The Jerusalem Post
Amir Khoury is poised to be Israel’s next big star
Amir Khoury is having a good week. On Sunday night, the in-demand actor went to a preview screening of Avi Nesher’s new film, Image of Victory, in which he has a starring role as an Egyptian journalist embedded with frontline troops in the War of Independence.
The movie, which will not be released until the fall, is already generating a great deal of buzz, with some calling it Nesher’s best movie ever.
And on Tuesday night he appeared in the lead role of Hilmi, a Palestinian artist living in Brooklyn who falls in love with a Jewish Israeli woman (played by Avigail Harari), in a theatrical adaptation of Dorit Rabinyan’s novel All the Rivers (called Gader Haya in Hebrew, a novel that was the focus of controversy when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, then education minister, banned it from being taught as part of the school curriculum in 2015) at the Cameri Theater, the first time the play was staged following the outbreak of the pandemic.
When we spoke Wednesday afternoon, he was planning on having a relaxing day before performing the play again – twice – that evening. It will be at the Cameri another few times throughout the summer.
And he is in rehearsals for another play, an Arabic-language version of Don Quixote, in which he will perform the role of Sancho Panza at the Alhaneen Theater in Nazareth, with Carlos Gharzuzi, an old friend of his, playing the Don, which will open in August.
You might expect that an actor riding this kind of a wave would be a bit arrogant, but the trilingual Khoury, who chose to do our interview in English, is thoughtful, soft-spoken and careful with his words, explaining, “I tend to overthink things.”
His role in Gader Haya is very much on his mind.
“It was my best one ever, my best performance,” he said.
He acknowledged that not being able to act on stage for about a year due to the pandemic had been tough, which made the performance especially sweet.
“My friends came; it was great,” he said. “Every show is almost sold out. People have to wear masks, but they don’t mind; the audience was very enthusiastic.”
Khoury, a Haifa native, is already known
to international audiences through his roles in the second season of Fauda; the 2018 BBC adaptation of John le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl; and the feature film 7 Days in Entebbe.
In Israel, he has performed in a number of plays and television series, including Charlie Golf One (known in Hebrew as Taagad).
But he seems poised to break through as a major international star when Image of Victory begins its journey around the world.
I WAS able to catch a screening of the film, in which Khoury’s character is central and narrates the film.
His story bookends the drama and brings together the two sides of the story – the residents of Kibbutz Nitzanim, who are pushed in 1948 by the Jewish leaders to hold their ground against the approaching Egyptian onslaught, and the Egyptian soldiers themselves.
Khoury is a standout in a cast that reads like a who’s who of Israeli cinema, featuring Joy Rieger, Ala Dakaa, Tom Avni, Elisha Banai, Meshi Kleinstein, Hisham Suliman and many others.
The movie is a suspenseful, sometimes funny and ultimately heartbreaking antiwar film, which dramatizes the Israeli and Egyptian experiences of the war side by side.
The Jewish side has its romances, its tragic backstory (some of the characters are Holocaust survivors), its joys and conflicts – and so does the Egyptian side.
Khoury plays Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, an Egyptian journalist who, embedded with the troops to direct newsreels, fought against the propaganda machine he served, trying to tell the truth about the war. Khoury plays him during the war, and then in the late ’70s, when he is forced to come to grips with the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
While Khoury is clearly a greatly talented actor, in Image of Victory he also projects a magnetic screen presence, the mark of a true movie star. When he is on screen, you can’t look at anyone or anything else.
Nesher could not be more effusive in his praise for Khoury: “He’s like a young Omar Sharif. He was a joy to work with .... Israeli audiences are going to go nuts over this Arab actor playing an Egyptian during the War of Independence.”
Nesher, who in his over 40 years in the Israeli film industry has directed many of the country’s most acclaimed actors, explained, “I don’t do conventional auditions. I get to know who they are as people; actors are my collaborators .... And Amir helped me to make the Egyptian side of the story more accurate. I told him not to pull any punches. He has a very distinct outlook, and we found a middle ground of complete trust .... Amir helped me create empathy for both sides.”
Nesher noted that Khoury “plays a director making his first film, and, coincidentally or not, he was the same age I was when I made The Troupe [Nesher’s first movie, made in 1978]. He truly became my collaborator.”
For his part, Khoury said, “It was a pleasure working with Avi. With his confidence, calmness, empathy and humor, he directed me perfectly and encouraged me to strive for authenticity.”
Khoury helped the director find an Egyptian scholar and translator who was living in Israel, whom Khoury met in church and who worked to refine the dialogue and plot.
Khoury found speaking in an Egyptian accent “a challenge. I really worked to get it right.”
Working on the body language and the voice of the character when he is in his late forties was also new for the 25-year-old actor.
He found himself identifying with his character. “He fights to tell the real story from his perspective, and I try to react truthfully when I’m acting.”
The fact that Heikel directs newsreels also touched Khoury, who is a photographer and whose family has a wedding photography business, where he still works when he can.
HIS PARENTS were supportive when he decided to study acting, he said, and his sister, Rana Khoury, is a professional singer who specializes in classic Arabic music.
“It was so easy, getting into the arts,” he said. “My mom always knew, even when I was a kid, that the best way for me to express myself was by performing – singing, dancing, miming and acting.”
He studied acting at the Performing Arts Studio run by Yoram Loewenstein, where he began getting roles when he was still a student. Comfortable acting in three languages, he does not dwell on the challenges of being an Arab actor in Israel, but he does not deny them, either.
“When you are playing Arab characters in Israel, most of the time they [the scripts] are dealing with the characters’ nationality more than their humanity,” he said.
He finds it important to continue acting in Arab-language projects for the Arab community, such as Don Quixote.
“It’s always meaningful, it’s absurd and funny, and talks a lot about the human need to be in control, that everybody needs to feel they can rule,” he said.
One realm in which no one has complete control is press coverage, and, for a time, his personal life became tabloid fodder.
Two years ago, he was romantically involved with actress Alona Saar, who has the lead role in the series Dismissed, and who happens to be the daughter of Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. The two are no longer together, but back in 2019, when Alona, Khoury’s former acting-school classmate, posted photos of herself with Khoury on her Instagram account in 2019 (including one of Khoury with the caption “Great love”), it ignited a social media storm.
The anti-coexistence group Lehava called on Gideon Sa’ar to break up his daughter’s relationship, which prompted the politician to protest that his daughter’s personal life should be off-limits.
Given Khoury’s success both in Israel and abroad, he does not rule out taking more roles overseas. Pressed as to what kinds of roles he might like to play, Khoury admitted he would enjoy the opportunity to perform Shakespeare, mentioning Iago in Othello as a character he would like to try to play.
“I’ve been inspired a lot by Shakespeare, the soliloquies where the characters break the fourth wall to speak to the audience,” he said. “Whether it’s onstage or in front of the camera, I’m in love with acting.”