When leading Israeli director Joseph (Yossef) Cedar was casting father and son Talmudic scholars for his new movie Footnote, he had to be sold on the idea of having Israel's most famous actor, sometime matinee idol Lior Ashkenazi, play the son. Ashkenazi recalls their first contact with wry amusement.
“When Yossef first called me, he said 'Hi, this is Mr Cedar, blah, blah and there is this role. But I'm not sure I want to cast you for this kind of role, but I have this feeling, so I need to check.' I said 'Ok, let's check. I want to work with you and I will be happy to give it a try even if it doesn't work.' When we did the session he said, 'You are too much like Cary Grant. No, you are Cary Grant. I can't take Cary Grant to the movie. He decided in the end to take me. I don't know why.”
The collaboration worked out famously well, with the pair ending up at the Oscars in February as Footnote became a finalist in the foreign film category. Even if the film didn't win, Cedar, who had earlier won the screenwriting award in Cannes (and previously won the best director prize in Berlin for 2007's Beaufort, which went on to be Oscar-nominated as well) managed to find extensive international distribution for his film.
The 43-year-old actor, who had previously played a Mossad agent in Eytan Fox's 2004 film Walk on Water and who is known in Israel for his theatre and television work (he usually plays agents and action guys), was seen in a new light back home and by audiences around the world. Well, by those who recognised him anyway. The charismatic actor grew a full grey beard and put on weight for the part.
“I stuck my belly out,” he chuckles. “I really had to pile on the kilos. Usually when I see these kinds of movies with American actors playing academics and professors, they are well built and have muscles. The audience says, 'Who is this person?' It's kind of unrealistic. When I was in Cannes people couldn't recognise me when I told them I'd just participated in the movie. They said, 'Oh we are so sorry.' And I said, 'No, this is the biggest compliment I can have.”
Ashkenazi, who currently stars on television in the Israeli version of Married with Children, yearned for such a transformative role. “All the characters I played before I could find myself in them, but here I couldn't. I've had nothing to do with the Talmud and I've had nothing to do with the academia. I had to work hard to go to these places, to become this person. It was challenging.”
The movie was born out of Cedar's fascination with the specialist field of Talmudic research he encountered when studying philosophy and history at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. (The Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussions regarding Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history, which were written in Palestine and Babylon circa 200-500AD.)
“There were stubborn academics who had been working on esoteric research their whole lives, yet they were afraid to publish anything in case they made a mistake,” Cedar explains. “There were rivalries unlike anything I'd ever heard of.”
Ultimately, the film follows the more successful son, Uriel Shkolnik, who having published numerous tomes on the Talmud, has to deal with the announcement that his less successful father Eliezer (Schlomo Gar Aba), who only has one footnote to his credit, is awarded the prestigious Israel Prize. The problem is, the announcement is wrong. Uriel should have received the prize. What is he to do?
Ashkenazi appreciated the film's clever mix of comedy and drama: “All the comic scenes are extremely dramatic; you can't do a comedy without drama.” Over eight months he worked very hard, "like a professor of the Talmud," he muses, "to get it right". Still, he didn't go Method like his co-star. “Schlomo is a comedian. He is like the Peter Sellers of Israel although he looks like Walter Matthau. Every second he was calling me Professor Shkolnik, even after shooting. I don't believe in Method; it's a generational thing too.”
While it seems incredible that this talented, self-effacing, near fluent English-speaker hasn't made the leap into English language movies, Ashkenzi did appear in a 2008 French comedy alongside Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardent. “It was called Hello, Goodbye, and it wasn't so good. Actually, it wasn't good at all.”
Can he earn enough money from acting in Israel? “Not from the movies. There isn't any movie industry actually. At the beginning of Footnote you see so many foundations and channels and the lottery—it takes five minutes just to see who gives money to the movie, which is annoying. Yet I think even in Europe it's like that. You need the foundations. In Israel you can't be a professional cinema actor, so we work in the theatre.”
It can be a bit of a slog, though, as it requires the actors to constantly move around. The production might start in Tel Aviv and then move on to Haifa and Jerusalem and to other towns and cities—and Ashkenazi has to play them all. “They want you in the show; they don't want your replacement. Though, once the show starts to travel it's not like you are going on a trip because you are back at home every night.”
Clearly he has a bit of a monopoly in Israel. “It's my luck,” he concedes. “I think it's because there aren't many actors in my age group. There are young actors and older actors and I am kind of middle-aged now.”
Like all Israeli actors, Ashkenazi, the son of Sephardi Jewish immigrants from Turkey who moved to Israel in 1964, has been in the army. He was stationed in Lebanon after the 1982 Lebanon War and also in Gaza. The handsome Cary Grant/George Clooney of Israel has killed people for his country.
“You are not exempt; that makes you the same as everyone else,” he notes dryly. “It's the most complicated thing in Israel because you go at the age of 18 to the army and your mind is still unsettled. You have to go with a gun, to run after Arabs or Palestinians and then at the end of the week, you are going back to your home, to your girlfriend, to your parties and you are not talking about what happened there. You don't want to remember because you have 24 hours, so 'Let's party'. It's a big issue and nobody talks about it. If I could have done it another way,” he hesitates and adds, “I wish!”
It has been a lot to deal with, admits the actor, who in his youth was known in the tabloids for his partying lifestyle and then for his difficult first marriage and acrimonious divorce from actress Shira Farber. (Ashkenazi recently married one of Footnote's producers, Maya Amsellem, who also worked on Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe—so he may yet make it into English-language cinema.)
“I deal with many, many things with my shrink,” he admits frankly of his military experience. “You can't deal with it another way. Even though you think it is going above you, it is there, it is in your stomach, it is in your intestines, under your subconscious. And there are days when it comes out. I don't know what should be the trigger; anything could be the trigger. So I was in a drama school doing all these acting exercises and it was coming out so I had to deal with it. I am talking about it, but there are people who are not talking about it. Maybe when I make my own movie I will deal with this. I've directed in the theatre and it's something I'd like to do.”