ABOVE: ADAM BAKRI IN NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 2014. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GABELLO.
Newcomers Lupita Nyong’o and Adam Bakri share a lot in common: Besides having talent and good looks in spades, the pair are on a fast track to stardom with first-time roles in two Oscar-nominated features—12 Years a Slave and Palestine’s foreign-language contender, Omar—that they scored while just barely out of acting school in 2012. In Omar, Bakri’s titular young baker-turned-freedom fighter endures unspeakable brutality; his merciless torture by Israeli intelligence agents underscores the dark reality for Palestinians who attempt resistance in the Occupied Territories. But despite Omar‘s portrait of the impossible choices faced by political informants and coerced collaborators in the West Bank, Bakri and the film’s director, Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now), maintain that this tragic tale of betrayal—which opened nationwide on Friday—is really a love story. Certainly Bakri’s quiet intensity brings dimension to the soulful, beleaguered Omar as he courts his habibi, Nadia, making this performance one of the most interesting breakouts of the year and the magnetic 25-year-old a face to watch. And, just like red-carpet darling Nyong’o, come March 2, the stylish New York-based actor is expected to attend the Academy Awards wearing Prada.
After a whirlwind 48-hour press trip to Miami last week, the Israeli-born Bakri stepped out on one of the balmiest New York days in months to talk Method acting, scaling walls, and how he perfected his American accent.
HOMETOWN: Yafa, Israel. I’m a Palestinian Israeli.
EDUCATION: I double-majored in English Literature and Theater Arts at Tel Aviv University before moving to New York. Then I trained at Lee Strasberg for another two years. It’s Method acting there—that’s what they like to call it—but I don’t believe in that. I do believe in technique, but I don’t believe that it’s this one-two-three method and then you become a great actor. Talent comes first.
CURRENT LOCATION: I live in the East Village, although I’ve been traveling a lot for Omar, so I didn’t really get the time to live the life of the New Yorker who’s not in school and is just a New Yorker, basically.
WELL-TIMED: Literally a day after my graduation I sent my first audition tape to a casting director for Omar, and a week after I flew to Israel for another series of auditions. I was called back, like, 13 times, doing my scenes over and over and over with 13 different Nadias, and I eventually got the part.
ALL IN THE FAMILY: My dad’s an actor, as are my two brothers. I grew up going to my dad’s theater rehearsals and being on set, so my choice to become an actor sank in very naturally. I also saw a lot of foreign movies and local theater when I was a kid, so that definitely created a passion for this whole world of performance. By the age of 15, I had it in clear in my mind that this was what I was going to do.
LANGUAGE EXCHANGE: My English comes from going back and forth all the time between the U.S. and Israel as a kid. It’s weird: I just met someone who’s been here for 20-something years and he’s got the thickest accent I’ve ever heard. But as an actor, I observe, and I’ve got a good ear for it. For Omar, there was a very slight West Bank accent that I had to pick up that’s slightly different from my Arabic. It’s like here where people from Brooklyn speak differently than people in Manhattan.
GARÇON!: I loathe waiting tables. I did it back in Tel Aviv, but I don’t wait tables here. It’s horrible—dealing with customers, the cook, your boss. People not tipping you. I really hated it. I’d do anything else besides wait tables!
NO FRILLS: We had a very limited budget for the movie, which was challenging. We needed more people in the crew, and I needed a trailer, for instance. I found myself a lot of times sitting on the street preparing for my next scene and struggling to focus with hundreds of people around. I missed the privacy that actors would want on set. We didn’t have that because we didn’t have the money.
REACHING NEW HEIGHTS: I did the majority of my stunts. The only thing that I didn’t do was climb the second half of the Israeli-West Bank separation wall. There was a circus guy that we hired to do that because it’s a huge wall. So I climbed about half of it and then they would put up a ladder and he would climb the other half. Scaling the wall was almost impossible if you’re not from the circus. It’s really hard! Actually, they didn’t put a ladder for him. He was amazing. [laughs] He was phenomenal. There was a day when we were shooting and it was freezing cold, like below zero, so I really felt pity for the guy. He was putting all this pressure on his hands and they were turning blue and he could barely move them. There’s also another crazy jump Omar does in the movie that a stunt double did. But I did do most of them. I had a very intense workout schedule before filming, and I ran a lot to prepare so I was ready by the time of the shoot.
BACKGROUND NOISE: In the West Bank, we filmed for a couple days in a refugee camp called El Faraa. The people there are not used to having outsiders come shoot something in their town, so for them it was like an event. We would wake up every morning at five a.m. and would have crowds of people around. Some of them became skeptical about us and they were like, “Why are they shooting?” “Are they making us look bad?” For instance, we were filming a funeral scene and these kids started throwing sound bombs at us. I don’t even know what a sound bomb is made out of exactly, but it looks like a real bomb and explodes and smoke comes out of it. It doesn’t hurt and the bombs dropped at our legs, but it just makes a horrible sound—you get this toooo in your ears afterwards where you’re like, “I can’t hear anymore” for 10 seconds. The director would announce “Action!” to start the scene, and every time these kids would hear “Action!” they would throw bombs from the roofs. So for the funeral procession, we had about 100 extras that had to be arranged and we’d have to start over from square one every time they’d throw a bomb. It’s a one-minute scene in the movie, but we spent, like, eight hours shooting it.
REALITY CHECK: Before we filmed, Hany [Abu-Assad] told us a couple of different stories that he’d heard about Palestinian informants. I didn’t really find people that were actually collaborators because they either die or they’re in jail, you know? But I did my research. For me, being in that refugee camp was very important. If you’re in the U.S. or you’re in Israel, you have an idea in your head of how they’re living over there, but entering these people’s houses and their bedrooms and their streets, it gives you something as an actor. That was a pivotal part of my preparation. I also talked to people and I’ve seen documentaries. Part of a job that I did here in New York was placing the English subtitles for the Arabic and Hebrew in a film about two groups of young people, a Palestinian group and an Israeli group, coming together to discuss their daily lives and the conflict. I learned a lot from that. The Palestinians were saying that their university is, like, half an hour from their house, but they leave six hours before to get there on time because of all the checkpoints.
APPLIED SCIENCE: You know, in acting school you do a lot of exercises where you’re like, “What the fuck am I doing?” Seriously. A lot of exercises. Then when you’re on set, all of a sudden you discover that you are trained—that this thing called “craft,” which is not palpable when you’re still in school, is something—and that your craft, your instrument, is knowing how to work with nothing, basically. With imagining stuff. Because a lot of times in Omar, I was doing the scene for a little mark on the camera when the other actor was not even there. Even for love scenes. And sometimes they were really intense scenes, like when he’s with Nadia and realizes that his friend has lied to him. But that whole scene I was on my own, just to hit a little mark on the camera. Suddenly you realize, Oh my God, the years I spent training and sitting on that chair by myself in acting class, that’s why I did that exercise, that’s what it’s for.