You shouldn’t judge a character before you start playing it, but my opinion of politicians is – how do I say it nicely? – well, not very good,” chuckles Lior Ashkenazi.
The Israeli actor is speaking to me ahead of his first major role in a US production opposite Richard Gere in the chutzpah-filled comedy, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, which is out in cinemas from tomorrow.
Gere plays Norman Oppenheimer, a New York schlub, a man of little talent who drops names and promises deals with no substance in a desperate bid to climb social ladders.
Along the way, he befriends Micha Eshel, a charismatic, low-level Israeli politician who, to everyone’s surprise, becomes the prime minister.
Now with a very real connection to someone in power, Norman attempts to use Eshel’s name to leverage the biggest deal through a series of quid pro quo transactions, using his nephew (Michael Sheen), a rabbi (Steve Buscemi), a mogul and a treasury official from the Ivory Coast.
But his dealings soon go awry, making way for a potential international catastrophe.
Norman was written and directed by Joseph Cedar, with whom Ashkenazi previously worked on his Oscar-nominated film, Footnote. The film, which also won 10 Ophir Awards and Best Screenplay at Cannes, revolves around the tense rivalry between a father and son, who are both Talmud scholars in Jerusalem.
In his latest incarnation as a politician who enjoys the good life, Norman presented Ashkenazi with “a real challenge” when trying to research for his latest role.
“I contacted a lot of MK [Members of Knesset]s about my role, but no one wanted to talk to me,” sighs the 48–year-old. “When I told them about the story they said, ‘Ok we’ll get back to you’, but never did.”
The storyline perhaps rang too close to real events. He points to the example of Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem who suddenly became prime minister after Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke, and who is now serving a prison sentence for bribery.
“We even have a prime minister who is under investigation about that kind of thing,” he adds, referring to Benjamin Netanyahu and his ongoing corruption probe.
His character Eshel has not attracted that sort of trouble, but he is vulnerable and does get himself embroiled in Norman’s ludicrous schemes. But to view Norman as a menace is to misunderstand him; rather he is a dreamer, the man who has nothing real to offer, who strives to really matter in life. In short, he is deserving of our compassion.
Speaking of his character, Cedar says: “I think the whole world revolves around Normans. They’re like bees going from one flower to the next. They are absolutely necessary, which is why they exist. Resenting the Normans is natural on one hand, but it’s very unfair.”
Ashkenazi agrees that Norman is the man you love to hate. “Everyone has his own Normans in his life. We all know this type of person, they are surrounding us. I have one in my life now, a producer who keeps telling me about his script and drops names. When you have someone who starts dropping names, run away,” he laughs.
Speaking of name dropping, our conversation turns to Gere. I ask him what it was like to work with the 67-year-old Hollywood star.
“I was really excited when I knew I’d be working with him,” gushes Ashkenazi, who studied acting at Beit Zvi in Ramat Gan. “Everyone knows Richard Gere. You could say his name in the Kalahari Desert and they will know who you are talking about. At our first meeting, we went straight into the rehearsal room and there was good chemistry between us.
“His process of working on this character began with his accent and when we had make-up, it was like he had metamorphosed. I was really in awe of him.”
From playing one prime minister, Ashkenazi has now set his sights on playing another: Yitzhak Rabin in director Jose Padilha’s forthcoming Entebbe, which also stars Rosamund Pike and Eddie Marsan.
“I was surprised when Jose offered me the role. You know, you start out as the young guy, the gigolo, the sex symbol. Then you get roles as the security guy and the Mossad agent. For a while, I played fathers and now it seems I’m at the age of prime ministers,” he quips.
Playing Rabin comes with a “burden of responsibility”, but he’s careful to point out that his representation of Israel’s fifth premier is “not an imitation”. He adds: “I spent time talking to his daughter and grand-daughter and watched some home movies.
“Rabin used to smoke long cigarettes and his accent was a mix of British and American English, so I took a couple of these nuances and put these into my character.”
ω Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (15) is out in cinemas now