'Ignorant, Nasty and Mean-spirited Country': The Rising Israeli Star Who Dared to Play in a Movie Critical of Israel

Tom Mercier, whose performance in 'Synonyms' had international critics comparing him to Marlon Brando, talks about being inspired by Conor McGregor and Beyoncé, and what nude scenes taught him

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The poster of 'Synonyms', starring Tom Mercier.
The poster of 'Synonyms', starring Tom Mercier.
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

About two weeks ago, Tom Mercier, the star of the new Israeli film “Synonyms,” went into a bar in Tel Aviv. The film, which last month was awarded the Golden Bear, the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, made the headlines on the news, but even that didn’t prepare Mercier for what happened immediately afterward.

Tom Mercier. At the age of 19 he decided to retire from fighting people and entered the world of dance.Credit: Aviv Abramov

A guy he didn’t know approached him and started to curse him out, in the bar. “He called me, ‘You leftist.’ I said, ‘Good evening’ to him and then he said, ‘You leftist sonofabitch.’ I asked him whether he had seen the movie and he said he hadn’t. Then he started to argue with me and to ask whether I was familiar with Ahasuerus [the Persian king in the Book of Esther] and the Maccabees. I told him I was, but would be happy to be enlightened by him. Then he said, ‘Go f--k yourself.’ I said, ‘Good evening.’”

You weren’t scared?

“It made my heart beat really fast. The nice thing is that a guy in a bar can tell me that without seeing the film. Israelis can congratulate prize winners without even seeing the content. What’s nice in France is that they see something and come to discuss it. On the other hand, In Israel there may be less discussion, but they bring the flesh and the juices.

“Synonyms,” directed by Nadav Lapid, is very critical of Israeli militarism. It tells the story of a young Israeli named Yoav (played by Mercier, who some critics have compared to Marlon Brando) who leaves his country to seek a better life in Paris. In one of the strong scenes of the movie he explains that he left Israel because it is a "state that is nasty, obscene, ignorant, idiotic, crude and Mean-spirited."

Mercier, who had wanted to be a combat soldier in the Israeli army and underwent selection processes for classified units, was released from the IDF even before enlistment due to a health problem.

Mercier on the cover of the respected French film magazine 'Cahiers du Cinéma'.

“My brother spoke to me about the film from the place of a soldier who suffered from trauma in the army after participating in a very difficult operation," he says. "He saw the movie from the point of view of a traumatized soldier. One of the more powerful things he said to me is that almost every soldier, whether during training exercises or an operation, suddenly has an egoistical thought: ‘If I hadn’t been born in this country,’ or, ‘If I had gone traveling before the army and left this country.’ All kinds of such reactions that surprised me because this is a person who fought for the country and came back with nightmares and lives with them.

“He told me that it’s really interesting that Yoav is a soldier who wanted to contribute something and was an outstanding fighter who waited for a war to knock on his door, but it didn’t happen. He didn’t succeed in creating this hero — like the pioneers or the sabras [native-born Israelis] who wanted to make the desert bloom or go fight the Arabs.

"Suddenly, the hero of this film is fragile and not very strong, and he understands that maybe going far away, to another country, is actually what provides a broader perspective, but not necessarily the kind that will bring you to a better place.

“I think that with this film I have received a broader perspective on things. Whether it’s about French Jews who come to Israel because of all kinds of neo-Nazi movements or all manner of slogans painted on graves. You notice that violence and barbarism exist everywhere and there will be stupid people everywhere.”

Today, a year and a half after you yourself moved to France, do you still feel like a stranger there?

Tom Mercier, center, in 'Synonyms.' 'Israelis can congratulate prize winners without even seeing the content.'Credit: Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

“I think that everyone has a motif of being a stranger everywhere, whether they want to be or not. The motif of being a stranger is an overall feeling about life. I think that that’s what Camus was talking about. About being a stranger as a universal issue. Of course, I felt like a stranger in Paris, but sometimes this foreignness gave me my signature. It gave me my place.”

Conor McGregor. 'You look at him and you see that he’s either coming to kill someone or he’s coming to die.'Credit: John Locher,AP

Bring the other actors into the arena

Beyoncé. 'She doesn’t know how to dance but when she stands on stage she dances better than her dancers.'Credit: ROBYN BECK / AFP

Mercier was born in Tel Aviv and at age 2 moved to the suburb of Herzliya with his family; his French-born father Michel is a well-known hairdresser and entrepreneur. At age 6 Tom began to train in professional judo and received medals. There, on the mattresses, he developed the muscular body that was in evidence on the screen. At the age of 19 he decided to retire from fighting people and entered the world of dance. He left the rigidity of martial arts behind and exchanged it for fluid, longer movements, some of which he learned at lessons in the Gaga method, invented by Israeli dancer-choreographer Ohad Naharin.

Flexibility, in its broadest sense, is important to Mercier. “The first word I learned in French was ‘wheat,’ and from there I would look for other ways of saying it and entered the world of patisseries and bakeries, and one thing led to another. I’d start with 10 words and play around with them and then take other words from the world of metal, or words from songs.

