Yes He Cannes: Celebrated Israeli Film Catapults Actor to Center Stage

With his part in the extraordinary film ‘Next to Her,’ actor Yaacov Zada Daniel may have to start thinking about the implications of stardom and celebrity status.

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Ivgi and Zada Daniel in 'Near to Her.'
Ivgi and Zada Daniel in 'Near to Her.'Credit: Amit Yasour

Never having done a Google search for himself, actor Yaacov Zada Daniel didn’t know he has a Wikipedia entry (in Hebrew). All the facts are correct, but he gives me a surprised look when I show him the entry, asks who wrote it and whether it can be deleted.

Not quite the response one would expect from an actor who was in the Israeli television series “The Arbitrator” and “Dolls,” has a starring role in the newly released film “Next to Her” (“At Li Laila,” in Hebrew), and will appear in a new TV series beginning next month.

Daniel, who turned 35 this month, apparently hasn’t internalized the full implications of stardom and celebrity status. But he’ll soon have to rethink his approach, because it’s hard to forget him after seeing “Next to Her.” Even alongside the moving performances in the film of Dana Ivgy and Liron Ben-Shlush, his presence on the screen is magnetic – you can’t take your eyes off him.

The Israeli Academy of Film and Television obviously agrees, as Zada Daniel was a candidate for its best actor award. The Cannes Film Festival seemed to share the same opinion – and it was also the venue for the film’s world premiere. In fact, even before that, “Next to Her” was acquired for distribution in England, Australia, France and Ireland, and more countries have signed up since then.

Even though shooting on the film was completed more than a year ago, only now has it been released commercially at home – and for the best of reasons: “Next to Her” was shown in dozens of film festivals worldwide, and the organizers insisted that their screenings should precede the movie’s theatrical release. The director, Asaf Korman, the cinematographer Amit Yasur and the three principal actors have all won prizes and accolades in the media.

From left, Korman, Zada Daniel, Ivgy and Ben-ShlushCredit: Raphael Delouya

“Cannes was the first festival I’ve ever been to, and it was a totally wild ride,” Zada Daniel relates. “Everything is glittering and alive, and you have to get into step. I dressed better than ever before in my life, the parties went on until morning – Asaf and Liron went to sleep and I just kept going. Consciously and deliberately, I went to have a good time. I also had one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

“The premiere was the first time I saw the movie. The hall held 500 people, and we were seated right in the middle. When the movie ended, spotlights were trained on us, and the rest of the hall was completely dark. We got to our feet, and the audience applauded for more than 10 minutes. It was an experience I can’t explain in words. In the theater, you expect applause at the end of the play, but I was totally unprepared for it there. I was shaking all over when I left; I couldn’t calm down. That’s when we realized what a film we had in our hands.”

What kind of film did you have in your hands?

“It’s a film in which every nuance means something, and it works powerfully on the viewer’s unconscious. I think that everyone who sees it will tell all his friends to see it, too, and that’s the best parameter for success.”

“Next to Her” tells the personal story of Liron Ben-Shlush. She wrote the screenplay and plays one of the lead roles; she is also the life partner of the film’s director and editor, Korman. Ben-Shlush plays Chelli, a young woman who works as a security guard and devotes her life to looking after her sister, Gabby (Dana Ivgy, in a role that garnered her an Ophir, Israel’s version of the Oscar), who suffers from a serious mental disability.

Their mother doesn’t live with them, and the social worker urges Chelli to find an arrangement for her sister outside the home. But Gabby fills Chelli’s world, both inwardly and outwardly, and she refuses to stop looking after her.

Into this claustrophobic situation comes Zohar, a 34-year-old man played by Zada Daniel, who is able to insinuate himself into Chelli’s small home and special family, as well as into her inner core of defense mechanisms. The plot takes unexpected twists; it’s a film that contains humor, a little tension and a heartrending love story.

“Liron and I met a few years ago, when we were both in ‘Richard III’ at the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv,” Zada Daniel recalls. “She and Asaf had just become an item, and Asaf directed a short clip for us. Afterward I was working at the Dimona Theater and had no contact with them for a few years, until one day she invited me to audition.

“At the very first audition, there was a vibe that was different from anything I’d known before. Asaf explained the time and place [of the story], so I was able to loosen up and start to ‘live’ the character. I did two more auditions, but in retrospect, they knew from the first one that the part was mine.”

“Liron had no trouble writing the women’s parts – for Dana and for herself – but she got bogged down with the male character and lost her self-confidence,” Korman relates.

“That was the only character that awaited an actor to solve it, and the moment we saw Yaacov, we knew he was the one. We also knew the audience would have to take a roller-coaster ride with him. At first we don’t understand why the Chelli character takes up with him; then there’s a feeling that within the scope of the movie he’s the only sane person; and then there’s a suspicion that there’s something sinister and dangerous about him.

“Our feeling was that Yaacov could handle all those character shades. Until now, he’s played mostly drug dealers and addicts. Here he had the opportunity to play a character with feminine qualities, like the ability to contain contradictions. I was enchanted by the idea of playing with the stigma of the guy who seems to come from a distressed neighborhood and taking it in different directions – shattering the typecasting over and over before the eyes of the viewers.”

You could have chosen a well-known actor – why take the risk of using a relative unknown?

Korman: “I really wanted to bring in a new face. I would also have preferred it if Dana Ivgy was not well-known. Maybe because of my background – I come from a family of actors, some of whom had a hard time establishing themselves and took a lot of crap in the profession. It was very important for me to carry out the auditioning process with dignity, to give the actors the feeling we were working with them and not wasting their time. The same approach prompted me to give an opportunity to someone who came from a completely different place and hadn’t yet made the big breakthrough.”

