Unlike His 'Fatal Attraction' Character, Israeli Actor Aki Avni Has Found Tranquility

Tal Levin
Tal Levin
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Aki Avni and Osnat Fishman.Credit: Gerard Alon
Tal Levin
Tal Levin

Here’s a partial list of what the Israeli stage and film actor, entertainer and television host Aki Avni has been up to in the past few months: he played the lead in the Cameri Theater’s productions of “Cabaret” and the co-lead in “Frost/Nixon”; finished shooting a film directed by Eitan Gafny in which he plays a serial killer; rehearsed for a Habima Theater play that is now running; married (his second time) the designer Nicole Miller, who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy at the time, was by her side when she was bedridden with complications, and last month held her hand as she gave birth to Emilia, sister to Liem, Avni’s son from his first marriage to the Israeli model and actress Sendi Bar. I met Avni at a maternity hotel attached to Lis Hospital in Tel Aviv, where the baby was born.

“In my current situation, the theater is a real getaway for me,” he laughs. “Even though being a new father is such a happy event, it’s also really demanding. I leave here for the theater and feel a sense of relief, and I drown myself in the fantasy of the crazy character I play. Then go tell your wife what you went through – ‘Feed the baby!’”

So something in you changed in this round of preparing for fatherhood.

“Yes, yes, I am a lot more relaxed, more aware, more comfortable, more prepared. It’s also good for my wife that she has someone who already knows what’s what.”

He has more or less given up sleeping. The baby was born a few daysearly. Avni, who had hoped his immediate commitments to the theater would be over before the birth, found himself rushing between the hospital and the stage of the Habima Theater, where he plays Dan Gallagher in the stage version of the sensational 1987 film “Fatal Attraction.” In Adriane Lyne’s psychological thriller, Gallagher (Michael Douglas) spends a wild night in bed with Alex Forrest (Glenn Close; Osnat Fishman in the stage production) when his wife, Kate (Anne Archer; Ricki Blich), is out of town. For Gallagher it was a one-night stand, but for Alex Forrest it is the prelude to an obsessive affair that threatens to break up Gallagher’s bourgeois family.

Aki Avni.Credit: Gerard Alon

“My wife hasn’t seen the play yet,” Avni laughs, “but one of the names that came up when we were looking for names for our daughter was Alex. Nicole couldn’t get to the theater because of the complications in the pregnancy, but I think that if she’d seen the Alex character she’d have understood that it wouldn’t be a good idea.”

You chose a heck of a time to be in a play about unfaithfulness and family-wrecking.

“It’s always good, it’s a message for life. (Laughs) Seriously, though, I think it’s all very symbolic. Cheating is extreme, of course, but for me the symbol here is the need to maintain the unity of the family, the friendship, to look each other in the eyes and grow from the marriage. We always want freedom and we think getting out of the box will liberate us. But the way I see it, the deeper we go into the box, into married life, the more freedom we will find. There are plenty of ways of growing from within the family, from the child and its needs, that have implications for who we are, how we define ourselves.”

In terms of the actor’s professional growth, “Cabaret” was a tremendous success, but “Frost/Nixon,” in which Avni played the British journalist David Frost, was a hit mainly with the critics. The public showed little inclination to buy tickets. Frustrated, Avni asked the Cameri Theater’s artistic director, Omri Nitzan, what the next move was. “I had offers from all over,” he related, “but first I asked Omri what he had available. Finding something wasn’t easy. One day he called to tell me he was going to London to see the stage adaptation of ‘Fatal Attraction,’ directed by Trevor Nunn, the Steven Spielberg of theater. When Omri came out of the performance, he texted me, ‘We deserve a better fate.’ [The actor] Itay Tiran, who shares a dressing room with me for ‘Cabaret,’ also told me the production, which he’d seen, had many problems, both as a written play and as a stage production.”

In the end, the Cameri passed on the rights, and Avni went on looking for his next project. “A few short weeks later,” he says, “I got a call from [Habima Theater’s artistic director] Ilan Ronen. “He told me about this new play. ‘It’s only been staged in London so far,’ he said, ‘I don’t know if you’ll want it, if it interests you, it’s very cinematic. I don’t know what your status is.’ In short, what would I say to ‘Fatal Attraction?’ ‘Great,’ I told him immediately.”

Weren’t you leery of getting involved in that after what Omri Nitzan and Itay Tiran said?

“Ilan told me that the director would be Moshe Kepten and that Osnat Fishman had already signed on for the part of Alex Forrest. I asked for a script and I talked to Kepten, who told me in general terms about the different adaptation he was developing in order to get around the problems in the London production. The issue there was in the transitions, but Kepten solved that brilliantly with the use of a rotating stage. All that movement, with the clock and against the clock, the whirligig effect, the circularity and the cinematic dynamics, which seem to take you from one location to another with a zoom-in zoom-out effect – all that added an amazing new dimension to the production. We did a reading with all the actors, and it was incredibly over-emotional – I exploded with laughter and crying, I couldn’t believe what I was undergoing. I called my agent and told him, ‘Yallah, we’re going for it.’”