“I’d try anything in order to move words like water. Bruce Lee talks about water. He says, ‘Be water, my friend, be water.’ Because if you put water in a glass, the water will become the glass, and if you put water in a kettle, the water will become the kettle. Put water into your body and the water will be you. This fluidity is what’s important.”

You moved from a violent and aggressive world into the world of acting and art. How do you explain that?

“Take Conor McGregor, the MMA fighter. You look at him and you see that he’s either coming to kill someone or he’s coming to die. In acting, you have to bring the other actors into the arena itself in order for them to ascend to a certain level of risk. When you see an actor who is endangering himself, that’s the most satisfying things there is. When you see an actor sweating, that’s one of the beautiful things there is because it’s impossible to explain this place of returning to this brutal, pagan, bestial thing.

Tom Mercier and director Nadav Lapid on the set of 'Synonyms'.Credit: Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

“Judo was a milestone in my life, but afterward I went to dancing. At first I saw ballet and hated it, because it required repetitiveness and power and a memory for movement, which is very similar to judo. Suddenly I was exposed to a lesson in contact [that is, a type of movement involving physical connections to others]. It’s based far more on improvisation and that ‘spoke to me’ like crazy.

“Suddenly I looked at Beyoncé and said: ‘I want to dance like her.’ She doesn’t know how to dance but when she stands on stage she dances better than her dancers, because she understands something that they will never understand: She knows why she makes every move. People like her, or Daniel Day Lewis, understand something about their art but they don’t explain it.”

Mercier’s naked body plays a central role in “Synonyms.” Already at the beginning we see him, in the character of Yoav, entering an empty apartment in an elegant Parisian building, stripping, getting into the shower and pleasuring himself. It’s the scene of the birth of a wild person. Facing the viewers is a raging bull, lost in an alienated space. A body seeking solid ground to walk on. Even when he discovers that someone stole the little property he brought with him from his native land, he goes out naked into the street.

Mercier, for whom this is his first significant cinematic role, expropriates the viewer’s peace of mind. And here, of all people, this god-man appearing on the screen (the film is full of characters taken from Greek mythology) with his chiseled body, refuses to look at the fulsome beauty of Paris, for fear that it will bewitch him, cause him to fall in love with it like the millions of tourists who visit it. Beauty, the movie implies, has a natural tendency to lie.

A scene from 'Synonyms.' Critical of Israeli militarism.Credit: Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

A dancing Atlas

“When I watch the film now and see the first scene I’m more proud of it than all the other scenes. I don’t know why, but I have a deep love for it and a connection with it, because of its courage and Yoav’s helplessness,” Mercier explains.

“The beauty of the script is that it must convince you that this matrix must exist exactly like that so it can cross over into this world and vitalize it. I think that this beginning tells a person’s life story. After all, not every naked man would see the door and choose to go outside to wage some battle, naked. It demonstrates a kind of fanaticism that exists at the foundation of this country, Israel, and types of activity and observation. For me nudity is like a line that I had to cross on a day of filming, and from the moment I crossed it I felt that I understand lots of things about this man. There’s something very primeval about him.

“The story of Atlas is very nice in this connection, because he carried the world on his shoulders until Hercules arrived one day and said to him, ‘Let me help you, so you can enter the garden and take the oranges.’

Somewhere I feel that I had to prepare my body in order to carry this film on my shoulders. I danced. I used to go dancing for three hours in the evening with lots of girls who would laugh at me. One day one said to me, ‘Listen, you don’t give a damn and I’m crazy about that.’ And from the moment she said that, I went and stood in the first row with all those lovely, beautiful girls.”

Was that the purpose — to beautify your body as much as possible?

Nadav Lapid , Tom Mercier and Louise Chevillotte pose with Golden Bear for Best Film, Berlin, February 16, 2019.Credit: FABRIZIO BENSCH

“The purpose was to make my body flexible so I could strengthen it. Not by going to a gym. A gym destroys the soul. Dance, on the other hand, restores you; it connects and activates the smallest muscles that you didn’t know exist. I’d go to a gym with a personal trainer, but dance took me away from the repetitiveness. I remember that at judo competitions I did very strange things: I would do exercises I had never done before. Like a boxer who suddenly works with his left side when all his life he was used to working with his right side. As though you ruin things for yourself in order to keep being surprised.”

In one of the tough scenes in the film Yoav experiences a humiliating, violent incident, on the verge of rape. How was it to work on that scene?

Mercier, right and Lapid on the set of 'Synonyms'. 'He told me that it’s really interesting that Yoav is a soldier who wanted to contribute something and was an outstanding fighter.'Credit: Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

“It’s a tough scene because that’s the first time that Yoav actually shouts to himself, ‘Get away from here’ — from France. In my opinion the complexity of being exposed to this is not necessarily due to the nudity. He moans because wants to escape, because of his foreignness. That’s what’s shocking there, in my opinion. I remember that after that day I laughed for five hours, rolling on the floor, because at that very moment I was incapable of containing that situation.

“I also remember Nadav [Lapid] that day. I looked at him and that was the first time that he told me, ‘I have déjà vu from that moment.’ He was in control but something got lost there for a moment, and I felt I had to help him. It wasn’t easy for me.”

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