Life & Culture

Israel's Cary Grant: Meet actor Lior Ashkenazi

The star tells of his forthcoming directorial debut - a tale of secrets and lies - and his long and successful career


We’ve all held dinner parties that don’t go exactly as planned. But in Perfect Strangers, in which seven childhood friends meet for dinner on the night of a rare lunar eclipse, things rapidly and irretrievably deteriorate when the group decides to play a game where every call, text or voice message received on their phones must be shared with everyone present. What starts out as fun soon reveals secrets, lies and unresolved traumas.

The film asks how well we really know those closest to us and what would test the boundaries of those relationships. Is honesty always the best approach?

Based on the original 2016 Italian film of the same name, acclaimed leading Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi has made the Israeli version of what is thought to be the most remade film ever, with more than 20 countries including France, South Korea and Germany creating their own adaptations.

But it is the first remake of anything in Israel, Ashkenazi tells me via Zoom from his Tel Aviv home and, in what is another first, Perfect Strangers is Ashkenazi’s directorial feature debut.

To his surprise, it was a success. “Although it came out last autumn during Covid, people went to the cinema to see it.

“I don’t want to think what could have been if it hadn’t been released then, but it had good audience numbers and so we were all very happy.” Ashkenazi hopes to be in London next month for its screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival, which will be followed by a Q & A with him.

Set predominantly in one room, this tense, fast-paced, dark dramedy with its pitch-perfect quick-fire dialogue has a strong theatrical feel to it. An experienced theatre director,

Ashkenazi likens Perfect Strangers to an actors’ studio ensemble piece: at its core is the dynamic between the actors, all of whom are well-known comedians in Israel.

“I’m used to working with actors and although shooting it was a challenge because so much takes place around a table, I really enjoyed the process,” he says. “Yeah, it was fun and creative.”

Ashkenazi had been thinking about directing a film for some time but initially said no to the project, primarily because there is no culture of remakes in Israel. “Israelis watch a lot of foreign films [instead].

The original film had been such a hit — a lot of people saw it here, so I thought why would they come and see another version?”

The producers — one of whom happens to be Ashkenazi’s wife, Maya Amsellem, the managing director of WestEnd Films, a London-based production company — managed to persuade him otherwise.

“They wanted me to act in it but one of my conditions was that I would only direct. I mean, what a cliché it would have been for me to act in the first film I directed,” he says, laughing.

Even though the main scenes remain much the same as in the original, Ashkenazi and his writers had the creative freedom to adapt the script however they wanted to make it culturally specific.

So, a mother worries about her computer-obsessed son joining the Israeli army and the host’s new barbecue (close to an Israeli artform) has an app that alerts his phone when the grill is hot enough to cook the meat. Perhaps most significant is the storyline about an old friend who died during his army service. “His spirit is above the table,” explains Ashkenazi.

“That kind of story is often found in Israeli families and so many people reacted to it.”
Perfect Strangers is all about nostalgia, says Ashkenazi. “It’s about a group of old friends who grew up together but, eventually, have gone their separate ways and so between them have little in common.

"I know from my own childhood friends — when we see each other, the conversation isn’t about the here and now, the link that binds us is the past.”

The film reflects and emphasises its characters’ different backgrounds and their personal and professional life choices, from the divorcee and youthful girlfriend to the plastic surgeon and shop owner.

“We added these things to the script,” Ashkenazi says, “in order to give more depth to their relationships.”

If there is a cautionary aspect to the film, it is that the phone — the tool we rely on to assist us in all aspects of our lives — is a container of secrets.

“Not just the obvious — she cheated on him or she finds nude pictures on her husband’s phone,” he says. “Phones are now part of our bodies, part of our minds. Everything about ourselves is in there.”

Ashkenazi is a delightful interviewee: easy-going, good-humoured and charming. With his dimples, magnetic smile and mane of silvery hair, which he frequently runs his hands through, at 54 he has retained his renowned good looks.

