/F Murray Abraham in The Mentor at the Vaudeville Theatre

The American actor F Murray Abraham, who is currently starring in The Mentor in London, speaks to Rachel Bailey about the importance of comedy, his passion for Shakespeare, and his thoughts on screen work versus stage.

As a major fan of USA crime-thriller series, Homeland, it was with great enthusiasm that I sat down to interview F Murray Abraham. The American actor plays Dar Adal in the programme – but if you don’t recognise him from that, you may well be familiar with some his other on-screen credits, which include Scarface, Star Trek: Insurrection, The Good Wife, Inside Llewyn Davis and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

You might also know him from his role as Salieri in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus, for which he collected an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1985. His acting career, which has spanned almost 50 years (and shows little sign of slowing down) has seen Abraham in roles in television, film and stage.

The Mentor

Abraham’s current venture sees him starring as Benjamin Rubin in the comedic play, The Mentor, which opened in the West End on 24th June. It was written by bestselling German novelist, Daniel Kehlmann, who contacted Abraham directly to tell him that he’d written the part of Rubin with him in mind.

“It’s the best time you’ll ever have in the theatre, do you know that?” Abraham tells me. “I can’t tell you how delighted people are at the end of the show; it’s wonderful to hear the explosion of applause and laughter. I promise you, it’s a really good time.”

Abraham’s character, Rubin, is one of just four in this play. The Mentor looks at the relationship between a cantankerous old writer (played by Abraham) and a rising young literary star, heralded as ‘the voice of his generation’. It’s essentially a clash of egos on stage, embellished by what Abraham calls ‘a real family conflict’.

“It’s definitely a comedy,” Abraham explains, “but it’s also got some serious overtones. This show is really reaching audiences with something they need to hear. One of the things that The Mentor is saying is: you do matter. You can make a change in yourself. You can do something, and you have the potential to do even better.

F Murray Abraham in The Mentor at the Vaudeville Theatre

Pictured: F Murray Abraham in The Mentor at the Vaudeville Theatre. (Photo credit: Simon Annand).

“These days we’re often helpless in the face of so much that’s going on in the world and you might feel like your hands are tied. The Mentor frees you from that, and it’s an important part of the show that people really respond to”.

Does the character of Rubin has many similarities to Abraham’s own personality? I ask.

“What can I say, he’s smart and good looking,” jokes Abraham. “Wow – if my wife were here, she’d kick me. No, I suppose the main similarity between Rubin and myself is that he’s a dedicated artist and so am I.

“His role as a mentor is also reflected in my own life – I teach some students once a year, just because I enjoy teaching. Nice as I am, I’m really tough on my students, as Rubin is. But even though I may appear scary at first (perhaps because some of the work I do is quite heavy) I’m actually not that scary at all.”

The importance of comedy

Comedy appears to have played a large role in both Abraham’s career and way of life. The first 15 years of his career were spent in comedic roles, and it was only when he was discovered for Amadeus in 1984 that he started to take on darker characters.

“Comedy is my absolute favourite, but I don’t get a chance to do it anymore because I’m cast as a villain so much. I think comedy is a very honest medium compared to other theatre or screen genres, because there’s never any doubt if it works. If you’re doing it right, the audience will laugh – you can’t fake that.

“I also think comedy is healthy. These days I look around at this world we’re living in, and realise that we could really just use some laughs.”

Abraham affirms that Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream will always be one of his favourite comedic roles that he’s had the pleasure of playing as an actor.

Daniel Weyman, Jonathan Cullen, Naomi Frederick and F Murray Abraham in The Mentor at the Vaudeville Theatre

Pictured: Daniel Weyman, Jonathan Cullen, Naomi Frederick and F Murray Abraham in The Mentor. (Photo credit: Simon Annand).

“Bottom is dear to my heart and I just loved him – I felt like Shakespeare wrote that part just for me.”

He also cites Shylock from The Merchant of Venice and Malvolio from Twelfth Night as other favourites.

Shakespeare classics and new plays

Abraham names other Shakespearean works when I question what shows he’d like to star in that he hasn’t already. He states that he’d love to do another King Lear, and play Prospero in The Tempest, but references new works, too.

“Frankly, as much as I love the classics, I don’t think there’s anything like doing a new play. If I had a choice, it would always be a new play because there’s nothing like creating something that’s never existed before.”

He goes on to discuss the differences between working on screen and on stage, both of which Abraham places great importance on.

“Doing both offers you a nice balance,” he explains. “If every actor has a choice to do both, they should – one informs the other. In film, the successful actor behaves as though he’s not being observed. So the more private you are, the more magnetic you are. It’s as though someone is looking at you through a keyhole.

“On stage, meanwhile, the audience is right there and the experience is shared. I’m aware of the audience and we function together – and it’s this shared experience that makes me love theatre so much.”

Naomi Frederick and F Murray Abraham in The Mentor at the Vaudeville Theatre

Pictured: Naomi Frederick and F Murray Abraham in The Mentor. (Photo credit: Simon Annand).

On stage disasters and Homeland

Still on the topic of theatre (and through a great deal of chuckling), Abraham goes on to tell me about some of the more disastrous and funny occurrences that he’s faced on stage. Highlights include a whole wall falling down on set during a performance of David Mamet’s A Life in Theatre (the most sensible decision being to pick the wall up and power on through the production), and the numerous occasions when someone has sneezed off stage and Abraham’s taken the time to bless them mid-performance.

“You would be astonished at how the audience adjust to that kind of thing, if you do it properly,” he tells me. “I love it – rolling with what happens live is one of the excitements of being on stage.”

The Mentor is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until September, but despite my hopes that Abraham might have additional acting roles to take on in the UK, it appears he’s got a more pressing engagement back at home – to film some more Homeland (cue inner applause). Homeland fans will be pleased to know that the next series is ‘a shocker’, and that Claire Danes (who plays Carrie Mathison) is ‘an absolute dream to work with’.

Abraham ends our chat by joking that if he wasn’t an actor, he’d probably be in jail; that he’s quite a spiritual person and might have ended up a clerk; and that when he’s not on stage or filming, you’ll find him in New York with the two things he can’t be without: his family (including his wife of almost 60 years) and the theatre. 

The Mentor is running at London’s Vaudeville Theatre from now until 2nd September. Group bookings are available; group travel organisers should call 0330-333 4817 for more information.

(Lead image photo credit: Simon Annand).