Acclaimed Israeli actor, Lior Ashkenazi laughs as he explains why he needed to overcome his negative opinion of politicians when prepping for his latest role as fictionalised politician, Micha Eshel, in Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. “They don’t have a good reputation. But I didn’t want that to be the starting point of the character so I tried as hard as I could to be human about him.”
Norman, directed by Joseph Cedar (Footnote, Beaufort), is Ashkenazi’s first major role in a US production. He co-stars alongside Richard Gere who plays Norman, a New York Jewish hustler who sets his sights on Eshel, a low level, suave and charismatic Israeli politician who unexpectedly becomes prime minister. Cedar deftly blends realism with a touch of comedy of the absurd in his reimagining of the reviled classic court Jew narrative: someone offers a favour to a powerful individual, becomes powerful himself which then creates antagonism and ripples of anti-Semitism. The film premieres in the UK later this week, as part of Seret London, the Israeli film and television festival and Ashkenazi will be participating in Q & As after both screenings.
At the start of the film, when Norman seeks him out, Eshel feels he is at a low point in his career - unsure of his future. He is flattered by Norman’s attention. “Politicians usually have a lot of ego, they don’t like to have enemies - although they have them. It’s all about people’s love,” says Ashkenzai, on the phone from his home in Israel. “In a way he wants to be seduced by Norman. Eshel is a man who loves the good things in life, so if there’s someone who compliments him and buys him a pair of expensive shoes...We have so many examples of this, [in Israel and elsewhere].”
Ashkenazi says that his character is based on an amalgam of politicians rather than any one particular prime minister or politician. As part of his research he wanted to speak to Knesset members who matched Eshel’s profile but was met with a lack of cooperation. “We call them princes, their future is in front of them. When I pitched the synopsis of the movie, there was usually a silence then a, ‘I’ll get back to you tomorrow.’ The day after I would be told that they would not cooperate.”
He first worked with Cedar when he played a Talmudic scholar in the Oscar nominated Footnote but was more involved in the creative process with Norman. “In Footnote, the script was already written so I just came as an actor and did whatever Joseph told me to do, whereas for Norman, he sent me one of the film’s initial drafts.” He then had the opportunity to collaborate and build Eshel’s character. “I gave him my comments and to my surprise he did everything I asked.” Cedar also worked closely with Richard Gere over a long period in order to make him, “an old Jewish macher,” he adds, laughing once again.
Ashkenazi admits that it was exciting to work with Gere. “Of course. I don’t think there’s anyone all over the globe that doesn’t know his name.” The two actors met for the first time in a New York rehearsal room. “It was amazing because in a minute he was just a professional actor doing his work. There was an immediate chemistry between us and we quickly started to improvise our first scene. It was fun.”
His acting career started in the theatre but in the last fifteen years has risen to become one of Israel’s most renowned screen actors. His talent and sex appeal might well have contributed to his celebrity status in Israel but he says it was just luck that many of his films such as Late Marriage, Walk on Water, Rabies and Big Bad Wolves (and a role in the TV series, In Treatment) have gone on to achieve international success.
Among his forthcoming projects he is playing Yitzhak Rabin in Entebbe, a film of the 1976 hostage and rescue mission which comes out in 2018. “Apparently, prime ministers are my new casting!” Portraying a historical figure does bring with it a certain burden, he says, although he is not imitating Rabin. “I use Rabin’s words and took some nuance from his body language but I approached the role as a character.”
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer premieres in the UK on 17 and 18 May, as part of Seret. A Q&A with Lior Ashkenzi follows both screenings.
Norman will be released in the UK from 9 June