As lead actor in the new series 'Sleeper Cell', Israeli Oded Fehr must place himself in radical Islamic shoes.
By TOM TUGEND
In the upcoming Showtime television series Sleeper Cell, Tel Aviv-born actor Oded Fehr plays Farik, the leader of a Muslim terrorist cell, who poses as a synagogue-going Jew as his cover.
Fehr now savors the irony of the casting and plotline, but he was less enthusiastic when a producer initially approached him about the role.
"I told my agent I didn't want to do it," said Fehr, who at 34 has the tall, dark and handsome looks of an old-time Hollywood idol, as he sits outside Starbucks on the Los Angeles Westside.
After he read the script, Fehr changed his mind. "The writing was fantastic," he said. "There was also the challenge - I have never played a role that was so far from me."
Once into the part of Farik, however, Fehr is chillingly convincing as the alternately menacing and personable leader of the multi-national terrorist cell, plotting to spread havoc at some of the best known Los Angeles area landmarks.
Among the likely targets considered in the opening segment are the Los Angeles International Airport, the Rose Bowl, UCLA campus and the San Onofre nuclear facilities.
The latest recruit to the six-man cell is Darwyn (Michael Ealy), a young black man and devout Muslim, who is actually an FBI undercover agent. He has infiltrated the cell by first posing as the inmate of a federal prison, who is steered to Farik by a fellow Black Muslim prisoner.
Darwyn first makes contact with Farik at a most unlikely place, Sinai Temple in Westwood, where the cell leader, wearing a yarmulke and tallit, poses as a regular worshipper.
He is so dedicated a congregant that he coaches the "Sinai Maccabi" girls softball team, wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned with a large Star of David.
The other members of the cell are an odd lot, all Muslims but mainly non-Arab. Christian is a radical French skinhead, Ilija is a Bosnian whose family was killed by Serbians, Tommy is an all-American boy rebelling against his Berkeley parents, and Bobby is an Egyptian-American.
Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller) as Darwyn's love interest adds a touch of inter-racial romance to the macho drama.
The producers of Sleeper Cell are obviously striving for veracity, both by setting the cell's meetings in such familiar locales as bowling alleys and children's parks, and by hiring a Pakistani-born Muslim as one of the writers.
Whether opposing a "good" Muslim to a "bad" Muslim and making most of the terrorists European and American will make the series attractive to U.S. television viewers remains to be seen.
Fehr is optimistic that the quality, tension and timelines of the show will find an audience and carry Sleeper Cell over into a second season. If so, it might prove a major break for the actor, whose Jewish mother and German father met in Israel. At age 18, Fehr joined the Israeli navy and after discharge worked two years as an EL Al security guard.
After his parents separated, his father returned to Germany and in 1992 Oded joined him to work in his business.
On a whim, Fehr signed up for a drama class at an English theater in Frankfurt, and went on to star in his first play, David Mamet's"Sexual Perversity in Chicago."
This initial success decided his career path and he moved to England and enrolled at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol for three years. From there it was a short leap to his first movie in England, playing the mysterious warrior Ardeth Bay in The Mummy and in the sequel, The Mummy Returns.
Over the years, his English pronunciation has undergone various transformations. He picked up the language in Israel by watching American television shows and, he said, "I talked like an Israeli-American."
After his lengthy drama training in England, he acquired a British accent, which he had to lose on arriving in Hollywood. Nowadays, he sounds like a mainstream American.
Fehr recounted his background and career in matter-of-fact tones but became visibly animated when talking about his family, and especially his son Atticus.
His wife, Rhonda Tollefson-Fehr is an American film producer and formerly a partner with actor Sean Connery, who has put her own career on hold while raising her son. Since the birth of Atticus, the parents have had to cut back on their practice of hapkido, a Korean martial art, but continue to be avid hikers.
Fehr said that the new TV show was not made for education purposes, but he hopes that it "will open people's eyes that within the mainstream there are extremists in every religion.
I think we have a superb show," he said. "As an actor, it didn't make me cringe. I am very proud of it."
The 10 episodes of Sleeper Cell, each one hour long, will begin airing on the Showtime cable channel next month. There are no plans yet to air it here.