Israel's Soldier Actor Is All Grown Up

Ishai Golan became famous playing a boy in uniform, but in his new role, in the ultra-provocative "The Slut," he is undeniably a man.

Ishai Golan is used to playing soldiers, mostly very miserable ones. In his newest film, however, Hagar Ben-Asher's "The Slut," he has a different duty: satisfying his neighbor, a woman whose lust seems insatiable.

Ben-Asher, who both directed and starred in the film, appears opposite (and under and above) Golan, and his role includes a star turn in Israeli cinema's raunchiest sex scene to date.

We meet in Tel Aviv. A van picks us up and we drive to a nearby suburban theater, where Golan is performing in a Hebrew adaptation of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons." He's decked out in a tailored suit and reminds me that as soon as the curtain falls, we'll be haring to the film's Israeli premiere.

Golan plays the part of Shai, a sexy and enigmatic veterinarian who has just returned to his rural hometown after years away. On his return to his village he meets Tamar (Ben-Asher), a single mother who manages a chicken coop by day and methodically gratifies her male neighbors by night.

Shai, in town to settle his dead mother's estate, offers her something different, something deeper.

The film consists of scenic long shots blended with a number of sex scenes so daring that they seriously push the boundaries of modern Israeli cinema. Golan admits that he was initially hesitant about the script.

"They sent me a synopsis, and at the beginning I was even somewhat appalled," he says. He went to the auditions with no real expectations, but says that even at the early stage, it he felt something stir, as if was already invested in the project.

"The scariest thing for me was the thought that my training wasn't good enough for this part," Golan says. "Hagar was looking for something very specific, very minimalistic, which is impossible to grasp with an actor's instincts. I had to do the exact opposite of what I was used to doing – acting. It's really hard to go against every one of your instincts, but we worked at it and we rehearsed a lot. Still, it was like bungee jumping, except that you don't know at the end if your rope is actually going to hold you."

What really made the filming experience click, Golan says, was that he and Ben-Asher understand each other on a practically telepathic level.

"Really, it was like we read each other's thoughts," he says. "There was this one take where all I had to do was look through a window into a house. We did a few takes, but Hagar wasn't happy with them. And after a while, I had this naughty little thought. But it was just a thought, and it didn't change anything in my performance. And then, Hagar looks at me and she says, 'You're so naughty!' We had reached that level of transparency."

Haaretz: How long was if before you realized just how exposed this film required you to be?

"You get it pretty quickly," says Golan.

Exposure is one thing, but "The Slut" takes it to a whole new level. It seems as if Ben-Asher wanted to show the world just how sex scenes should be filmed. The film has one scene that is probably the most explicit ever filmed in Israel. Are we missing something? Because to me, it looks like penetration.

"It's the movies. It's an illusion," he explains. "Did we have sex on camera? No. Our acting technique was really refined by the time we shot that scene, after so much rehearsal and repetition. We shot that scene on our final day, when our technique was at its absolute best. It was the culmination of a long process of working together, and I felt really safe. Everyone was supporting me. Our job is to make you forget you're watching a movie, and in this scene, we did just that. The thing is, now there are all these people asking if it was real or not."

Because you see everything!

"This film has a visual beauty, and it's a bit like a smokescreen. Like a magician who's doing a trick with one hand to distract you from what he's doing with his other hand. Our integrity as actors and performers allowed both me and Hagar to believe that the scene was real. But physically, it wasn't. We do the thing itself, but it's not real," says Golan.

"There's the frame, so some things are kept out of view. Like, when someone dies in a film, everybody knows that no one was really killed, no matter how believable it is. In this film, it's easier for people to think that we really did it than it is for them to believe in our deception."

It hurts like poetry

He dearly hopes the film will get noticed for more than just that one scene (which actually had to be filmed twice because of issues to do with lighting).  

"One of the differences between art and entertainment is that art hurts," he says. "But while life hurts cruelly, movies hurt beautifully. The visuals and the aesthetics are so beautiful that it physically hurts. Like poetry."

To understand the film's impact, Golan says, you simply have to go see it. "The movie embodies that natural contradiction – that something so beautiful can be so cruel. What you get is one explosive cinematic experience. The film's message is ambiguous, like the line between beauty and pain. It's along that line where you find its true meaning. You can't talk about it, you have to see it."