He is often described as a sex symbol and referred to as the Israeli Cary Grant. “Was!” he hoots, when I mention it.

But does the label bother him? “No, I don’t think about it. You can’t actually work with this kind of thing. It doesn’t look good. But it is complicated because I know I’m charming as a person and charismatic, blah blah blah… but I don’t use it as a tool.”

Born in Ramat Gan to Turkish immigrants, his break-out film role came in 2001, in Dover Kosashvili’s steamy Late Marriage with the late Ronit Elkabetz, for which he won his first Ophir, the Israeli Film Academy award.

Since then, he has won two other Ophirs for his performances in Footnote and the Oscar-nominated Foxtrot and appeared in numerous films including Rabies, Israel’s first horror film, 7 Days in Entebbe and Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer with Richard Gere. His successful TV career includes series Our Boys, Hit & Run and Valley of Tears.

I am speaking to Ashkenazi ahead of the 2022 Ophir Award ceremony and although he has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the dramedy Karaoke, written and directed by Moshe Rosenthal, he admits that awards no longer mean as much to him as they once did and is less than enthusiastic about attending.

“But I’ll go because Moshe asked me to,” he smiles. (He lost out to Shmuel Vilozny for his performance in The Road to Eilat). In Karaoke, which is also showing at the UK Jewish Film Festival, Ashkenazi plays Itzik, a gregarious, seductive, stylish new neighbour whose move into the penthouse of a suburban apartment building injects life into a couple’s (Sasson Gabai and Rita Shukrun) stale marriage and unspoken sense of regret and disappointment.

Before Itzik appears on screen, there is a huge build-up about him, best captured by the arrival of his Maserati in the building’s underground car park.

“As an audience you already have this data about him, so when he comes into the frame, it’s like a ‘ta da’ moment and you think, “Ah OK… well of course.”

“Itzik loves the adoration of people,” Ashkenazi continues. “He’s a crowd-pleaser, great fun and everyone wants to be near him. I know people like that. They go into a restaurant and everybody comes up to their table, just to be with them. But at the end of the day, they’re alone. They have problems making relationships and can’t be in an intimate situation. It’s a very lonely life.”

Ashkenazi’s involvement with Karaoke came about a few years ago when he was working with Rosenthal on one of his short films. “He’s a very talented guy, one of the younger generation rising up now,” he says. When Rosenthal told him about the script for Karaoke — his debut feature — he said he had written Itzik for Ashkenazi. “I was very flattered, of course.

"And it was fun working together because we’re kind of friends.”

I tell Ashkenazi I had read an interview with him in which he had said that, sometimes, there is a little bit of him in the characters he plays, so, I wonder, which part of his personality is in Itzik? He responds with a big laugh.

“The thing is, usually in theatre, the critics always say, ‘This actor was great or phenomenal and Lior Ashkenazi with his charismatic charm was…’” he trails off. “So, everything is about charisma. But how can you play charisma?

"Your character responds to the environment they’re in and from the reactions of other actors. In Karaoke, for example, there’s all that build-up about Itzik. So much is said in the looks given by Sasson Gabai and the way he and Rita talk about him.”

Ashkenazi plans to direct another film and has been approached to do another remake. “I don’t mind. I wouldn’t say I’m practising at directing as such because I’m happy to do it.”

He is currently working with a co-writer on the script, a process, he confesses, is taking time. “I’ve written for theatre but not a film script. And it’s pretty hard.”

Before our time is up, we touch on Israel’s forthcoming election. Ashkenazi is a regular participant on the satirical sketch comedy TV show Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country), the Israeli equivalent of Saturday Night Live. “Nobody knows anything and every day there are new polls.

"My guess is we’ll go on and have to have another election. Yeah,” he sighs. “This is what will happen.”

Perfect Strangers and Karaoke will be screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival. The festival is running in cinemas 10- 20 November and online 21 -27 November.

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