In Kathryn Bigelow's 'Zero Dark Thirty,' Israeli actor Yoav Levi steps into shoes of senior al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Faraj al-Libbi. 'A bin Laden can emerge from the Hilltop Youth as well,' he says. 'Extremism is a universal language'
VIDEO - Israeli actor Yoav Levi got a phone call from his agent one day. "I've been approached by a production abroad, and they want you to audition for a film," she said.
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Although he did not have any details about the film or its makers, he shot an audition tape using the text from "All the President's Men," according to the production's instructions. And then he forgot all about it.
Levi was reminded of that audition when he was informed that he had made it to the next stage, and later on to the final group of candidates. And yet he still had not a single piece of information about the project.
Yoav Levi. Mysterious audition on the way to Hollywood (Photo: Yaron Brener)
Several weeks later, on a Thursday night, while watching the Sports Channel, he received a surprise phone call from a nice British woman. "Would you be able to get on a flight to Amman tomorrow afternoon? The directors want to meet you," she said.
Naturally, he immediately said yes. The fears began later. After a sleepless night, he got on the plane.
"Once I was on the plane, I said to myself: 'You idiot, what are you doing? You get on a flight to Jordan
just because someone asked you to?' I began thinking that it was an al-Qaeda
"At the airport, surrounded by hundreds of Muslims with beards and kaffiyehs, my whole body was trembling. A driver picked me up the Intercontinental Hotel in a luxury car, and I remembered that this was the hotel where Mossad agents stayed during the failed assassination of (Hamas
politburo chief) Khaled Mashaal. And then I began thinking about all kinds of conspiracies of a symbolic act of revenge."
Yoav Levi opens 'Zero Dark Thirty' trailer
When the stressed Levi arrived at the hotel, he went up to his room and locked it as a preventive measure against a potential abduction. "Will you calm down already?" he said to himself in a desperate attempt to reduce the pressure, and fell asleep.
He woke up to the sound of the phone ringing. It was casting director Gail Stevens. An hour later, the two went out to an unknown destination in the city. "She said something to me about a Kathryn and Mark, but I was so stressed out I wasn't listening to her. I didn't understand what she was talking about. I was in shock."
Eventually the two arrived at a huge villa in one of Amman's rich neighborhoods. Levi was led into an underground hall with a chair, flashlight and camera in the center.
"I said to myself, okay, they're going to behead me and post the video on YouTube," Levi jokes.
As he was bidding farewell to the world, the door opened and a tall man and woman entered. "That's when it hit me. Suddenly it all made sense and I realized who those people were."
Those people were Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the makers of "Zero Dark Thirty," which dramatizes the hunt for Osama bin Laden and includes quite a few suspenseful scenes like the process Levi went through.
"I suddenly got kicked in my brain, and the fears were replaced with others: 'Oh dear, it's them.' I was about to faint," he recalls. "They noticed it, calmed me down, and within minutes explained what the film was about and how I fit in. I couldn't believe what I was hearing."
'Zero Dark Thirty' director Kathryn Bigelow in action
The conversation later began to flow and became more pleasant. Levi told director Bigelow and screenwriter Boal about his excitement over their 2009 Oscar-winning film "The Hurt Locker," and they expressed an interest in his resume and said they were very impressed by his filmed audition.
They took the opportunity to read the film's interrogation scene which he auditioned for, and once it was over, to his amazement, Bigelow informed him: "You're in, the part is yours."
Levi found it difficult to hold back the tears. "It was a moment of pure joy," he admits.
Yoav Faraj al-Libbi
The role Bigelow and Boal wanted Levi to play was Abu Faraj al-Libbi,
better known as "al-Qaeda's No. 3." In the film he is mentioned as a key figure in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and during the search he is caught by the American security forces and interrogated.
One of the reasons why Levi drew the attention of Bigelow and Boal was his striking resemblance to the arch-terrorist – at least before he lost weight and had his face destroyed by the fists of his American captors in Guantanamo.
