As Showtime’s hot-button miniseries Sleeper Cell returns with eight new episodes (airing Dec. 10-17, 9 p.m.), Oded Fehr, the 36-year-old, Israeli-born actor who plays the show’s sinister terrorist leader, gives us the lowdown on the new season, how the show affects him personally, and how he searches for something appealing in his very extreme character.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At the end of last season, your character, Farik, was in FBI custody following a botched terrorist attack on a baseball stadium. So where do you go with the story now?
ODED FEHR: I start off this season as captured, and I go through what a terrorist would go through — interrogation and so on — in order [for FBI agents] to extract as much information out of me as possible. It’s not as easy as they would have hoped. Farik actually goes through very intense torture, but eventually manages to get back into power. The show starts this season with almost three separate storylines: The character of Darwyn [an undercover agent played by Michael Ealy] infiltrates a new cell that is coming together. There’s the character of Ilija [Farik’s co-conspirator, played by Henri Lubatti], who is in a hideout. And the character of Farik, who is in prison. The entire series you see these characters that are constantly opposing but never meeting until the end. And toward the end, we all kind of get back together.
What was it like playing Farik this time? Has he become any easier to portray?
It was actually harder this year for a whole bunch of reasons. The intensity of the scenes, being tortured and all that…. dramatically, it was just very hard finding that place. I’ve never been through any kind of torture like that, and trying to make that as real as possible was difficult. It was harder because I didn’t get to work with all the actors I was so used to working with, Michael and Henri and so on. And it was really hard for me personally because of everything going on with regards to the war in Lebanon [between Israel and the Islamist militant group Hizballah] and the terrorists being caught in London. I felt a lot more resentment than usual. It was a little too close. Then I had to go and pretend to be a terrorist the next day. It was very hard. This year was no ballgame.
I would imagine that playing the leader of an underground terrorist cell would have always been a bit problematic for you, being Israeli-born. What kind of reactions have you gotten?
I’ve actually been getting wonderful reactions. I’m very proud of the show. I think the show is extremely important. We need to talk about the subject matter; we need to ask questions and learn as much as we can about it. As entertainers it’s our responsibility to raise these questions. And as an actor it was great, because it’s a huge challenge to play this kind of character that is so opposite of me. It’s as opposite of me as humanly possible, really. It’s just that this year, the war in Lebanon seemed like such a sad, terrible war that nobody really wanted, other than the extremists. Lebanese were getting hurt, Israelis were getting hurt. It just seemed so wrong. I hate violence, and it was so, so depressing. Then to go and pretend to be one the next day… it was really, really hard.
How did you combat the difficulty of doing it this year?
Just try to concentrate and put it all behind you and go back to finding things that, as difficult as it is, you like about the character. It doesn’t matter what it is. Just somethng that you like about it so you can play him correctly.
I slipped a couple of times — every once in a while I went back into playing him as just this very villainous, bad, bad man. And thank God we had good directors to go, ”Listen. He believes in this. Don’t just make him a bad man.” Which is true. The way he needs to be played is as someone who believes 100 percent that he’s doing the right thing. He’s not violent for violence’s sake. But he uses violence to forward his beliefs and his opinions.
It’s not like I could find many [good qualities]. How do you play a rapist or a murderer or something like that? You have to find something in that person. And I think for me the thing about how I try to play Farik is that he totally believes that he is doing the right and just thing. That he is morally correct. That he is doing God’s work. It involves obviously all the wrong things and it’s the most terrible way of achieving anything. It was really important to me that Farik would never be the kind of character who just enjoyed hurting people.