April 2, 2020

Man of God or Fraud? Netflix Miniseries ‘Messiah’ Seeks the Truth

Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Netflix

A mysterious man suddenly appears in the Syrian Desert calling himself Al-Masih and claiming to be sent by God. Credited with a series of seemingly miraculous events that go viral, the charismatic figure becomes a worldwide phenomenon. But is he a divine savior who wants to unite a divided world or a false prophet out to wreak havoc? The provocative drama unfolds in the 10-part miniseries “Messiah,” now streaming on Netflix.

The story is told from the perspectives of multiple characters, including a Texas preacher, a journalist, a Palestinian refugee and the CIA operative and Israeli Shin Bet officer who are determined to uncover the truth. Tomer Sisley, whose father was born in Israel, plays the latter, Aviram Dahan.

“The script was so well written; one of the top three scripts I’ve ever read,” Sisley told the Journal at the Los Angeles launch party for the series. “It’s so filled with subtext. The characters have all these super-charged backstories but the most interesting thing about this show is that it’s challenging for the viewers. You have to find your own truth in it; your own point of view. I think it will trigger a lot of conversations.”

Sisley speaks Hebrew and English and learned some Arabic for his role in the miniseries, which was filmed in Nashville, Tenn.; New Mexico; Washington, D.C.; and Jordan, where most of the scenes set in Israel were shot. He didn’t need to talk to intelligence agents for research. “I have a few cousins and uncles who were in the Israeli Special Forces,” he said. 

“[‘Messiah’] is challenging for the viewers. You have to find your own truth in it, your own point of view. I think it will trigger a lot of conversations.” 

— Tomer Sisley

The role required quite a bit of action, but Sisley said, “The most challenging part was acting with a 3-year-old” who plays his daughter. While shooting in Jordan, he took advantage of its proximity to Israel. “I went [to Israel] on the weekend. All my relatives are there,” he said. “I go back every year and stay for about a month.”

Although he wasn’t very observant while growing up and is even less so now, Sisley has “a very strong connection to my religion.” He lives in Paris with his family, which includes three children he has taught to speak Hebrew. 

Born in Berlin, where his family relocated for his father’s job as a research scientist in dermatology, Sisley is of Lithuanian and Belarusian ancestry on his father’s side and Yemeni heritage on his mother’s. His parents met as schoolmates in Ramat Gan, Israel, and after they split up, he moved to southern France with his father, who was offered a position there.

Sisley wanted to become an actor ever since he saw Burt Lancaster in the Western “Vera Cruz” (1954), when he was 7. Later, he studied the craft for 10 years before landing roles in French films and TV, most recently in the series “Philharmonia” and “Balthazar,” in which he plays the title role and recently directed an episode. He’s currently writing a script for another French TV series. Sisley also has a background in stand-up comedy and hopes to express his lighter side in a romantic comedy down the line. 

Otherwise, he is open to what comes next, and is ready to go anywhere for the right role. “Most of the interesting shows are not shot in Los Angeles. I’m not sure you have to live here,” he said. Although “Messiah” is his highest-profile role so far, he doesn’t consider it his big break. “I don’t know if I’ve had it yet,” he said.

“Messiah” is streaming now on Netflix.