Oded Fehr for “The Mummy Returns”

Oded Fehr may well be the hottest Israeli actor to achieve Hollywood success. People Magazine voted him as one of the top 10 sexiest men alive, and those who meet him tend to agree. Following his comic work in the hit comedy Deuce Bigelow, Fehr co-stars in the big-budget blockbuster The Mummy Returns, the first of the Hollywood summer biggies for 2001. Paul Fischer spoke at length to the actor in Los Angeles’ Four Seasons Hotel.

When Oded Fehr walks into a room, it is hard to believe that he is the same man who, as Ardeth Bay in The Mummy Returns, is draped in black, with his long, flowing hair defining his proud, Egyptian character. Indeed, Mr Fehr makes a point of reminding one who he is. “I’m the guy with the long hair and the dress”, he says laughingly. His hair is much shorter and the thick black beard we see on screen has been delicately trimmed. Profusely stirring a delicious-looking Iced Cappuccino [“Hear, let me stir it loudly so you can hear the effect when you play back your tape”], it is clear that this Israeli actor who calls Hollywood home, has a lot to be cheerful about.

After all, once an unknown, Fehr is being rigorously courted by the press, as he talks with enthusiasm about the hard work he endured shooting The Mummy Returns on location in Morocco. Now remember that it is over 100 degrees, there are real scorpions, massive battle scenes. But what does Mr Fehr think the toughest part of shooting this film was? “Walking around in a dress and high heels was the hard part”, he says, Israeli accent still in toe. “When I’m going up the steps, constantly tripping over myself, not to mention being made fun of by all the other actors, THAT’S the hard part.” It’s good to have a sense of humour and Mr Fehr has that in spades. Not that working in the desert was a piece of cake by any means. “Oh, we had sandstorms and floods, we even had hail the size of ice cubes.” The Ten Plagues perhaps. “It was certainly unnatural. I don’t normally believe in curses, but boy oh boy, it was almost as if somebody didn’t want us to film. You’d wake up in the morning and it was a beautiful blue sky, then you’d get on set and then all of a sudden a sandstorm would hit.” All’s fun in love and moviemaking.

The Mummy Returns is the much-anticipated sequel to the hit actioner that briefly introduced us to Fehr’s mysterious Med-jai leader, in the closing act of the original. The sequel is set in 1935, 10 years after the events of the first film. Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) is now married to Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), and the couple have settled in London, where they are raising their 9-year-old son Alex (Freddie Boath). When a chain of events finds the corpse of Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) resurrected in the British Museum, the mummy Imhotep walks the earth once more, determined to fulfil his quest for immortality. But another force has also been set loose in the world…one born of the darkest rituals of ancient Egyptian mysticism, and even more powerful than Imhotep. It’s up to Fehr’s Ardeth Bay, to help destroy this ancient Egyptian army of darkness.

In the film’s climatic third act, Fehr participates in one of the most extraordinary battle sequences ever put on film, but unlike Lawrence of Arabia, Fehr ends up lopping the heads off computer-generated characters. As an actor, Fehr admits that a certain amount of precision was required during this logistically complex shoot. “You had to be precise about your REACTIONS”, the actor carefully explains. “You have to be precise more with your emotions than the physicality of it all, because you’re fighting a really silly looking blue-suited kind of stunt guy, while in fact you’re ACTUALLY fighting a nine-foot prehistoric creature thing. Therefore you need to bring with you a great deal of intensity where there’s nothing there to be intense with.” Add to that fighting an unseen effect with large swords and you have your work cut out for you. “As far as being able to do the cuts perfectly right, you can only try and do the best you can, and make yourself believe that you’re actually hitting something.”

Even having been a soldier in the Israeli army did not prepare Mr Fehr for the kind of desert warfare he encountered shooting Mummy Returns. .Oh God it’s so different. The Israeli army was a piece of cake in comparison to all the tough horse training I did for this film. I’ve never worked so hard in all my life.”

As for the Tel Aviv-born actor playing an Arab character, if a dichotomy exists, Fehr isn’t aware of it. “I have no conflict whatsoever in playing an Arab or playing ANY character whatsoever.” Fehr recalls sitting in a cafĂ© in Los Angeles and a car stopped next to him. “The window comes down and the guy in the car shouts out: You make us Middle Easterns proud! I thought that was the nicest thing anyone ever told me, because it’s obvious to me that a lot of Israelis are very proud of me and I feel very honoured for that. If JEWISH people are also proud of me, of course that’s even better.”

Discussing the sensitive issue of Middle Eastern politics, in his relation to playing this character, Fehr remains philosophical. “You know it’s weird. You grow up in a country that is hard, complete with a very painful history, and you leave the country, and then come across the most wonderful people who USED to be on the ‘other side’ and SUPPOSED to be your enemy. It all seems very pointless to somebody like me, but I still respect it. I can only wish there’ll be peace there.” Fehr remains defiantly proud of his Israeli heritage, he says emphatically. “I’m VERY Israeli and remain very proud of who I am” and as an actor, he is honoured “to portray ANY Middle Easterns in a positive light and hopefully they’ll enjoy it.” On his character, Arab or not, Fehr says that he simply “loved the character, as well as the culture and the beauty of it.” Fehr further admits to also being “intrigued by ancient Egypt,” enhancing his boyish enthusiasm in doing the film.

Mr Fehr’s journey from Israel to Hollywood has been a long, and somewhat indirect one. Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Fehr left the country following his compulsory military service. Originally deciding to be a businessman, “at that time I didn’t want to take part in acting, which I thought was just a TERRIBLE profession to be involved with.” So he set out to join his father in business, marketing and telecommunications. That journey landed the young Nr Fehr in Frankfurt, Germany, where the father-son business was established. The partnership lasted two years. “Though we got on very well, business just didn’t do it for me at all.” To pass the time, Fehr embarked “on some silly drama course”, which led to his participation in a local production of David Mamet’s stage play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. “The only reason why they asked me was because I could speak English better than most Germans.” The would-be actor did the show “and from then on I was never happier”, he now recalls. Fehr then made up his mind to become an actor, went to London, and was ultimately accepted into the none-too-shabby Bristol Old Vic, which he called home for the next three years. “Six months after I graduated, Steve [Sommers, director of The Mummy], was looking for someone that looked powerful and Arab, and I came in looking powerful and Arab and I guess it worked.” He says with a mock Arab accent to prove the point.

Fehr has not looked back since. Now living in Los Angeles, the actor refers to “the wonderful family I left behind and to my wonderful new family here”, which includes recent wife Rhonda Tollefson, a producer, whose recent credit was Finding Forrester. Asked whether he sees himself employed by his wife the producer, Fehr pauses before choosing his words with care. .I think our marriage is very healthy at the moment and we’re very supportive of each other and are there for each other. I’m the luckiest guy and it’s the best marriage, BUT I think we need to give it a few years before we get to a point where we risk it by working together”, he concludes laughingly. Enough said!