Art as an Imitation of Life

Israeli actor Shalom Michaelshvili says he identifies deeply with his role in ‘Strike,’ a political-social drama with activist overtones.

As a child, actor Shalom Michaelshvili had a special way of dealing with his longing for his father. His dad, who for the past 30 years has been getting up before dawn to work as a taxi driver, supported his family back then by juggling that job with two others, one at a bakery, the other at a restaurant. The young Shalom would sneak into his parent's bedroom to sniff his absent dad's shirts, somehow reconstructing his presence from their scent. That is also the explanation he gave to his mother when she caught him in the act; he didn't really understand then why it earned him a big hug from her.

Years later a similar scene was incorporated into the hit television series "Asfur" - in which Michaelshvili starred - after he recounted it to the show's scriptwriters, Hanan Savyon and Guy Amir. Michaelshvili spoke to his father about it before the episode aired. That was the first time he had ever discussed it with him, he says now, emotionally, and then adds: "That reminds me I haven't spoken to him today."

Michaelshvili currently stars in a new TV series, "Shvita" ("Strike" ), a political-social drama with activist overtones that debuted last month on the Yes Stars Drama satellite channel. Rani Blair wrote and directed the show, inspired by the true story of the employees at Haifa Chemicals South (immortalized in a 2006 documentary, also called "Strike," by Asaf Sudri and Amir Tausinger ). In the series, as in real life, the workers' protest over their terms of employment and their attempt to unionize are suppressed harshly and escalate into a strike during which they barricade themselves inside the plant.

Michaelshvili plays the main character, Albert Amar, a proud labor leader who despite his own difficulties in making ends meet, rallies his fellow workers to unionize and strike.

"There were scenes where I choked on the text," Michaelshvili says, sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe. "There was a long monologue that I didn't know how to begin to approach, and the two takes we did of it were among the most important and meaningful moments in my professional life. This series is not a form of escapism before going to bed. It rocked me. There were flashbacks to familiar stuff, here and there, even though things are much more extreme in the series. I thought about my parents, my father. About being proud of him. I'm proud of the upbringing I received, and proud and appreciative of every shekel I make."

Amos Tamam co-stars in the show, in the role of the foreman who is also a close friend of the hero. In real life too, the two actors have been friends since childhood, having grown up in the same neighborhood in Ramle.

"Strike" debuted the same week that the down-and-out, disabled army veteran Moshe Silman set himself on fire to protest the state's lack of attention to his plight. The shooting of this series, which wrapped about six months ago, was designed to capture the spirit of the times, which was unfortunately brought home again by that tragic event. Indeed, three of the actors playing supporting roles and many of the extras were cast for the new series after meeting director Blair at the protest encampment last summer.

"People arrived for shoots after nights of not sleeping and after demonstrations last year," Michaelshvili says. "I came to a shoot a day after performing in front of 80,000 people at a demonstration in Jerusalem."

Do you relate to the messages of the social protest movement?

"That depends. If I knew what the messages were, I might know how to answer that more clearly. I read a lot about it and it bothers me the way it bothers everyone, but I would still love to know the whats, the how much and the whys, so as to be able to identify even more. Everyone is hurting right now: I am because they raised taxes, and another person is because he's got nowhere to live. I can get pissed off because they take away half of what I make, but there are people who only wish they could be in my place."

Certain things have come into sharper focus in recent weeks, the actor explains: "'Strike' is a series based on a documentary film. There are people who recognized years ago that this protest was going to happen, that it would explode sometime. There are political parties that tried to raise the social flag. The middle class is shouldering much of the burden, and has had it up to here. I want people to enjoy the series, but maybe when people have their faces rubbed in it, they will also be able to see things from a different angle."

What would you like them to see?

