If you've seen the Coen brothers film A Serious Man—and if you haven't, you really should; it's arguably the best American film of 2009—you know that it wasn't just star Michael Stuhlbarg who got robbed at The Golden Globe awards this week. (Robert Downey Jr. for Sherlock Holmes? Really?) One of the funniest performances in a movie full of them was delivered by actor Fed Melamed, a New York native who plays insufferably sanctimonious wife-stealer Sy Ableman to perfection. (Check out a clip below.)
The Academy Award nominations are announced next month, and yes the whole thing's a ludicrous back-slapping farce, but if there's any justice (which we're pretty sure there isn't), A Serious Man will rack up some serious awards, including one for Melamed. In the meantime, you can check him out tomorrow night in his Law & Order debut (he's playing a judge), or Netflix any of the Woody Allen movies he's appeared in, including Crimes and Misdemeanors, Radio Days, and Hannah and Her Sisters.
Were you raised in the Jewish faith? Well, it's funny, my parents were Jewish by birth but not at all by belief. My parents were showbizzers who were also children of the depression and kind of lefties, and they were very, very cynical about religion. I remember going to various Bar Mitzvah's for cousins of mine, and my parents thinking it was all very comical the way various stuffed shirts of the Sy Ableman variety would get up and make these endless speeches. My parents regarded that as rather silly and I think they saw a lot of hypocrisy in it.
I once asked my mother, "Is God real?" and she said to me, "If you think God is real, God is real. If you don't think God is real, God isn't real." At the time I just thought she meant that God is made up, but now that I'm older I think what she meant was whether or not God is real, if you don't believe there's a God it won't matter to you. I actually think no religious training helped me believe in God because I didn't have the same dogmas to overcome. A lot of my friends who were Bar Mitzvah'd or went to Catholic school had nasty nuns and boring rabbis to overcome in their coming to believe in God.
I ask because, of course, A Serious Man touches on a lot of the themes of growing up Jewish in America. A lot of people in the Jewish community are talking about it. One rabbi told the Times, "It's the most Jewish movie I've seen. You leave the theater with a host of questions, no easy answers, and frankly arguing about what it all means." I think that guy is a wise rabbi to say that. I think he's right and I think he identified some things about being Jewish, well maybe more universal things, but things that I take as being somewhat familiar, being a Jew and having grown up among Jews. The quest to understand, I think; that's sort of Jewish, the quest to figure it out. I think Larry in this movie, and everyone in the world, would like to have a moral guarantee that if they're a good person they will be duly rewarded, you know if they were not selfish, and did the things they're supposed to do, then their lives wouldn't be touched by inexplicable tragedies. But the fact of the matter is, as history has showed us again and again, there are no guarantees.
How did you get involved in the film? I knew Joel and Ethan a little bit from before. I knew some people in their circle. I had gone to drama school with Frances McDormand, who is Joel's wife, and John Turturro and his wife Katherine Borowitz, whom they've used several times in movies, and I know John Goodman from years ago. So I knew some people who they were friendly with. Then, about 20 years ago I auditioned for Barton Fink.
For the title role? No, for Jack Lipnick, who's the rather pushy film executive. I didn't get it. The guy who got it is a terrific actor named Michael Lerner. According to Ethan, I placed, I came in second, so they remembered me, and then some years after that they asked me if i was interested in doing a role in The Hudsucker Proxy, but unfortunately I was doing another movie so I coudn't do it. So then they were working on three films simultaneously, writing them all at once: No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man. They knew Burn After Reading was going to be a star-studded movie so they had to figure out the scheduling for those three films based on when they could get those stars. They wound up making No Country first, and our film last, but they cast me because they were looking at some footage for a part in Burn After Reading and they were screening for Tea Leoni. I was doing a scene with her in a different movie and they just happened to look at that scene to see if she'd be right for Burn After Reading and Ethan said, "Oh there's Fred Melamed, he'd be good for Sy Ableman."
So they called me, they didn't go through my agent, which is quite unusual, they just called me up, and they said would you be interested, and I said sure. They sent me the script and I thought it was beautiful. I was really impressed with it. I went to the city and read for them on tape, and I knew when I read that they laughed a lot and they were very pleased with it. Ethan said, we want you to know that we're probably not going to make this movie for a while, because they had just started shooting Burn After Reading. They had to shoot that movie and then they had a year of post-production before they even started this other movie. So I knew it was gonna be a long time before we started, but then, sure enough, it came to be and I was thrilled to do it and I enjoyed it so much.
How would you describe your character in the film? As the most insufferably pompous gasbag in cinema history. Of course, everybody says I'm born to play him. He's a great character. As an actor you get a few characters, if you're lucky, who are really great characters, and for me he's certainly one of them. He is a Machiavellian-type of evil guy, but I think he genuinely believes his line of BS. I think he believes that if people would only listen to him the world would be better. He gets what he wants out of people. He does a sort of Svengali number with people where he sort of hypnotizes them. People often refer to the way I talk in the movie as being hypnotic. I guess my idea of the character was that he gets to do what he wants by convincing people to relax and let him make the decisions and all will be well. It's funny, because in my family it wasn't so unusual for someone to say, "Don't you know sweetheart, I know what's best for you. Take it easy, I'll take care of you." So it wasn't so foreign to me.
