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8 Questions for Simon Feil: Actor, Sushi Chef, Empathy Hero

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8 Questions for Simon Feil photo

You may not know Simon Feil's name, but you've likely seen his face. Perhaps he was cooking in the movie Julie & Julia , or being startled by the '80s in a Delta flight safety video, or giving a young Bruce Wayne a good talking to on Gotham. Look out for him next time you turn on Netflix.  

Simon is coming in to Chicago in June to deliver an ELI talk, a Jewish TED-style talk, about empathy as the foundation of a moral world. I sat down with him to try and walk a mile in his shoes and found out he's definitely a Jew you should know.  

1. You're a real renaissance man! What's the most unusual job you've ever held?  

Well, that's not really a fair question since actors do lots of unusual things. Choking someone with a belt, having a heart attack and pulling an ear of corn out of my pants would all qualify as unusual. But if we're going to stick to regular jobs, I'd say it's a toss-up between being a beer ambassador for Guinness and playing a time-travelling '90s dude for Trivial Pursuit. Ok, wait, no those are still act-y things. How about working at a kibbutz daily? Teaching sushi in a strip club? I once got paid (and fed) to pick 10 awesome restaurants and bring a group of people to each one and talk about the cuisine while we ate. I also drove an RV around for Dunkin Donuts once giving away free Coolattas. So my sense of the unusual may be dulled by this point -- you tell me.

2. When did you know you wanted to be an actor?  

I performed in my first play in eighth grade, 1984 , a particularly chilling and odd choice for a yeshiva, and was instantly introduced both to the thrill of acting and the pain of rejection -- I got beat out for my preferred role by a friend. But I knew right then there was nothing more exhilarating and nothing else I'd rather do. The "why" has changed over the years, but never the "what."

3. How does Judaism influence your work on screen, practically and artistically?  

That's a tough one - I spent most of my career drawing a hard dividing line between my acting identities and Jewish identities. I saw their values as being divergent and was told by mentors in both worlds that the other was totally anathema and would only pull me down or hold me back. It's only in the past few years that I've realized they were all wrong and that any artist needs to be fully themselves to do anything worthwhile. That said, I'd say the themes I am drawn to are certainly informed by my Judaism -- justice, truth-telling, fervent curiosity and questioning.

Practically, and less interestingly, as someone who is shomer Shabbos (Shabbat observant), I have always had great challenges with working out the conflict. It's part of why I transitioned from theater to TV, I couldn't handle losing Shabbat for two months while I walked to the theater for a show.

4. What's your favorite character you've ever played and why?  

The character of Ern Malley. He was a hoax, a fake poet invented to send up the Modernist poets by some contemporaries. A playwright in a company I was in wrote this incredible play that imagined him as a real person who'd been turned into a hoax after he died young suddenly, and now he's back from the dead to set the record straight.  He shows up as a ghost to David Remnick (of The New Yorker ) in the Algonquin Hotel bar to convince him to publish new work and tell the world he was real. It's this toothy, intellectually rugged two-hander with huge themes and stakes and I bit into it like a big hot meal. Didn't hurt that he was working class English and I love what that accent does to me. We did it for a few readings, sadly it was never given a full production, but it's still my favorite piece of all time. It dealt with all my favorite themes above, it was brash and balls-out and fearless and physical and earthy while also being an incredibly brilliant and articulate philosophical discussion about art and success and failure and ooh, everything. Alex Lewin (the playwright) if you're reading this, I hope you're still cranking out the goods.

5. You played a chef in the movie Julie & Julia and now run a company that provides sushi lessons at events. What would you say are the elements of a great meal?  

Hah -- those two go more hand in hand than you know. I often get auditions for chef roles because of my sushi business, and Julie & Julia was just such an audition! To answer you, obviously, the quality of the food is tantamount. At heart, I'm actually a stomach and a mouth -- give me a big hearty piece of meat, cooked perfectly over a fire or slow smoked and I don't care about much else -- how it looks, how clean I am or how pretty my table is. That said, I do love a small, elegant Asian-style meal with small portions, perfectly balanced visually, with complimentary tastes and textures, all accompanied by good music, a beautiful space while I'm well dressed. But I'll still pick that backyard or beach or forest BBQ every time.

6. Your upcoming ELI talk is all about empathy for animals, especially when it comes to our decisions about eating meat. Is this a way of asking Jews to "get into character?" 

I suppose, though I try to avoid such puns like the plague. :) "Acting is doing" is the cornerstone of the Meisner technique, the one I was trained under and I think the same can be said about Judaism. Judaism is doing. We have to walk the walk. It's not about what you believe or feel as much as it is about what you do. Judaism doesn't have thought-crime or -isms, it has actions. It has been said that, rather than Orthodox, observant Jews should be called Orthoprax -- from -praxis, doing, rather than, -doxy, believing. So yes, the right character for Jews to inhabit is one that embraces empathy in an active, very non-academic way.

7. Who do you admire in the Jewish world, the food world, and the acting world?  

I have a hard time with public declarations of admiration. I'm far too much of an ivory tower idealist to not poke holes in my heroes. That said, R' David Weiss Halivni is someone I look up to and his famous quote, "Those I pray with I can't talk to, and those I talk to I can't pray with" has resonated with me for a long time, though I'm trying to make that Venn diagram overlap more every day.  

In the food world, I'd say Temple Grandin -- while technically not in the food world, in that she doesn't make food, she has revolutionized the animal treatment landscape. And celebrity chefs don't impress me. But Ari White of the Wandering 'Cue, makes some especially fine kosher BBQ.  

Acting: It used to be the great talents, Meryl Streep and Robert Duvall, who impressed me. But I find myself more moved these days by stories of great effort -- Vin Diesel buying a typewriter and cranking out an entire screenplay in a month so he could return it since he couldn't afford it. Or Matt Damon and Ben Affleck getting Good Will Hunting made. That was Herculean and very worthy of admiration. I also happen to really like their work.

8. What's next?  

I'm officiating at a wedding in Italy in June (my first!) and I'm on hold for a few projects in the acting world so we'll see what pans out. I'm working on creating a personal piece from my own material, either for stage or screen, I haven't decided yet. That's scary and will require lots of work, so face into the wind.

Find out more about Simon at his website: www.simonfeil.com. Simon will be speaking on "Eating Meat? Empathy as the Foundation of a Moral World" on June 18 at WTTW11 in Chicago as part of the latest production of ELI Talks. Get your tickets to see him and five other speakers present their TED-style "inspired Jewish ideas" on new Jewish culture here.

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