The Israeli Navy SEALs was really far from acting and art, but it shaped me into who I am today. It gave me the tools to handle life and to see life better and differently from this tough point of view.
Tracing with great sensitivity the unlikely bond between a gay man and the widow of the husband they both loved prior to his abrupt passing, The Cakemaker is that unconventional love story.
For Tomas (Tim Kalkhof), the film’s titular baker, love arrives with scant warning when traveling businessman Oren (Roi Miller) strolls into his Berlin cafe. Before long, Tomas settles into a long-distance affair with Oren, who has a wife and young son back home in Israel. This leads up to an unforeseen tragedy. When Oren is killed in a car accident a year into the men’s shrouded romance, a bereaved Tomas does the unthinkable: he travels to Jerusalem to track down Oren’s widow, Anat (Sarah Adler), needing closure of some kind. Once there, Tomas infiltrates Anat’s struggling café, finagling a menial kitchen job under the pretense of being a German student studying abroad. As his profound baking skills manifest, his duties expand, and the formerly dormant business starts to thrive. It’s an arrangement complicated by Anat beginning to fall in love with Tomas who has yet to disclose his sexuality to her, not to mention the truth behind his shared double life with Oren.
The Cakemaker world premiered in competition at the 2017 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, going onto win the Ecumenical Jury Prize for its “journey towards acceptance and the pursuit of love.”
Anthem reached out to Miller after a brief encounter with the actor at the Macao Film Festival & Awards, ahead of The Cakemaker’s Centerpiece debut at the 2018 New York Jewish Film Festival.
The 27th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival runs from January 10 to 23.
You were telling me that you’re filming something. Are you able to discuss that project?
I can speak about it a little bit. I can tell you that it’s a crime series. It’s Tarantino meets Fargo meets Desperate Housewives. The hero’s a woman and I’m playing the bad guy in the series. I mean, they call him bad, but he just wants what he deserves basically. We just started so I’m in the beginning steps of it. It’s really thrilling and I’m excited to take part in playing the villain.
Just to take you back, Macao was an interesting festival. It’s brand new and we can now say that we were there at the beginning. I’m curious to know what your impression was.
First of all, I started off on the wrong foot because my suitcase didn’t arrive. I had to go to the city and find myself new shoes for opening night. I had a chance to tour the city with one of the festival girls who was really nice. Let’s start from the end: It was an amazing experience. I didn’t think I would be coming to this festival, so from that point of view, it was a success. I’m not a gambler. I was in Hong Kong when I was in the army with the Special Forces. In Israel, you have to serve in the army for three years and I did my army time for five years. So I had seen Hong Kong as a VIP guest on helicopters. It was kind of like a Van Damme movie. [Laughs] It was a great experience back then. When I went to Macau, I didn’t really know much about the place at all. The festival has such a big potential. The management and hospitality was superb. I got to know other artists from all over the world who share your POV about art and creating dialogue, which is great. I enjoyed it a lot. You see each other’s movies. From a production value POV, I was really impressed.
Ofir [Raul Graizer] said that The Cakemaker was an eight-year journey. How did you get involved with this project and what stuck out to you most about the material?
As an actor, you can never know what will happen with a project that you auditioned for or a film that you end up doing. This particular film was unique. We met in a small room on a small industry street in Tel Aviv. After I got the audition and went into the room, he told me, “Forget about the text. Forget about everything. Talk about love. Let’s talk about desire. Talk to me like I’m a woman and you care about me and you love me.” So we started with improvisation. Through improvisation, we got into the text. At the beginning, he told me, “I’m going to be frank with you. I really, really like you. You’re perfect for the role. But you’re half-German and you speak German so well. Oren is supposed to be Israeli. We have to work on breaking your accent.” It took off from there. Then I went to eat something at a restaurant far away. After 20 minutes, Ofir coincidentally entered the same restaurant so we sat together and spoke. I told him that I would love to do this part, and a couple of days later, he told me that I’m in. He sent me the script and I read it.
For me, Oren’s part was—and also by Ofir’s demand—mysterious. So we won’t know about Oren. There’s a scene in the movie where Tomas demands from Oren, “Tell me what you did to her. Tell me how you kissed her. Then what? And then what?” Originally, Ofir shot me and Tomas together. When I saw the movie, he had taken me out because he wanted Oren to be more mysterious and so it wouldn’t be about Tomas’ temptation. He wanted it to be more about my temptation with him so it would be something more general that we can all relate to. For me, deep down inside, every person has this breakthrough. There are points in life where you say to yourself, “I wish I could start over somewhere else with a new name, with a new identity.” Life can be so hard and devastating. Sometimes you just want to start over with a different family—different everything. That’s Oren because he grew up in such a closed environment: an Orthodox Jewish community so closed off that he can’t fulfill his desires, his dreams. He had to do it abroad in Germany with a total stranger. If he didn’t get killed in this car accident, I don’t know if Oren would eventually stay with his wife and kid. I don’t know if he would’ve done that. The important thing is that Tomas really loved Oren. The love was so strong and he was missing something so he went after him.
Since Oren doesn’t have much of a backstory and his life is cut short, where do you put your mind’s focus in building the character? How much did you need to know for yourself?
