The 'Homeland' Spy Who Started Out as an Israeli Intelligence Operative

Mark Ivanir was on the verge of joining the ranks of Israel’s spies, but instead he chose an acting career that led him to Hollywood and a star role in the hit American TV series.

Israeli actor Mark Ivanir, who plays the role of a Russian secret agent in the hit American TV series "Homeland."
Moti Milrod

Mark Ivanir likes the idea of being a spy. So much so that the Israeli actor, who plays the Russian secret agent Ivan in the fifth season of “Homeland,” once almost became a real international man of mystery.

Before going into acting, Ivanir did his compulsory military service in an intelligence unit of the Israel Defense Forces. Upon his discharge, he received an offer to work for one of the country’s secret services. But he turned down the offer.

“I romanticized about it in my twenties, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed being a spy. I worry too much,” he tells Haaretz. He won’t reveal exactly where he served or which agency tried to recruit him, but acting roles of spies, he says, gives him an outlet for his fantasies. Now, after a 25-year acting career that included a string of minor roles in major Hollywood productions and larger parts in Israeli shows, his work on the American political thriller is putting him in the limelight as never before.

But Ivanir, 52, doesn’t consider landing a key role in the internationally acclaimed show his “big break.” That moment, the Los Angeles-based actor explained during a visit to Israel last week, came years ago – and almost only by chance.

In 1992, Steven Spielberg had cast him in “Schindler’s List” for a small role, which was eventually written out of the script. But when the actor cast to play the larger role of Marcel Goldberg, a corrupt Jewish policeman, was hurt in an accident, Spielberg had to find a replacement. As the director fast-forwarded through a video to find the auditions for that part, his wife noticed Ivanir, whose audition for the small part just happened to be on the same tape, and Spielberg decided to cast him for the part. Had that “fast-forward moment” not happened, Ivanir told Haaretz, “I wouldn’t have been here today talking to you about ‘Homeland’ and Los Angeles.”

Since then, Ivanir played supporting roles in “The Good Shepherd” with Matt Damon and “What Just Happened” with Robert De Niro, as well as a lead in “A Late Quartet,” alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken. Back in Israel, he played leading roles in television series like “Gordin Cell” and even won the best actor award at the Haifa International Film Festival for his part in the film “The Human Resources Manager.” But nothing earned him fame like “Homeland,” with his face becoming more recognized both in Israel and abroad.

Getting into that, too, involved a lot of luck. After trying for months to secure the part of Ivan, he was told the directors had decided to hire “a local” from Russia. But the next day, his agent called back asking him to send through an audition. “What happened?” he asked. The directors had spoken about casting with Gideon Raff, creator of “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”), upon which “Homeland” is based, and the Israeli filmmaker, who had met and worked with Ivanir years earlier, gave the directors his name.

Israeli actor Mark Ivanir and Miranda Otto in a scene from the fifth episode of the fifth season of "Homeland."
Stephan Rabold/SHOWTIME

To build the character of Ivan, Ivanir looked mainly within himself. “It was a very well-written character,” he says, speaking to Haaretz at a café in Jaffa. “Sometimes, when there’s not enough, you need to come up with stuff to define a character, or to make it more interesting or special. This one had built-in gravitas, humor, and an interesting relationship with the spy he was handling, Allison.”

While Ivan and Allison are not romantically engaged, Ivanir brought a certain intimacy to their relationship. This emanated from his own relationship with his wife, and what he witnessed between his parents. “My dad only had one arm (the other was paralyzed). So when the family drove in the car, my mom, who didn’t smoke, would light a cigarette so he could keep on driving, take a puff, and pass it to him.” This exact moment can be seen in Episode 5, when Ivan does the same for Allison, lighting a cigarette in his mouth and passing it to her through his car window. The “Homeland” writers later incorporated that intimacy into the rest of the script, as they wrote the remaining scenes between the two characters.

Asked whether he thinks his work on the show will open the door to more prominent Hollywood roles, Ivanir remains skeptical. “I’ve been in this business long enough to not get my expectations up,” he says.

Actor Mark Ivanir, right, with Dror Keren and Evgenia Dodina in Gesher's 1991 production of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."
Gadi Dagon

'Terrible Russian'

Born in Ukraine, Ivanir moved to Israel with his parents at age 7. Following his brush with the world of spies in the army, he graduated from the prestigious Nissan Nativ Acting Studio and became one of the first members of the now-preeminent Gesher Theater.

The Tel Aviv-based company started out as a group of actors – all immigrants from the Former Soviet Union – who put on shows in Russian.

“His Russian was terrible,” says Gesher managing director Lena Kreindlin recalling Ivanir’s first audition. “But he had a spark and charm about him.”

Another benefit was that he spoke Hebrew. Over the years, Ivanir worked at the theater not only as an actor but as a translator, tasked with the tough job of training professional Russian actors to perform in Hebrew, as the theater transitioned into putting on most of its shows in the local language. “This made him a better actor himself,” says Kreindlin. “When you teach others to act, you learn a lot, too.” Ivanir has a soft spot in his heart for Gesher. “Had I not joined Gesher, I wouldn’t be an actor by now,” he says.