I’m Huge in Bangladesh: Mark Ivanir on A Late Quartet

The star of the acclaimed new drama on learning violin at the last minute and his memories of shooting Schindler's List.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

A Late Quartet was my big discovery at the Toronto International Film Festival. I figured a movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener would have good performances, but the first fiction feature writer/director Yaron Zilberman really wowed me with its maturity and complexity. Mark Ivanir plays the string quartet’s first violin, who’s earned the resentment of Robert (Hoffman) over the years. You’ll get a chance to see A Late Quartet in theaters Friday, so we got a chance to talk to Ivanir by phone last week about his dramatic work in the film, and storied history in the industry from landmark films to behind the scenes sound work.

CraveOnline: This was a really juicy part for you in A Late Quartet, wasn’t it?

Mark Ivanir: It was, definitely. It was fun but it was such a stressful piece of work for me just because I came into the game very, very late in the game. To be exact, 10 days before principal shooting started, so it was extremely stressful. But in hindsight, I like the movie very much and the part, so it’s all good.

Why did it happen so late for you? Was it a really competitive audition?

No, it wasn’t an audition. It was offered to me after an actor dropped out of the movie 10 days before it started shooting.

Can you say who it was?

Yeah, it was Jeremy Northam. Personal reasons, I’m not sure what it was, but it came to me and it was a blessing. It was a wonderful experience all in all, minus the stress factor.

What was your take on Daniel, holding second violin over Robert the way he does?

In an interesting way, first of all it was an interesting collaboration with the writer/director, Yaron, who wrote kind of a different part. When I read it, I think Yaron intended something else. [Daniel] was much more aggressive and forceful. To me, I suggested to Yaron, and he went with me, I suggested someone who is albeit strong, but very reserved and detached, especially emotionally. I think somewhere in between my vision and Yaron’s vision, Daniel was born the way he is. Versus Phil’s character, I think it falls into that type of a detached personality. He quietly and tenaciously gets what he wants but not in an explosive way. I think it works versus Robert, Phil’s character, especially in the dialogue we have where he spills the whole thing about “This is where you took the quartet, this meticulous and somewhat soulless way of playing” versus, he says, “Unleash your passion.” I think that’s where the conflict and the development and the arc of the part plays, is that he unleashes it slowly. It’s not an explosion until the end but you can see that it’s going to go somewhere. He’s not stuck.

Did you ever have a moment of pause where you thought, “Hey, I’m playing in a string quartet with Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener?”

I’m still there. How should I put it? It comes. There are moments where I kind of stop and pause and look at the poster of all four of us. But I have to admit that cerebrally, it’s an unbelievable cast and it’s wonderful, but it’s never this notion of I shouldn’t be here. Somehow it feels eerily natural.

Did you have any time to learn how to play violin with 10 days until shooting?

No. Basically, because I stepped into the whole thing, three days or four days after I got the offer we started rehearsal. 10 days later, or nine days later, I started shooting. I was in Canada shooting something else. From day one, I got a teacher who showed me. It was the first time in my life that I held a violin in my hand, so she came and just introduced me to the basics of what a violin is, how you hold the bow, etc. Next was every day for seven weeks, three hours a day, lessons with dedicated, young, professional, wonderful violin players that play in real quartets in New York. That was every day before shooting, an hour and a half in the morning, like 5:30/6 in the morning. They were incredible, they would just come with their huge jug of coffee and they would listen to me insult classical music. Then at night after the shoot, they would come to the hotel and at about 10, 10:30 people at the hotel would suffer from me insulting Beethoven again. That went on for seven weeks and then it was done and forgotten. I don't think I can do anything with a violin now, regretfully.

This conflict between first and second violin, is there anything like that in acting circles?

I guess so but I think at that level, actors like Philip, Catherine and Christopher, I couldn’t feel that. There wasn’t any tension about the parts I guess. There was no reason because we all had similar [sized] parts I guess but from my experience, I’m sure it happens but I have to be honest, I didn’t have too much of that during my career. Usually actors in productions I did, and maybe I’m blind and blissfully blind, but when you’re on a good production, everyone works to make the whole better. Then again, I’ve heard about that so I guess it happens but again, maybe I’m blissfully blind.

