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If not for the small entourage trailing after him, Jerusalem tourists and shopkeepers would likely have had no idea they were in the presence of a movie star one afternoon earlier this month, as actor Anthony Rapp navigated his way through the narrow alleyways and bustling shops of the Old City's Muslim Quarter.
Dressed conservatively and measuring in at well under two meters, Rapp projected neither Hollywood flash nor a celebrity's self-regard as he inspected his surroundings and asked questions about Jerusalem's history and culture.
But with the November release of Rent in the US, Rapp is indeed now a movie star, one of the privileged actors whose name has headlined a major studio production. Based on the long-running Broadway musical, the film arrives amidst a musical renaissance taking place in Hollywood and follows on the heels of glitzy spectacles like Moulin Rouge and sixtime Oscar winner Chicago. Featuring Rapp as quiet, even-keeled filmmaker Mark Cohen, Rent joins another recent big screen musical, The Producers, in giving most of its principal roles to members of the original Broadway cast. The film opened in Israel last week.
Despite his top billing in the high profile new release, Rapp turned few heads during his visit to the Old City. But as the tour proceeded, it became clear that media attention and the public outpourings of adoration are not what Rapp's looking for in his acting career, and that he would have been equally unperturbed by the apathetic response even if it had taken place on Fifth Avenue or Hollywood Boulevard. The actor would like Rent to be seen by as many people as possible, of course, but so long as the film impacts viewers the way it changed him, he'll be satisfied.
"The story has been a part of my life for over 11 years," Rapp says during the drive between a TV interview and his entrance into the Old City through Jaffa Gate. "It's one of the most important things that has happened to me."
Now 34, Rapp has been involved in one production of Rent or another since 1995, when he earned the role of Mark in the original Broadway production. The play was an instant smash after its 1996 premiere, winning that year's Pulitzer Prize for drama and taking a number of Tony Awards and other theatrical prizes as well.
Set between Christmas Eve 1989 and Christmas Eve 1990, the story focuses on a small, energetic group of young people living with and, in some cases, dying of AIDS. Several of the original cast members cultivated successful film and TV careers following the play - among them, Jesse L. Martin has starred on Ally McBeal and Law & Order - and their collective willingness to return to the decade-old material suggests that Rapp isn't alone in his deeply felt connection to the play.
The rare - very rare - visit by an American film star to Israel is unequivocal evidence of Rapp's commitment to the story and its message. Interrupting himself occasionally to comment on his morning visit to the Western Wall or his appreciation for authentic Jerusalem humous, Rapp patiently answered questions about his own acting career and the evolution of the film, which was cast, produced and released in barely more than a year.
He warmly recalled his scenes with Tracie Thoms, a new cast member who plays Mark's romantic nemesis and dance partner in one of the film's visual highlights: the "Tango: Maureen," a song and dance number expressing the rivals' frustration with the woman they both love. "We bonded in our ineptitude," he laughs, though the dance sequence looks great on screen.
He also has nothing but pleasant things to say about Rosario Dawson, the rapidly ascending movie star (Sin City, Men in Black II) who joined the cast as Mimi Marquez, a heroin addict in love with the depressed musician living upstairs.
But Rapp is most animated when discussing the film's political and social themes, and the effect he hopes they'll have on viewers around the world. He decided to come to Israel after speaking to the film's Israeli distributor, who he convincingly described as "incredibly moved" by the characters' inspiring, tragic quest to make every moment count in their limited time together.
He grows even more passionate when discussing Rent's ongoing cultural significance, 10 years after the show's Broadway debut.
"Some critics in the States did make that charge [that Rent's relevance has passed], and I ask them, since when does telling a story that takes place in the past... make it irrelevant?" he said.
Noting that HIV infection rates are once again on the rise in the United States, particularly among people in their twenties and thirties, he continues. "There was a time - when this takes place - when a lot of young people were dying. That's a story that always deserves to be told, like any story from the past. I thought it was kind of irresponsible, frankly, of some of these critics to make that charge."
His trip to Israel, he said, was about far more than selling tickets to his film. Visibly intrigued by the country's religious sites and quality humous offerings, he said he would never have expected Rent to bring him to Israel but was glad that it had.
"Traveling to Israel," he reflected, "is a nice little gift that dropped out of the sky."