Further, they are perplexed by the idea that even if you are righteous and unselfish, terrible, tragic things can befall you anyway.

I have two young children with autism. What could they have ever done to deserve that? What kind of a God allows the innocent to suffer? It’s a mystery. Yet still, I believe in God. We must agree to live in this world, with all that is unfair about it, without knowing why, if we wish to have a God in our lives.

I am tolerably ignorant about Judaism, and much of what I do know about it seems hard to swallow, because it is so grounded in legalism, and adherence to rituals.

It is certainly possible that this distaste is due to my admitted ignorance. I like Hillel’s famous quote, "Do not unto your neighbor what you would not have him do until you; this is the whole Law; the rest is commentary."

As for my surname [Hebrew for teacher], I pronounce it the Sephardic way to rhyme with “newlywed”. When I was growing up, it was frequently observed that this humorously rhymed with “melonhead”. The other annoying thing about having the name Melamed, is that every Israeli, or Hebrew or Arabic speaker I meet asks me if I know what my name means. As if I somehow could have reached the age of 53 without ever being apprised of my name’s meaning!

JC: Your character, Sy Abelman, is very much the “Serious Man” of the movie, rather than Larry. What comments have you had about your performance? What mannerisms did you try to adopt to play him?

FM: Sy Ableman is about the most obnoxious, unbearably pompous gasbag in cinema history, and pretty much all my friends agreed that I was born to play him!

Sy is a manipulator, a Machiavellian villain, so I thought he should have a kind of “massaging” quality to him, he should always be temperamentally inclined to make everybody comfortable, everybody feel good. That was how I attempted to play him. And I had an Uncle Jerry, the nicest guy in the world, who said everything with a kind of pained, gentle expression on his face. I tried to put Uncle Jerry in the mix, too.

Honestly, the whole experience of being in A Serious Man, playing Sy, working with the Coens was about the most fun, joyous experience I’ve ever had as an actor.

JC: Your career has been very much divided between stage and film. What do you prefer? How do you change as an actor to fit different mediums?

FM: The early part of my career was devoted to stage work. I wet to Yale Drama School, where we were trained to be stage actors exclusively. It was thought that if you were adept at acting on stage, film acting should come naturally.

Though I acted in hundreds of productions, appeared at the Guthrie Theatre and on Broadway in Amadeus, I discovered in my thirties that I didn’t really like stage acting. The presence of the audience, the eight shows a week and the possibility of a long run were all unnatural to me.

Now that I am older, and frankly, care less about what people think of me, I might try my hand on stage again. For me, it was like riding the Cyclone Roller Coaster on Coney Island, which I did when I was eight. When it was all over, I was glad I had done it. But while it was actually going on, I was just kind of hanging on for dear life.

JC: In Hollywood, it’s easy for characters to be typecast into the role of “the Jewish man”. Do you ever feel typecast into certain character roles, because of your background or because of having a certain look?

FM: Films are cast largely on looks. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes, like now, character actors are given a bit more latitude, and great actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, John C. Riley, John Turturro or Steve Buscemi have more opportunities. But they are still not “bankable” stars, by most standards.

I have a secret aspiration to be considered for a part where it doesn't matter what you look like to play it. Most of the time when I receive a script, it says something like 'Rosenberg is the fat, slovenly Mayor, who doesn't want the kids to use the skateboard park', or 'Stein is a pompous, rotund attorney, imposing to all.'

It would be so freeing to get a script where my character is simply described as “A Man”.

JC: Is comedy something that comes naturally to you? And what do you think of the tradition of Jewish comedy?

FM: Comedy is entirely natural to me, as it is to all serious people, especially those who cannot comprehend why philistines of every stripe are given authority; merit and goodness are regarded with suspicion, (if not downright malevolence), and so many of the finest people are bald and overweight.

I don’t really know of the Jewish tradition of comedy, only the Jewish tradition of not keeping your mouth shut. Complaining about all that is hard, unfair or ridiculous in life--having strong feelings, and not being able to suppress them. That, to me, is Jewish.

Dorothy Parker, the great wit of the twenties was half-Jewish. She was asked by a benighted acquaintance, “What are Jews really like?” “Jews..”, she said, “...are just like everybody else. Only more so.”

JC: Have you ever been to the UK?

FM: Yes indeed. My late biological father (I was adopted) was a British psychoanalyst called Stanley Silverstone. He was born in London in the 30’s.

My wife and I both love England deeply. We would live there, if I could work there with regularity, and if we knew our children could receive the special services that their autism requires.

I grew up in New York City. It has always felt more like a somewhat homesick European city than an American one. The throb of it, the grime and the chatty urgency of everything feel very nineteenth century, and also very Jewish to me. London has that same Jewish toughness and garrulous quality.

JC: How do you think UK audiences will feel about A Serious Man? Is it an intrinsically American Jewish movie, or is it a film Jews the world over will relate to?

FM: I think that there are certain “in jokes” and references that will be particularly familiar to American Jews, but I don’t think they are at all necessary to appreciate A Serious Man. In fact, I believe that the smaller and more specific a movie’s sub-culture or milieu is, the more universal its appeal.

A Serious Man is on general release in the UK on November 20

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014