Since I had recently seen Aya, the new Israeli movie that stars Ulrich Thomsen as a rumpled academic who comes here to judge a classical music competition, when I went to interview Thomsen, I expected to meet a Teddy-bear-ish professor type. But when the door opens, the man facing me looks more like the cold-blooded villain Thomsen played in the James Bond movie The World is Not Enough.

As I sit down to interview Thomsen in the Tel Aviv office of Yael Abecassis, one of Aya’s producers, I am reminded that although he may have the icy blue eyes of a killer, the Danish-born actor is neither a big-budget bad guy nor a music teacher, but one of the most gifted and versatile actors working today.

Thomsen, who is perhaps best known for his performance as the abused son in the 1998 film The Celebration, says he was drawn to Aya immediately when he read the script.

“It felt real to me,” he says. “It’s a piece of life. I enjoy smaller projects, especially by newcomers, where there is more energy than on bigger productions. And there’s the pleasure of seeing the final result.”

The final result, in the case of Aya, is a short film (about 40 minutes) that tells the charming story of a woman (Sarah Adler), who is waiting for someone at the airport and, impulsively, decides to pretend she is the driver for Mr. Overby (Thomsen), a Finnish music professor. Written and directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, it shows a great deal in a very short time about these characters’ personalities, feelings and mutual attraction.

Thomsen, who has starred in many internationally acclaimed films, including the Oscar-winning In a Better World, had no problem working on a low-budget short film in Israel.

“It’s better to be in a thing like this that’s really good than to be in something just OK,” he says. As for being in a short film, he enjoyed the challenge: “You have to be more precise.”

Asked whether he came up with his own back story for the enigmatic Mr. Overby, Thomsen replies, “I rarely do any back story. I often get a thick bible of back story, but I can’t use it. The back story is a tool of the writer. But I can only act what’s in the scene... my task is to find the authenticity in the character. I tend to go with the script and tell that story.”

Turning to the script for Aya, he mentions a moment early on where Mr. Overby orders a sandwich, and then, without asking, cuts it in half and shares it with Aya.

“He cuts the sandwich, and the action is the character,” he says of the moment that shows early on that this neat and reserved man is also generous. “There are these unfiltered moments when things come to you. Where the character just grabs you by the neck.... There must be this unfiltered time where the great moments come.... If you can hit one or two of these marks, a couple of times [in a movie], it’s enough.”

When Thomsen works, “I go back to my imagination. I work in an intuitive and slightly arrogant way, based on my own taste.”

The married father of two admits that on bigger productions, he needs to work differently. “In a big movie, like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, where I had a small part, you realize your task is to support everything that has to come together. You’re just a piece of the puzzle. You’re the guy in the hat.”

Growing up in a solidly middle-class family – his father was a car dealer and his mother worked at the local town hall – Thomsen struggled to conquer his stutter, but was also something of a class clown. He planned to study law, when on impulse he auditioned for a summer theater production of West Side Story and was cast as one of the Jets.

“The director realized I couldn’t sing or dance, but I rehearsed like crazy,” he recalls, and he stayed in the cast. That was it for law school. He went on to study at the Danish National School of Theatre and Contemporary Dance, and has also performed on stage. He is currently working on an HBO-Cinemax series, Banshee, a mystery/thriller set in a small Amish town in Pennsylvania. In addition, he will direct a film of his own, which he describes as “a kind of Leaving Las Vegas,” about “two people who get messed up together.”

Given Thomsen’s obvious intelligence as an actor, his directorial debut will surely be something to see.

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