That’s a nice question. You’re also asking about fear, about how long Oren and Tomas are involved, and what you think Oren is really up to. Is he just enjoying the sex? There’s a scene where I arrive and I’m telling Tomas, “I just have two days,” and he’s in shock. “Two days? What?” At the beginning, I was playing it really emotional and connecting with him. Then it was more dry and more confidently played where I give him the cold shoulder so he doesn’t think he has you when he has you. It’s any relationship: one person wants it more than the other. In this relationship, Tomas wants it a bit more. Of course, Oren loves him. You can love someone and be with him, cheat on your wife, and tell yourself stories to make your conscience quiet. But it’s a totally different story to just cut yourself from the place you grew up in and leave your wife and child behind for fantasy or romance. I had to basically work on my good German to make it bad, to understand the situation, to understand where it meets me to see what my own desires are that I want to fulfill, to see what’s holding me back, and to understand the inner conflict of the character. I grew up as a child in Germany. My father is German Christian. My mother is Iranian-Israeli Jew.
[Laughs] Yeah, and I was born in the land of Germany by the help of a Turkish Muslim midwife. I was born circumcised. So for all of my life and still to this day, the question of identity is a big thing. It’s a big question. I ask questions about my identity all the time: “Who am I? What do I really want to do? Where do I connect more, Israel or Germany?” My father left home when I was 10 years old and I didn’t see him for 20 years until I was 30. I don’t know what my dad did in Germany during that time when he was married to my mom. I don’t know if he had another woman or not, or if he was with men or women. But I felt close to the situation in The Cakemaker.
You were also at Macao with Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot. This movie’s a big deal. It swept the Ophir Awards in Israel. The National Board of Review named it Best Foreign Film of 2017 in the States. Sarah Adler is in that one with you as well, maybe as a coincidence.
Yeah, it was a coincidence. It’s funny because on The Cakemaker we didn’t even meet on set. I met her on Foxtrot and we had a laugh about it: “You, too?” In Foxtrot, I’m playing the doctor that visits homes with a crew to inform and take care of the family whenever a soldier gets killed. It’s a procedure that’s unfortunately common in Israel. In my five years of army time, I unfortunately lost several friends in the line of duty. This situation is close to me. When I got the audition with Samuel, we had a good bond. He liked the feel of how I treated my character so I got the part. It was such a great time working with him. He really is something else. He’s an amazing director.
The Cakemaker and Foxtrot are deeply personal projects inspired by life. A filmmaker’s obsessive need to tell their story and their passion must affect your work as an actor, right?
Of course, of course. I think that’s the most important thing. If you see someone who’s so connected to and so obsessive with their work and their script and what they do, it immediately infects you with this virus. You get inspiration from that. Being with Ofir in the same room, he spoke so gently and with so much love about the script and the characters. It’s the chemistry between two people at the end of the day. You go into a room, you meet a person, and there’s something unspoken that happens there. That’s the base to start working from. Then you have to dig deep inside the character, ask many questions, and put the ego aside. You just have to ask, ask, ask—wanting to get more information that can help you do the work. It worked that way with both Ofir and Samuel on two different movies with two different budgets, of course. Ofir did it with such a low budget and this was his first movie. He was passionate about it. It took Samuel seven years to do another movie after Lebanon, finally finding the right thing he really, really wanted to say with the true script he wanted because he’s a perfectionist. That’s what Samuel does. He doesn’t drop any details. Even with the scene where we make a visit to the family and Sarah [Adler] passes out, we did that around 60 times for four or five hours and it’s a five-second scene. He was always so gentle: “It’s great what you’re doing, but I just want to take it from another angle. Please, like this. Is that okay?” We always tell him, “Yes, of course.” Yes, it can get really tiring. Yes, it can get really stressful. But you see him work and you want him to get the best for the movie because you know his best is your best. You work as a team. He’s so grounded and so generous with his talent and personality. It influences you on the spot. You get infected.
You have that rare movie star presence, which is impossible to pick up on unless you meet the person. I’m curious to know how this journey started and where the passion came from.
When my father left home when I was 10 years old, my mother raised me all by herself. I’m the middle boy so I’m sandwiched in a family of three kids. I always liked the spotlight in one way or another. In the end, I thank my father abandoning me because, if he had stayed with us, I don’t know that I would be doing what I do now. I auditioned as a kid and loved it. Then I started studying drama and dance. Then I went to the army at 18 so I went to the total opposite end. The Israeli Navy SEALs was really far from acting and art, but it shaped me into who I am today. It gave me the tools to handle life and to see life better and differently from this tough point of view.
A couple of months after the army, a good friend of mine died. He was always laughing at my jokes, even in the really serious environment that we were in with the Navy SEALs. I was the joker. I was imitating the commanders and the lieutenants. After he died, I decided to go with my heart, even though it was already an early age passion. When I got out of the army, it took me a really, really long time to get free, to loosen up. I was down most of the time in drama school as well. In the last few years, something good happened to me. I’m kind of a late bloomer in many, many ways. All the best things are happening right now with these movies and the TV show that I’m doing. Something within me got a little more confident. I’m more confident in my own skin. I’m more confident in what I do. It took me a long, long time to understand and to accept my choice to become an actor. I was always unsure about my choice and judging myself for it all the time. Now I feel like I found my place in what I do, and more good things are about to come.