LONDON (Reuters) - The Israeli actor playing Saddam Hussein in a new television series once narrowly escaped a missile fired by the late dictator’s army.
But for Igal Naor, taking the lead role in “House of Saddam,” the BBC/HBO dramatization of Saddam’s 24-year rule airing in Britain from Wednesday, it was not about revenge.
Instead, the 50-year-old from near Tel Aviv believes his experience of the conflicts and complexities of the Middle East, and his childhood effectively raised as an Arab in Israel after his family left Baghdad, gave him the edge over other actors.
“In the street everyone spoke Iraqi. It was a ‘little Baghdad’ around Tel Aviv,” he said of the neighborhood where he grew up that was dominated by Iraqi Jews who left Baghdad after Israel’s founding 60 years ago.
“I could understand much better than, say, a British actor or an American actor about what this man is and the environment he was living in,” Naor told Reuters by telephone.
“This is my area, the Middle East, Iraq. I can understand things like the special need for honor, pride. I live in an environment of war and blood.”
He recalled how a missile fired by Iraq at Israel in 1991, during the first Gulf War triggered by Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, landed close by.
“As an Israeli, he was an enemy,” Naor explained. “In 1991 a missile he sent to Tel Aviv fell 50 meters from my house with one tonne of explosives. Luckily nothing happened to us.”
Nevertheless, he added: “I didn’t love him or hate him.”
Naor, who has appeared in Hollywood movies “Munich” and “Rendition,” rejected the idea that casting an Israeli as Saddam should be seen as controversial.
“We are actors, we are artists. Why should we be Israelis, Lebanese or Egyptian?”
Although he encountered no negative feedback at home, there was a backlash against him, and more particularly his co-star Amr Waked, in Waked’s native Egypt, he added.
The four-part “House of Saddam,” co-funded by BBC and HBO of the United States, tells the story of Saddam’s reign from 1979, when he took over the leadership, to his capture by U.S. forces from an underground hideout at the end of 2003.
Co-writer and director Alex Holmes’s aim was to help viewers understand the man demonized in the west for his invasion of Kuwait, defiance of diplomacy and ruthless leadership.
“What I am hoping for is a bit of understanding, which is slightly different from sympathy,” Holmes told Reuters. “People might understand him a little better and that is our aim.”
Preview clips of the series, shot in Tunisia in 2007, show Hussein as a Machiavellian schemer seizing power, a loving family man, a leader who wanted what was best for Iraq but one who also struggled to trust even his closest entourage.
The general atmosphere in Saddam’s intimate circles is one of paranoia caused by the Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran and heightened by Shakespearean court intrigue inside his opulent palaces.
“I was wary of saying a Shakespearean tragic hero, but in a way it’s a kind of tragedy, not only a personal one but one of Iraq and the Iraqi people,” Naor explained.
“He (Saddam) was monstrous and bloody and cruel, but it’s a kind of tragic hero.”
Editing by Paul Casciato