Game on

Actor Danny Huston sits down with ‘The Jerusalem Post’ to discuss his iconic role in Eran Riklis’s new film, ‘Playoff'.

Danny Huston 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Rafi Dalviya)
Danny Huston 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Rafi Dalviya)
Danny Huston, charming and suave in person, admits he is drawn to playing the bad guy, or at least the flailing good guy, in films.
“I like characters that are losers,” he says of his roles, during a press conference in Tel Aviv, hours before the premiere of his new film, Playoff, by director Eran Riklis. “I don’t like classic romantic characters. I like villains...They’re more meaty.”
In Playoff, Huston plays neither a villain nor a loser, a departure from such roles as Stryker in X-Men Origins and a vampire in 30 Days of Night. He plays Max Stoller, a character based on iconic Tel Aviv Maccabi basketball coach Ralph Klein, who was born in Berlin in 1931, rescued from the Holocaust by Raoul Wallenberg, and made aliya in 1951. Klein, recipient of the Israel Prize, went on to win six championships and six national cups as a Maccabi player and, as a coach, to win Israel its first European title in 1977, when Maccabi beat Varese 78-77 in the finals in Belgrade, Serbia.
When Stoller returns to his native Berlin to coach the West German national basketball team in 1982, he is bombarded by incredible criticism in Israel for this decision, and throughout the film is battling his own childhood memories and feelings of guilt for his father’s death during the war. While in Berlin, Stoller visits his family’s old apartment, to find a Turkish woman, played by Amira Casar, and her daughter now occupying it. He befriends them, helping the woman search for her estranged husband, meanwhile uncovering the truth about his father’s disappearance.
“We’re really dealing with a man who’s dealing with his inner demons,” Houston says.
Though this plot is not taken from Klein’s life, though Klein did shock the Israeli public and his family when he accepted an offer to coach the German team in 1983, Huston says by putting Stoller in these fictitious situations the audience can catch a glimpse of Klein’s private struggles: returning to Germany, revisiting his past, and absorbing the painful response from his public.
The film, set in Klein’s birthplace of Berlin but shot in Frankfurt and Wiesbaden, achieves a somber, gray ambience.
Huston adeptly plays a man haunted by survivor’s guilt and fatigued with loneliness, as he chain smokes, compulsively dials home only to reach an answering machine and looks for companionship in the family now living in his childhood home. He is often alone, staring off into the distance and careful with whom he connects in Germany.
When it comes to basketball however, Stoller is focused on winning, serious about getting a weak team to become one of the best, and very much a father figure to his players.
Many of the Maccabi Tel Aviv players Huston spoke to thought of Klein, who coached from 1969-1983, as a father, Huston says. Veteran Maccabi Tel Aviv players joined Huston at the film’s premiere November 20 at Cinema City in Glilot.
The film focuses on the relationship between Klein and the team’s troubled star, Axel, played by Mark Waschke.
Axel, the team and the reporters badgering Klein with questions are suspicious of Klein’s motives for coaching a German team. Everyone suspects he harbors dreams of taking revenge on Germany, even though he continually insists he has come for basketball alone.
“He’s kind of lying to himself,” Huston says. “Of course he’s there for a reason.”
Klein, who died in 2008 at the age of 77, explained his decision at the time, saying, “I saw it as my victory over the Germans, with the great and strong Germany inviting an Israeli to coach its team.”
Huston, 49, who has also starred in The Constant Gardener, 21 Grams and The Aviator, among others, has tremendous admiration for Klein and the courage it took to coach this particular team, but he is quick not to place him on a pedestal.
“He’s a good man, but he’s not a hero,” Huston says.
LIKE IN a basketball game, Stoller struggles, succeeds, fails and picks himself back up.
Still, when Huston told Riklis he wanted the role of Max Stoller, he says he did not realize the cultural magnitude of playing the Ralph Klein figure.
When he understood who this legend was, he says, “Suddenly I felt this great surge of responsibility... not to let down the Israeli audience or Ralph’s family... I still feel a certain amount of pressure because of it.”
“In sports we like our heroes,” he says. “It’s easy to disappoint people.”
Huston never set out to portray Klein though, he says. At first, to prepare he tried to read and see as much as he could about the basketball giant, but Riklis, he says, was protective of him.
“He would try for me not to see much, which made me all the more curious by the time we got to making the film,” he says.
Eventually, however, he realized it was important to make Klein a separate entity.
“The more that I saw, the more that I realized I wanted to distance myself,” he says.
Klein’s wife, he says, told him after seeing the movie that he stood just like her husband used to, and smoked in a similar way. While he appreciated the compliment, he says it was unintentional.
“Hopefully, what we’re doing here is fulfilling the mythology of who Ralph Klein was,” Huston says.
The son of well known Hollywood director John Huston, who directed The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, among other beloved American classics, Danny knows all too well that attempts to capture a public figure can feel foreign to those who knew him best. In reading biographies of his father, who died in 1987, Huston says, “None of them have anything to do with the father I knew.” Of Clint Eastwood’s semi-portrayal of his father in White Hunter Black Heart, he says “that wasn’t my father.”
Huston relates to Klein’s sadness at returning to his German apartment to find that it’s changed and no longer his. In a smaller way, he says he felt sad and nostalgic returning to his father’s estate in Ireland after it was turned into a hotel. “We all know what it’s like to be displaced somewhat,” he says.
In preparing for the role, Huston says he read letters from children during the Holocaust, watched great coaches in action, and worked on achieving a balanced Israeli-German accent that wasn’t over the top. In the film, Huston speaks mostly in English, occasionally speaking in Hebrew or German, although for much of the film his character refuses to speak in his native German.
Houston says the discussion with Riklis, who also co-wrote the film, over his accent was quite heated.
“He wanted me to take it less than I took it. He didn’t want my performance to be dominated by the accent.”
The accent sounded authentic, and was never distracting.
In working with Riklis, whom Huston says he approached about the role after reading the script, he says he found a kindred spirit. The two went to film school in England at the same time (Huston to the London International Film School and Riklis to the National Film and Television School) and had similar visions for showing Klein in a vulnerable light.
“Knowing Eran’s work I knew he wouldn’t hit it too hard,” he says, referring to Riklis’s other films, The Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride, which are “human stories.”
“I knew I was in good hands,” he says. “I just really admire him as a filmmaker and as a human being.”
The experience of filming, however, weighed on Huston, both for the seriousness of the material and the dark complexity of the character.
“The whole thing was all very depressing,” he says. As he watched the film, he says, “I can see that I was kind of suffering through it.”
At one point on a break from filming he says he walked into a restaurant where he intended to order a “gazpacho,” but instead asked the waitress for a “gestapo.”
Outside the heaviness, there is a happy ending to Klein’s story, as he led the West German team to an eighth place finish in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and to a fifth place finish at the European championship in 1985.
Along the way for Stoller, there’s selfdiscovery, Huston says. “But it’s not Rocky.”
Playoff is showing in selected cinemas throughout the country.