"I wanted to see real people"

Lior Ashkenazi on Joseph Cedar, Son Of Saul, Walk On Water and why he became an actor.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Richard Gere (Norman Oppenheimer) with Lior Ashkenazi (Micha Eshel) at Lanvin: "It's almost like theater."
Richard Gere (Norman Oppenheimer) with Lior Ashkenazi (Micha Eshel) at Lanvin: "It's almost like theater."

Star of Joseph Cedar's Footnote and Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer, Lior Ashkenazi, spoke with me on growing up seeing Kirk Douglas, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman movies with his father, Burt Lancaster in Robert Siodmak's The Crimson Pirate being his first, shooting Eytan Fox's Walk On Water at Berlin's Tempelhof airport, meeting Son Of Saul director László Nemes at the Cannes Film Festival, and performing a silent scene with Richard Gere.

Lior's upcoming films include Julie Delpy's My Zoe (with Gemma Arterton, Richard Armitage, Daniel Brühl); Dragos Buliga's The Wanderers (Armand Assante); Eran Riklis's Refuge (Golshifteh Farahani, Neta Riskin), Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot (Sarah Adler), and José Padilha's Entebbe (Rosamund Pike, Brühl), where he portrays Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Burt Lancaster stars in Robert Siodmak's The Crimson Pirate
Burt Lancaster stars in Robert Siodmak's The Crimson Pirate

Anne-Katrin Titze: How did it all begin for you? Do you remember the first movie you saw? And the one where you thought, I want to do this?

Lior Ashkenazi: I tell you. The first movie I saw was The Crimson Pirate. I mean, this is the first memory of a movie, not on a big screen. I saw it with my father. It was shown on TV. Remember The Crimson Pirate?

AKT: With Burt Lancaster? Yes, I remember his smile and the action scenes on the ship. It was very impressive. I also remember watching it on TV as a child.

LA: Yes, I was amazed by all these actors like Burt Lancaster. Also Kirk Douglas. And all those old actors, who were of course younger then.

AKT: Did you like mostly adventure movies?

LA: Mostly adventure and westerns. I remember I was watching a movie and I was talking to my Dad, telling him, I think it was some western hero, "Doesn't he have to pee?" It's a child question. I was a child. I never saw them crying. I never saw them hurting. I never saw a real breaking heart.

I remember it very well, and some of it my father reminded me. I was maybe five or six, before first grade. I said: "When I'll be an actor, they'll see the hero's other side." They will see what is not usually shown. And I think that somehow stayed in my mind, in the unconscious.

AKT: You wanted to connect them to you and your life?

LA: Not just to me. I mean, these are not real people. And I wanted to see real people. Real people go to the bathroom after a couple of drinks. They cry or they have their hair messed up in the morning when they are getting up. And these were the Fifties movies. Even if they were like in the middle of war, the hair was always neat and beautiful and shiny.

AKT: Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were your favourites at that age?

Lior Ashkenazi as Uriel in Joseph Cedar's Oscar-nominated Footnote
Lior Ashkenazi as Uriel in Joseph Cedar's Oscar-nominated Footnote

LA: Not just. My father loved Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. All the Fifties, Sixties movies. Then in the Seventies, I almost don't know stars of the Seventies as a kid.

AKT: Do you remember going to the cinema?

LA: There were a couple of Israeli movies I saw as a kid, which are now cult movies. I mean they are very bad movies, really low-budget B-movies. In a way they have become very popular. They are usually comedies which have this thing with Ashkenazim and Sephardim, East and West.

AKT: You starred in Footnote. Did Joseph Cedar have you in mind for Micha Eshel in Norman early on?

LA: When he wrote Norman, he knew that this politician [to become Israeli Prime Minister] … He wrote the script for me, actually. You can see it in the English. Because this guy is always looking for the right word.

AKT: That was inspired by you?

LA: Yeah, because for Footnote we'd hang around in places like Cannes or other places in the world. So Joseph knows me. He gave me one of the first drafts.

AKT: You loved it right away?

Gary Springer and Anne-Katrin Titze with Lior Ashkenazi on Houston Street
Gary Springer and Anne-Katrin Titze with Lior Ashkenazi on Houston Street Photo: Gary Springer

LA: I loved it but I had a lot of comments. And he took my comments and immediately made the changes in the script. I was amazed.

AKT: It shows a great deal of respect! Which is nice.

LA: Yeah. Because usually when directors who are also scriptwriters … Usually they write the Bible! Don't touch my words! Don't change it! Joseph gave me the opportunity to be a part of this creation.

