Denver has seen a crew of big-name stars over the past two weeks of the Starz Denver Film Festival. The opening night movie, A Late Quartet—about a New York City string ensemble dealing with various changes in their relationships—drew a packed crowd and positive response.

Mark Ivanir, who plays Daniel in the film, immigrated to Israel from the former USSR in 1972. After his mandatory stint in the military, Ivanir turned down medical school and offers from Israel’s Secret Service to become a street performer, and eventually joined Parisian circus Cirque Pawelles. We sat down with Ivanir to discuss career transitions, working with a superstar cast, and what’s next on his acting agenda.

5280: So you ditched medical school to go to clown school? How did that happen?

Ivanir: My dad wanted me to be a doctor. He passed away while I was still in the military. So I applied, I got in, and, facing seven years of studies and then more internships, I decided to take a year off and work on improving my grades—but also to just do fun stuff for myself. Everything that I picked, without thinking about it, had to do with acting: tap dancing, juggling, acrobatics, magic tricks. I got into this theater group; we were studying melodrama and Greek tragedy. It was such a pleasure. Two months into that, I said, “This is what I’m going to do.”

Then you joined the prestigious Gesher Theatre?

Yes. It was a bilingual theater. At the end of the ’90s, the Israeli government accepted more than a million people coming from the former USSR when the Iron Curtain collapsed. So a country of a bit more than five million people had to accept a million newcomers. Imagine, that’s like 60 million people coming to the States in a few years. A group of Russian actors came and formed a theater. I joined it from the beginning. In five years, it was hailed as one of the best theaters in the world. After 10 years in the theater, I went to London to study directing. After a year and a half in London, I realized I didn’t want to be a director. I wanted to be an actor—that’s what I have fun with.

What brought you to the United States?

It was because of a job offer that my wife got. It was a dot-com. The bubble burst in 2000 when we came. My wife said, “Let’s give it six months or a year.” And I started working. I remember it was a very clear thing for me—I said to myself, “I don’t want to be doing theater anymore.” Part of it was because in L.A., you can’t make a living in the theater. In Israel, it’s a very different situation—you can’t make a living without doing theater. It’s supported by the state and the city, so that’s the only way of having a steady job as an actor. Here, that’s not an option.

How did you deal with that?

It was a decision that I made: If I’m going to be a screen actor, then I need to work solely on that. My school process was to just watch movies. In the beginning in L.A., I didn’t have a lot of work. My wife was still working, so I would just sit hour after hour and watch films, and try to figure out what these great actors did to make it work.

What was it like working with such an award-winning cast [Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopheer Walken, and Catherine Keener]?

It was an incredibly difficult, but fruitful experience—like being part of a master class. Everything was open to improvisation, which is a very scary thing for an actor, because then you don’t have your safety net and anything can happen. When you have people of that stature who are such good improvisers, it’s very intimidating and dangerous. But by the same token, it was a wonderful way of just jumping into it. It was a gift to be part of that.

What’s your favorite scene in the movie?

There is one scene where the façade of [my character] Daniel is being cracked. He is a guy who has a very steel-like façade that is impenetrable in a way. When I read this scene on paper, I thought, “Here’s a scene where you can see a crack, and the emotion is coming out of him, but it’s going to be closed again.”

Of all the characters you’ve played, which can you most relate to?

Valentin Mironov in The Good Shepherd. It was an incredible gift, again, to play a character that is so well-written, so layered. Robert De Niro, who directed it, understood and knew how important that part was emotionally for the movie. It was an actor’s feast. It’s something I’m very proud of.

Watch Ivanir in one of his recent projects: Johnny English Reborn, Big Miracle, or 360.

—Image courtesy of eONE Films

Follow digital assitant editor Davina van Buren on Twitter at @davinavanburen or on Pinterest.