F. Murray Abraham has played kings, gods, classical composers and gangsters. His latest role? A farting grandpa. In the new season of HBO’s The White Lotus, Abraham plays Bert di Grasso, a boorish man who travels to Sicily with his son and grandson to explore his ancestry and flirt with the hotel staff. As the trip drags on, egos clash and misunderstandings grow—and eventually, bodies begin turning up on the beautiful Mediterranean beach.
But despite his character’s many obvious flaws, Abraham says that playing Bert was one of the highlights of his career. “I would really like to go back to Sicily and shoot The White Lotus all over again,” he tells TIME. His performance has received plenty of praise, as has the show’s second season. Judy Berman, in TIME, writes that “the ideas are as fresh and provocative as ever,” and that of the season’s “stunning performances,” “[Michael] Imperioli and Abraham are particularly sharp together.”
Below, Abraham reminisces about his Oscar-winning role in Amadeus, his heightened motivations in his ninth decade, and growing up on the Mexican border.
Your character on The White Lotus, Bert, is a flatulent, crass womanizer. How did you relate to him?
They’re in my family. I’m 83, and come from an era where that was very common. They’re funny people: they’re so insensitive, but at the same time, loving and kind and generous. But they do have a blind spot when it comes to women, no question about that. I was raised that way.
What a great relief, to become a feminist. As a man, I don’t have to carry the world on my shoulders.
You said in a recent interview that the experience of filming The White Lotus ranked up there in your career with The Grand Budapest Hotel. What was so special about it?
You have the good script. You have a family of people working together who like each other and who are very good. Then you have this absolutely fairy tale place: I would live in Sicily.
I can’t say enough good about it. If I keep on going, you’re not going to believe me. But I’d love to do it again.
You called acting an “awful, awful profession” in a 1986 interview. Would you agree now?
When it’s bad, it’s awful. Eighty-five percent of actors in the union are out of work, always. [One study says 90%.] There were times when I was out of work for six, seven months. You begin to doubt, to forget who you are. You can make a living as a waiter; you try, anyway. But that’s not who you are.
But when it works, it’s great. I don’t think I’m ever more alive than when I’m on stage. And that’s a hell of a thing to say, because I have a wonderful life, really.
How did you persevere through those tough times?
I’m dedicated: When I‘m not working, I’m staying in shape, doing the voice and the reading. But it’s my wife, frankly. She never doubted me, never in 60 years. She saved my ass many times.
You’ve delivered King Lear soliloquies and crude masturbation jokes alike. Do you approach them with the same part of your brain?
It certainly is the same craft and the same exuberance. Frankly, if I had a choice, it would always be comedy. The thing about Salieri [whom he played the 1984 film Amadeus], which people don’t mention: they make him out to be a villain. In fact, the older Salieri is pretty funny.
I think what saves so many characters I play is that I try to find the humor in it. It’s hard to find humor in Macbeth, I’ll tell you that right now. You ain’t going to do it. That was the hardest part I ever did. I prefer Lear to Macbeth.
You go to the same well, whether it’s comedy or farce: you’re looking for the truth. So you do farce completely serious: you mean these stupid things you say. With Bert, it’s just the truth, that masturbation is important every day. Ask any doctor.
Read More: In The White Lotus‘ Provocative Second Season, Sicily Is for (Rich, Miserable) Lovers
Your mother is Italian. How would she convey Italy to you while you were growing up?
She had never been there: she was a first-generation American. I financed a trip when she was 72 to go visit. She came back telling me that she saw so many people that looked like her family.
But what touched her the most was that they’re not very wealthy in Calabria, but they share whatever little they had. I found that was true. I’ve worked in Italy a lot. I worked with Sophia Loren on a picture in Naples, and my mother was sick at the time in Texas. I asked Sophia if she wouldn’t mind talking to her—and she talked to her for about a half an hour. That’s the kind of thing that they have: that generosity of spirit.