AKT: During the beautiful silent scene in front of the Lanvin window, what are you saying?

LA: We were trying to improvise at the beginning. It wasn't written. Now, I can't actually improvise in English. I mean, I hate to improvise in Hebrew. It didn't really work. Inside the shop, you can see what we improvised during rehearsal on screen.

AKT: Was Richard Gere trying to make you laugh when you were standing outside?

LA: No. Well, in his own way. It's the first time you see Norman actually talking to someone. Later on you see him with Arthur Taub [Josh Charles] at the party. We asked Joseph to write a lead, not a scene. We were supposed to improvise on this lead - "What are you doing here? I just saw you at the AIPAC convention." "I'm just looking at shoes." It was something like that, actually.

Norman is saying that he knows Arthur Taub, who heard that I'm in town. We were very precise on the lead until the entrance to the shoe store which is the text of the script. It was such a good scene that Joseph even considered to leave it with the sound. But I think it's better that way. You don't need to hear it.

AKT: Agreed. Because you see it in the faces. There is this chemistry right from the start. You see it as a silent movie.

LA: It's almost like theatre.

Lior Ashkenazi as Israeli Prime Minister Micha Eshel in Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer
Lior Ashkenazi as Israeli Prime Minister Micha Eshel in Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer

AKT: In 2002 here in New York at the Jewish Museum there was an exhibition called Mirroring Evil. Young artists looking at Nazi imagery. I spoke on a panel during the run of the exhibition and there were protests going on outside. It's the Jewish Museum in New York! What better place to have a discussion on this?

LA: Of course. I think it comes from a frightened place.

AKT: The curator's name was Norman Kleeblatt. No relation to Richard Gere's Norman. It is the taboos that need to be addressed. When you do Q&As for Norman, is there always somebody going in the direction of anti-Semitism?

LA: Yeah. There's always someone who says "I hate this movie. It's anti-Semite. I don't understand how Joseph, who is a Jew, is a self-hating Jew?" But when he is there, he knows how to defend his movie.

AKT: I did the opening night post-screening discussion at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas with Géza Röhrig for Son Of Saul. No disturbance there, I was surprised.

LA: I love this movie! I love Son Of Saul. I met the director [László Nemes] in Cannes. The children who grow up in Israel, not from day one, but from the first grade - they are injecting you with the Holocaust theme into your veins. It's actually genetic. On Holocaust Memorial Day everything is closed in Israel.

No entertainment on TV, no restaurants. You grow up with Holocaust movies. You saw everything, all the footage of the Nazis and the Germans and the Americans who liberated, and the Russians who liberated Auschwitz. I saw everything but when I saw Son Of Saul, I was so emotionally…

Mirroring Evil exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York
Mirroring Evil exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Because he puts you there. And obviously we don't want to be there. The first minutes are terrifying.

LA: I'll tell you something about this Israeli gene thing. When we were shooting Walk On Water - Eytan Fox was the director - in Berlin, it was my first time in Berlin. I don't have issues with Germans or German. I don't have any issue. So we were shooting in Tempelhof airport. Now it's more like a refugee camp. Then, in 2002, it was still Tempelhof.

AKT: I've flown in and out of there many times.

LA: So you know the Nazi symbols of the two eagles at Tempelhof. I was doing my thing, clubs and bars and whatever. Then when I saw these eagles, I was like stone. I was frozen. Oh, my god. It was the first time I saw this Nazi eagle. I know it from the footage on television. And then we were shooting inside Tempelhof.

AKT: The spirit of place is very strong there.

LA: The space! I knew this place. Because I saw it all of my childhood.

AKT: You had a physical reaction?

LA: I couldn't stand on my legs. I asked the director, Eytan: "Is it just me?" He said, "No, I feel also like that. Let's be cool, we have to shoot." We were having the same feeling. I knew the place because I saw it my whole childhood. This is what I'm talking about when I say the Holocaust or the genocide gene … In Israel, even today, and I consider myself the third generation, you grow up as a victim.

You are a victim. And most of my generation was like, we're not victims of Nazism. We were born in a free country. We have our own army and whatever. When you become a grown up you understand that everyone is manipulating you to be a victim. Stop it. "The whole world is against us! And everybody hates the Jews." Stop - first before we are Jews, we're Israelis.

Read what Lior Ashkenazi had to say on footwear, friendship and Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer.

Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer is in cinemas in the US.

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