When interviewing Hollywood stars, or most actors in fact, you pretty much know what you are getting once you have seen their movie. This was not he case with Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, who when we met in Cannes was half the size of the Sicilian mafia hitman he plays in Salvo, which was set and filmed during the intense summer heat in Palermo.
In his past, more sympathetic roles, as the ladies' man of the band in The Band's Visit and in the comedic The Source, Bakri had resembled his lean self, yet in Salvo he is a ball of muscle, a veritable killing machine with deep piercing eyes. He has little need for words.
An atmospheric redemption tale from the Italian writing-directing duo Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, Salvo went on to win the Grand Prize in Critics' Week. In a glowing review, Variety compared the film to Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï, deeming Bakri's laconic performance “pure Alain Delon”. I caught up with Bakri at a beachside Cannes café where the intense 35-year-old was smoking roll-your-owns.
How was it to inhabit the Salvo character? Obviously, you worked out in the gym…
I did a lot of work on the body, a lot of hard work. I had to gain 10 kilos. I had to be very strong and in life I am lean. I have this fragile look, this fragile body and I had to erase this.
Did you feel better? Did you want to stay that way?
No. The moment I finished the film I came back to me. I feel lighter in my body now and I like that. I feel strong but not like Salvo. He was kind of metal man. I had to be really unbreakable.
The small amount of dialogue in the film is in Italian. Do you speak Italian?
No, so I had to work a lot on the language. After we shot the film I stayed on for two months in Italy. I only had around twenty sentences in the film, but I had to work on dubbing every day for two months until I succeeded because I didn't want to hear somebody else speaking instead of me. I did it without the help of the production. I did it on my own.
What did you think when you saw the movie?
I love Salvo very much because it's not a typical Mafia film. Salvo only becomes a hero when he stops being a killer and this is very important in this film. That's why I really believe in this film because this is the way to change. Salvo is a young, charismatic Mafioso, and you see him change. I want people inside this world to change, not only the outside organisation. This is very important because all the typical Mafia films, even a great film like The Godfather, became a model for the Sicilian mafia. Until today, the Sicilian mafia put pictures of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in their offices. I want the opposite model and this film is the opposite model.
What's it like being the son of the famous actor and director Mohammad Bakri? What is it like to have your brother Adam in the Palestinian film, Omar, which also won the Jury Prize in the Cannes competition?
I am the eldest of the family. Adam is 10 years younger. I am so proud of him and so happy for him because it's his first film and he's just finished acting school in New York and this is the first time I see him acting. I am so touched.
What advice will you give him?
I don't give advice. I don't like advising him because I feel it's not healthy for artists. It's healthier to give your opinion but not as an advisor. It's all about experience; everybody has his own experience that he builds on. Of course, I can say that my father is a great actor and very famous and at the beginning it was hard for me to get out of his shadow. Now my brother has two shadows, my father and me, to get through and it's very hard. But at the same time, I feel Adam is less stressed than I was at the beginning. He is more confident, more relaxed.
You have the same high cheekbones and incredible eyes. Does beauty run in the family?
Yes. We have a beautiful family: my father, my mother, my grandfather, my grandmother. But not only in looks; they have big, big hearts. It's very unique. As I grow older I feel this energy of my family more and more and it gives me strength and more love and more responsibility also.
Do you have your own family?
No. Not yet.
Have you been working too hard?
Yes, I haven't had the time and also I'm not settled yet, financially and physically. I'm always on the move. Acting takes a lot of your energy and it's hard to make a family. Maybe in the coming years I will start to change my attitude, but for now it's impossible.
Where do you live now?
I live in Haifa, a Palestinian city in Israel. I was born in Yafa.
Have you lived in other countries?
I lived in France for six months and in Italy for about five months. But not for long. I would like one day to try to live for a few years abroad.
Have you thought of English-language cinema?
Yes, I have received offers. Either I didn't like the offers or I did an audition and they didn't accept me.
Will you do Palestinian movies in the future?
Yes, of course, I would like to do Palestinian movies, to do something that is coming out of me, out of us. There is nothing in the air right now, but there will be. Young people in Palestine are very active, full of strength and full of creativity that needs to blow out and I am optimistic about this strength of the youth in the Arab world and in Palestine.
Salvo screens at the 2013 Italian Film Festival. Visit the official website for screening details.