Oh, the wondrous absurdities of Hollywood typecasting: Shahar Sorek knows them well. Born in Jerusalem and university-educated in Tel Aviv, the actor needed to travel to Los Angeles to learn that he doesn't look Israeli enough - not, at least, for American movies. Repeatedly turned down in attempts to play Israelis - his skin, by Hollywood standards, isn't dark enough - the actor has spent much of the past five years perfecting his American accent, only, it turns out, to get himself cast as perhaps the most famous ancient resident of his homeland, a presumably "Israeli"-looking character named Jesus.
Sorek smiles gently at the irony of his L.A. casting adventures, now sitting outside a small Tel Aviv cafÃ© in the days leading up to Rosh Hashana. He's back in Israel to promote the film that got him the Jesus role, the recently opened King of Beggars, an historical action piece based on the Mendele Mocher Sforim novel Fischke the Lame.
In the film, written and shot by veteran theater director Uri Paster, Sorek plays a sort of proto-Israeli, a 16th-century Eastern European Jew trapped between anti-Semitic violence and the demands of his own faith. Unintentionally adopted by a gang of Jewish bandits, the physically disabled character eventually takes over the group, converting his counterparts into trained fighters and getting them hired - in exchange for promises of land and security - as mercenaries of the czar.
Though King of Beggars certainly has its shortcomings - including somewhat stilted dialogue and an oddly anti-climactic ending - the film has earned notice for its ambition and innovation, setting itself apart from the raft of Israeli movies about dysfunctional characters in contemporary Tel Aviv.
"King of Beggars is a different kind of Israeli movie," says Sorek, who left Hollywood for several months to participate in filming. "It tries to be proud of our Jewish heritage and show a different kind of Jew - a good Jew, a moral Jew."
It's the kind of Jew - "Herzlian," Sorek says, in reference to the Zionist thinker - who generates more consistently positive reactions outside Israel, where portions of the audience have struggled with the image of a reluctant but ultimately forceful, admirable Jewish hero.
At the same time, the film has drawn attention for its picturesque locations and the quality of its costumes and set design, which appear in obvious contrast to the religious attire and sarcastic slogan-bearing t-shirts of the modern Israeli. Hebrew-language press coverage has focused on the film's budget, rumored to be among the largest in Israeli film history but "probably," according to Sorek, actually fairly standard among Israeli films. (The money was simply "used in a way that looks big," he says.)
A transplanted Israeli now living in Los Angeles, Sorek experienced a sort of homecoming with King of Beggars, thought the film was shot in a place where he himself had never previously set foot. Featuring a cast of Israeli and Eastern European actors, the film was produced outside Vilnius, the "Jerusalem of Lithuania," where Sorek's grandmother had grown up before being deported by the Nazis to Bergen Belsen. Later an actress in her own right, she expressed pride over her grandson's decision, Sorek said, to make a movie in the country of her birth - a movie, of course, about Jews taking control of their own destiny in a region plagued by anti-Semitism.
Screened at Jewish Community Centers and other cultural institutions in the US, the film has already pushed Sorek into the next phase of his English-language career. A viewing of the film at Israel's consulate in Los Angeles won over one set of filmmakers, who subsequently met with Sorek and cast the 32-year-old in their next project, a three-part series on the life of Jesus that will begin filming in Israel early next year. The actor, who combined his Rosh Hashana trip home with preliminary photography at the Kinneret, says the series' first film is intended to enter US theaters by the end of 2008, with hopes that it may appeal in part to the massive Christian audience he says was "invented" by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
In the meantime, he's continuing with efforts to break into Hollywood, a process of half a decade that's produced several near-misses but no prominent screen roles. (Sorek was almost cast, he says, as the caddish male author in last year's The Devil Wears Prada, and was selected as host of a children's TV show for CBS that never got made.)
His American English is now impressively convincing, replete with words like "gist" and "transmogrify" that he pronounces without a trace of an accent. On the basis of his Israeli TV work, he's been defined by US immigration officials as an "extraordinary alien" - an odd-sounding classification that's gotten him a green card and should help him secure American citizenship in 2009.
"It's hard for my family," he says, "that I'm not taking jobs [in Israel]," but he's looking forward to the Jesus film shoot and says he can perform a "service" for Israel with success in the US.
King of Beggars, he believes, will have a "longer shelf-life" than other Israeli films, and he hopes his character will make an impression precisely because of the type of Jewish protagonist it presents.
"We don't show these people among us," he says, referring to his not-depressed, not-Tel Aviv-based hero. "It's a valid and truthful angle, but one we don't like to show."