How do you cope with the intimate scenes and the violence?

“I think that’s all part of it: either you go all the way with it, or you don’t do it at all. One reason it didn’t work in London is that the director decided to skirt the whole intimate aspect. In every situation of intimacy, when the actors moved close to each other, the scene was blacked out and the audience was left to use its imagination. It didn’t work, because the audience wanted to see: ‘If I were doing it, what would it look like?’ Or, ‘Show me what I don’t have the guts to do myself.’ Or, ‘If I did that, what would happen to me?’ As one scenario out of 2,000 possibilities.”

The film was very controversial, because it presented the female lover as a dangerous lunatic and the man as an innocent victim.

“We have a somewhat different interpretation, as conceived by Kepten. The film made a big impression on me, and I awarded the loony medal to the woman, Alex, for entangling the ‘innocent’ guy. But gradually, during the rehearsals, under Kepten’s guidance, we understood that there has to be a different approach, that it can’t be all one-sided. There has to be a great love between the two characters. Whether Gallagher accepts that he falls in love with the girl or not, something big happens to him emotionally. He fights it and resists it and he’s angry with himself, he’s filled with guilt feelings, but you can’t fight the heart, it has its own chemistry.

“In other words,” Avni continues, “the foundation has to be a love story, a huge turn-on between two people, but a turn-on that’s unfeasible and generates frustration on both sides. In the movie, the stage of her madness is a bit detached. The situation becomes insane because Alex is insane. In the play, yes, it’s possible that she’s insane, but it has a broad base. And yes, it’s completely insane to slash wrists or boil a rabbit or burn a car or kidnap a little girl, but we understand where it’s coming from.”

Over and above the mad actions of the Glenn Close character, the film was roundly condemned by feminists for its dichotomous depiction of the female characters. On the one hand there’s the good woman, the wife and mother, who represents the standard option, which is bourgeois and boring. She is contrasted with the attractive, seductive, footloose – but also dangerous and threatening – femme fatale. Avni thinks that the stage version shows that the times have moved forward. “The movie is set in the 1980s, and this is 2014,” he notes. “You don’t have to exaggerate wildly for the audience and show them two polar opposites in order to jolt them. Kepten wanted to give the play a realistic thrust. So the bourgeois woman is not completely boring, and the insane one is insane like me or you.”

In this connection, the ending of the play is also different from the movie. “The screenwriter, James Dearden, originally wrote the film with the ending that now appears in the play,” Avni explains. “But when the movie was shown to focus groups before its release, no one liked the ending. Thestudio forced Dearden to write a different ending. But when he was approached in regard to the stage production, he insisted on going back to his original ending, and that’s the one we’re using. The play is now a big success both in New York and in Israel.”

At 46, with several theater projects in the works and others soon to be seen on the big screen, Avni feels personally and professionally satisfied. Still, there are times when he misses his earlier life overseas, when he and Sendi Bar lived in Los Angeles and had careers there. “We lived there a long time, so I do miss it,” Avni admits. “The Israeli market is very small and has all the traits that go with that – it’s a quagmire. But Hollywood is also a quagmire. It’s made up of circles within circles. In the smallest, inner circle there are five directors that everyone wants to work with, and you hope that you will slowly progress to that possibility. I miss it in terms of the [working] conditions, but in terms of materials there are more interesting options here.”

So are you thinking of living abroad again?

“Nicole, who’s lived everywhere and had a marvelous career as a designer – with clients like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp – decided two years ago to immigrate to Israel. She’s very patriotic – a lot more than me.” He laughs. “We don’t have any such intentions at the moment, but in the nature of things, because there’s family and friends abroad, the possibility plays as a constant dialogue, the same way it does with a lot of other people.”

What’s your favorite line from a play?

“It’s actually in ‘Fatal Attraction.’ One always looks for the engine in everything, certainly in the character, and the engine there appears clearly: ‘the option of an alternative life.’ I like that engine, that sentence, because it’s one of the few cases in which I have encountered an engine, a sentence, that allows the audience to grasp exactly what the protagonist means and what he’s going through. We are all engaged with this, with the option for an alternative life: what I would be doing if I weren’t doing this, who I would be married to, who I would be living with.”

What role do you dream of playing?

“I don’t have a dream like that. There are people I dreamed about, like [the American playwright] David Mamet, and somehow it happened. I don’t have a dream about anyone specific, and in any case the disparity between the person and the professional can be disappointing. I don’t want to dream.”

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?

“A psychologist, working with people.”

“Fatal Attraction” will be staged at Kiryat Motzkin Theater in the north on Saturday at 21.00. The next performances at Habima Theater in Tel Aviv are on December 7, 8 and 10.

Tal Levin writes for the City Mouse website.