A Whale of a Time

Yair Lotan has never met Madonna. The report that he was indirectly connected to her just-announced divorce struck him like a bolt out of the blue.

Doron Halutz
Doron Halutz
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Doron Halutz
Doron Halutz

Yair Lotan has never met Madonna. The report that he was indirectly connected to her just-announced divorce struck him like a bolt out of the blue. The American magazine Us Weekly reported in its November 3 cover story on the singer's divorce from British film director Guy Ritchie, and mentioned Ritchie's new romance with British actress Kelly Reilly, who has a part in his new film, "Sherlock Holmes." But the report omitted one little fact: Reilly is already engaged - to Yair (Jonah) Lotan. The tabloid did, however, run a retraction in this week's issue, stating: "There is and has been no romantic relationship between Kelly Reilly and Guy Ritchie. We apologize for any embarrassment caused to Ms. Reilly in our original report."

Other actors might have seized the chance to be interviewed in front of any available microphone, but Lotan - who had threatened to take the magazine to court - didn't feel like it. He and Reilly met in a New York restaurant two years ago. "I was there with friends and I saw this amazing woman, who was giggling the whole evening at the table next to mine," Lotan recounts dryly. "She was there with friends. I went up to her and introduced myself, and apparently it worked."

Wasn't it tough to suddenly read in the paper that your fiancee is having an affair with Madonna's soon-to-be ex, and you didn't know anything about it?

Lotan: "Come on, it's just stupid."

Is there smoke without fire?

"Don't insult me."

What did you think when you saw it?

"That the only thing that interests the newspapers is selling more newspapers, and not people's lives."

Were you offended?

"Why should I be? Today's papers are just used to wrap tomorrow's fish."

Have you ever met Guy Ritchie in connection with his work with Kelly?

"Guy is not a friend of hers, she's just making a movie with him. And no, I don't have tea with Madonna every Monday either."

In recent years, Lotan has become one of the most prominent Israeli actors on American television. Unlike other local celebs who migrated to Los Angeles with much fanfare and then continued to report from there on every tiny scene they appeared in, Lotan, 35, pretty much disappeared from Israeli entertainment columns at the beginning of the decade, only to reemerge once he'd managed to establish a career for himself, with substantial roles in acclaimed series like "24" (as double agent Spenser Wolff) and "CSI."

Lotan is currently back in Israel on vacation to visit family and friends, as he tries to do every three or four months. When here, he divides his time between his apartment in Tel Aviv's trendy Sheinkin area and his family home in Jerusalem. He will then fly to New York, to appear in the leading role in an HBO pilot called "Last of the Ninth." Meanwhile, he's added another entry to his resume: a role in the miniseries "Generation Kill," which will be aired locally on Yes starting this week. The seven-episode series was broadcast in the United States over the summer and earned glowing reviews.

Army experience

"Generation Kill" is the work of David Simon and Ed Burns, creators of "The Wire," which many television devotees consider the best show of all time. It's based on a book by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, who was embedded with a unit of the U.S. Marines in the initial stages of the Iraq war. Lotan plays medic Timothy Bryan, and his name appears near the beginning of the credits, after actors like Lee Tergesen, who starred in "Oz."

Lotan says he was cast in the series back in 2006, but then HBO suspended work on it because it was rumored to be subversive and unpatriotic. "Then came the big change in the Senate. The Democrats won a majority and suddenly the series was given the green light. I don't know if it's really connected, that's just my theory. But the United States passed a turning point and now, after [President George] Bush forbade showing coffins of troops from Iraq, it's okay to criticize the war and you will not be told that you're unpatriotic."

Filming took place from May to December 2007, in the deserts of Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique. "It was very intensive," Lotan explains. "We shot six days a week, 12 hours a day. For a month and a half, we shot from the evening until the morning and I barely saw daylight. For almost that entire time, I lived alone there. My girlfriend joined me after a few weeks. She spent a month with me in Namibia and then returned to London."

Does the series have importance solely on the artistic level? I thought you were actually referring to the political context, since it throws the failures of the war in Iraq squarely in the face of the comfortable, bourgeois, HBO-watching American public.