Can you talk a little about working with the Coen Brothers? Yes, they're very different from other directors I've worked with in a number of ways. I think the key difference which only they and Woody Allen share is that nobody messes with them. They don't do any rewriting, casting, or anything else to please the studio. They don't, that's just part of their deal, and they've had that from their first movie. They're almost unique in that. So you actually have a very relaxed atmosphere on the set when you work with them, because it's them and the people they're used to working with and like working with, and no interference from anybody else. People advocate for them, and don't give them a hard time, or convince them that the clock is running and they must shoot faster. That sort of stuff that happens to more earthbound filmmakers.So you have this great time when you work with them.
The other thing that was unexpected about working with them was how much freedom they give you as an actor. They're so strong and thorough in what they write, and the characters are so well drawn. Then they like to see what you have to bring to it. They like creatively-oriented actors who really like to do something with the character. I was surprised because when you look at their filmography, they've gotten so many great performances out of different people. Certainly Fran McDormand has given great performances for them, and of course John Turturro, John Goodman, and Steve Buscemi, some of their best performances have been in Coen brothers' movies. I was interested to find out how they do that. They kind of leave you alone! They give you a very strongly realized world in the writing, and then they let you do your thing. So I found that wonderful, delightful, greatly satisfying, and unexpected. Since I'm also a writer, and I sort of want to be a director, I really learned something important from them.
A lot of people say that they finish each others sentences and whatnot. Did you ever see them disagree about a particular choice in the film? They almost always agreed to a degree that I thought was astounding. There was one tiny moment, it wasn't even a disagreement but I'll tell you what happened. The first day of rehearsal (there were also no rewrites, which was amazing), there was one tiny rewrite, and it was because initially the motel which Larry has to move into with his brother was called the Jolly Roger, as it was in the finished movie. I thought the Jolly Roger was a great name, but they had found a motel, a period correct motel in Minneapolis, called The Aqua City. It was called The Aqua City because it had a pool. So they changed the name in the script to The Aqua City because they could save some money by not having to make up a new sign or do some CGI. So they just called it The Aqua City. The first day of rehearsals I said to Joel, please change it back, I know I'm stepping out of line here, but the old name is so good, so strong, so funny, and so humiliating for Larry. I just think it's so much better. Joel looked at Ethan, and Ethan said, "Well, we'll see." And that was as close to a disagreement between them as I ever saw. They did ultimately change it back. I don't know what convinced them, if it was me or just thinking about it.
I guess when they're in the writer's room, you know they write things so carefully and together, they may have their disagreements in there. But they don't hang out together socially at all when they're not working. Joel has a place in Northern California where he goes—they both live in the city, but Joel has a country place that he goes to with Fran and his son. They see each other a lot when they're writing and making a movie, and then they go great lengths of time where they don't see each other, but they really don't argue at all in any kind of obvious way. I never saw anything that looked like an argument. I guess that all gets done during writing.
This is probably my favorite film of the year, and I was disappointed to see as the awards come out, the Golden Globes gave it one nomination, but it hasn't really been nominated or given the credit it deserves. I know you were nominated for a Gotham award, but why do you think the film hasn't been getting as much attention as other films this year? I don't really have the answer to that. I have guesses but they're just suppositions. It did win a big award from the independent spirit people, the Robert Altman award, which is quite a big deal for them. I don't know, the Golden Globes tend to be rather glitz and celebrity-oriented so that makes sense. I was surprised by SAG (Screen Actors Guild), I though we were going to get nominated for best ensemble by SAG. Some people have posited, I don't know if it's true or not, that there are a lot of people who were offended by what it said about the Jewish community. Also, it's a challenging film, it's not an easy film to observe. I love it, but it's a highly challenging film. It's tough to sit there. It makes you uncomfortable. Awards are often given for bodies of work, even though they're ostensibly for one work, so there were so many unknown actors. The film did show up on a lot of critics' ten best lists. I would say 90% of them, of the respected critics, had it on their ten best lists of the year, but as far as actual awards go I don't know the answer.
Who cares about that nonsense anyway. The film is out there and it's a great film. Well thank you, I'm really glad that you liked it. I must say, I have a lot of affection for it too because it's haunting to me. I must have seen it ten times already, plus I know everybody in it quite well, but even though I know them as people I'm still affected by it as a movie. They have this way of making movies that rattle around somewhere between your consciousness and your subconscious, and they really haunt you, at least this film does.
It's funny, people always talk about the ending. They say they're unsatisfied by the ending, they didn't like it—friends of mine, people I respect. To me, the ending of the movie sends you back into the movie. The endings of some movies ease you out of the movie and back to your normal life. You say, "That was an interesting movie, now I'm going to have my dinner or whatever." But somehow this movie stays in some part of your brain, at least it did for me, and you really wind up thinking about it a lot.
I thought the ending makes you mirror the experience of the characters. You start going, well, does it mean anything? Why? To me, whether you're a good person or a bad person, whether you're observant or not, we all face death. All the trials that we endure in life, illness and losing our jobs. In my own life I have two children with autism, real serious problems, and everybody has stuff like that, and then suddenly on comes this tornado of death and you say, "Gee, I thought I knew what trouble was. That stuff all seems rather trifling now that I'm facing the end." And that's really the way life is.