December 11, 2018

Mark Ivanir Lives for Shady Characters

Portraying spies, thugs and other shady characters has its consequences. Just ask Mark Ivanir, whose character, Russian intelligence agent Ivan Krupin, made his final exit from “Homeland” this month.

“I’ve died dozens of times,” Ivanir told the Journal. “This was the first time I died in a body bag thrown into a river.”

He has the face for playing tough guys, he said, as his new role as a sadistic Chechen enforcer in the HBO dark comedy series “Barry” confirms.

The 49-year-old versatile Russian-Israeli actor also can be seen as Israeli Lt. Gen. Mordechai “Motta” Gur in the film “7 Days in Entebbe,” about the raid to rescue hostages from Uganda in 1976. And he has shown his comedic side as an Israeli security guard in the fourth season of “Transparent” and a talent agent in the Israeli sitcom “Beauty and the Baker,” now streaming on Amazon Prime.

That series made Ivanir famous in Israel, where he’s regularly hugged and stopped for selfies. In Asia, he’s recognized for the hit martial arts films “Undisputed 2” and “Undisputed 3.” He has played numerous Jewish characters, including a Holocaust survivor in “Bye Bye Germany” and Marcel Goldberg in “Schindler’s List.” The latter role helped him get his work visa and an American agent. “Had I not done it,” Ivanir said, “I wouldn’t have stayed in L.A.”

The son of language teacher parents, Ivanir was born in Chernivtsi, in what is now Ukraine and raised with no connection to Judaism. That changed when his family moved to Israel in 1972 and he was exposed to Jewish studies. “I loved reading the Bible,” he recalled.

Today, he’s “culturally” Jewish. He’s hosting a seder for Israeli and non-Israeli friends this year with Maya, his wife of nearly 25 years, and daughters Daniella, 16, and Sasha, 13.

“I’ve died dozens of times. This was the first time I died in a body bag thrown into a river.” — Mark Ivanir

Ivanir met Maya, an interior designer, when she came to see her friend’s husband play Guildenstern in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” at Tel Aviv’s Gesher Theater. Ivanir, a founding member of the theater, played Rosencrantz.

“I knew that I was going to become an actor since I was 5. I think it’s somewhat genetic,” Ivanir said. His maternal grandfather was a writer and actor in Yiddish theater, and his father acted a bit, as well.

Trained in clowning at a circus school, Ivanir worked in a French circus before returning to Israel to study at the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio. He speaks fluent French and German in addition to Hebrew, Russian and English — a big advantage in landing roles internationally, he said.

He has a top-secret project he’ll begin shooting in May, and has completed work on “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” from writer-director Gideon Raff, the creator of the Israeli series on which “Homeland” is based. Named for the Mossad’s (Israel’s intelligence agency) secret base of operations, the film is about the covert mission to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel in May 1991.

For Ivanir, who served as an intelligence operative in the Israel Defense Forces, playing Mossad chief Barack Isaacs was all too real. “I was on a few of these flights,” he said. “I had shivers shooting the scenes because it was so close to how it was.”

In the future, Ivanir would love to work with Steven Spielberg and Robert De Niro again, and Martin Scorsese, “all the legends.” He looks for well-written parts, a fresh take on a story, the opportunity to change his looks for a character, and the opportunity to move between comedy and drama in something he hasn’t done before.

“I don’t like to repeat myself,” he said. “When you work for a long time, you look for things that excite you. I’m excited about the project that hasn’t happened yet.”

“Barry” airs Sundays on HBO.