"From their earlier works, you can see that Simon and Burns have clear political views, but they didn't involve us in that. What they sought to do with this series was to show what happens to 20 guys whose unit is sent to Iraq."

Dozens of actors stuck in the desert in Africa and spending almost the whole day together created a dynamic like that of Marines stuck in Iraq?

"It was a fantastic experience. And it is like military service in that you're involved in everyone's lives, you know who's having a tough time or an easy time, who broke up with his girlfriend, whose girlfriend is cheating on him. A person's real personality comes out, too, because you can't fool people for seven months. But we're not a Marines unit. We slept in hotels, even if the conditions weren't always that great. The work itself was very intensive and contributed to the overall feeling. You have to be in every scene since people in the Jeep convoy go together, so everyone is filmed for almost everything."

Some of the cast talked with the soldiers upon whom their characters were based, and two former Marines were hired to assist with the production. They ran a two-week training camp for the actors, plus field exercises with the Jeeps and three fitness sessions per day throughout the period of filming.

"There was a sense of esprit de corps among the cast," says Lotan. "We started thinking like soldiers. I haven't been in such good shape since I was 18."

Did your army service in the Paratroops help you get into the part?

"The American army works differently, so if it helped, it was just a little."

During his childhood, Lotan went back and forth between Jerusalem and New York, because of the doctoral studies of his father, a psychologist, and of his mother, a physician who is now a director at a pharmaceutical company. He has two sisters: The youngest is about to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, and the other is in the United States pursuing a doctorate in psychology. When he was 12, the family returned to Israel. He graduated from the Hebrew University Secondary School in Jerusalem.

In his early twenties, Lotan embarked on a brief modeling career and had several stints as a host on children's TV shows on Channel 1. As he studied toward a degree in cinema at Tel Aviv University, he also acted in the telenovela "Kesef katlani" ("Lethal Money") and the children's musical "Hakol agada" ("Everything is a Fairy Tale") with Michal Yanai. "Being in an Israeli telenovela is an experience akin to doing a musical in front of 2,000 people four times a day. It's experience, regardless of what you think of the content or the level of acting," Lotan notes.

But just when it seemed that his stock in the local glamour industry was about to take off, he decided to go to London to get a master's degree in acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). "They told me that registration was closed. I convinced them to give me a chance. They told me I was accepted, but for the next year. I kept on pressing and they let me start that year. I decided to go on a Monday, and on Thursday I was there."

What was your goal in moving to London?

"To study theater. I had enough savings from my work in Israel to pay for my education. My English was good, but not good enough to work as an actor. I still made mistakes here and there, you could still hear my accent and I wasn't comfortable with acting in the language. You spend days there holding a small mirror up to your mouth and watching which way your tongue goes, and then trying to change the angle of the tongue. If you want to work not just on projects that are looking for a foreigner, you have to learn to speak in any accent that's asked of you. Playing with the angle of your tongue is how you do that. It's a way to improve a work tool."

After his studies, Lotan was offered a role in the movie "Swimming Pool," which was shot in Prague. "A horror film filled with actors fresh out of acting school," is how he describes it. "After that, there was a television series and a play, a pretty good start. But then there was the long strike by the U.S. Screen Actors Guild, and apart from theater, hardly anything was being produced in London, because some of the productions are dependent on projects that come from America. I had half a year where I had several jobs and then half a year where I didn't work at all. The way I survived was always keeping busy by creating content on my own, doing independent productions with friends, and by drinking a lot of coffee in a lot of cafes. You learn to wait."

Lotan waited and in the meantime supported himself by working as a waiter, teaching Hebrew and writing for newspapers in Israel. He also auditioned for American productions that were searching for actors in London.

Lotan: "At one point, I was offered a role that I didn't want to turn down - the lead in an American sitcom called 'Four Kings.' I flew to Los Angeles and within two days, the project was canceled. It turned out to be a big gift, because it quickly taught me that I was in a new world with new rules, and that I had to learn how to survive in it. In London, acting comes out of a rich history of theater, so there is respect for the actor, for the play, for the script. Hollywood is like the Wall Street of the entertainment world. The rules are all about business, first of all. I was stunned. For 24 hours after they told me, I was speechless. You're in Los Angeles, alone, you don't know anyone, and some polite assistant calls to tell you that you need to vacate the hotel room by 2 P.M. Los Angeles is full of such horror stories."

