"This will do. There's a little bit of air here," says Igal Naor, pointing at a table in the busy Tel Aviv cafe. The shade-hunting is over, the sizzling heat is still on. I am looking at the smiling, jovial man in Gandhi glasses sitting in front of me, trying to discern the features so familiar from news coverage of the past few decades: that of Saddam Hussein.
Naor has earned rave reviews for his portrayal of the Iraqi dictator in the HBO-BBC mini series "House of Saddam," aired in August in the U.K. And the Israeli actor has made no secret of the fact that playing Saddam was something he had long yearned to do.
"In 1991, during the Gulf War, Saddam fired missiles at Tel Aviv and one of them fell very near my house. It was a disaster. I had my three children and the youngest was two years old, and we hurried to put the gas masks on the children.
"I was not afraid to die; after all I had been through in the 1982 Lebanon War, I'd been beyond death. It was the children. I was very afraid for them. We were watching Saddam on the news and I remember telling myself, 'One day, I'll play this character.' Something in him attracted me in a magnetizing way and I don't know for what reason. I have never wanted to play Hamlet but I always wanted to play Saddam. There was something that drew me towards him. I even wanted to write a script about him but I never completed it. The story was about Saddam and his double - he had many doubles - and I am still fascinated by the process of how someone actually becomes someone else."
Naor was born in Tel Aviv to a family of Iraqi Jews. He is fluent in Arabic and when he speaks of his Iraqi heritage, his voice fills with emotion.
"My roots are Arabic. It wasn't easy in Israel back then. I remember when I was a child, 40, 45 years ago, if you had come from a Middle Eastern country, like Iraq or Morocco, you were called by names, you were not worth the same as the European Jews. It was hard. It is still hard today for some people, mainly outside Tel Aviv.
"I grew up with my Iraqi grandmother, and for the first five years of my life I spoke only Arabic. I was a big, black boy, a fat boy, like a big chocolate ball. I was about ten or twelve, repairing my bicycle in the courtyard and apparently I was making some noise because our neighbor shouted out to me, 'You, little Frenkala' [a derogatory term for Middle Eastern Jews] and that meant you are a dirty little monkey who doesn't know how to behave. I was furious. I had a hammer in my hand so I threw it at him. He went to the hospital and my father had to go and apologize to him. But if someone said these words to me today, I would throw that hammer again. This anger, this passion drove me towards acting. Knowing that you don't belong, knowing that you are not understood. It is like a big black hole inside you, wanting to swallow up everything. There is something in you that yearns for recognition, for delivery, for understanding, for self-expression. To be on top, to be strong, and not to be the underdog, never again. I didn't want a normal life. My father was an accountant so I was pushed to become an accountant but I simply couldn't do it. I wanted to be different and I became an actor."
For many, it seemed a curious move to cast an Israeli actor for the role of Saddam. Naor frowns as he sips his coffee. "Listen, I don't believe in countries, I don't believe in religions, I don't believe in anything but people. How can an Israeli empathize with an enemy of Israel? This question can only lead to more war - not to peace, not to understanding. It also shows a complete lack of understanding of what an actor or what acting is. Is it written on my forehead that I am an Israeli?
"Yes, I am an Israeli citizen, I was born a Jew, I live in Israel, but, first of all, I am an actor. When the camera rolls, the rest does not matter. When I am playing a character, I do not care about politics. It is art. The man is dead and buried. Half of the Arabs in the world admire Saddam, half of them don't. Why do I need to judge him? I remember, during the shooting in Tunisia, where I was walking dressed as Saddam around the set, you know, with my wig and my moustache on, people, locals were coming up to me and asked for my blessing. 'Good luck with the war,' they said, 'Give us your blessing'. So I blessed them in Iraqi Arabic. It was fascinating but I always remembered I am an actor, playing Saddam. I am not here to judge. The biggest mistake an actor can make is to judge the character he's playing."
"Saddam..." Naor wonders, blowing some smoke up at the sky. "Let me tell you a story. In the winter I was shooting Green Zone with director Paul Greengrass in London. We were sitting in the freezing cold, in this huge, old sugar factory. There was a man, an extra on the set, a thin and short, 40-something Iraqi guy living in London, who came up to me and asked me about my portrayal of Saddam. He wanted to know if I played him as an evil person or not. I answered him that I wanted to play him with respect and for me, as an actor, Saddam was a tragic character. He became extremely agitated and gave me a very emotional monologue that lasted for half an hour; he kept repeating, 'He was a coward' more than 20 times. He finished his speech in tears, crying like a baby, and I was stunned. I said to myself, 'Here, in this old English sugar factory, you've just witnessed the most extraordinary outburst of emotion about a man and his country, his people, and the religion he belongs to.'
