Meeting Lior Ashkenazi, who stars in Joseph Cedar’s new movie, Norman, with Richard Gere, brings to mind Albert Camus’ famous quote: “You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked a clear question.”
Norman opened Thursday in theaters throughout Israel, and Ashkenazi – who truly never needs to ask a clear question unless he feels like it – sat down for an interview at the Diaghilev Hotel in Tel Aviv earlier last week.
Ashkenazi plays Micha Eshel, an Israeli politician who accepts a favor from Gere’s character, Norman (the subtitle of the movie is The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer), then gets drawn into Norman’s schemes after he becomes prime minister. It’s an unusual mixture of comedy and tragedy with parallels to many current news stories.
“I’ve seen many situations like that from the world of celebrities,” said Ashkenazi, who could easily have coasted on the charm and looks he was born with – he combines the face and physique of a Greek god with the slightly befuddled expression of a hero in a Woody Allen comedy, and to say that this works for him is an understatement – but has focused on his acting, and is now one of Israel’s most acclaimed actors.
“Someone gives you something and you pay for it by posing for a photo,” he said.
Ashkenazi has been a celebrity for years, thanks to acting, which has put him at the center of the renaissance in Israeli movies over the past decade and a half. Among his most important movies are Dover Koshashvili’s A Late Wedding, which ushered in the trend of stories about outsiders in Israel, in this case, Georgians (and which features the most sizzling sex scene in Israeli movies, with Ashkenazi and the late Ronit Elkabetz); Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water, in which Ashkenazi plays a tightly wound Mossad agent who befriends a gay man; Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s two gory psychological thrillers Rabies and Big Bad Wolves (which Quentin Tarantino called “the best film of the year”), where the actor portrays disturbed, violent cops; and Cedar’s previous film, the Oscar-nominated Footnote, in which, cast against type, Ashkenazi plays a Talmud scholar locked into a rivalry with his father.
He is especially pleased with his work with Cedar, which he sees as a true collaboration, especially with Norman.
“When I came into Footnote, the script was pretty much finished,” he said. “But on Norman, I was more involved... It’s a complicated story, with so many implications. And it was a script Joseph was working on for a long time, and he really involves the actors in the work, it was wonderful. It’s a complicated story and it was woven together so carefully.”
Cedar “challenged me... He’s intellectual and you have to be alert. He can talk about so many things and you have to know what they are.”
Working with Gere also upped his game.
“There was the excitement of ‘I’m working with Richard Gere!,’ and then he is a colleague, we work together, we eat together, we talked about his choices... He works very hard, he’s a very ‘method’ actor, very concentrated. Between takes, he’s focused, he doesn’t fool around... You think of him as a leading man, from Pretty Woman and movies like that. But he is very serious, although of course he’s also very charismatic... He brings out an elegance in the character.”
ANY MOVIE about politics will invite questions about how much it is based on reality, and Ashkenazi was very clear about how he sees his character.
“People say, ‘Is it Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu]?’ No, it’s not him. In a way, it’s a combination of several prime ministers and politicians, where they’re in the right place at the right time and suddenly they’re popular... And the politicians, no matter how popular they are... there is always someone behind them, someone they are indebted to.”
In order to hone his characterization Ashkenazi tried to meet with politicians, but was disappointed to discover that “when they heard the synopsis, they all refused...you could do a ‘copy-paste’ from the headlines into the script and that made them uncomfortable, apparently.”
Ashkenazi sees Norman as something more than just a political story.
“It’s about friendship,” he said. “It’s about how you know if someone is really a friend, or you wonder whether he’s just someone who needs something from you... In Norman, there’s a lot of ambivalence, and it’s left open: does he love Norman, or is Norman just someone who can do things for him?” Ashkenazi, who was born in Ramat Gan to Ladino-speaking parents from Turkey, said he came to acting “in that cliche way; I was always the class clown.”
Inspired by Burt Lancaster movies, which he enjoyed watching with his father, and the work of Robert De Niro, he studied acting at Beit Zvi. Although he is proud he has never had a day job since he finished school, when some of his early plays were not the hits he had hoped they would be, he enrolled in a computer science course.
But after one lesson, “I understood it’s not for me.” And he has never looked back, moving gradually from theater to film as the movie industry flourished.
After his films were shown at festivals around the world, there was the temptation of trying to go to Hollywood, but he resisted it.
“If I go there, I would always be foreign, I would always have an accent,” he said. “I can’t see myself going on auditions in LA.”
Surprisingly, Ashkenazi said he was terrible at auditions.
But some foreign directors have come calling recently. After the interview, he was off to work on an international movie, Entebbe, about the hijacking and rescue mission in 1976, which is shooting a few scenes here.
The film, which José Padilha, the creator of the television series Narcos, is directing, also stars Rosamund Pike and Daniel Bruhl. Once again, Ashkenazi will play a prime minister, but this time a real one: Yitzhak Rabin.
Portraying a real prime minister, and such a revered one, he says, can be “a burden.”
“I’m not doing an imitation of Rabin,” he said. “I’m in a story about this rescue mission and I’m playing the prime minister who ordered it.”
He is also in Julie Deply’s movie My Zoe and he plays a Jewish reporter from New York in Dragos Buliga’s vampire movie, The Wanderers. He will play a Mossad agent in Sarajevo in a film by Tony Kaye, who made American History X.
But Israeli cinema remains key for Ashkenazi and he has roles in upcoming films by Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride) and Shmuelik Maoz (Lebanon). Although he is no longer performing in the theater, he has been directing plays for some time, and is now directing his first short film. It’s based on a play and tells the story of a driving instructor giving a test who voices regrets about his life to a student. Ashkenazi has chosen not to act in this project and it stars Menashe Noy as the instructor and Moran Rosen as the student.
But although directing beckons, he said he wouldn’t give up acting anytime soon.
“This is always was what I’ve really wanted to do.”