MICHAEL Aloni keeps steering me away from discussing his role as Akiva in Shtisel.
For the uninitiated, Shtisel is the low-budget Israeli soap opera, released earlier this year on Netflix, that unexpectedly took the world by storm.
Screened in Hebrew on Israeli TV between 2013-2016 and dubbed in English for Netflix, it is set in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim district.
I ask him: “When you first saw the script what did you feel?”
Aloni, aged 34, pauses, as if puzzled. before responding: “It’s a good question, but which script are you talking about?”
Equally puzzled, since he knows I’m interviewing him in advance of his forthcoming appearances on behalf of JNF UK in Manchester and London, and it is Shtisel for which he is known on these shores, I say: “Shtisel.”
“Oh, Shtisel,” Aloni repeats. “But is this interview only about Shtisel because I think we’re talking about a wider subject.
“I want to talk about other experiences and how art can affect the world.”
Aloni is well aware of the massive impact on frum and non-frum, but seems not to want typecasting as the naive, gentle, love-seeking artist who eschews shidduchim and has fallen for a charedi widow with children.
When I promise to discuss his wider career later in the interview, Aloni gushes: “Shtisel was an amazing script. I immediately thought it was one of the best things I’d read and I was really intrigued by the subject and how people would receive it.
“It’s not like When Heroes Fly [an Israeli series about an ex-soldier on a risky mission to find his lost friend], where I immediately thought everyone would watch it.
“With Shtisel, it was a bit different. I thought maybe it was aimed at a very specific audience but then it received many awards, many acclaims and people were saying how great a show it is — and now we’re getting love around the world.
“So it’s a unique and very specific story that has the ability to reach such a wide audience.”
Aloni, who is secular, irreligious, and single, is so convincing in the role that he has received offers of marriage from within the charedi community.
He and other cast members have all the mannerisms, the intonation and a perfect command of Yiddish.
How did he get it so right? Not quite, as reported in some quarters, that he lived with a charedi family for weeks.
“We wanted to make it as authentic as possible, actually doing a charedi Shabbat in Mea Shearim.
“We were constantly coming in and out over the weekends and during the week.”
Were those he was observing happy for him to be there?
Aloni doesn’t actually answer, but observes: “It’s a very interesting fact that all the ultra-Orthodox people watched Shtisel on their kosher phones.”
He admitted that their research included watching charedi couples on dates in hotel lobbies.
A rabbi taught the cast prayers and familiarised them with Jewish law.
Akiva’s peyot were partly his own during the first part of season one. His beard definitely was, but hosting the Israeli TV show The Voice meant he had to revert to being clean shaven.
Aloni added: “We wanted to make sure it’s not about looking into those closed gates of a community.
“It’s a story about humanity and about people. Akiva has a very poetic soul trying as an artist struggling to put his truth out there.”
Aloni believes that Shtisel will change opinions on charedim. “We are dealing with the same issues. It doesn’t matter if you don’t wear a hat or grow peyot,” he said.
“Akiva is so far from my world. Only 30 minutes away in distance, but a whole world away in our lives.
“It was exciting as an actor to step into a world that you don’t know, to be exposed to a whole new, totally different culture.
“The power of the show is that it takes something secret and closed and shows that it’s not so shut off from the rest of us.
“As an artist, I relate to the dreams and hopes that Akiva has, that we all have.
“It’s always intriguing to go into a different world as an actor. It’s always the kind of roles that I’m inspired by.”
I aver that perhaps part of Shtisel’s appeal is that we can all recognise someone we know in each of the characters.
“I’m guessing a good series always does that,” says Aloni.
The burning question for Shtisel fans is: Will there be a third series? Contrary to rumours, nothing has been confirmed yet.
Aloni remains very steif: “I don’t know. I can’t confirm it or deny it.”
But is he confident we haven’t seen the last of Akiva & co?
“I really don’t know,” he counters, adding: “We all want a third season to happen, audience and cast.”
Has he been approached to film a third season?
“I can’t really say anything about it,” he insists.
Can we remain hopeful at least?
“B’ezrat Hashem,” he responds, very much as Akiva might.
Aloni wants to talk about his other roles though, pointing out that Akiva was not necessarily the hardest.
In Out in the Dark, he plays an Israeli man who falls in love with a Palestinian of the same sex.
“These are the kind of things where you go and enter this world you’re not familiar with,” he points out.”
In Where Heroes Fly he had to travel to Colombia and film outdoors with a Colombian crew.
He wants to talk about Our Boys, one of his two latest film projects.
Currently showing on HBO, it concerns the revenge kidnapping and murder of a 16-year-old Palestinian after the murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.
I ask him where he was born, surprised that English is not his mother tongue, given his American accent and command of it.
Born in Tel Aviv, the city he loves, he has lived in Israel all his life.
But perhaps his perfect English results from the fact that his parents lived in Australia for a decade and English was always spoken at home.
Aloni wanted to be a scientist and says that he became an actor by accident. “Something happened on the way,” he said.
A casting director asked him to audition for a role in a production that became a hit in Israel.
He acted for two years and realised it was what he really wanted to do.
“I decided that to do it properly I would do it as a scientist and go to acting school.”
Aloni, who first trod the boards in a Hebrew production of Dosteovesky’s The Idiot at Tel Aviv’s Habima Theatre, would dearly love the opportunity to appear in a serious production in London’s West End.
He takes every opportunity to take in the theatre whenever he visits the capital.
Does he agree that the theatre is about real acting?
“Capturing a true moment on the screen is equally amazing as standing on stage. The action’s the same but the reaction is different,” says Michael.
“They’re both equally amazing but I would definitely say that rehearsals and the materials you are dealing with on stage are something like a home for actors.
“You can go and do all the projects for the big or the small screen and still come back home and do a stage performance. It’s the home and the heart of acting.”
But he stresses that however tough a role Akiva might have seemed, appearing in Out in The Dark as a gay Israeli who falls in love with a gay Palestinian was no easy task.
Or appearing in Bent at the Habima Theatre, a play revolving around the persecution of gays which takes place during and after the Night of the Long Knives.
“To dive into that period of time, I wouldn’t use the word difficult, just interesting and challenging to go and to get more familiar with all the aspects of what it means.”
There have been some light-hearted moments in Michael’s career, notably dubbing two Paddington films in Hebrew, and he’s looking forward to doing a third.
“It was such a great work, such a great film and I was so honoured to be the Israeli voice of Paddington,” he said.
Working with him was none other than Nechama Rivlin, the late wife of Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin. She was the voice of the judge’s wife in the second film.
“She loved the series of books and she read them to her grandchildren,” recalled Michael.
“She was such a big fan and she was so informal and came to work with such joy.
“It was just wonderful to meet her and work with her. She could just for a second take off the hat of the first lady and come and do something for fun and for a good cause.
“She was cast for it because the people who were dubbing it knew she loved Paddington so much that they approached her.”
Aloni is looking for investors for a new comedy film on the issue of eating disorders and would love to do a modern production of Chekhov’s My Dream.
His dream role would be Richard III “in 15 years time”.
How does he spend his spare time? “I have just about the right amount of time to take Bruce for a walk.”
Bruce is a midget Rottweiler who already enjoys a huge following on Instagram.
No spare time? Well, not strictly true, because Aloni can often be found surfing near Jaffa.
“I love surfing,” he says, “which is why I always tend to be very close to the sea.”
* JNF UK is holding An Evening with Michael Aloni in Manchester on Monday, September 16 (7.30-10.30pm). For tickets visit jnf.co.uk/aloni or phone 0208 732 6100.
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