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February 2012

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Oded Fehr’s Holy War, The Jewish Week 2005

Oded Fehr’s Holy War
The Israeli actor portrays a Muslim terrorist pretending to be a Jew in Showtime’s new miniseries ‘Sleeper Cell.’ The role took its toll.
Liel Leibovitz - The Jewish Week - December 2, 2005

When he accepted the role of Fariq, the leader of a Los Angeles-based terrorist ring in Showtime’s upcoming drama “Sleeper Cell,” Oded Fehr knew he was in for a challenge.

It wasn’t that Fehr, 35, a native of Tel Aviv and a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, found it odd to portray an Islamic fundamentalist devoted to executing a deadly chemical attack; after all, his distinctively Middle Eastern good looks have often contributed to his being typecast as anything from a mysterious nomad (“The Mummy”) to a menacing pimp (“Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo”).

“Sleeper Cell,” however, presented an entirely different challenge: To maintain his cover, Fariq poses as a Sephardic Jewish man who is so active in the community that he even coaches the local shul’s little league soccer team.

“This was the most challenging role I’ve ever played,” Fehr told The Jewish Week. “To play someone who is pretending to be who I am – a Jewish man – and yet is uncomfortable in his own skin, that was a little bit hard.”

And yet, it’s a challenge Fehr overcame elegantly. When Fariq is not delivering impassioned speeches about the evils of American and Israeli policy, he davens, kvells and kibitzes with natural ease. Which, Fehr added, is precisely what makes the show’s premise so scary.

“It’s one of those things that when we sat down with the writers, I said we should make this as scary as possible,” he said. “The last person you would ever think is a terrorist is a terrorist. The little league is as far as you can take it — this is the guy who is training your children, and he’s a terrorist.”

Such minor details lend “Sleeper Cell,” despite its often-stale dialogue and convoluted plotlines, an eerily realistic feel. Told from the point of view of Darwyn al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy), a young Muslim FBI agent who infiltrates Fariq’s cell in order to thwart its plans, the 10-part series often feels like a retread of a thousand television thrillers past, with plot twists and narrative lines that are likely to be familiar to anyone who has watched a television drama in the past three decades.

However, when it veers away from the terrorist conspiracy and focuses on shedding light on the cell’s members, it is raw and unsettling. Fariq and his men are utterly believable as ordinary Angelenos. A grocery store cashier, a university student, fathers and husbands and friends, the would-be terrorists are perfect facsimiles of ordinary people, a fact that infuses their most mundane interactions — a drink in a bar, a child’s birthday party — with a sense of impending doom.

To overcome the tension, Fehr said, he had to apply an intricate thespian theoretical device: Think happy thoughts.

“Obviously,” he said, “I don’t believe anything I say on the show, but I had to be convincing when I said it. What I tried to do, then, is try to think about the one thing that I believe in the most. I believe my family is important, so I tried to think of them when I said his lines, as if I was trying to convince them of whatever it is I was saying.”

But the method, Fehr added, could not address another major challenge of portraying an arch-terrorist: The need for violence, an inseparable part of every villain’s repertoire.

“The violence was extremely hard,” Fehr said, “especially because I’m the most nonviolent person in the world.” Some scenes, he admitted, tested his nerves and his acting skills alike. As the cell’s ruthless commander, summary executions, spontaneous beatings and occasional shootings were all written into his script. Fehr cringed each time.

One scene, for example, features the execution of a cell member who endangered the mission by bragging about it to his uncle. Fehr, as Fariq, forces the man to dig a hole in the ground and cover himself in dirt until his head alone is visible; then, he and the cell’s other members, following an ancient Muslim tradition, stone the man to death. When the scene was shot, a stuntman took the place of the actor, and large pieces of sponge were used to simulate rocks. Still, Fehr’s stomach was turning.

“I could barely do it,” he said. “Even though the rocks were made out of sponge, the stuntman still couldn’t protect himself, he was stuck in the ground. It was hard to throw a sponge at the guy’s face, because I felt it could still hurt him.”

Despite such reservations, and his own background as an Israeli, Fehr’s Fariq is a tour de force; he prowls and teases, smiles and scoffs, saying and doing even the most unspeakable things with the endless elegance that Hollywood seldom permits anyone but its greatest on-screen heroes. All that makes his portrayal of Fariq triply menacing: He is not a psychopathic terrorist who enjoys violence for its own sake, but, as Fehr said, “someone so committed to his cause that he would go to any extreme to do it.” When he orders, for example, the murder of a young Muslim woman who has been dating a white, Christian boy, or the execution of a moderate imam who he fears may hamper his chances of recruiting future terrorists, he does so with a frightening, amoral ease that makes his character all the more formidable.

To think, then, that Fehr almost turned down the role.

“At first I was told about it by my agent without reading it,” he said, “and I passed. They said, there’s a show on Showtime about a terrorist cell in L.A., and they want you for the head terrorist. I said, ‘I’m not interested.’”

He added that while his breakthrough role as the Arab nomad, Ardeth Bay, in the hit movie “The Mummy,” has turned him into a working actor, it was followed almost exclusively by offers to portray a string of typecast characters. “I was the go-to guy whenever anyone wanted a terrorist,” he joked. For that reason, he added, “Sleeper Cell” seemed like a bad career move.

Encouraged by his agent and by his family back in Israel, Fehr nonetheless agreed to read the script for the show’s pilot. “The minute I read it,” he said, “I realized we’re talking about a wonderfully written show.” Fariq was born.

Fehr is not the only Jewish actor on “Sleeper Cell” finding himself in an unlikely role. The same could be said for Gary Levine.

Better known as Showtime’s executive vice president of original programming, Levine green-lighted the series, not expecting ever to cross the artistic divide and appear on camera. But when the script called for a cantor — one of the series’ opening scenes takes place inside a shul — Levine, a chazzan, found himself in demand.

“Knowing I was a cantor,” he said, “they corralled me to be the cantor in the first episode. I needed to figure out what prayer to chant that was in the public domain, that didn’t require the congregation – played by a bunch of extras who didn’t know the prayers – to sing along, and that would allow the congregation, according to the script’s needs, to sit down. I ended up doing the Chatzi Kaddish.”

His on-screen performance aside, Levine said he was proud of “Sleeper Cell,” and hoped that, either despite or because of its explosive subject matter, it would resonate well with viewers. The show’s creators, he said, have gone to great lengths to ensure that the series is authentic in its portrayal of terrorist cells on the one hand, and not offensive to Muslims on the other.

“Our executive producers had done a careful job of vetting the script with the Muslim community and law-enforcement community,” he said. “They wanted to be authentic. The response from the Muslim community has been positive, because our hero is a devout Muslim, and even as he dedicates himself to stopping the extremist Jihadist terrorists, he never wavers in his Muslim faith. I don’t think there has ever been a television drama with a Muslim in the lead. Of course, the Muslim community’s preference would be to have a series with Muslims in it that has nothing to do with terrorism. That’s a fair request, but it’s just not what this show is about.” n

“Sleeper Cell” premieres 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, and will be shown daily through Sunday, Dec. 18.