08/07/2013 05:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Fred Melamed: In a World Star on Working With Directors Lake Bell, The Coens, and Woody Allen


Fred Melamed is an actor's actor, who has built a solid reputation for his stage and film work, having worked with such cinema giants Woody Allen and Joel and Ethan Coen. He's played a host of supporting roles on TV, including Larry David's psychiatrist on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, and has appeared in such Woody Allen classics as Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Shadows and Fog, Husbands and Wives, and Hollywood Ending. But Melamed is perhaps most recognizable for his memorable portrayal as the home-wrecking Sy Ableman in the Coen Brothers' film A Serious Man.

We recently talked to Fred about Woody Allen, becoming Sy Ableman, and his latest role in the film, In a World, which won the prestigious Waldo Salk award for Best Screenplay at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is hitting theaters this weekend.


With Woody Allen in Shadows and Fog.

Had you always intended on a career in film and TV or were you a theater purist?
Not a purist, but I think everybody who is an actor of my generation was so affected by television and movies that we had to have in some part of our mind to take on that part of it. Somebody once said to me, "It's clear that you've made choices about the things you want to do based on work that seems important to you; that you didn't want to be a movie star." And, I said, "everybody in the world wants to be a movie star, except people who've forgotten what it's like to be asked to have ID or to cash a check." Sometimes when people become stars they take on a princely attitude about life in general. It insulates them from the way normal people live. That's not a good thing for a person.


As Larry David's shrink on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Let's talk about your most recent film, In a World.
I have a film coming out which was a big thing at Sundance this year, called In a World, which a wonderful woman named Lake Bell wrote, directed, and starred in. I play her father in that. I enjoyed it immensely and am proud of the film as well as my performance. I was very encouraged by Lake, because I have a film that I wrote and want to direct. And by my standards, she's a kid who is that talented in so many things; she's a great writer, director, actress and she's beautiful. The quality was so strong. It's about the cadre of people who do trailer voice overs in Los Angeles. It's a tiny community of people that pretend what they do is essential to the movie business and ride around in Maseratis, wear pinky rings, reads grosses like they're box scores. They have all of the pertinent insecurities and jealousy that goes along with life in Hollywood. It's a phenomenon -- this little demi-world and side show business. Lake hadn't realized that I had this other life in voice-overs before I did the film.


Cast of In a World.

Are you able to have a sense of humor about the people you just described?
I think anybody who is a serious person will have to have a sense of humor. (Laughs) Life is so unfair and full of mysterious ... I don't understand. There are so many people that are rewarded for things that seem insignificant and so many kind, talented people that go unrecognized. And, so many of the best people are bald and overweight that I can't make any sense of the world. So you try to [do] things that are interesting and try to be a good human being. I know that it sounds like a bromide, but the truth of it is to try and do a good job on things that are challenging and important to you.


As the Machiavellian homewrecker Sy Ableman in A Serious Man.

What did you bring particularly to the Sy Abelman character in Serious Man?
I think Ethan and Joel [Coen] had a great character as written, but I think what I brought to them was that I thought he should be a kind of hypnotizer; the whole idea that someone would be, (assumes a soothing voice) "Don't worry, sweetheart, I know what's best for you." Even though he's a Machiavellian villain, his whole M.O. is to calm people -- no matter how outrageous or self-interested his motivations are -- he does it in such a self-satisfied way that it seems impossible that he's giving you bad advice. ... I just felt that in your life you get 3 or 4 really great roles, and I just knew that one was for me.


Between takes with director Joel Coen on the set of A Serious Man.

How did your working relationship with Woody Allen come about?
Juliet Taylor, who cast all of Woody Allen's movies liked me, and then called to see about my availability for Hannah and Her Sisters. I was cast as the doctor who scares him. I guess he liked me. I was trying to make him laugh, I didn't know at the time what a tall order that is. Also, I'm so big physically and imposing physically -- the opposite of the way he is -- and I think he liked the contrast and dynamic. So then, every so often I would just get a call from either Juliet or him asking if I'd like to do a movie.

Were you always a fan of his?
I was always a super fan of his and actually met him when I was thirteen, because my father was good friends with an announcer called Ken Roberts -- the father of Tony Roberts, the actor. So, when Tony Roberts was on Broadway with Woody in Play it Again Sam, I got to meet him.

Do you think you'll always be an actor?
I think some of the reasons that I chose to be an actor were not great reasons psychologically, which may be true of many people. And then when I got older, certain things changed. I began to appreciate being an actor differently. There's so much of it that I enjoy, and (I know it sounds corny) but I feel privileged to be doing it. I have a great love for it, but I had to get past certain things in my personality to enjoy it. The reason acting is interesting is because it's about people. They're innately interesting -- the ones who are amiable, deserving of our praise, and the ones who are not. They're all interesting.

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