"In my view, last year's protest was more trendy than effective. A lot of people talked about the Saturday night demonstrations like it was going out to a bar. The protest in Tunisia started from a man who set himself on fire. After the flurry of activity on Facebook, when will Moshe Silman be forgotten? Fast. As in the series, ultimately everyone gets preoccupied with his own stuff. How many people will go to Jerusalem to protest and miss a day's work? Very few.

"I don't want to sound cynical: I'm upset, too, but for this to succeed it has to be more than a trend. In how many countries does nearly a tenth of the population, or one-12th of the population, leave the house to demonstrate and nothing happens as a result? It's an illusion. Nothing has happened as a result. It's plain insulting."

One of a trio

The latest role Michaelshvili, 34, has undertaken constitutes a major leap forward in his career. When he was 16 and a member of his city's youth entertainment troupe, he met Asi Yisraelof and Tzion Baruch. During his military service they began performing as the Ma Kashur (literally, "what's the connection" ) comedy trio which continues to perform today; they have plans for a full-length film and other projects are in the works.

After the army, when Michaelshvili was studying at the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio, Ma Kashur landed a regular spot on a TV show hosted by comedian Eli Yatzpan. He dropped the drama studies program when he opted to perform instead of studying as demanded by the late Nativ. The trio later went on to do a show with Adir Miller, released a music CD, shot the program "Haisraelim" ("The Israelis" ) for Channel 2, which was a great success, and "Am Sgula," which did less well. In between, Michaelshvili played Nicola Kovlova on "Haborer" ("The Mediator" ), a secondary character that took on cult status and expanded with each season.

About two and a half years ago, around the time of his divorce, he landed the lead in the TV series "Asfur" (about four young Jerusalemite men trying to get by), which became a hit. This marked the first time he garnered a major acting role without the other members of the trio. Recently he notched up yet another success as in-studio host of the Euro soccer tournament.

Was it personally important to you to play the role you got in "Strike"?

"Very important. First of all it is a different part. I try to pick roles super-selectively and to do things that I haven't done before. I always wanted to work with Rani [Blair], a very talented man in my view. The series is entirely his vision and he chose us, the actors, personally. I don't know a single actor in the country who doesn't want to work with him; I'd even be his water girl. I wanted to see how he works, the relationships on the set. In general, I've enjoyed everything I've done recently."

Why are things different now?

"Now I have the privilege of choosing. 'Ma Kashur' is my bread and butter, my primary livelihood. I am not under duress, I don't have to agree to things just to pay the rent. I no longer worry about making a living. Unfortunately there are actors who do not have these privileges ...

"In Israel there is no such thing as a wealthy actor [unless] he does other things. I am grateful daily that I can make decisions not out of financial considerations but rather according to interest ... I don't have a master plan. This is what I wanted. I passed up other things along the way. I had theater offers that I turned down because I was busy, but I knew things would work out."

Entertainer vs. actor

Says Shay Kanot, director of "The Mediator": "Six or so years ago, when we began working on the series, I had a conversation with Shalom. He told me that in another three years he would be a serious actor, for real, and in demand. We were looking for someone who would be right for the role in terms of ethnic origin, and who would have an entertainment and comedy orientation. Shalom had an amazing audition. He revealed himself to be a very talented actor."

He made good on that?

Kanot: "Yes. In my eyes he is far more of an actor than an entertainer. His tenacity, willpower and seriousness paved the way for him. He is professional and always arrives on set prepared; he totally gives himself over to the work. Bleaching your hair every few days for a role is not something everyone would be happy to do. His character grew solely thanks to him."

"I watched a few chapters of 'Asfur' and spotted something," Rani Blair says. "I was looking for a character that could act from the eyes, a person with penetrating eyes. I found a person who is self-made, a professional actor, sharp, focused. And he's very funny. I have the sense that he understands that the older you get, the less satisfied you feel about realizing yourself in the area of entertainment and getting a laugh out of people. In drama there is subtext, there are layers. It could be that this appeals to him more. I saw in Shalom a great desire to excel, a hunger and enthusiasm."

