Created by Michael Petroni, the Netflix original series Messiah follows CIA officer Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan), as she uncovers information about a man (Mehdi Dehbi) who’s gaining attention all over the world because some believe him to be the Messiah. As Eva digs deeper into the origins of Al-Masih and her sole focus becomes determining whether he’s really a divine entity or a con man, his followers claim him to be a miracle worker.
At the Los Angeles press day for the new series, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with actor Tomer Sisley (who plays Israeli intelligence officer Avrim Dahan) about telling a story that has no clear answers, leaving certain things up to the audience to decide, knowing his character’s backstory, working on a global story with an international cast, the one thing he didn’t agree with his showrunner about, having two different directors on the project, and the difference between shooting a Netflix TV series and shooting a TV series in France, where he’s currently working.
TOMER SISLEY: Well, I read the scripts. I got the scripts for the 10 episodes. When I auditioned for it, I did a self-tape ‘cause I live in Paris. I only got three or four pages, so at that moment, I had no idea how big the thing would be. But when you read the scripts, you see how it’s really well written. It’s really super well written. I’m saying that because I feel very lucky. Of all the projects that I have been in, I think this is probably in the top two or three, as far as the writing goes. (Show creator) Michael Petroni did a fantastic job, giving that much depth to the characters and backstories.
Do you like playing a character that’s not fully defined and where you’re left to make some of those decisions yourself, or do you prefer to get definitive answers to your questions?
SISLEY: A lot of things were decided. I had some questions, but they all got answered. Some things are left for the audience to decide how they see it, but I need to know. I need either somebody like the showrunner to tell me, or I have to make the decision. But I had so much material on this character. I knew that he’s an agent who’s very dedicated to his job, he’s a loving father to a three-year-old daughter, and he’s separated from his wife. So, I needed to know why they were separated, and Michael told me, “She cheated on you. She had an affair, and that’s why you left.” I don’t recall having that much information on any other character that I’ve ever played.
So, did you feel like you didn’t need to do further research, since you were able to get your questions answered?
SISLEY: Yeah, there weren’t that many blanks, really. Most of the questions I had were answered, on the spot.
What’s it like to tell a story that’s so global in scope, work in these locations, and work with such an international cast?
SISLEY: It was mesmerizing for me. You have to understand, I was born in Germany, I’m Israeli, and I lived in France, but went to an English-speaking school, so I really don’t know where my roots are. Working with such an international cast makes sense to me, on such a project. It’s not an American story. It’s not a middle Eastern story. It’s just a human story. The subject is you, as an audience. What does it take for you to believe in something? What does it take for you to have such a perception of someone? How does footage affect you? If you see a video of somebody walking on water, is that enough for you to believe that he really walked on water? That’s the subject. It has no frontiers. That’s why it really made sense to me, to have all of these actors and even the crew members coming from all over the planet. That just felt right.
These characters all have such different backgrounds and none of them really react to the situation, in the same way, which makes it feel more realistic.
SISLEY: Yeah. Look, I had read the script and I knew what was coming, and it still trapped me. I watched all 10 episodes in two days.
I love that this series has some quiet moments and a certain stillness to it, at times.
SISLEY: Yeah, that’s the quality of the writing that I was talking about. All of the silences are filled with inner life. That’s what was so interesting to me, as an actor.
Were there things about your character that you grew to appreciate, that you didn’t necessarily notice or feel, in the beginning? Once you got to know him better, did you have more fun with it?
SISLEY: No, I had fun immediately. I really immediately enjoyed it. There was one issue on which we didn’t agree on, and after awhile, I thought, “Okay, maybe he’s right.” It was Avrim’s accent. Michael Petroni wanted me to speak with a very heavy Israeli accent, and I didn’t agree on that, at the beginning, but he’s the boss. I tried to convince him and make him change his mind. I told him, “If Avrim is an international agent and has all of these different passports, it means that he went to all of these countries and he should be pretty good with languages. Don’t you think so?” And Michael said, “Yes, you’re absolutely right. But every time you speak English, you speak it with people who you don’t have to hide your identity with, so there is no use of speaking it with another accent, other than your Israeli accent.” I said, “Okay, all right. You got me there.” That’s why we had him speak with this Israeli accent. There’s one scene where I go to buy a gun in Texas at a gun store, and it’s the one and only scene where he has a different accent, that’s more of a Texan accent.
Along with your showrunner, Michael Petroni, you only had two directors, James McTeigue and Kate Woods, on this entire project. Was it nice to have a limited number of voices on this?
SISLEY: In my opinion, it was nice to have more than one director. Every time you work with a new director, it challenges you because you have to adapt yourself and work a little bit. That makes it impossible for us, as actors, to fall asleep and go on auto-pilot. It sometimes can take you out of your comfort zone, and I feel that’s always good for the project ‘cause it challenges you to figure out what they want. James is somebody who’s very precise in what he wants and he would tell us exactly. He’s say, “When you say this, do that and try to look this direction.” You find your place, as an actor, inside of the lines. Kate was more like, “So, Tomer, what do you think this scene is about?” It was totally different, but still inspiring. We’d think about what the scene was about together, and then you try to create that. It was just different ways of working, but I loved it.
Did it help you discover new sides to your character?
SISLEY: Yeah, you discover things. By the way, things that you work on with one director, you might keep them when you work with another director. It feeds you, a lot. I got fed, a lot.
Did you have a most challenging day or scene, or was it all just fun and very fulfilling, as an actor?
SISLEY: It was always fun. Sometimes it was challenging, but still fun. I really, honestly had fun, every day. What’s interesting is that I have more fun when it’s challenging. There were some scenes that were challenging. There was a whole scene in Arabic, while I point my gun at a kid and talk to him about his father, and what his father did to my mom, and I don’t speak Arabic. I had to learn all of those lines phonetically, but it had to sound like proper Arabic. I couldn’t sound like a total foreigner. It needed to sound as if it was one of the languages that I speak, so that was challenging. The other challenging scenes were with the three-year-old child. Shooting with a three-year-old kid was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, in my life, and I do all of my stunts. Shooting with a kid is challenging.
When you work on something like this, does it spoil you for other projects? Does it raise the standard of what you want to do?
SISLEY: Yeah, it does. You put your finger on the one bad thing about this. That’s it. It’s complicated, to be as satisfied as I was, on this project. I’m working on a French series right now, and it’s just not the same conditions. Sometimes it’s harder. Sometimes you cry a little and you’re like, “I wish I could go back to filming Messiah.”
Is there a big difference between shooting a project like Messiah, and doing a TV series in France?
SISLEY: There’s a huge difference. As far as I’m concerned, when I’m on a fiction project, I’m on a boat and there’s one captain, and that captain is the director. Depending on what captain it is, the boat is going to take a different direction. It’s not going to be the same trip. So, just that already makes a big difference. Apart from that, we were on a set with 160-something crew members, every day. When we were shooting the refugee camps, there were over 800 people in that crew. You don’t get that in Europe. When I shoot a series in France, there are 30 crew, and we have much less money and time. So, shooting this project for Netflix, for me, was a dream come true. We’re all very proud of what we managed to do.
Messiah is available to stream at Netflix on January 1st.