Later on, he got the chance to shoot another pilot in Los Angeles, after which he waited about half a year to see whether it would turn into a series or be dropped. There was no way to know: "Out of five that are picked up, only two survive for another season. On any given day, some guy in a suit can come and tell you that you're too tall or too short, that the series 'doesn't interest us' or that the series 'really interests us, but without you in it.' But actors are emotional in their thinking, not businesslike. The number of actors in L.A. who break down because of this is tremendous."

You never had any moments of crisis?

"Beckett had a line that was on a poster in our house in London. It said: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'"

Not a party animal

Not long after the disappointment of "Four Kings," Lotan was cast for a part in seven episodes of the fifth season of the hit series "24." He stayed in L.A., though the adjustment wasn't easy: "It was kind of a tough time. I didn't know anyone in L.A. and I stayed home a lot. It's not a city like New York, where you can just go out and walk the streets and meet people, go to galleries. Life was very lonely. Los Angeles is also on the other side of the world. When you're waking up, people in Israel are going to bed and vice versa. It really makes you feel far away from Israel. But you get used to it. In time, you get to know people on the set and to know places in California. This was about the time I found the right school for yoga, when I went rock-climbing in the area, and I discovered other Israelis in the city through the Israeli makeup artist on '24.'"

Is there a decadent side to life in Los Angeles?

"I think I'm pretty boring compared to the kind of stories you're imagining. There are drugs in L.A., just like there are in Tel Aviv and London and New York, but not in my world. Los Angeles is a fairly dull city in terms of going out. At 10, everyone's already starting to get ready for bed. There's not that much nightlife in the city. The purpose of Los Angeles is to create a fantasy and it does this very well. When you see the red carpet at the Oscars, you don't know that most of the time the street out there looks like Allenby Street, full of drab and ugly tourist shops."

So what's an average day like for a rising star?

"I get up at 7 or 8 A.M., do a half hour of meditation and go out for a morning run. And I do the same thing at night before going to sleep. One of the dangers for actors is to get up at 11 and drink coffee until 3 P.M. When I get back from my run, it depends on what's on the schedule. Sometimes scripts arrive, so I make breakfast and read them. I talk with agents and sometimes I have meetings or auditions. On days when I don't have those things, I work with a group of actors on the projects that we're developing. You try to keep busy because it's healthier for the mind and body. Three times a week I do yoga. I go to bed around 11 at night. In New York and Tel Aviv I go to bed later."

How connected are you in Los Angeles? How long would it take you to get Madonna's phone number?

"Megan, who's a good friend of ours, once did a play with Madonna. I could call Megan and ask her if Madonna happened to leave her number. But I'm not interested in meeting Madonna. I'd rather meet Martin Scorsese."

And how long would it take you to get his number?

"I have no way to get it. And even if I did get hold of Scorsese, what would I say to him? 'Ahlan, Scorsese'?"

I'm trying to get a sense of what the social network is like for an actor who is establishing himself in Los Angeles.

"The more respected you are in L.A. and the more your projects are watched, the more doors open to you in the city. It could happen through social connections, too, but I don't have any. A production can be very intimate, but when it's over, the people move on. Actors are lone wolves, and they roam from project to project. I'm that way, too. The next project could be in Germany or in Israel, and it's hard to keep in touch. It's not a normal life. Kiefer Sutherland and I were friendly during the filming of '24,' but not afterward. He's a very nice guy, but he zealously guards his privacy. There are work friends and there are friend friends. I don't have Kiefer's phone number, but if I have something I think will interest him, I'll be able to find a way to relay it to him and he would know who I am."

On the streets of L.A., do people know who you are? Do you get recognized? Harassed? Asked for autographs?

"Not in Los Angeles or Tel Aviv."

When he is told that the paparazzi were photographing him with Kelly in Tel Aviv, Lotan looks surprised. "I didn't know they were taking my picture there. The paparazzi in Israel are an imitation of an unnecessary phenomenon from abroad, and it's ridiculous because the radius here is so much smaller. It's an intrusion into people's privacy, just in order to sell papers and to create a false sense of celebrity-hood. I don't think the public really cares. We lived for years just fine without paparazzi."