"I will always remember that little man when I need to portray such a powerful emotion. This is human suffering. Maybe he was frustrated by the way Saddam was captured and humiliated. Maybe his family was killed by Saddam's people. I don't know. But especially as an Israeli, as a Jew, I cannot remain numb in face of suffering, even if it is the suffering of a country counted as enemy."
And what is Naor's take on the fallen Iraqi ruler? "He was a leader. Good or bad, for the people or against the people, murderer, a monster, anything; he was a leader. Only now the West begins to understand what a complex task it is to lead a country like Iraq. You have the Shi'a, the Sunni, the Kurds, the Assyrians... all these people are Iraq and they have been fighting each other for so many years. Only a powerful leader could rule a nation so diverse. At the beginning of his rule and during the years when he served as vice president of Iraq, he even earned a prestigious award from UNESCO for his work in health care and education. At the time he was seen as a rising star in the sky of the Middle East.
"Then he came to power, went to war with Iran, damaged the economy, and destroyed everything. When I got the role, I had one month to do some research, some reading. And I realized that thanks to the media I had had no idea of who this person was. What do ordinary people, like you and me, know of Saddam? You hear his name and you immediately think of the images you saw on the news, of the dictator, the butcher, the criminal, and yes, he was all these things, but he was so much more. The real picture is always more complex than one would think."
When a few weeks ago the four episodes of House of Saddam were aired on BBC 2, the British critics showered their praises on Naor; his nuanced performance has been likened to that of Forest Whitaker playing Idi Amin, Uganda's brutal dictator of the 1970s.
"I did not want to imitate Saddam. I grew the moustache and put on the wig because, as you can see, I'm bald in real life, but that was it. I also refused to imitate his voice or to do much of the typical images you got used to - Saddam walking around, waving to his people, or giving a speech with a rifle in his hand? All I did was to work with my eyes. Our eyes are very similar, you could cut and paste my eyes onto his face with a computer and you would see. These are the eyes of Saddam... Playing this character was like swimming in waters so thick and full of taste that you could almost take a bite of this water and chew it. Finding someone inside you, someone so big, so controversial, and so complex - it makes you feel that you are not so small. What more could an actor ask for?"
House of Saddam is just one of Naor's international projects. After two decades of memorable performances on stage and on Israeli television, his first mega movie came in 2005 with Steven Spielberg's dramatic account of terrorism and revenge, Munich.
"You know, I never looked for it, never wanted it. I had a wonderful career in the theater and for many years I avoided cinema. One day I got a call from my Israeli agent, telling me, 'Oh, congratulations, they want you.' 'Who wants me?' 'Don't you remember two years ago you did an audition?' And that was Munich, that was Spielberg. They did a lot of rewrites on the script so the production was delayed and by the time they got back to me I didn't even remember that audition. I went to shoot my scenes to Budapest. It was unbelievable, that production. I was amazed by the professionalism, by all the care and money that went into that movie. They recreated Paris in the heart of Budapest and they would erect two huge cranes just to perfect that little glimpse of light that was supposed to be seen from outside the window... that's art!"
A year later Naor was offered a central role in Gavin Hood's Rendition and the ball started rolling. Currently he is still working on Greengrass's Green Zone starring Matt Damon, but does not seem to worry too much about his schedule.
"I am 50 years old. I have achieved everything I wanted. I don't need money and I don't need to work on productions that I wouldn't want to be part of. Just recently I have refused a movie because it was definitely anti-Israeli. They wanted to depict Israel as this big bully attacking poor, innocent Palestinians. I'm not a big defender of Israel's policy and I fought for the rights of my Palestinian brothers and friends long before it was fashionable, but I don't like one-sided interpretations. So I said 'no'. For the first time in my life, I don't know and I don't really care where my path takes me. I used to work really hard, in a systematic, very disciplined way, for 25 years. Now, I want my life back. I'm going to have a grandchild in a few months, and when you ask me, what's next, well, that's my answer. I'm going to be a grandfather."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now