Spot the differences: Yoav Levi and Abu Faraj al-Libbi (Photo: Reuters)
"I was surprised by how similar we look," says Levi, adding that Bigelow claimed the resemblance between them was beyond physical and that the two shared similar energies.
Levi, an esteemed theater, television and film actor is not insulted: "These are shepherds, cavemen, and I really wasn't surprised. I am totally a caveman," he jokes.
"One has to be realistic – I'll never be cast as Brad Pitt's brother. One has to be able to play a variety of characters, but here there was a match. Indeed, as an Israeli actor I would like to break the glass ceiling of terrorist roles, but I'm ready to play Arabs in Hollywood from now rill the day I die – terrorists and non-terrorists, all the types of Arabs in the world. I can play other characters too, but that's what I am, a type of Arab-Jew."
Yoav Levi as Abu Faraj al-Libbi in 'Zero Dark Thirty'
Wasn't it hard for you to play someone responsible for the murder of so many people?
"People always say, 'Don't judge your character.' In this case I encountered difficulties. We are talking about a radical person who hates America. On the other hand, he's a brilliant man. He was a 'big shot' in what he did. There is some sort of pride here.
"I think he was kind of autistic. He reminded me of Eichmann, a kind of very good worker who rose to fame. He was the mastermind. When you try to understand such a person, you must put aside everything you know about al-Qaeda. Portray the person, not the organization. And as far as he was concerned, he was a good person."
Levi graduated from an elite IDF unit, and he says that his military background – which was the richest among the actors on the set – presented a new layer to his portrayal of Abu Faraj.
"It's kind of paradoxical. I have shot and killed people like him, and suddenly I find myself playing such a guy," he says. "As a soldier, when you look at them through viewfinders, you don't see human beings, you see targets. A piece of meat you must hit. And when it happens, you're satisfied.
"Suddenly, you're playing the enemy, you see yourself with that beard, and you say to yourself that you could have been born in a poor neighborhood in Baghdad, and you don't know what you would have done in their place."
Yoav Levi and Jason Clarke in 'Zero Dark Thirty'
"In general, I think that people are not attentive enough to their surroundings. Instead of understanding the other side, we are stuck in a circle of an infinite reaction. There must be another way. It's not that Hamas are Disney characters, but as a start we can stop controlling other people.
"In our eyes, a million and a half Palestinians are not human beings – like a million and a half potatoes. We suppress. Extremism is a universal language. A bin Laden can emerge from the Hilltop Youth
as well. Both we and the Arabs must pay attention to them."
Levi doesn't get much screen time, but among huge cast of "Zero Dark Thirty" not many actors have major roles. Even big stars like Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler and others are playing supporting roles alongside the film's leading lady – the CIA agent portrayed by Jessica Chastain.
As Abu Faraj, Levi is interrogated by Chastain and an American soldier beating him up. "While working on the scene, we realized that what enrages Abu Faraj more than anything is the fact that a woman is interrogating him and controlling the situation."
Levi admits he was excited working with Chastain, who despite being the film's star is "shy and modest." He says he is proud to be part of this ensemble. "James Gandolfini and I got the same screen time. He is my idol, and it's definitely a source of pride. I feel I belong to a team of the best."
Yoav Levi and film's cast
While they were filming in India, Levi says, cast members met between unrelated scenes shot in the same location. "It was a sort of summer camp," he says, recounting conversations about football with Kyle Chandler ("he was shocked to meet an Israeli with such a knowledge of that American sport") and hikes with Jason Clarke.
A less pleasant part in his relationship with Clarke was the torture scene, in which Levi was hung upside down with a towel on his face, and Clarke (who plays a CIA investigator) poured a large container of water all over him – a form of torture known as "waterboarding."
"I was terrified about this scene," says Levi. "I felt the water on my face and I had never been so afraid in my whole life. It's torture from hell. You're not really drowning, but you feel like you're suffocating, and it won't stop. It was difficult; I thought I was going to die. But I kept going, and then I was beaten up in the interrogation.
