Lior Ashkenazi turns director, but death threats turn him off politics

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Lior Ashkenazi turns director, but death threats turn him off politics

Israel's leading man found the courage to move behind the camera, but not to share his political views

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

Lior Ashkenazi on set of his directorial debut movie Perfect Strangers
Lior Ashkenazi on set of his directorial debut movie Perfect Strangers

Lior Ashkenazi is freezing. Not in a glacial ‘give the man a blanket’ kind of way, but frozen on Zoom due to bad wifi. And that gargoyle effect of twisted mouth and half-closed eyes that happens when you’re locked
on screen doesn’t happen to Lior.

His movie star aura defies the weak connection and his swept-back silvery hair, subtle smile and blue/grey peepers are the reason he is one of Israel’s most successful leading men. It’s those good looks that make him so beguiling as the new tenant in Moshe Rosenthal’s film, Karaoke, which opens the UK Jewish Film Festival. That he also stars as the lothario boss in romantic comedy One More Story suggests his prominence at the festival is purely aesthetic, but it’s not. Lior Ashkenazi has ventured behind the camera to direct Perfect Strangers.

“As an actor, I’ve always been curious about directing because I find it more interesting. More creative than acting actually,” he says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with acting, but I’ve wanted to direct for many years. I just didn’t have the… how do you say it?… courage. Excuse me, my English is lousy.”

Lior is one of Israel’s leading men with no vote required

For the record his English isn’t ‘lousy’ and the three-time Ophir award winner has appeared in a US production of The Tempest, delivering the Shakespearean text. “Yes, that was very difficult,” he recalls. “We don’t do a lot of Shakespeare in Israel.”

It is Lior’s experience as a theatre director that attracted him to Perfect Strangers, a remake of a 2016 Italian film about a dinner party attended by seven childhood friends, who relinquish their phones as part of a game, with devastating consequences.“The film is really about the actors whom I worked with a lot,” says Lior. “But the cinematography was testing because the action happens in one room and I had to keep it interesting.”

That a film set at a table which moves from balcony to bathroom can be as involving as Perfect Strangers is due to the performances, and Lior primed the talent. “I’m good with actors, so I knew that starting as a director with this kind of movie would be easier. We shot it chronologically, in 16 days, which was good for the actors. Starting at the beginning and going through to the end in sequence meant everybody knew what they were doing. And it was fun. Almost like doing theatre.”

Lior in the next potential Israeli TV export, Traitor

Lior had toyed with the idea of setting the story in Haifa and introducing more diversity. “There are more Jews married to Arabs in Haifa, which would have added another element to the story, but I reconsidered and fixed on a more ambiguous location. It could be anywhere in Israel or the world.”

Lior has seen a fair bit of the world recently, promoting his work at film festivals, while appearing on the small screen back home as the star of Traitor, a new series in which he plays a retired Shin Bet field officer blinded in battle, who is brought back to investigate a missing plane. Destined to be the next big Israeli TV export, Lior himself could be another as a US production on the Hulu platform is in the offing, but he can’t talk about it yet.

The Sephardi actor, who was raised speaking Ladino by Turkish immigrant parents, was a paratrooper in the West Bank during the First Intifada and the memory of this is never far away when he lands military roles, most memorably as the father who loses his soldier son in 2017’s Foxtrot.

“Every actor brings something from their own experience to a role,” he says. “I didn’t dig into my combat past when I did that film, as it just floats out of me subconsciously. And I guess with every role it comes and goes. I try not to think about it.”

Lior as the beguiling new tenant in Karaoke

The planning of our Zoom chat took place a week before Israel’s recent election and Lior was working with the cast of Eretz Nehederet (It’s a Wonderful Country), the long-running political sketch show on which he is occasionally a guest. Given the pending election result it seemed pertinent to ask how he was feeling.

“We were all kind of surprised, but not really surprised,” he says with that smile. “I mean, we knew things were going that way. But this is a huge victory for the extreme right-wing party. I’m not in mourning though. I don’t think the changes will be that extreme. We are still a democracy, a country with laws, and we can debate. And, you know, maybe after four years, we need stability because we were in chaos. Five elections in five years, it’s crazy. There was no budget, we can do nothing. I think a stable government that is here for four years. At least that… maybe.” His voice trails.

Given that Lior took pride in playing former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 7 Days in Entebbe (2018), Netanyahu’s power-grab coalition with the Religious Zionist party must grate. Its leader Itamar Ben-Gvir continues to celebrate Rabin’s assassination.

“Everybody knows I’m left-wing and in the past, I was more involved,” concedes the actor. “I took a big step back because I got threats. On my life. The lives of my family. Now I just watch. And if I have any comments, I’ll say them, but I’m not getting involved. It’s too risky to say what you think, though in Israel everyone knows what you think. There’s no private space. But I’m not in mourning.  “The sun is still shining and the sky is still blue. I don’t know why, but I think I’m an optimist.”                                                      Why shouldn’t he be? He is Israel’s most popular leading man. Without a vote.

Perfect Strangers is at Everyman Muswell Hill on 12 November. For more screenings visit www.

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