An actor with a familiar face has been roaming the streets of Tel Aviv in recent months. Some people know him as Andy Botwin in the TV series “Weeds.” Others know him from an earlier period, as Barto in “Jack & Jill.” Aficionados know him as Prior Walter in HBO’s “Angels in America.” The actor Justin Kirk has been in Israel filming the FX drama-thriller series “Tyrant,” coproduced by Israel’s Keshet Broadcasting media group and U.S. production company Fox 21. The series was created by Gideon Raff (“Prisoners of War”) and Howard Gordon (“Homeland”), and filmed in studios set up outside Kfar Sava.
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Haaretz was granted rare access to the secret set of “Tyrant,” without a cameraman, closely followed around by one of the production workers. Even though he wasn’t being filmed that day, Kirk offered to accompany me. During our visit, a scene was being shot in the bedroom of the main character, Barry Al Fayeed (Adam Rayner), with his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan). The director of the episode is David Petrarca, a TV veteran who previously directed several episodes of “Game of Thrones.” Most of the crew were Israeli. Many of the actors were Israeli or Palestinian, including Moran Atias, Ashraf Barhom, Salim Dau and Mohammad Bakri.
The main character is the son of the leader of a fictional state, Abbudin, in the Middle East. He left for the United States many years ago, and the first episode is concerned with his return to Abbudin, with his wife and two children, in order to attend a cousin’s wedding. Certain events cause him to stay. Kirk plays the part of John Tucker, a mysterious American diplomat. He looks after his private interests as well as American ones.
Kirk says he receives the script of each episode before filming, but that he has no idea what will really evolve during shooting. Despite our excitement over the possibility of watching the filming, Haaretz was politely requested to leave the set. The creators of a thriller don’t need an inquisitive reporter who might spill the beans.
A few days earlier, we met at a café in Jaffa, not far from a location in which mass gatherings and unruly demonstrations were being filmed. The location is meant to resemble Tahrir Square in Cairo. Kirk arrives on a bicycle – a sign of quick and successful acclimatization. However, he still has much to learn, such as whether the tehina that is being served is some kind of cheese. “The food is really phenomenal. The drinking is pretty intense. There’s a few of us that have lots of time off, and we spend time together and go out at night. So that, and my bicycle, is my life in Tel Aviv,” says Kirk.
He was born in 1969 in Salem, Oregon, and grew up in Minnesota. He says he always wanted to be an actor, without really knowing why. At 20 he moved to New York and started his acting career. He moved to Los Angeles when he was recruited to the cast of “Jack & Jill.” The character he plays in the current series is very different to the anarchic and light-headed Andy Botwin, the carousing and stoned bachelor in “Weeds.” “He has a good job, he wears suits. Probably smokes less pot, but who knows? Like I said, I’m still figuring out who this guy [Tucker] is,” Kirk relates. “It’s very interesting to me, these guys who move somewhere far away from home for their job and end up living there. I think it changes a person a lot.”
Do you see a connection between the characters you play?
“That stuff is none of my business, you know. I’ve never said, ‘I’m looking for this kind of part, I’m looking for this sort of show.’ My favorite part is the kind that says, ‘Oh look, now you’re moving to Tel Aviv.’ The best part is when you get the offer and then decide to take the job; the stuff that you never imagined. So, of course, when you’re an actor – unless you’re Peter Sellers or Daniel Day-Lewis, maybe Sacha Baron Cohen – you’re going to be bringing a hothead brother-in-law or American diplomat. You’re bringing the essence of yourself to it, but you certainly can’t think like that. I wouldn’t want to, and I would hope that those parts are all different. But there’s a reason you get cast, probably. They say, ‘I could see him doing this.’ But I think that mine have been, hopefully, a fairly wide range of stuff. Yeah, it’s actually something that’s mysterious. I don’t think about it too much. I try to commune with the [script] and imagine the world and this person, and the personal circumstances in his life. And then you put the clothes on, and then you start talking. And sometimes your accent is different – not in this case – your hair or the way you walk, and then you hope it sort of starts to take some sort of form. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s interesting to watch some television shows where you’ll see the pilot and you’ll see an actor start to figure it out. And by episode five, the character has really become something.”
Are there things actors do in order to create a persona they present to the world?
“Me personally, I think it’s better to not build a persona. I think more of longevity. I’m not on Twitter. I like to read other people’s Twitter; I think Twitter is cool, but I don’t have anything to talk about except my job. I may be very old-fashioned in thinking that way, because clearly that’s a way that a lot of people are doing it. I really think it’s mostly just that the people casting don’t have a lot of imagination, so it’s pretty much if you did something that a lot of people cared about, it might lead to another.
“Having said that, I did this thing called ‘Angels in America’ years ago, that was a big thing to do and I didn’t work for over a year after. It was a crazy time because I did this thing with these people like [director] Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep, and the play was the play of my generation. In other words, it couldn’t have been bigger. I was fairly fragile from ‘Jack & Jill,’ so it felt like a lot. It was very stressful and then when I didn’t get a job, it was weird, because everywhere I went people would be like, ‘Wow, you must’ve hit every script in town’.”
The curse of success?
“Yeah, it doesn’t necessarily go like that. There are many stories of someone who got a big prize, but you didn’t hear from them for a couple of years. So there’s no rhyme or reason to it.”
Are you stressed by periods in which you don’t have steady work?
“I’m not anxious about my career, if that’s what you mean. I try to keep my focus. Your worst instincts think about those things, but if you just remember to try and be a better actor every day, the rest will be what it will be.”
That’s the answer of a perfect person.
“Well, I didn’t say I always live by it. But after a while, it’s the only real answer. The rest of the stuff will kill you. And honestly, only the real happiness comes from knowing that you’re getting better at what you do. The rest of it is just random.”