The Arty Semite

Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland's 'Third Most Famous Jew'

By Curt Schleier

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Irish director Lenny Abrahamson concedes that his latest film, “Frank,” is eccentric. The movie is inspired by British comedian and musician Chris Sievey, who adapted the stage persona of Frank Sidebottom and toured Britain with a band.

Not well known outside the U.K., Sievey was similar to — but never quite as successful as — artists like Andy Kaufman, Pee Wee Herman and Tiny Tim, who also adopted stage guises.

“Frank” stars Michael Fassbender as the title character, Maggie Gyllenhaal as band member Clara and rising star Domhnall Gleeson as a keyboard player and wannabe composer. The band of oddballs composes esoteric music, but finds unexpected popularity via You Tube — popularity that inevitably dooms the group.

It’s not likely to be this summer’s blockbuster, though a laughing Abrahamson says, “That would be nice. Let’s not give up on it.” He quickly added, “It’s more strange when you see it on paper than when you see it in the theater.”

Abrahamson spoke to the Forward about this new film, his first film, and about being the third most famous Irish Jew ever.

Curt Schleier: “Frank” is kind of, well, a weird film. What drew you to it?

Lenny Abrahamson: I think what drew me to it is my love of vaudeville. I’m a big fan of American vaudeville, and Hollywood silent film-era slapstick and the music halls full of ridiculous eccentric characters. This character with a fake head like a puppet show got me thinking about the meaning of success in the arts and to reflect on the tension between commercial and artistic success. It was a combination of all these things that made me say I’m gonna give this a go. And yes, it does have a cult quality to it, but it’s done great wherever it’s been released in Europe.

You’ve got some pretty big names in it. Did you have any difficulty with casting?

Not at all. Michael jumped on board immediately. He loved the script and thought it was funny. Maggie was challenged initially, unsure. It was hard for her to see what the tone would be. But she called back and said, “I really can’t get it out of my head. I want to play it.”

In the U.S. they have children’s workbooks that have three almost identical drawings and ask the kids to pick out the one that’s different.

Yes I’m familiar with that.

If I say to you Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan and Lenny Abrahamson, which one is different?

Obviously, I’m sort of the new one. Age makes me different. Most of my work has been independent movies outside the mainstream system.

That’s not quite what I’m going for. You know this is for the Forward.*

Yes I do. I am an unusual Irishman. I’m probably Ireland’s third most famous Jewish son. First is Chaim Herzog, who grew up on the same street and played with my mother. Then there’s Leopold Bloom from “Ulysses,” and me. The Jewish community is only about 1,500 to 2,000 people. It’s grown much smaller and that’s sad. People who want to continue to practice it and marry within the faith move to London or Manchester. The community now is at a kind of critical size. As a filmmaker [growing up Jewish] gives me a kind of unique outsider’s perspective on the country, even though I feel deeply Irish.

What was your Jewish upbringing like?

I did go to cheder and was a bar mitzvah. We were members of an Orthodox synagogue, although we were not religious. My grandfather was Polish. He came to Ireland in the ‘30s. The first film I did was an interview with him talking about life in the shtetl. He said he was very well treated in Ireland, both by the Jewish community and the Irish. I had a very traditional Jewish upbringing. My grandfather was a kosher butcher.

Did you face any anti-Semitism?

No, I can pretty much say I didn’t. I remember one kid in school, he might have called me a name sometimes, but nothing above that level. I never felt it institutionally. People were fascinated by me because there were so few Jews around. When I told them my name they’d ask “Where are you from?” When I’d say Dublin, they’d ask again where I was really from. Sometimes I was the first Jewish person they ever met. There’s plenty of racism in Ireland like anywhere, but not so much against Jews because the population is so small. It’s mostly directed at newer immigrants. There’s a character in Ulysses who shouts that there’s no anti-Semitism in Ireland because we never let them in. I had a very happy childhood there.

Is there something from that background that you bring to your films?

Of course I do, in sort of a complicated way. I’ve always had this attraction to literature and film. We have an intellectual tradition. I grew up surrounded by books and always had a sense of connection to European culture, European Jewish culture really and that gave me a broad perspective when I grew up.


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