"I didn't feel that the torture scene had any special value on the set, but it's possible that as an Israeli I was insensitive to it. It may have seemed like a serious matter to the Europeans and Americans on the team. I think that John McCain and the other critics are pretending to be naïve. The quotes are not the figment of Bigelow and Boal's wild imagination. They are based on CIA agents' testimonies. The politicians should back the agents. Sometimes you must get your hands dirty to protect us.
"And besides, when you choose to be a radical Islamist, take into account that one day they'll capture you and beat the hell out of you and maybe even electrocute you. I have no problem with that. I don't understand what the outrage is all about."
Yoav Levi jokingly practicing torture
Levi grew up Ramat Gan's Ramat Amidar neighborhood, known primarily for its criminal associations. After completing his military service as an elite unit fighter, he had a career in the defense services planned for himself. However, during the traditional "after-the-army trip" abroad, he underwent a process of self-discovery which drove him away from the security-related career.
"My mind opened up, I discovered imagination and the world stimulated me," he recalls.
When his father was diagnosed with cancer, he returned to Israel.
"My father's death was a great shock. He was a dominant character. It created a void. I'm a strong person, but I realized I had to do something with my life."
He discovered acting in an unexpected way. In the midst of an argument about football in a café, he was approached by actor Moni Moshonov, who just happened to be there. "He asked me, 'Have you ever thought of being an actor?' and said I had the energies of an actor and that I should do something about it. I felt like someone had told me the secret of life.
"The next day I ran to Beit Zvi (acting school) and registered. If Moni hadn't said anything, it wouldn't have happened. I didn't have any background. He just told me, 'It's your sickness, take care of it.' It's funny."
Yoav Levi. Potential spotted by Moni Moshonov (Photo: Yaron Brener)
Well, Moni was right, and he made sure of that when he arrived to watch Levi's final show at the school. Levi's acting career took him to the Cameri Theater, where he performed in "Hamlet," "Working Class Hero," "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," and now in "Little Man, What Now?" He also made several appearances on television and in films, but admits that the theater remains his root.
A boy from the block who fought in Lebanon finds himself in the theater, which is perceived by many in the Israeli public as elitist. It's kind of weird, isn't it?
"People should be happy that there is someone in the Cameri who acknowledges my talent and doesn't check where I came from or what my skin color is. The fact that I grew up in a certain neighborhood and went to the army means that I'm not entitled to my own opinions? If there's an elephant in the room, I'm supposed to not see it?
"I am who I am, and I'm not trying to be Ashkenazi, and whoever thinks that way has no support for my attempt to fulfill myself. Coming here from the place I came from is not obvious. Being a hoodlum is survival. What will you do, become a lawyer? There are no resources or education. I learned from reading books."
The government doesn't really encourage people like you.
"It's a bad thing when government officials in a democratic country lash out at those expressing legitimate criticism. It's very dangerous. A democracy must also fund self criticism. If we keep nurturing the national pride, where will it take us as a society?"
"I'm pleased about the elections – after many years of depression, in which I couldn't understand people in Israel. I asked myself why can't they understand that it's bad and difficult here, and still elect a rightist-haredi government systematically. Are these the smart Jews?
"I'm happy because there is some hope. My faith in this place, in this nation, has been restored. I love it and I feel proud, because there was a strong statement that seeks a normal life without all the bullshit. And I'm glad that Bibi
got a little blow. He's still in control but is no longer sitting on the throne."
Yoav Levi and friends in battlefield in India
Is there anything our politicians can learn from 'Zero Dark Thirty'?
"I can tell you what I've learned: Don’t mess with the Americans. People really like lamenting them recently, but they're still here, and they're strong and professional, and when they decide on something they get it. I hope all Israelis understand that."
So in retrospect, it was worth taking the risk and flying to Jordan.
"For sure. I got to work with an Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and photographer. Even if my entire scene had been cut out, it would have been worth it."