Leading Israeli actor and director Lior Ashkenazi can fill the screen

Not only has he had both critical and popular success, but he has long been something of a sex symbol, and even now that he is in his 50s, he still makes the lists of Israel’s sexiest men.

 LIOR ASHKENAZI (standing) directs the cast of ‘Perfect Strangers.’ (photo credit: David Scouri)
LIOR ASHKENAZI (standing) directs the cast of ‘Perfect Strangers.’
(photo credit: David Scouri)

For many years Lior Ashkenazi, who has just directed his first feature film, Perfect Strangers, which is currently playing throughout the country, has been Israel’s most acclaimed leading man. He has won three Ophir Awards working with Israel’s leading movie directors – Eytan Fox on Walk on Water, Joseph Cedar in Footnote and Norman, Samuel Maoz on Foxtrot, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado on Big Bad Wolves and many more – and also has an extremely successful television career, in series such as Valley of Tears, The Conductor and Our Boys. His films have won major awards at Cannes, Berlin and Venice and he travels the world, appearing in foreign productions such as 7 Days in Entebbe (in which he portrayed prime minister Yitzhak Rabin), and he is set to play David (Dado) Elazar alongside Helen Mirren in Guy Nattiv’s upcoming Golda Meir biopic. And he’s got a steady side gig impersonating Defense Minister Benny Gantz on the comedy show, Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country).

Not only has he had both critical and popular success, but he has long been something of a sex symbol, and even now that he is in his 50s, he still makes the lists of Israel’s sexiest men.

So why would he decide to step behind the camera?

“The truth is that it’s much more interesting and fun,” he said in a recent interview, just a few days after Perfect Strangers was one of the most-watched movies in previews on Israeli Cinema Day in late October. “As an actor, you’re saying words someone else wrote and doing what a director says. But to actually be a director is a natural development for me as an artist, it’s very creative.”

Lior Ashkenazi in Valley of Tears (credit: VERED ADIR)Lior Ashkenazi in Valley of Tears (credit: VERED ADIR)

Perfect Strangers is the Israeli version of an Italian film of the same name that has been remade in about 20 countries, including France, Germany, Spain, South Korea and Greece. It tells the story of a group of childhood friends who get together for a dinner party and decide that during the meal, they will put their phones on the table and every time someone gets a text or a call, they will read it out loud or answer on speaker phone. For the duration of this one evening, they will have no secrets. To say it doesn’t go well is an understatement and the consequences of this game are both funny and tragic. It’s an entertaining story but one that requires the ability to keep up a fast pace and to balance laughs and tears. And since almost all the movie takes place in one room, the director has to make it both cinematic and entertaining.

In short, it would seem to be a challenge for a first-time director. I reminded him that when we last spoke, over four years ago when he made Norman starring opposite Richard Gere, he was working on a short film and said that he was starting to think about directing a full-length film, after directing several plays. 

“It actually wasn’t my idea to direct this,” he said. “It was an idea that started with Maya and Sharon, who suggested it to Edery. I don’t know exactly how they came to this, but they decided it would be good for me to direct this.” Maya is Maya Amsellem, his wife of 10 years, and Sharon is Sharon Harel-Cohen, who are respectively, managing director and chairman of WestEnd Films, a London-based production company with deep ties to Israel, which recently produced the TV series, Valley of Tears, in which Ashkenazi had a leading role. Edery is Moshe Edery, the head of United King Films and Israel’s leading producer. “I had been thinking about directing at some stage, but at first I said no, because there is no culture of remakes here. And the original film, the Italian film, had a successful run here. So I thought, who will see another movie about this now?”

But after the producers persuaded him to direct it, he said, “And then I was convinced that it’s OK to do it but I didn’t want to act in it, I thought it wouldn’t be OK to both act in and direct it for my first film.”

The story would definitely speak to audiences here, as it has all over the world, he felt, given the ubiquity of smartphone use. “We added a tool to our lives that is with us all the time. The hammer we use and put away. The phone is with us when we sleep, go to the bathroom, on the train and in the car in every place without us noticing it; it has become like an external hard drive of our brains.”

When the secrets on the phones are revealed in the film, “It’s a comedy, it’s defined as a comedy and in my eyes it’s a comedy-drama and a very dark drama, where all skeletons come out of the closet.”

Ashkenazi laughed at the idea of trying this experiment himself: “It’s impossible, it shouldn’t’ be done.” Referring to the secrets that surface in the movie, he said, “I’m not talking about it on the level of, oh, he cheated on her, she cheated on him, he has nude pictures on his phone. I’m talking about it on a much deeper level and that’s scary, even... I can take somebody’s phone and know everything about them . . . Their schedule, from the calendar, and photos and profiles, social media posts and notes, it’s great spying.”

One challenge of making the movie was to transpose the story to Israel. “It’s not just a remake of the Italian movie, we added all kinds of Israeli touches.” These include referring to the brother of one of the characters who was killed while serving in the army, a mother worrying about how her computer-nerd son will fare in the IDF when he is drafted and a barbecue that is so hi-tech it sends texts to let its owner know when it is hot enough to start grilling.

Not surprisingly, working with the lead actors – Moran Atias, Yossi Marshek, Hanan Savyon, Rotem Abuhab, Guy Amir, Shira Naor and Avi Grainik – whom he calls “top-tier actors,” came easily to Ashkenazi. “There were no surprises, everything was very natural, I’ve grown up on sets, I knew exactly how everything should work. I won’t say it was easy, but I was happy at how everything flowed... It’s an actor’s film, an ensemble piece, a little bit like a theater piece, the essence of the film is the dynamics between the actors,” he said.

Many of the actors, including Savyon, Abuhab, Amir and Grainik are known primarily, if not exclusively, for comic roles. “I picked them on purpose. Comedians know how to do drama much better than dramatic actors. Comics have precise timing, it’s an instinct, they know exactly when and how to say a line, they have an incredible ear... it’s a great gift.”

Now that the film has been released, he is hoping to direct again and is working on a screenplay of his own, about a subject that he knows well. “It’s complicated, it’s about relationships in the world of film and theater, between an actor and an actress who play lovers,” he said. It’s not a surprising choice for an actor who became a star after doing a love scene in Dover Koshashvili’s 2001 film, Late Marriage, with Ronit Elkabetz, that is one of the steamiest in the history of Israeli movies. “Do they really love each other, when they kiss and do sex scenes, what is the real thing here, and what is the lie? It’s not for nothing that you hear about on-set romances... An actor and an actress fall in love on the set and then go to live together and then it’s not a romance it’s a relationship and how does that develop?”

After a moment, he laughs saying, “I think I’ve said enough about that.”