From drag to interrogator, with many stops

From drag to interrogator, with many stops

Israeli actor Itzik Cohen brings a varied career to Livingston

Itzik Cohen is Captain Ayub in “Fauda.”
Itzik Cohen is Captain Ayub in “Fauda.”

We know that there are two kinds of actors — the ones who disappear into a part, and the ones whose parts disappear into them.

The second kind are the personalities whose star power overcomes their parts. They can be great fun. But the other kinds of actors, the more serious ones, can disappear into their parts.

That doesn’t mean that their roles can’t be flamboyant, or that they’re not charismatic.

It just means that they can change radically from role to role.

Take Itzik Cohen, who will speak at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston on Thursday, October 19. (See below.)

Americans know him best as Captain Gabi Ayub in “Fauda,” but his career has taken some wild turns before that TV show, which started in 2015.

Mr. Cohen is an inveterate storyteller, as even a short conversation makes clear; the evening in Livingston will be made up of stories. He’s not as interested in a chronological interview as an amusing one, and that feels very healthy just around now.

Mr. Cohen was born in Tel Aviv in 1968. “My parents are both sabras,” he said. My ancestors came from Syria, Morocco, Turkey, Iraq, and Russia.

“I am like an orgy gone wrong.”

He was a quiet, shy child, he said. “You never saw me in the middle of the room, dancing and singing. I was always on the side looking at everyone else.” And he even called himself “a bit of an outcast.”

For some reason, he took an acting class in high school, and his acting teacher, Zehava Mazor, told him that he should be an actor. So, after what he said was an undistinguished stint in the IDF — “I was basically a clerk” — he said he proved his listening skills by “going to beauty school instead of acting school.”

Why become a hairdresser? “I’ve always been good with my hands,” Mr. Cohen said. “And I liked it.”

He got a job in what he called “a very posh high-end salon — and lasted there for two months. The owner had a mouth and used it. “So I called Zehava and I said I can’t bear the shouting and the humiliation. She said go to acting school.”

He did; he majored in acting at Tel Aviv University, although at first he was openly considered the least likely to succeed. He graduated three years later with a bachelor’s degree, some training, some connections, and deep gratitude to Ms. Mazor. “I tell everyone that you shouldn’t listen to what someone says you can’t do. Instead listen to the person who shows you the way.”

“I made a deal with myself,” he said. “I said that if I don’t make it in five years I’ll give up, because something nobody wants to be is a frustrated actor.”

After a year and a half without much happening, a good college friend of Mr. Cohen told him about a big Purim party. The organizer was looking for performers. “Have you seen ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’? my friend asked.” (That was a popular 1994 Australian film about drag queens.) “My friend said, ‘Let’s do drag for Purim!’”

“It was perfect.

“There are moments when you know instantly that your life is changing and you can’t go backward. It was an epiphany for me. It was the first time I really felt like an actor. I wasn’t mumbling and trying to remember my lines.

“I was fully in the zone.”

For four years, from 1995 to 1999, Mr. Cohen and his friends did a wildly popular drag act called “The Daughters of Pesia.” They performed all over — “talk shows, kids’ venues, commercials.

“After four years, though, I decided I had enough of the frocks and high heels and corsets. It was fun. It was hard work. I’d had enough. I decided I’d done everything I could in this form. So after four years, I just went on and did a lot of theater and some movies.”

He was Lazar Wolf in “Fiddler on the Roof.” He was the king in “The King and I.” He was Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray.” He was in some original Israeli musicals and some dramatic plays.

Then there was “Fauda,” which basically changed his life.

But remember, he said, that although his character, Gabi, is Shin Bet’s top interrogator, when he was in the IDF, “I never held a gun in my life, and I don’t speak Arabic.”

American audiences also know Mr. Cohen from the TV show “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem”; he plays Avraham.

He’s going to be in New York for a gala benefit for the FDIF in Chelsea Piers but he’s coming to Livingston at the request of his old friend Miki Fine. Ms. Fine, who is married to Beth Shalom’s cantor, Perry Fine, is chairing the performance. “Miki said that if you are going to be in New York, you have to come to New Jersey,” he said. And you don’t say no to a force of nature.

He plans for the talk to be light, and he hopes that it will be amusing.

He’ll tell stories about his career. He has many, enough to offer a few that he won’t retell.

“I was shooting a movie in Bulgaria, called ‘New York,’ not a comedy, and I was cast as a big Mafia boss,” he said. (They were in Bulgaria because it offers cheap studio space.) “They told me it is going to be freezing, like 15°-below Celsius. Your breath becomes like crystals of snow.

“But although I knew that, I didn’t get thermal underwear. I had tights from a drag show, and I just put them on under my pants.

“I was standing there in the middle of the forest in Bulgaria, freezing cold, and they’re all pointing guns at me. I’m shaking. I’m not shaking because I’m afraid. I’m shaking because I am freezing cold, and suddenly all the cast and crew start laughing and I don’t know why.

“It’s because I was shaking so hard that my pants fell down and I was wearing bronze shimmer tights.”

Fame has affected him, and it still surprises him.

“I went to Belgium to shoot a film with Sir Ben Kingsley,” he said. “I got to the airport in Antwerp, and there was a line for security with more than 200 people. There was an officer there who kept looking at me, and I thought I did something wrong. He called me from the back of the line, said ‘Come here.’

“I’m afraid of authority.

But he said to me, ‘You’re the captain, right?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘Come with me,’ and we just walked past the line.

“Sometimes being the captain opens doors for me.”

Who: Israeli actor Itzik Cohen

What: Will talk about his life, “Fauda,” “Beauty Queen,” and much more; a Q and A will follow.

Where: At Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston

When: On Thursday, October 19, at 7:30

How much: $25 for TBS members, $36 for nonmembers

Also: you must register in advance. No walk-ins.

For information and to register: Go to or email

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