'I am Saddam and he is me': Igal Naor on playing Saddam

The BBC's just-screened, rave-reviewed drama House of Saddam was billed as an ensemble piece but it was obviously going to triumph or be trashed on the strength of one role: the dictator himself. And the reviews for this character were effusive: critics described the performance as "transfixing", "bombastic" and "unnervingly charismatic". He was the main reason viewers kept tuning in to the four-part television series about the Iraqi ruler. Everybody just loved the BBC's Saddam.

"The minute I heard about it, I knew that I and no one else would play him," says the Israeli actor Igal Naor. It's a curious sense of conviction, because when the BBC was casting for the role, Naor was virtually unknown outside Israel. True, he had appeared in the 2005 blockbuster film Munich, in which he played one of the Black September gunmen blown up by Mossad agents to avenge the assassination of 11 Israeli Olympian athletes. But his screen time was, by his own reckoning, "less than five minutes - you know, the Mossad works quickly."

Naor, who says he always dreamed of playing Saddam Hussein, contacted the BBC series' casting director and received no response. Then he emailed photos of himself sporting a swiftly improvised, sticky-taped-on block moustache and kefiyeh head scarf. "Within less than an hour they called and asked how soon I could be in London."

It's not just the on-screen resemblance that made Naor a stunning Saddam. Dominating every frame, the actor conveyed with his very presence the bone-chilling, cultish charisma of the Iraqi dictator who ruled by bloody, ideologically-convinced terror. Neither was it a case of copycat acting.

"I wasn't interested in recreating his every gesture and I didn't impersonate Saddam's voice, which was very high-pitched, like Kermit the Frog." He does a flash impression of Saddam talking, a nasal, drawling Arabic that instantly turns heads in the sedate Tel Aviv cafe where we are sitting.

His portrayal of the Iraqi ruler is "beyond acting, it's just being," says Naor. "I am him, and he is me." What, he is Saddam? "Yes. I won't kill you, but it's me," he says. "You don't find many opportunities to play someone that you know is you, perfectly you. The soul, the essence, we share it, me and him. I was astonished to realise that, but playing him, I felt that everything he did was exactly what I would do if I were in his place." We are talking about the ruthless dictator, torturer and murderer of thousands, including close friends, long-time colleagues and family-in-law? "I understood him perfectly," says Naor. "It is something that is connected with childhood, with pains that you have in your first years."

Similarities between the two men's childhoods are not glaringly obvious. Saddam's father abandoned him, and his abusive stepfather forced him to leave the family home, aged 10, and live with his uncle. Naor was born in 1958 in Givatayim, a well-heeled suburb of Tel Aviv. His Iraqi-Jewish parents migrated from Baghdad in the early 1950s, soon after the creation of Israel (they were "strongly encouraged" to drop their original, Arabic family name and adopt the Hebrew Naor). Naor describes a happy childhood home, but relates that he grew up in "strange conditions". During early toddler years he was raised by his grandmother - like any Iraqi child, he says - while his parents worked. As a result, his mother tongue is Arabic and he didn't speak a word of Hebrew when he first attended nursery school.

"Iraqi grandmothers are obsessively clean and so I always wanted to wash my hands at kindergarten," recalls Naor. "I'd say it in Arabic and nobody would understand. One day I must have just kept asking, nagging, and they got fed up and locked me in the toilet, and I stood on the seat shouting through the window, [In Arabic] 'Granny, granny, come and get me!'"

He grew up feeling different. "I thought, I don't speak the language, I don't belong to you ... and life is a fight, a struggle and you have to change the world," he says. "Sometimes you realise that the biggest revolutionaries just wanted to change something in their childhood that was painful - and Saddam was a socialist revolutionary in the beginning. He did many great things for his country at first, like building a health system, education and nationalising oil revenues. And then he took the country to war with Iran and destroyed everything."

Naor's Saddam comprised a dimension of the Iraqi dictator as a victim of geo-politics: a classic tragic hero. The series ending, which closed on Saddam moments before his hanging, managed to evince some sympathy for the dictator, hunted down, found hiding in a hole and executed for crimes against humanity. "When you hear his name, you immediately, instinctively connect it with evil, a murderer, craziness, and so on," he says. "If I played him only as that, I would just be fulfilling people's expectations and that's not interesting." The Iraqi ruler clearly came over as a brutal tyrant in the series. "My role was to build tension between the intention of the writers and my own performance," says Naor. "So, as Saddam, I believe every word I say, and I believe every terrible thing I do is for the good of the nation and every mistake I make is because I can't do things in any other way, because of who I am. That's the duty of any actor playing any role, but especially this role where there is so much prejudice."..

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