In The White Lotus season two, Mike White sends the overprivileged characters of his deliciously funny HBO anthology series to a luxury resort in Sicily. It’s here that we find F. Murray Abraham as Bert Di Grasso, a widowed patriarch traveling with his son, Dominic (Michael Imperioli), and grandson, Albie (Adam DiMarco), on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to discover their ancestral roots.
Bert, who initially scans as a sweet and kindly grandfather, flirts with every young woman he encounters, audibly farts at inappropriate times, and generally says whatever’s on his mind. (The first episode also features a family dinnertime conversation between the three men about the mechanics of onanism in your eighties.) Because it’s F. Murray Abraham, known for his booming voice and legendary roles as Antonio Salieri in Amadeus and Omar Suarez in Scarface, the performance is still pretty charming and imbued with off-the-charts gravitas.
Here, Abraham talks to GQ about working with Mike White in Sicily, his memories of filming Amadeus and Scarface at the same time in the early 1980s, and what he finds relatable about Bert.
GQ: How did the role of Bert Di Grasso come your way?
F. Murray Abraham: It’s one of those lucky things that happens. Mike White—I can’t say enough about him. It doesn’t happen often that you have a whole atmosphere of positivity and creativity and pleasure. Wes Anderson, the same thing happens on his set. And the Coen Brothers. It’s like a little present from heaven. I ain’t kidding.
Mike is one of the most idiosyncratic people working in Hollywood right now. What’s he like when he’s directing you?
He’s ideal because he insists that you try to find it on your own. Or he’ll say it’s not nasty enough. He kept pushing me to be … well, you know how I treat my son in this thing.
It’s really always attacking and attacking. And he said, “Go further. Keep going. Don’t let it bother you because it doesn’t bother you.” And it became fun after a while. The irony is that Michael and I have become very good friends. He and his wife and I were a trio. We spent a lot of time together. Still do, by the way.
So what appealed to you about Bert?
Well, he really is a relic. He’s completely out of step with the present day. One of the reasons I think he gets away with some of the outrageous things he says is that he’s so innocent about it. And he’s not ashamed. He’s not censoring himself.
I have to tell you, these days, especially in our business, you have to be censorious about your thoughts. About how you express yourself. I come from Bert’s era. I’m not proud of that whole era, of course. I’m a feminist, actually. And that’s the last thing that Bert is.
But also he makes me laugh, this character. He’s charming. He’s so outrageous that when I was playing him and saying some of those terrible things, I’d make myself laugh. And I’m hoping that’s what happens to the audience. They’ll forgive him the stuff because it’s so outrageous.
How was he pitched to you? “You’re going to be the amorous, flatulent grandfather?”
It’s my claim to fame. My comment was, “I insist on doing all my own stunts anyway.”
Also, I’m half Italian and Italy is my second home. I had done some work in Sicily a couple times, but very briefly. And I just couldn’t wait to get there. Working in Italy’s fun. And Sicily was a whole other experience in a good way.
Have you ever done that kind of big family trip to get in touch with your roots that the Di Grassos are taking?
Unfortunately, that usually centers around funerals. We all get together for funerals. We forget to get together for celebrations. No, I have never done that. I arranged for my sweet mother, God rest her soul, to go to Italy. She had never been there. She was in her seventies, and I financed a trip for her and her sister to go.
As you said, you’ve done a handful of Italian films, including one across from Sophia Loren. What comes to mind when you think about your experiences working over there?
Some good, some bad. I did a lot of stuff there. It’s a different experience in Italy than it is in any other European country. The Italians have a very offhand way of working, which I really enjoy. It’s a pleasure. It’s just too bad if you have a schedule.
I want to go back to your breakout role in Amadeus. You were also filming Scarface at the same time. What are your memories of having to shift between the two?
I’d film in Prague, get on a plane and go to Hollywood, film a little in Hollywood, go back to Prague. The plane trip was lengthy. It gave me time to adjust to the next thing I was going to do. Scarface became a vacation from Amadeus and, in reverse, Amadeus became a break from Scarface. Because the two characters were so completely different, it wasn’t difficult to perform the two characters distinctly. If they had been closer together, that might have been a problem.
In fact, it was very romantic. It was movie making! The old glamorous stuff. It was every actor’s dream.
