April 19, 2019

Lior Ashkenazi Goes International

Lior Ashkenazi, a three-time winner of an Ophir Award from the Israeli Academy of Film and Television, is a big star in Israel with films such as “Footnote,” “Walk on Water” and “Late Marriage” to his credit. Now, with three new films in or soon coming to theaters, the 48-year-old actor is receiving international acclaim as well.

His latest Ophir was for his performance in “Foxtrot,” as a father who receives the devastating news that his soldier son has been killed in action. Ashkenazi called the role “The most difficult thing I have ever done in my career.”

“Everybody in Israel knows someone who lost a member of his family, in a war or terror attacks. The grief, unfortunately, is surrounding us,” Ashkenazi said in an interview via Skype. “The most difficult thing for me [in the “Foxtrot” role] was trying to deliver the sorrow. I thought that maybe I could try do it physically. So, I didn’t sleep for two days before the first shooting day. And it worked. It was like vertigo. There was no time and space. Everything was almost in slow motion.”

He kept up the sleep deprivation on shooting days — sleeping only on weekends — and wore no makeup on set. “What you see in the first act of the movie is for real. Maybe I went too far,” he said.

Ashkenazi can also be seen portraying former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in “7 Days in Entebbe,” a film about Israel’s mission to rescue hijacked plane hostages from a Ugandan airfield in 1976.

“I didn’t sleep for two days before the first shooting day. And it worked. It was like vertigo. There was no time and space. Everything was almost in slow motion.” — Lior Ashkenazi

For Ashkenazi, who played a fictional Israeli prime minister in “Norman” (2016) opposite Richard Gere, playing a national icon like Rabin was daunting.

“I couldn’t ignore the burden on my shoulders,” he said. “And I didn’t want to imitate him, as in a sketch. So, I tried to find nuances, like his smoking. He smoked three packs per day. And I talked to his staff and watched a lot of footage, including home videos. The [Rabin] family helped a lot.”

Ashkenazi’s newest release, “Shelter,” is an espionage thriller in which he plays an Israeli intelligence agent. The film’s director, Eran Riklis, gave him his first TV role more than 20 years ago. “He’s brilliant and made a wonderful adaptation of the story,” the actor said. “I couldn’t resist.”

Ashkenazi was born in Ramat Gan to parents who came from Istanbul, Turkey, in 1964 “and brought with them all the Sephardic traditions. My mother tongue is Ladino. I see myself first as an Israeli,” said the married father of two daughters. “I’m Jewish mainly when I’m abroad. We do celebrate the holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover — but not in a religious way, more like as a tradition of our people.”

Until a few years ago, Ashkenazi was primarily a stage actor, but he’s now concentrating on movies, and writing and directing for the theater, with the occasional TV project. He’s currently shooting the music drama series “The Conductor,” playing the title role. He’s next set to shoot “Esau,” based on the Meir Shalev novel, with Harvey Keitel; and “My Zoe,” written, directed and starring Julie Delpy, in the fall. And he has plans to direct a new play at Habima, the national theater of Israel.

For Ashkenazi, an increasing involvement in international projects “is more challenging for me, dealing with a foreign language and breaking my usual routine,” he said. But he’s ready for whatever the future has in store for him. “I’m always looking forward.”

“Foxtrot” and “7 Days in Entebbe” are in theaters now. “Shelter” opens April 6 at the Laemmle Town Center 5, Monica and Ahrya Fine Arts theaters; and April 7 at the Laemmle Playhouse 7.