‘Ready to play Arabs till the day I die’
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’
Published: 03.09.13, 07:55 Israel Culture
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.
Spot the differences: Yoav Levi and Abu Faraj al-Libbi (Photo: Reuters)
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 till 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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”