Monday, May 04, 2015

Eric Bogosian retells an 'amazing' Armenian tale

April 21, 2015 | 12:41 p.m.

"Whatever I thought being Armenian was, I didn't really know as much as I thought I knew," says Eric Bogosian, acclaimed actor, playwright and novelist. Next Wednesday, April 29, he'll speak at the Alex Theatre about his new novel, "Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide," a masterful, true-to-history thriller about the conspiracy to hunt down and kill the perpetrators of one of history's most brutal exterminations.
Writing the book has been an education for Bogosian himself. "Being Armenian was a very strong component of the way I grew up — my family's first language was Armenian, the food they ate, where they went to church, everything set us apart from whatever I thought an average American was supposed to be. But we weren't politically oriented. My birthday was April 24, and nobody thought that was an interesting date!"
In fact, this particular April 24 marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and the commemoration is lining up with the book's release by sheer force of destiny.
"I started working on the book over seven years ago," Bogosian remembers. "I had heard the story of Soghomon Tehlirian years before, and at first I didn't even think it was true. But once I realized that he had indeed assassinated Talat Pasha and that he had been acquitted, I knew that this would make a great screenplay. I started to wonder — even beyond being Armenian — why doesn't everybody know this story? Anybody who knows about the Holocaust knows about Eichmann, and anybody who knows about the Armenian Genocide should know that a humble group of small businessmen in the New York-New England region got a bunch of ex-soldiers to go and hunt down these Turkish leaders and kill them in Europe."
Bogosian has always been an eclectic artist, doing everything from searing monologues ("Talk Radio") to straight-ahead TV drama ("Law and Order," "The Good Wife"), penning novels and plays, and lending his acting skills to everyone from Beavis and Butthead to Woody Allen and Alex Ross Perry. But the tackling of this particular story — complex, political, tragic — proved a challenge.
"At first," he admits, "I wasn't even really sure where Armenia was located! But I kept learning new things all the time, it was like a detective story. I learned so much about the history of the Armenians and the Turks, amazing histories that go back thousands of years. I had heard of sultans and harems but I didn't really know what any of this meant."
The more Bogosian explored, the deeper and more multifaceted the book became. "The Armenians are a disparate group, with many different faces," he says, "and yet… and yet… and yet… they all hearken back to an ancient civilization which peaked about the early Middle Ages. They all have this common religious aspect, the ancient church. The art and poetry and language makes this group very cohesive — Christians living in a Muslim empire.
"In some ways, the genocide acts upon the Armenian people like the Holocaust did on the Jews. There were many Jews in Germany who didn't think of themselves as Jews first and foremost, but they were forced to. If they had forgotten, they were being reminded. Many Armenians at the time prior to the genocide did not see their lives as that terrible."
Also challenging was breaking from his usual from-the-gut work style. "When I write fiction or a play I just make everything up. Why not? But here I was working very closely with historians, and I'd make a supposition and they'd say 'Did this actually happen?' and I'd go, 'Well, I'm not sure' and they'd go 'No, you can't do that.' It's either history or it isn't."
The Live Talks Los Angeles interview at the Alex Theatre will be conducted by screenwriter Alex Dinelaris, recent Oscar-winner for "Birdman." Dinelaris is himself part-Armenian and has written a well-received play about the genocide called "Red Dog Howls." Of course, Glendale — widely thought to be the center of Armenian-American life — seems like the natural place for this history-marking event.
As Ted Hapte-Gapr, who runs the Live Talks series says, "We've hosted several sold out shows at the Alex over the last couple years, and have a great partnership with Glendale Arts and the Alex Theatre, so when an opportunity to do an event with Eric Bogosian with his upcoming book on Operation Nemesis marking the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide came up, we naturally wanted to host it there."
For Bogosian, the moment is something of a surprise. "I can't say it's a happy accident that the book is landing this week, but things happen like that. I'll be turning 62 next week, and I'm at a point in my career where I know you can plan things, and they just won't work out the way you wanted, and there's other things that will swoop in and everything will change overnight. The thing I like the best about this project is that I could use all the skills that I brought to it. I don't think a younger Eric could have written this book. It required a level of focus that I didn't have 20 years ago."
But Bogosian's willingness to tackle such a difficult topic wasn't just about skills. "For a long time in my early career, I didn't want to be labeled as an ethnic actor," he explains. "I saw myself as a guy who should play any role and I always played any roles I wanted to play. On top of that, the nature of my writing wasn't topical. I never wrote about specific political things. The people I came up with in New York, mainly visual artists, like Cindy Sherman… this is the kind of work we all did. We were thinking about archetypes, not specifics — that was our aesthetic. At the same time, I knew there were threats to people who wrote about the genocide. When I was younger, maybe I thought my career or my children or my income was in jeopardy, but now I feel like — if not me, who? If not now, when? Let's do this."
DANIEL WEIZMANN is a regular contributor to Marquee.

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