"He doesn't have any mannerisms," says Rani Sa'ar, who directed Michaelshvili in "Asfur." "There are no walls between him and the rest of the people on the set and crew. Perhaps because of the journey he's undergone - in a profound way he appreciates the place he is in now. You don't have trouble squeezing out emotions from him. He's also fun to go out with afterward in the evening. That is really every director's dream."

We mention that Michaelshvili regularly appears in the gossip columns, as does his celebrity-seeking friend Tzion Baruch and many other close friends, and that they are portrayed as leading pleasant, carefree lives. This is more typical of people in the world of entertainment, not necessarily those who work in serious drama.

"I don't understand what you're saying," Michaelshvili retorts. "Who says that entertainment is inferior? Entertainment is mathematics and emotional intelligence, and an entertainer is an actor first and foremost. A comedian has to be sensitive enough to understand, to sense where the range of emotion stretches. Laughter can come from the most painful spot."

You are being disingenuous if you do not acknowledge that a certain kind of publicity can be to the detriment of an actor with serious ambitions.

"So my being a successful entertainer does me harm? Where do these images come from? They are what the media come up with. I play Footvolley several times a week," he says, referring to a Brazilian beach game that combines volleyball with soccer. "It's hot, I play shirtless, and a paparazzi photographer comes along and shoots. Does that mean I am a lesser actor? Should I not go to the beach, not go out with my friends on occasion because we will get photographed?"

Aren't you afraid that this is harming you - when people are really surprised that you have been cast in a complex and serious role?

"I don't get the image that I have, and if anyone is surprised, then fine, there is something nice about that. If I were this high-brow actor and had no friends, and I lived with a bicycle and a dog in a one-room apartment and walked down Rothschild Boulevard in Bermuda shorts - would that make me more important?

"I don't give a rat's ass about my image. I want to live however I feel like living. It's of no interest to anyone that I also have childhood friends whom nobody knows."

No, what is of interest is Bar Refaeli and Tzion Baruch and you living it up in Mykonos, and you provide that.

"So what, not fly to Mykonos? These are my best friends and they are special, interesting, good people. How many series and serious lead roles will I have to do for those to be the first things I get asked about - instead of my image and friends? I am not a miserable artist who struggles to make ends meet. Who decided that entertainment is less good than drama? As far as I'm concerned I will go on selecting things that interest me, and performing with Ma Kashur for another 20 years. That is what I love to do best, make people split their sides with laughter, somewhere else in the country each day. I am proud of the combination of the three of us, of this friendship," he says of the Ma Kashur trio. "Things will probably calm down a bit in years to come, but so far we are as together as can be."

"Of the three of them, Shalom was always the responsible adult," another friend says. "Tzion and Asi were bad-asses, acting wild, stirring up trouble, and he was always the settled, married one, whom you could communicate with. And he was also always considered the quality actor among them. He was the first to have a career without them."

Sa'ar: "Before we met while working on 'Asfur,' I didn't know the man behind Ma Kashur, and I was delighted to discover that he is deep and complex. He has these two worlds - getting a laugh out of you and delving deeply. I wasn't surprised that he can be Motti from 'Asfur' and then go on stage and be a Moroccan woman in a Ma Kashur skit."

Another friend sums up: "Shalom is a character of another sort: very into his personal relationships with women and his family; he goes to his parents every week and adores his nephew. More than anything he'd like to have a family, kids."

Do you want to raise a family?

Michaelshvili: "I suppose it will happen naturally ... You won't get a heart-wrenching confession out of me ... In essence I am a 'couples person,' and that is where I will be when the right person comes along."

Shay Kanot said you promised him to become a serious actor and you've succeeded. What promise are you making to yourself next?

"A lead role in a film is the next stage. The Shalom of five years from now is the father of a 2-year-old child, and my wife is pregnant for the second time. I've just put on a show at Tzavta with Asi and Zion, and I've come home to learn texts for a new series that I'm about to do. An awesome promise."