I know that Al Pacino also wanted the role of Salieri.
Well, everybody did. Everybody.
Did he ever bring that up to you?
When I was on the set of Scarface, we were preparing. By the way, Brian De Palma was terrific to work for. I’m only going to talk about the directors I liked. Brian De Palma is one of them. Otherwise, I don’t have much regard for them.
When I was on the set, the second or third day of the rehearsal, I got news that they had decided to give me the part of Salieri. When the word spread, everybody was pretty nice about it. Pacino came over and he said, “Congratulations. Don’t try to carry the whole film by yourself. Just do the work.” It’s very good advice from a man who wanted the part.
Are you two still in touch?
Oh, yeah. We run into each other from time to time. We function in different circles. He’s in the multimillion dollar pictures and I’m in the almost-million dollar pictures. But he’s devoted to the theater, and so am I.
After you won your Oscar for Amadeus, you famously held off from accepting anything else for a while because the roles coming your way didn’t appeal to you. What sorts of parts were they, and do you have any regrets about not taking the work?
It was all kinds of bad guys. I didn’t want to be associated with a bad guy anymore. But also I had insisted on being the leading character. There were some terrific films offered, but I just didn’t want to be a supporting actor unless the star was someone I really respected. And I may have made a mistake in doing that. Maybe I put off too many films. Maybe I should have stayed in the public eye. But I don’t regret it. I had the theater and that was fine with me.
So you felt as if you were being typecast as the villain?
Oh, yeah. The idea that they think that Salieri was a villain makes me laugh. He’s not a villain. He’s just an absolute human being. I mean, don’t you sympathize with him?
I rewatched the movie before talking to you and found him more sympathetic than I remembered. But one of your most memorable villainous appearances, I think, is Bud Grossman destroying Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis. Did you ever receive similar feedback when you were coming up?
From the beginning. In my family it was unheard of. Acting? No. My people are blue collar people. Coal miners, steel workers. Literature was not part of our lives. They kept laughing at me: “An actor. What is that? Don’t be silly. Grow up.”
You had an interesting upbringing, growing up in El Paso. You joined a gang briefly.
We had a gang going. We weren’t that violent, but we did some stupid things. Stealing cars and things like that. In those days, people left their keys in their cars. It became a law, in Texas anyway, that if your car was stolen because you left the keys in it you were responsible.
But also, it was easy to hot wire cars in those days. And it was just a fun thing. We just did it and then we let it go. Nobody got hurt. We had fights, but everybody walked away.
Have you seen any of White Lotus season two yet?
Yeah, I have. I have to tell you, I’m not usually very happy with looking at myself. I’m sure everyone has said the same thing. You are an actress, aren’t you?
Oh no, never.
You’re a writer.
So from time to time, you’ll pick up something that you wrote and you’ll go, “This is terrible.”
Sure, all the time.
Well, that’s how I feel when I watch myself. Like, “That’s not what I was thinking at all. It seemed very good at the time.” But this one, I liked. I liked the way I was dressed. They gave me such terrific clothes. I just felt very comfortable with that character.
What do you think Bert’s motivations are? You said he gets nasty, but from what I’ve seen so far, he’s still the sweet grandfatherly type.
He is sweet, but he has problems. He’s lost his wife. And he still has lust for younger women, whether he accomplishes it or not. He’s just such a human being. And he and I are about the same age. The difference between him and me is that I’m enlightened. But I’m not retired and he is. I think he kind of wants to just coast for a while. I can’t imagine myself doing that.
But I understand him in terms of his age. Because there are certain things I just simply cannot do any longer. I’m going to be 83 in about a week.
Happy early birthday.
You may think you’re 27, but you’re not. I don’t leap out of bed. My workout, which I do every day, is a little gentler than it used to be. All that’s predictable. Talking about it is one thing, but living it is another. And this man and I are living it. We’re looking at the end of our days.
I don’t want to say it dramatically, but it’s true. If you’re in your eighties, how much time do you have left? How much time do you want? There are certain things, on a bucket list, that you do have. And this was one of them, a family trip to Sicily. And now he’s accomplishing this thing that he had always wanted to do, and by God it didn’t work out quite the way he wanted. But ain’t that like life?
This interview has been edited and condensed.