'Harry Potter' Star's Greatest Trick: Playing a Convincing Israeli on Screen

Daniel Radcliffe’s portrayal of Yossi Ghinsberg in ‘Jungle’ is worthy of celebration for breaking the stereotype in Western movies that Israelis are either spies, soldiers and seductresses

Daniel Radcliffe as Yossi Ghinsberg in "Jungle."
Hector Alvarez

The audience has to endure some horrendous sights in Daniel Radcliffe’s latest movie, “Jungle,” which is based on a true story.

These include a worm being extracted from a person’s forehead (in real life there were 14 of them) and a monkey being grilled and eaten – but at least a dreadful Israeli accent isn’t one of the horrors.

As anyone who has ever heard Tom Cruise’s Irish accent in “Far and Away,” Brad Pitt’s Austrian accent in “Seven Years in Tibet” or Keanu Reeves’ allegedly English accent in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” can testify, a lousy accent can render the most serious scene comical.

So, kudos to the “Harry Potter” star for delivering a decent Israeli accent, even though it probably helped that one of his producers on set was an Israeli, Dana Lustig.

Most audiences might struggle to recognize the accent as Israeli, though, which may be why the film’s very first line has Radcliffe’s character intoning: “I left Israel in 1980 after three years in the army.”  

The film is based on the best-selling 1993 book by Yossi Ghinsberg –which was called “Back from Tuichi” in his native land, referencing the fateful river he rafted down in Bolivia. The story recounts his three hellish weeks when a trek goes disastrously wrong, leaving him lucky to be alive and this viewer grateful he watched the movie on an empty stomach.

The real Yossi Ghinsberg, in 2010.
Eyal Toueg

It’s the kind of cautionary tale any parent should make their offspring watch before heading off to South America on their gap year (the kids, not the parents). It’s also a useful reminder, if one were needed, that venturing into the deepest, darkest jungle is probably best done with maps, compasses and a semi-sane tour guide.

Radcliffe put himself through the wringer for the part: He didn’t eat for two days before shooting scenes where he had to appear emaciated – giving a whole new meaning to the term “rumble in the jungle.” (The real-life Yossi lost 35 pounds during his traumatic time there.) Yet the “Harry Potter” star cited the Israeli accent as perhaps his biggest challenge.

“It’s an accent so different from my own, and so different from any accent I’ve ever done,” he told Parade, while explaining to Newsweek that “Israeli accents are tricky for an English person – and Yossi's is even more specific than your average Israeli accent.

“I think I went to a slightly Israeli-American thing when we started filming,” he added, perhaps unaware that this is the standard Israeli accent.

When interviewed by Israeli journalist Elad Simchayoff last October, Radcliffe looked genuinely relieved when his accent earned praise. “Thank you! Now I might be able to watch the film,” he beams, adding, “I’m incredibly flattered that you thought that, because I did work incredibly hard on it.”

The truth is, Radcliffe doesn’t have a huge amount of dialogue in the film. Yossi is a man of few words, literally spending half the movie lost in the wilderness. The few words he speaks are almost all exclusively English, even when alone. Indeed, I counted only one word of Hebrew throughout: “Aba,” in a painfully on-the-nose flashback scene with his Holocaust-surviving father.

But what’s more remarkable than Radcliffe’s accent is the fact he’s simply playing a normal Israeli in an English-language movie (albeit in an abnormal situation). Much like a subdued Nicolas Cage performance, this doesn’t happen very often.

Israelis in Western movies are invariably either spies, soldiers or seductresses. Take the Adam Sandler comedy “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” (2004), which did for hummus what “Ghost” did for the potter’s wheel. The comedian played a Mossad agent-turned-hair stylist with his usual subtlety, but any film that turns a beachside game of matkot into an action-packed set-piece deserves respect.

There’s espionage without the hummus or hair gel in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” (2005), in which Eric Bana’s Mossad agent Avner is an angel of death pursuing Palestinian terrorists following the 1972 Olympic Games massacre. If the choice of a onetime Australian comedian seemed an odd choice to play the increasingly conflicted agent, it’s just following precedent: A 1986 TV movie about the same events, “Sword of Gideon,” saw fit to cast Cuba-born Steven Bauer (“Scarface”) as Avner.

Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren played the younger and older versions of the same Israeli character, Rachel, in the American remake of Israeli thriller “The Debt” (2010). It features three Mossad agents in 1960s East Berlin hunting a Nazi war criminal, and then catches up with them 30 years later in Israel. The other agents are played by Sam Worthington/Ciaran Hinds (who, despite being perhaps the least Israeli-looking person in the world, also played a Mossad operative in “Munich”) and Tom Wilkinson/Marton Csokas. The best that can be said about Mirren’s Israeli accent here is that it's slightly less painful than her Austrian one in 2015’s “Woman in Gold.”

For those of us of a certain age, Griffin Dunne will forever be the star of “An American Werewolf in London.” Yet he also played Israeli nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu in the 1990 British TV movie “Secret Weapon.” Respect to the Mossad for keeping this film secret for so long, because I’d never heard of it until researching this article.

Of course, there’s one real-life Israeli event that has been told several times on screen: The Israeli army’s daring rescue mission to release the hostages at Entebbe in 1976. The latest retelling, “7 Days in Entebbe,” is already out in the United States and is released in Israel on March 29.

While the latest version has flopped both commercially and critically, it makes some interesting casting choices with Israeli actors largely playing Israelis – i.e., Lior Ashkenazi as then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Mark Avanir as Gen. Motta Gur and Yiftach Klein as Ehud Barak. But then it goes and spoils it by picking the normally admirable British actor Eddie Marsan to portray Shimon Peres. As the critic in The Wrap wrote, Marsan’s “defense minister goes to war with the Israeli accent and loses.”

Eddie Marsan, second from left, as Defense Minister Shimon Peres and Lior Ashkenazi, second from right, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in "7 Days in Entebbe."
Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Marsan may be the sore thumb in “7 Days,” but the two English-language TV movie versions of the rescue mission, both rushed out in 1976, were even guiltier of weird casting choices.

“Raid on Entebbe” featured Peter Finch – fresh from playing the iconic Howard Beale in “Network” – in his final screen role as Rabin, Charles Bronson as Brig. Gen. Dan Shomron and James Woods as Capt. Sammy Berg. And the rival “Victory at Entebbe” was no better, giving us Burt Lancaster as Peres, Anthony Hopkins (!) as Rabin and – a year after starring in “Jaws” – Richard Dreyfuss as Yoni Netanyahu.

In the Israeli version of the story, “Operation Thunderbolt” (1977), German acting legend and all-round nutjob Klaus Kinski plays Teutonic terrorist Wilfried Boese. What’s most notable about this is that, eight years later, Kinski played Israeli intelligence officer Martin Kurtz in a big-screen adaptation of John le Carré’s “The Little Drummer Girl.” Despite the seemingly counterintuitive casting, he’s arguably the best thing in it. (Intriguingly, Michael Shannon will follow his villainous turn in “The Shape of Water” by playing Kurtz in the BBC’s upcoming small-screen adaptation of the espionage thriller.)

Then there are the seductresses: The very English Natascha McElhone (“The Truman Show”) was the unlikely choice to play Israeli doctor Sara in the 2003 U.S. drama “Laurel Canyon.” Her character avidly pursues Christian Bale’s fellow psychiatric doctor, with the New York Times assuring us that “the sexual chemistry between them crackles.”

Ironically, perhaps the worst example of an Israeli character in a Hollywood movie can be found in “Date Night” (2010). Here, a pre-“Wonder Woman” Gal Gadot gets the thankless task of playing “the hot Israeli girlfriend” whose only characteristic is to lust after her shirtless boyfriend (Mark Wahlberg). The fact an Israeli model was cast in the role makes the stereotype even more painful.

Finally, Israeli director Eran Riklis has made a couple of English-language movies with American actors playing Israeli characters. In 2012’s “Zaytoun,” Stephen Dorff (“Blade”) plays IDF fighter pilot Yoni, whose plane crashes in Beirut in 1982; he makes his escape thanks to a young Palestinian refugee who wants to see his ancestral home.

In 2011’s “Playoff,” meanwhile, Danny Huston plays Israeli basketball coach Max Stoller, who causes a stir in 1980s Israel when he opts to coach in Germany.

Like “Jungle,” “Playoff” is inspired by a real-life character – Ralph Klein, a Holocaust survivor who shocked fellow Israelis when he went to coach the West German national side in the 1980s. Daniel Radcliffe will be pleased to learn that, of the two, his accent is the best.