So for you, they are like a pesky fly that you try to ignore?

"I wouldn't choose those words, that sounds a little condescending. I don't care if they photograph me. I know that a lot of people invite such attention when they want to gain publicity. I don't mean to be judgmental, but it's not my way and I don't want to be a part of it."

Some might say that sitting on an open porch, on the sidewalk, in a restaurant known as a celeb hangout, is just inviting it to happen.

"I've been coming to Montefiore [Tel Aviv restaurant] since it opened. It's right near my house, and it's my right to sit there if I want to."

And it's not their right to take pictures?

"I don't think so."

Have you had any traumatic experiences related to an intrusion on your privacy?

"Not really. Knock on wood."

So why are you so keen to rebuff any questions about it?

"I don't believe that my private life ought to interest anyone, and I'm also not interested in talking about it. There are people who are comfortable living their whole lives in the public eye. And there are people who prefer to keep their lives in an island of quiet. I belong to the second group. This game doesn't appeal to me. Once you lose your privacy, it's very hard to get it back."

A Bible and a bottle

Unlike better-known Israeli actors, who fight for parts playing terrorists and so on, Lotan has managed to become identified as a regular American actor. His fair complexion and good looks certainly help, as does his polished English. During his time in London, he also adopted a stage name, Jonah Lotan, which is easier for Anglo-American tongues to pronounce. "The name was chosen after a long night involving a Bible and a bottle of vodka," he recalls.

"In Israel, I had a voice and singing teacher who was also quite spiritual. In one lesson, she spoke about the separation between private life and public life, and recommended using a stage name. When I was in London, I had the opportunity to do that. This name also represents my Jewish roots, and it's easier to pronounce, too. Yair is an impossible name for Americans. It was a very weird experience at first. People would call me Jonah and I'd forget it was my name. But over time it also penetrated into my private life there, and I decided to adopt it as a middle name. I'm comfortable with both names."

Have you encountered any jealousy on the part of Israeli actors who haven't done as well in Los Angeles?

"No. And I also don't get together with a lot of Israeli actors over there."

Did you speak with Aki Avni before your appearance on "24"? He was on the series a few years before, and you acted alongside his [now former] wife, Sandy Bar, in "Lethal Money."

"What - because we're both actors? Because we're both in Los Angeles? We're not friends, I didn't even know that Aki was on '24.' I don't have any connection with Sandy Bar. I didn't become friends with everyone I ever acted with. Maybe there's a clique of Israeli actors in L.A., but I don't belong to it so I don't know about it. I also came to L.A. from London and not from Israel, so there wasn't necessarily a natural connection. I also asked my agents in London not to offer me parts that portray Israelis."

Why? To set yourself apart from Israeli colleagues who specialized in playing dead terrorists?

"It's more complicated than that. It's not just because of the look, but because they didn't work hard enough on the language."

Are you thinking of returning to Israel sometime?

"For the time being, I'm not leaving the United States, but in recent years there's been an emergence of the Israeli voice in art after years of attempts to imitate the American and British method. Not only is it interesting, it's the only way it will be successful, because Los Angeles draws talent from other places in the world. In this sense, Israel is more intriguing than Los Angeles. Movies like 'Beaufort' and 'Waltz with Bashir' have a language that's unique to the place they come from, and I'm certain that if the filmmakers so desire, they'll get offers from Los Angeles."

It doesn't always work. The American version of Sigal Avin's "The Ex List" was shelved after four episodes.

"Welcome to Rome. It ain't personal, just business. Whether you survive there, and whether you'll be happy there at all is up to you. I also had no idea what I was going to do on a sitcom. It's like a foreign language. Luckily for me, it didn't work out and instead I ended up getting the role on '24,' which I was a lot more comfortable with."

In the past, you acted in the series "Bnot Brown" ("The Brown Girls"). Why haven't you participated in any Israeli series since then?

"I'd be very happy to, especially now that there are so many artists with balls in this country. But making it abroad takes all your time, energy and focus."W



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