I mention "Shame," Steve McQueen's NC-17-rated film about sex addiction starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

"I saw it, it was amazing," Golan says. "I think that [McQueen] is the greatest living director in the world today. And Fassbender's acting is just incredible."

I remind Golan that when most people think of "Shame" as "that film where you see Fassbender's penis."

"If that's what people want to see in 'The Slut,' let them," Golan answers. "They might get more than they were bargaining for – a movie that's deep, that's comprehensive. And then there are people who will just see ass, tits and dick and think that that's what the movie's about. It doesn't matter. I want as many people as possible to come see it, even if it's because some of them just want to see my penis. But truth be told, I don't think there are lots of people who want to."

Oh, you may be surprised. Male members seem to be quite the latest wrinkle on screen, at least since David Cronenberg made "Eastern Promises."

"So penises are the new breasts?" Golan laughs. "That just shows what a sexist world we live in."

But you've got to do some marketing. If you just go around saying that it's an artistic film, even a trailblazing film, no one will go see it.

"I think that this is a film for movie buffs. It is definitely trailblazing. It's very difficult to leave the film with a sense of apathy. It's also a movie that takes a while to sink in, because it doesn't follow those laws of cinema that we're all so used to. But it does eventually sink in after a while, and it leaves you with a feeling that is the exact opposite of tedium. That's what art is supposed to do."

Where do you draw the line between art and porn?

"This film isn't pornographic," he says clearly. "I'm certain about that. In my opinion, most of the sex scenes are anything but sexy. If this movie makes you horny, then, as artists, we have done our job because we showed you a piece of yourself. If you get turned on by a woman who whores out her body to men because she's so badly messed up herself, in an environment that is so unsupportive, and that turns you on – if all you see is porn, then that’s more a reflection of you than of the film. There's not even the pornographic illusion that she's enjoying it. If you miss out that, then you've missed the point of the movie.

Knocking on heaven's door

Ishai Golan is currently filming the second season of "Hatufim" (Prisoners of War), the Israeli drama that was the inspiration for the award-winning American series "Homeland." He's also busy with a travel program, a comedy-drama, and a healthy share of theatrical work.

Nevertheless, Golan still gets recognized as the lowly soldier he once played on the TV show "Tironoot" (Boot Camp), a role that, years later, he can't seem to shake. "That show got a lot of attention," he says. "Thanks to re-runs, it looked like I played a soldier for 15 years, and a teenage soldier at that. For many actors, the hardest thing is transitioning from kid roles into adult ones."

It didn't help Golan that his first movie part, in Uri Barbash's "Where Eagles Fly," was also that of a young soldier.

"It took years for the industry and the viewers to accept me as a grown-up," he says. "It's like their child was abducted, and he came back a man."

In real life, Golan spent his military service as a performer, during which he appeared in Amos Guttman's AIDS saga "Amazing Grace" and Shmuel Imberman's film "Overdose."

After military service he moved to London to study acting, landing a star role in the Ken Russell film "Mindbender" as Israeli psychokinesis masterUri Geller. Breakthrough was imminent.

It was a time, Golan says, of big dreams and even bigger lessons. "I was fresh out of school, in a country where there are thousands of unemployed actors, and this big agency in England took me on. The same agency represented Kate Winslet, Ewan McGregor and Helen Mirren. But life is so much more complicated than I expected. No one wanted to see me playing an Englishman or an American. They didn't even want me to play an Arab. I realized that I was knocking on heaven's door, and I didn't have the key. I realized, slowly, just how very foreign I was."

Years later, Golan now has a wife, two daughters and a successful acting career, but he still dreams of making it outside of Israel.

"I'll definitely do some work abroad. That's where I'm headed," he says. "I really like working in English, and I grew up in Canada, so I have an emotional attachment to the English language. There are some thoughts I can only express in English."

And while Golan feels no pressure to pack his bags and head to Hollywood just yet, he says he knows he will take on Tinseltown eventually.

Backstage before "All My Sons," Golan is composed. We say our goodbyes so that he may have a few minutes to himself. I take my seat to watch him in action. After the show, when all the actors bow and thank the audience, one of the cast members informs everyone that the play has just won the Israel Theater Prize for Best Translation. Emotions rise high.

We arrive at the premiere and I say goodbye to Golan. There are guests and journalists everywhere. Some of them have come to see his penis. Others, though, will leave with so much more.

Ishai Golan May 28, 2012
Tal Cohen