And when we were there for The White Lotus, Etna was exploding! That’s common: The people don’t only put up with it, it’s part of the day. Sometimes the very fine ash, small, almost pebbles, cover a lot of the city. And they just go on, they clean up and they go about their business. But consequently, some of the wines, because of that lava earth, are so delicious.
One of the things Mike White does so well with The White Lotus is to reveal class dynamics, and show how terribly rich tourists treat locals. Did that theme influence how you and your colleagues interacted with the people in the town?
You’re asking the wrong man, because I’m from a blue collar background, and I have great sympathy for the working man and woman. So that was not a problem.
I don’t know how it affected some of the other people. I can tell you this about Jennifer [Coolidge]: That woman will fit in anywhere. When I was walking down the street on my days off looking for some place to have a bite or a cup of coffee, sometimes people would come out of their small stores and say, “Where’s Jennifer? Tell Jennifer to come to my shop.”
You’ve talked about how you come from coal miners and steelworkers. How might that blue-collar background inform your approach to acting?
My father was a self-taught mechanic: he really did learn from just trying. And his dedication to getting something right, I think, is the root of my approach to work and acting. I’m very methodical: I really do want to know everything I can about the guy.
In addition to The White Lotus, people recently loved you as C.W. Longbottom as Mythic Quest, and you garnered an Emmy nomination for voicing Khonshu in Moon Knight. Do you feel like this is a special stretch in your career?
It sure feels like it, doesn’t it? Yeah. A lot of sunshine, it’s pretty nice.
I’m not far from Washington Square, and someone came up to me and was trying to figure out who I was. Someone else came up and said, “Don’t you know who this is? He’s the voice of Khonshu!” So that’s my claim to fame: I’m the voice of a comic character. Everything else doesn’t mean a thing. Shakespeare, no—Khonshu! Yeah, this is a special time. And I hope it doesn’t stop.
Do you feel more or less motivated in your acting than in decades past?
More. I feel like I’m running out of time. There’s a lot to do. If I live to 100, that’s only 17 years. It ain’t enough time. So I look forward to my work now as I always have. That’s what’s so astonishing about my good luck. There’s a lot of talent out there, and they just can’t get arrested, as we say in the business.
You’ve played heroes, villains, comic relief and everything in-between. When you pick up a script these days, what are the qualities you look for?
You want a great script and a great character. I’d love to be a hero, a lover. An 83-year-old man who discovers love. Older people don’t get a fair shake about that. You’re still capable of loving. I’d like to see that happen.
As much as I love Shakespeare and Molière and Beckett and Pinter, there’s nothing like a new script. It’s absolutely thrilling because you’re creating something where there was nothing before.
You grew up in El Paso, two blocks from the Rio Grande. What kind of perspective did that upbringing give you about the current immigration debates?
This is a tragedy. I used to practically live in Juarez: I went to school and had dinner with the people that lived there. It wasn’t dangerous. Some of them didn’t speak English very well, and I learned some Spanish from them. Now, this is a different world. I think it’s a real tragedy that the border is not a place of free exchange between cultures.
You’re also part Syrian and are a spokesperson for the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. Have the Arabic roles you’ve played changed over the course of your career?
I think originally because of my name, I got a lot of Jewish parts. Some of the best performances of my life were my portrayals of Jews, like Roy Cohn [in Angels in America], a character I have no regard for. After it became known I was Syrian, they started offering me Arabic roles. The Jewish parts are much richer. They don’t draw Arabs very well. Usually they’re bad guys.
I also have to ask you about your amazing episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which you play yourself and perform a full Hamilton-style rap-sung number opposite Lin-Manuel Miranda. What was that like?
I gotta tell you, [musical choreographer Susan] Stroman really worked me to learn that dance number. I worked hard to get it.
Boy, that show is almost completely improv’d. Did you know that? The rehearsal is, ‘Here’s a couple of lines. Now we’ll shoot it.’ It was very impressive.
You’re a longtime theater teacher. What advice do you give your students?
I still teach once or twice a year, for free: I just do it because I like it. Every class, I start and end by saying, “Don’t be afraid.” That’s it.
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