I’m on set with the stars of the BBC’s latest political thriller, The Honourable Woman, which deals with the Israel-Palestinian conflict through the lives of the Stein family. As the story goes, the Steins once ran a lucrative Zionist arms procurement company under the watch of patriarch Eli Stein, who came to Britain as a Holocaust refugee in 1939. Next Thursday’s opening episode sees his youngest daughter and House of Lords cross-bencher Nessa (Oscar nominated actress Maggie Gyllenhaal) taking over the family business and changing it from arms supplier to a more peaceful purpose.
“Nessa is such an exciting and intricate character,” says Gyllenhaal, whose own mother is Jewish. “I couldn’t put the scripts down.” And the storyline certainly has the requisite murder, espionage and political conspiracy themes that make for compelling TV drama. But British director Hugo Blick is reluctant for the series — set in the UK, Israel and America — to be seen as “another Homeland”.
An area of Sandown Park racecourse has been transformed into a club lounge at Heathrow airport as Blick guides cast and crew through a four-minute scene over a three-hour period. This prominently features Israeli actor Yigal Naor, who plays Shlomo Zahary, a friend of the Stein family. Naor arrives in an open shirt, wearing a large star of David necklace and laughing boisterously. In the scene, he speaks Hebrew in a gruff accent and slams a table repeatedly to emphasise his dialogue. The high number of retakes reflects Blick’s precision, rather than a fumbling of lines.
This is Naor’s last scene for the series and Blick leads the applause as the actor repairs to his trailer. Word reaches me that Naor needs time to change, prepare and have some lunch. An hour passes before I’m escorted to his trailer. He has indeed changed, both in manner and dress, sporting a blue shirt, khaki blazer and a pair of vintage circular specs.He apologises in advance for his broken English, although it becomes clear that he is up to speed on expletives.
“I wish all my life to work in a series like this,” he says. “It was a beautiful cast and crew. I was laughing the whole time, having fun. To speak so fast as I did today — not easy. But I work on it. I’m not supposed to sound British anyway.”
Known in the industry as Igal (apparently people find it easier than Yigal) Naor says it was his idea to use Hebrew in the last scene.
From the moment he read the script, “I knew it was a meaningful role. I saw how I dress, how I look. I said: ‘That’s Shlomo. This guy is not shy. He’s a wonderful person.’ I was just shocked by the writing. I was not so familiar with the English cast, but I appreciated the nuances of language. It has an edge of poetry. It’s so human, personal, detailed.”
And he was particularly moved by one scene, which he describes as a “wonderful Jewish ceremony.
“In Israel, religion is problematic,” he points out. “But in this scene, we have 30 extras singing and dancing. It was such a pleasure, such a celebration. That night I told my wife, it was the most wonderful day in years.”
Given its open discussion of the Middle East conflict through the eyes of an Israeli Zionist living in Britain, The Honourable Woman may well spark controversy.
But Naor is reluctant to discuss politics. “I don’t come here as an Israeli,” he says. “I come as an actor. I don’t want [the audience] to judge me or my thoughts.
“Because I am Israeli, I guess I don’t want to hear about the Middle East too much. I don’t think about the Middle East as much as starvation in Africa.” The Honourable Woman “is the story of people and their background. It doesn’t judge the Jews or the Palestinians. It’s about the people and the emotion. The rest is s***. We get on with our lives, not politics.”
The 55-year-old previously played a Muslim cleric in David Baddiel’s comedy, The Infidel, co-starring Omid Djalili, who Naor says, “looks like my twin brother”.
Naor, who is of Iraqi Jewish descent, received international acclaim for his sympathetic portrayal of Saddam Hussein in House Of Saddam.“I thought, ‘What am I going to do with this role?’ It was a big struggle, but I decided to go on the human side of him, to tell something new. I found it easy to be on his side.”
It’s a surprising remark, but Naor argues: “Look at the situation in Iraq now — it’s a mess, divided. Now you look, you see he was right.”