Preparing for the role of a lifetime

For Habima actor Moti Lugassi, all the world’s a classroom on the road to stage and screen.

Israeli actor Moti Lugassi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli actor Moti Lugassi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was by chance that Moti Lugassi became an actor.
Not by dreams of bright lights, big city, of fame or celebrity. The 26-year-old who now calls Tel Aviv home says he was just looking for an easy way to rack up matriculation exam points.
“I was in 10th grade and my friend who was in the theater concentration said, ‘Listen, we have almost no guys in the program.’ She said it was worth it for me to join – and at that moment, the only thing that went through my mind was ‘here is another place to get more points.’” Little inkling did Lugassi have of the road down which this choice would take him – one which would bring him to the performance rooms of Israel’s Habima National Theater rehearsing opposite some of the country’s thespian greats, to the red carpet of a New York City premiere alongside one of Israeli television/film’s most popular actresses.
A Herzilya native who until that fateful conversation had been a performer with the city’s youth ensemble performance group, Lugassi was sure that he was a singer – till he began to study theater. “I realized that I was an actor who knew how to sing, which is something else entirely. I realized that it was my calling to be on the stage and act.”
Coffee is first thing on the agenda this morning at a cafeteria on the Seminar Hakibbutzim campus. Moti, a 2011 graduate, is getting ready to rehearse lines with a friend who studied with him in the college’s Theater Arts program. They’ve booked time in the campus recording studio to do voiceovers for an online ad for a beauty salon – Moti’s playing a film-noir style P.I. hired by a salon owner to find out why all her business is disappearing.
It’s been more than a decade since Lugassi first set foot on the stage. Since then, he has been slowly but steadily building a career as a working actor – at times paid, at times unpaid. Today is the unpaid variety, but as Lugassi sees it, it is all about getting out there. Besides he says, acting is something that allows him to remain a kid at heart – a feeling he has so strongly, that he had Peter Pan, leading Wendy and the other Darling children to Neverland, tattooed just above his ankle.
This sense of being a boy who never grows up – of finding continual wonderment in the world, is something that Lugassi says serves him well as an actor. In Tolaim (Worms), a play put on by Seminar Hakibbutzim at Tzavta in 2011, Lugassi performed opposite Shmuel Shiloh, a veteran Israeli actor who passed away at age 81 during the show’s run.
“There was a very strong connection between us – he was a Holocaust survivor and a grandfather and I was 24 at the time, and you saw that even in old age, there was a boy in him, there was something that didn’t want to grow up, like Peter Pan in my tattoo.”
Since graduating Seminar Hakibbutzim, Lugassi has been preparing himself for whatever roles may come. He works out, he reads, he rehearses, he does his character work, he auditions – he says everything he does is geared toward making him a better actor.
“I have an audition Tuesday for a part on a youth series,” Lugassi says over the phone. “I’m going to meet up with another actor later to rehearse.” Between the TV auditions that his agent gets him, there are the stage auditions, and, of course, the acting jobs – plus, at this point, the regular jobs. Lugassi has spent the past two years as a “big brother” to a 10-year-old boy, helping him with his homework, spending time with him; and he works at a Tel Aviv fitness center in the reception – because an actor’s got to eat.
But back to the acting: Lugassi spent the summer performing as a cast member in the popular children’s show, Maya Papaya. “The kids recognize me, they want pictures and hugs – these little kids like six years old, it’s getting love from this younger audience,” he says smiling.
“I have nephews who love it and the most important thing is I keep in shape as far as being on stage.”
And he was cast in the lead role in Adam, a short film by Segev Gershon, about the bullying of a high school student after he admits to having a crush on a boy in his class. The film won international accolades, including Best Drama in a Short Film at the New York City International Film Festival.
“In the beginning, I thought that I wanted (to cast) a young boy, but I saw a lot of them and none really understood the character,” said Gershon who wrote and directed the film. “Moti was the last actor to come on the audition day, and from the moment I saw him, I knew this was the guy I wanted, he was very emotional and understood the character... he was Adam.”
Michal Yannai, who successfully parlayed a childhood career as one of Israel’s most recognizable children’s television personalities into that of a successful adult actress, played the role of Adam’s mother. She says Lugassi brought a sensitivity to the role, and gave back to her as a partner by actually listening.
“This is so important as an actor,” she explains, and adds, “In Israel we say someone has a begalah [a halo around their head] and you either have it or you do not. I think he has it.”
Apparently, others agree, for this morning finds Lugassi getting warmed up for rehearsal in a soundproof room at the Habima playhouse. He’s been double-cast in the role of Nahumi, in a show based on the novel, Et Dodim (A Time of Love), by Miri Varon. Israel’s “first lady of theater” Lea Koenig heads the cast of notables. “Another celebrity, there are so many celebrities!” Koenig laughs, when she hears that a newspaper is writing an article on Lugassi. He smiles and laughs too.
Fame, it is clear, is the furthest thing from Lugassi’s mind. He wants to hone his craft. As he takes a break sitting on the floor outside the rehearsal room, he says he doesn’t know how much stage time he will actually have – he is just happy to be getting hired. Then he sighs.
“Every time that I collect myself and come with new energies, it seems like I need to prove myself anew.”
As Lugassi is learning, an actor’s work never ends.