Doug Liman’s “Fair Game” – about the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame by the George W. Bush Administration – is earning Oscar buzz for stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. But Israeli actress Liraz Charhi also stands out for her pivotal, heartbreaking turn as Zahraa, an Iraqi expatriate whose fate devastates the tough ex-spy Plame.
In the film, Plame (Watts) flies to Cleveland in order to approach Zahraa, a physician and single mother who left her family behind to escape Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime. Plame wants Zahraa to return to Baghdad to elicit information about Iraq’s weapons arsenal from her brother, a scientist in Saddam’s nuclear program. The expatriate reluctantly agrees – only after Plame promises that once the information is secured, Zahraa’s relatives will be whisked off to safety and a new life in the United States.
But then Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson (Penn) writes a newspaper editorial refuting Bush’s claims about nuclear weapons in Iraq; the film shows the administration retaliating by leaking to the press that Plame was a spy; and all of Plame’s undercover operatives – including Zahraa’s brother and his small children – face possible torture and death. In one of the most searing scenes in “Fair Game,” a hollow-eyed Zahraa confronts Plame about her brother’s whereabouts – causing the outed spy to spiral even further into despair.
Charhi was born in Ramle and raised in Ramat HaSharon, near Herzliya, but her family hails from Iran – her parents escaped Tehran as teenagers not long before the Revolution. Recently she spoke to Journal Arts & Entertainment Editor Naomi Pfefferman Magid, from Tel Aviv, about how she landed the role, the real Dr. Zahraa, how she was banned from shooting in Cairo and more.
Naomi Pfefferman Magid: You’re known as an actress and singer in Israel, but this is your first American movie. How did you break into Hollywood films?
Liraz Charhi: The whole story with America is kind of a miracle. I was invited to appear at the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2006 with my first film, “Turn Left at the End of the World,” and of course I knew that I was in a place of dreams: for every actor it’s Hollywood. However, I didn’t expect meetings or agencies to be interested in me.
Naomi Pfefferman Magid: But you met people who ultimately introduced you to your manager, Amy Slomovits, who is based in the States.
Liraz Charhi: Amy sent in my audition tape to the “Fair Game” casting director, Joseph Middleton, who was casting from Cairo. I had to do a Skype audition with him afterward, which was very funny. And two days later he asked me to fly to Jordan to meet the director, Doug Liman, which was a little bit shocking. It was the last two days of Passover, and there were no flights out of Israel. But my agent said, you’ll be in Jordan today – and she arranged for me to cross the border and to travel to central Amman in two taxis, a journey of eight hours. I met Doug Liman in the production office 10 minutes before he was supposed to leave for New York. And the instant I walked into the room, I could immediately sense he was not very happy to see me. He was very gentle of course, but I was sensitive because he gave a look to the casting director, the subtext meaning, ‘What the hell is she doing here? We were talking about how she wasn’t good for the role.’
NPM: What was the problem?
LC: Joseph Middleton said my audition tapes were very good, but I wasn’t what they had expected, and that I would have to prove myself more because of the way I look – they had something else in mind….He told me [for subsequent auditions] not to wear any makeup, and to be as natural as possible because the director expected my character not to be glamorous: she is a woman who had had a lot of trouble in life – she’s exhausted by life. Two days later Amy called me – as it turned out she had just given birth and was still in the hospital labor room – to tell me I had the part. And the funny thing is, when I had finished shooting my scenes Doug thanked me and said, “I have a confession to make. [Initially] I was pretty sure you were not the Zahraa I wanted.” And we both laughed.”
NPM: What kind of research did you do to prepare for the role?
LC: I did read everything I could find about Valerie, her story and her family. And I found an Iraqi [Jew] in Israel who arrived from Baghdad about 15 years ago – around the time Zahraa arrived in Cleveland. And I took from her every single memory that could help me build my character. I also looked for the real Zahraa; they told me her real name so I read a couple of articles about her and even found her on Facebook. But I didn’t suggest any kind of friendship. I understand from her interviews that she doesn’t really like to touch on that part of her past.
