INTERVIEW: Ido Samuel [Dirty Bomb]

Dirty Bomb, a short film about a concentration camp prisoner who sabotages the construction of the V-2 bomb against the Nazis, while American soldiers struggle to advance against the Germans, premieres this Sunday, April 28th as part of the Manhattan Film Festival.

The film was written and directed by Valerie McCaffrey and stars Ido Samuel, best known for his role as Yossi Mendelman (the younger brother) in Sony Classics critically lauded, “Fill the Void.” The film won in seven categories (including Best Picture) at the Israeli Film Academy Awards. Ido has also appeared in the Amazon Prime Video series Transparent. He has been nominated as Best Actor in a few film festivals for his portrayal in Dirty Bomb.

TV and City had the chance to interview Ido before the New York premiere:

Do you have a personal connection to the Holocaust? How much did you know about the particular events depicted in the film?

My grandparents ran away with the little they could carry and left everything behind when the war started. Besides most of their belongings, they lost a lot of friends and family members in the Holocaust. I grew up hearing stories about the Holocaust and meeting survivors who came to our school in Israel to tell their stories. You grow up as a Jewish person in Israel with a sense of commitment to always tell these stories and never forget! You feel like it can happen again if we don’t tell these stories.

When Valerie McCaffrey, the writer and director of the film, told me the story that her uncle told her about the Jewish prisoners who sabotaged bombs in World War II and saved thousands of lives, I was surprised I never heard of it before and it wasn’t a known story. We felt a sense of commitment to share this story with the world and to honor these unsung heroes. And the best way to tell stories nowadays, and the most effective, is through film. I wanted people to know what those prisoners did. They sacrificed their own lives to save thousands that they did not know.

How did you prepare for this role? There is not a lot of dialogue for your role and a lot is conveyed by facial expression and body language – was that hard?

I did a lot of research online about the camp where it took place (Dora in Germany). I studied what the prisoners day to day lives were like. I looked at pictures, watched a lot of documentaries about the Holocaust. I wanted to portray the role as realistically as I could. I wanted to feel like I was really there, in order to make the audience feel like they are really there. The thing that affected me most in my preparation was when I had the honor to meet Frank Schiller, the 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who was kind enough to invite us to his home and share his incredible story. Schiller was in the same camp in which the story took place, Dora in Germany. I had a lot of questions about the character that I couldn’t find answers to in my research. He told me that I could ask him anything, even tough questions. The thing I wanted to know the most was what kept him going during that time in the camp. I couldn’t imagine living in these awful conditions, seeing my loved ones and the people around me being murdered, and having the ability to keep on living, and continue having hope.

He told me what they felt most in that time was hunger; they hardly had a piece of bread each day and didn’t know when or if they would have another one. They were in survival mode. He knew that when he got some bread, he would give a piece of it to his brother who was in a different location in the camp and hardly got anything. He knew that if he didn’t survive and get this bread, his brother would die. That touched me deeply. And I know it’s hard to fake that feeling, so to portray it as closely as I can, I had to bring myself to this position. In the weeks before the shoot, I limited myself to just vegetables and water and during the shoot I didn’t eat; I only drank water, which is more than they had, but still I needed to be healthy while doing this risky thing. Luckily, I was surrounded by supporting filmmakers and actors during that time. The prisoners were feeling like any day they could die and were afraid to talk out loud so that’s why we decided most of my character’s dialogue would be in the eyes. Have him experience everything like it was real so hardly any dialogue but a lot of emotions and subtexts.
The film portrays an act of defiance by a Jew in WWII – a risky thing to do. Tell us what you think your character was thinking about when he acts that way?

The way I explained to myself why he did what he did was very simple. He didn’t want evil to succeed. He believed that there’s more to this life then just if you live or die, but what did you do to make this world a better place. There was a Simon Wiesenthal quote that really stuck with me, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”
I think those prisoners’ acts can really teach us a lot about selflessness, which is so important nowadays.

In “Dirty Bomb” you sing a lullaby in Hebrew – what song is it? Did you know it? Why is a European Jew singing in Hebrew?

That part of the movie wasn’t in the script. Valerie the director and I had a great collaboration process on this film and whenever I had an idea or suggestion she was more than happy to hear it. After we shot the chamber scene where I eat the little piece of bread, I felt very connected to the character. I felt like I was really there and emotions started filling me in the inside. I asked Valerie if we could keep on shooting and let me improvise. So she let the camera roll and let me just be. I started thinking about my family and the feeling of losing them and being hopeless. I thought how much at that time I really wanted the hug and comfort of my mom to make me feel better and that song just came out of me unplanned. It’s a song in Hebrew of a kid singing to his mom how she is dear to him and how much he loves her. I felt like I wanted my mom to know that all I do is for her. In that moment I was so much in the moment that I didn’t think of the language. I just sang from my feelings and Valerie decided she wanted it in the film even though it wasn’t planned, which in my opinion shows a director’s greatness.

Do you prefer to act in English or Hebrew? Some of your roles have allowed you speak both – do you like to be cast as an Israeli in American productions?

I want to do good roles no matter what language. Of course, Hebrew will be the easiest for me but English is just as natural to me. I don’t want language to be an obstacle for me landing roles, so I work very hard on it. Being cast as an Israeli is always nice but I don’t like to be typecast just because I’m from Israel. I’d like to be considered for many more roles and opportunities, and have a chance to show what I can do with different roles, different languages or accents. I hope casting directors or directors will give me a chance.

What was it like to work with the cast of Transparent?

Transparent was an amazing experience. From the audition where the casting director let me improvise (which I always love) and we did a 10-minute improvised scene which felt so natural, to the actual shooting day where everyone was super nice and supportive.
That day, one of the lead actresses, Gabby Hoffman, was the director. She was so nice and humble. I found out they sometimes let the actors direct episodes which I think is so amazing. I talked to Jill [Soloway], the creator of the show, who asked me a lot of questions about Israel and myself. It felt like a very welcoming warm family and I hope I’ll get to work with them again.

Where can we find you next?

There’s another short film that I acted in that got into the student academy awards, called Ben Dod Sheli (My Cousin), about the Palestinian- Israeli conflict in a unique point of view. The film got great reviews and you can find it online on Vimeo or my website http://www.idosamuel.com .

Now I’m in New York for the screening of Dirty Bomb in the Manhattan Film Festival. I’m planning to stay here for a while and hope to get more acting roles in the city, even though I will go wherever the work is. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to tell more stories and create more characters, which is what I love.

Dirty Bomb will be shown in the festival as part of the short documentaries at 5 PM on Sunday, April 28 at Cinema Village. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.independentfeatures.com/view-screening/1301

Ido Samuel character and fellow prisoners Dirty Bomb production art.jpg

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