The “completely different place” from which Zada Daniel, 35,comes is the southern town of Arad, where from childhood he had to cope with complex family situations of his own, some of which he prefers not to talk about.

At 18, he was drafted to the ultra-elite naval commandos and from there moved to the undercover Duvdevan unit, part of the Paratroops Brigade. The army background became particularly relevant for Zada Daniel’s upcoming big role – in “Fauda,” a new television series that debuts next month about the unit’s operational activity in the West Bank.

“In ‘Fauda,’ I play a role that is very close to me, and it’s a completely different experience,” he says.

After his army service, Zada Daniel was accepted to the Yoram Loewenstein Performing Arts Studio, and moved to Tel Aviv’s disadvantaged Hatikva neighborhood.

“It was the first time I’d been in Tel Aviv, the first time I rented an apartment, I was feeling very free and adventurous,” he recalls. “For me, the move there was like the backpacking trip to South America that everyone does after the army – it was my trip. We lived next to the marketplace, in insane austerity. I got by on five-shekel meals of tahini, rice and okra. But it was an amazing time.

“Yoram is a warm, humane and loving person,” says Zada Daniel about his teacher. “He’s been my mentor over the years and always pushes me forward. He believes an actor has to externalize his personality, to engage the inner being and the scars and draw them out. It’s almost like drama therapy, but wrapped in a great deal of technique. With me, it came together slowly, and it wasn’t until almost the end of my studies that I really understood what acting is all about, the complexity of the character you play.”

What’s Zohar’s complexity in “Next to Her”?

“Zohar is 34 and lives with his mother. He doesn’t do much with himself, and the encounter with Chelli gives him an opening to something else entirely. He could hightail it, but he decides to stay and take the reins in his hands. He becomes the responsible adult, and learns to stand up for what he wants. He creates a comfortable situation for himself, and the moment he lifts part of Chelli’s burden in looking after her sister, the whole [negative] dynamic that had existed until then begins to crumble.

“For Zohar, it’s the most meaningful relationship he’s ever had. He feels alive, for the first time; his personality can externalize itself, both his good-heartedness and his nerves and anger. In the movie, like in the theater and in life, the place where you can most fly off the handle is the place you feel comfortable in. You take it all out on the people who are closest to you.”

To what extent do you identify with the character of Zohar?

“I have 10 nephews and nieces, and I initially imagined Gabby [the mentally retarded sister] would be like another niece, who has to be handled in a different way. The connection with Chelli, by contrast, is not something with which I had had experience that I could bring from the outside.

“As an actor, you are always looking for parts of your personality that fit the character, and then you expand and contract them. A good actor can swallow a character trait, understand it in depth.”

Did you know Liron’s personal story?

“I learned about it when we started work on the film. All the talk about the subject was very open and flowing, at a level that actually surprised me. They are extremely open people, Asaf and Liron. I still have a ways to go in that respect. In my case, some of the personal issues are shut down; there are things I talk about, but others that I don’t. Maybe it’ll change in the future. But in acting, I’m very open, I don’t spare anything. I love to get dirty, to play the ugly characters.”

Liron and Asaf are a couple, Dana was in high school with Asaf. The three are good friends, and Dana also knows Liron’s sister, whom she plays in the movie. What was it like entering this dynamic from the outside?

“I was an outsider, both in real life and in the world of the film. Zohar is the character who enters into an existing situation. Asaf and Liron brought both him and me into their family and into their psyche. I brought my personality as it is, and it worked – I felt instantly that I didn’t need disguises. It’s a process I go through with myself: to feel comfortable in all kinds of places. That confidence doesn’t come to me naturally, I didn’t always feel comfortable.”

Between desert and city

Not long after shooting of the television series “Dolls” was completed, in 2007, Zada Daniel took what was an unusual step in his profession: He moved back to the south of the country.

“I felt like I’d emptied out, that I’d had it with Tel Aviv,” he explains. “I wanted to be connected to people, to give of myself. I went back to Arad and did volunteer work with elderly people and with young people. I cleared my head a little.” He spent three years with the Dimona Theater and lived in that town until he got the invitation to star in “Next to Her,” a development that brought him back to Tel Aviv.

“This time the move was a lot smarter,” he says. “I didn’t let Tel Aviv rattle me so much. I came here with the aim of taking what I needed and then leaving ... On the other hand, it’s not exactly like that, because things happen and opportunities show up.”

Did you find your place in Tel Aviv?

“Yes and no. I understood that I had to exploit Tel Aviv for my needs, which at the moment are mainly professional. As a human being, I would rather live in the desert, but as an actor I know that Tel Aviv is the right place to be. Anyway, I’m not in the city center, but in a relatively remote neighborhood, where I am raising my two dogs quietly.”

Until now you played relatively secondary characters. What does it feel like to move to the center of things?

“It’s a great feeling. It’s an actor’s natural ambition to play a role with a lot of heft, a rounded, complex character who goes through a process. But even before this, I played parts that looked small but were very whole and precise, like the role of a drug addict in a police series.”

What would you most like to do?

“Repertory theater. To be on the big stages of the Cameri Theater or Gesher Theater, and do Shakespeare and Chekhov. But I think that’s every actor’s dream.”
Really? There are actors whose dream is to appear in movies and become famous.
“I don’t believe that there is any actor who really loves the profession and whose big ambition is to become famous. On second thought, there really are no rules.”