NPM: What memories provided by your Iraqi Jewish friend helped shape your interpretation of the character?
LC: The most powerful thing was the idea that you are losing your life and your family in a second. You’re choosing to leave Iraq because you want to have a normal, quiet life and you think you’re coming to this new place and are going to be happy, but you are also choosing to give up your family, your brothers, sisters, parents and that breaks you all the time. And you’re thinking, “Maybe I didn’t do the right thing, maybe I should go back.” What I chose for my character, in my own mind, is that she is returning home and doing this dangerous mission in order to bring her brother to the United States. It’s something she does for him, but also for herself – to have her family back. This breaking point is not leaving her. I thought about this a lot: What made Zahraa go back to Baghdad? I needed to get inside her journey.
NPM: Did you feel any more personal connections to your character?
LC: I remember when I first read the script I immediately started to cry; when I auditioned, I thought: I must be able to do this role, because I can feel it inside my soul. I could relate to Zahraa’s story – not because I endured what she did—but because hers is a story of immigration and the difficulties of immigration, and I know these stories from my own family. In “Turn Left at the End of the World” I also played an immigrant, an Indian Jewish girl who moves to Israel and settles in a town of Moroccan Jews.
NPM: When did your family leave Iran for Israel?
LC: Thank God most of them left before everything collapsed; they felt they couldn’t bear to be Jewish [under the Muslim regime] so most of them left three to five years before they would have been forced to stay. My mother’s family already had relatives in Israel so that was easier, but my father’s family had to escape very quickly [due to the Iranian Revolution in 1979]. My father found out he was going to have to leave his country and his friends just 24 hours before he had to go, which was kind of a traumatic thing for him, until today. And other family members stayed and had to escape through other countries, and it was troubling for them. I can tell you my family for years was practically inside the TV news every night, being shocked about what was happening in Iran and also in Iraq.
NPM: Growing up in Ramat HaSharon, when did you start working as an actress?
LC: From the age of 11 to 14 I worked professionally on the stage, in Habima—National Theater of Israel and elsewhere, but it was tough for me as a child not to have a normal life. I was very, very shy, and there was too much tension and too much criticism from the outside and criticism from myself. So then I took the simpler [road] of a girl who wants to be in the industry, which was taking voice lessons and acting and piano and dancing lessons, and performing at my high school. And I was a singer in a band in the Army, studied acting intensively at university and did some TV before my first movie, “Turn Left at the End of the Road,” which turned out to be one of the most successful Israeli films of all time. And all the clichéd things of becoming famous overnight happened to me – it was kind of a crazy and exciting experience and led to more film offers and my career.
NPM: When I spoke with Doug Liman, he said Egyptian officials threatened to revoke the film’s permits if he brought you, an Israeli actress, to shoot on the set in Cairo. Liman cast the Egyptian actor, Khaled Nabawy, as Zahraa’s brother, which he said was also a problem: officials threatened to ban Khaled from working again if he acted in a scene with you—even a scene shot in another country.
LC: I was very surprised because as far as I know, Israel and Egypt have peace. But in the end it didn’t really matter, because Doug moved those scenes to Amman and then I met Khaled, we had our shooting days, and everything went well. When we were at the Cannes film festival, we did the red carpet together, taking pictures. But the Egyptian press had lots of problems with that, unfortunately.
NPM: Did Naomi Watts talk to you about her visit to Israel with Liev Schreiber and their two children?
LC: When we were shooting in New York, she said she really wanted to visit Israel one day. I invited her—but she joked that she couldn’t go before Liev because he’s Jewish. But then she had a one week break between production in Jordan and Malaysia, and she arranged for her kids and her husband to come to Israel. They had a trip of four days, and I met her once for dinner in Tel Aviv. I know she really enjoyed Israel and wants to travel here again. And she was so kind when she had press interviews and spoke very nicely about being in Israel and working with me as an Israeli actress.