Undisputed II and III are some of our favorite movies. Have you been aware of the following those movies have?

Oh yeah, yeah. I know it from Facebook. I have a Facebook fan account and I know I’m huge in Bangladesh and Indonesia if you judge by the messages I get from there in Africa and places like that. It’s a global phenomenon I guess.

You also did an episode of the “Transporter” TV series which we haven’t gotten to see yet. How does that compare to the movies?

I think it captures Luc Besson’s style from what I saw of the way it’s being shot. It’s beautifully shot. Storywise, it’s a fast, very stylish action piece but I have to say, I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen just bits and pieces of scenes and from what I see, it will really be good, but I didn’t see a final product.

We know the Transporter so well as Jason Statham, so how does the new actor carry on?

From what I saw, he is an excellent actor and very charismatic, so [he’s also] British, short hair. This is the most I can say because otherwise I haven’t seen too much. My scenes weren’t with him so I don't know.

One of your first roles was Schindler’s List. How monumental was that for you?

Oh, it was an incredible experience to begin with. Back then I didn’t live in the states. I was still living in Israel and it was kind of a plunge into a real “this is how movies are being made” feeling. Actors before would go to the theater and want to be like the actors on stage. I think in the past 25, 30, maybe 40 years, most actors have the same feeling coming from watching something either on TV or mostly in the cinemas. So for me, it was “this is why I came to this profession.” This is why I wanted to do what I do so it was really big and then it was a seminal event in the sense that had it not been for Schindler’s List, I wouldn’t have been living in LA for 12 years now being part of this industry, doing what I do.

Is that how you hooked up with Spielberg again for The Terminal and Tintin?

I hope so. I think we had a very good relationship during Schindler’s List. It seemed like a good collaboration. I liked the part and The Terminal wasn’t a big part, but it was exactly 10 years after we shot Schindler’s List that I came out to The Terminal and we had a mini reunion sitting in the cab of the cab driver I was playing, and we kind of reminisced about Schindler’s List and the time we spent three months shooting in Krakow, Poland so we had conversations about that. Then we caught up again two or three years ago with Tintin so I feel I was blessed to work with Steven three times. Moreover just to know him because he’s such a, we say, a mensch. He is a real mensch so it’s a sheer pleasure to meet him every time I do.

Was Schindler’s List a heavy set to work on because of the importance of what you were doing?

At moments. Not on a regular basis. It was a movie so you shoot a movie and I didn’t feel the heaviness per se on a day to day basis, though there were a few scenes where it got heavy. There was one scene I remember, I wasn’t even in the scene, I was waiting for my next scene to come and I just wandered to the set and, it’s in the movie, there were Nazis piling up suitcases in the middle of this city plaza in the middle of town. They made people run in circles and I was watching that and somehow suddenly I had this vision. There were two women there, it was really far, but for me suddenly I saw my mom and sister there as part of it which is not far-fetched because I am a second generation to Second World War and Holocaust survivors. So for me, the vision was heavy, as you put it. It was a strong experience. Then there was another one when I was in the scene, I was playing a corporal, it was a selection scene and they brought thousands of people from Bosnia at the time that there was war in Bosnia and there were refugee camps. They brought for the movie, from Yugoslavia, by trains, people from concentration camps or back then it was refugee camps, that looked like the Jews in the concentration camps that were very skinny. Very skinny, very tortured. You could see in the faces they went through a lot. I was standing there in my corporal uniform with my friend and these people were running around me naked, women and men. I remember me and my friend, we just kept laughing. It was this nervous laughter of embarrassment and what do you do about it? That was a strong experience as well, but there were glimpses of that throughout three, three and a half months. We had quite a few of those but not on a day to day basis.

Lastly, you have a credit as a looper on Borat. Is that true?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I did some walla. I sang in Romanian. The beginning of Borat is in Romania in this village. It’s supposedly Kazakhstan but it was Romania and I came in because I speak many languages. I came in as one of the language experts for the walla.