A Brooklyn boy, born and raised, Ari Barkan has spent most of his 27 years in Brighton Beach. He remembers seeing films at the Sheepshead Bay 14 cinema as a child, dreaming of being an actor. On February 9th, he’ll be at the local theater once again, but this time, on the big screen.
Barkan’s latest role is in the new action film First We Take Brooklyn, which will be playing at his hometown theater next week, along with theaters in Manhattan, then opening in LA and Miami the following weekend.
It’s been a lifelong journey to the silver screen for Barkan. When he was young, his parents took him to commercial auditions, but when they saw how many kids were there, they decided child acting wasn’t for him, Barkan said.
He kept acting though, starring in school productions as he attended Poly Prep in Dyker Heights and Adelphi Academy in Bay Ridge. But by the time he was ready to head to college, Barkan figured he’d end up as an entertainment lawyer. He studied Political Science at Brooklyn College, taking some acting classes along the way. By the time he was ready to graduate in 2012, he was itching to be involved in the actual work of filmmaking again.
Soon after, Barkan and some friends started “Baba Fira,” a web series based on a fictional Russian Grandmother that quickly became a big hit in the close-knit Russian community of Brighton Beach.
“People were behind it, they’d want to take a picture, or shout to us in the street,” he said. Once, he recalled, a Russian ambulance driver clicked on the P.A. system in his ambulance, blaring out a shout of “Baba Fira!” to Barkan while he was on the street. In Brighton Beach, it looked like he’d made it.
Constantly on the hustle, Barkan didn’t stop there, doing some background acting while attending auditions and networking wherever he could. He credits his friend groups—native Brooklyn actors, mostly—with helping him out.
“There are so many actors in New York,” he said. “But there’s always a group of actors you’re talking to, networking with—if you don’t hear about an opportunity, they’ll relay it to you.”
On set for a featured extra role on The Wolf of Wall Street, Barkan met Danny Abeckaser, an Israeli-born, Brooklyn-raised actor and director. The two hit it off, becoming good friends.
Abeckaser stars in and directs the forthcoming First We Take Brooklyn, and he gave Ari Barkan the opportunity of a lifetime: to share the screen with acting legend Harvey Keitel. They share two memorable scenes on screen, said Barkan, who is hesitant to give away any spoilers, but they soon found out they shared something even more memorable: their backgrounds.
“He grew up in Brighton Beach, he went to Lincoln!” Barkan said excitedly, “The guy is a legend—and really nice.”
While the film depicts an ongoing conflict between Israeli and Russian mafiosos, Barkan turned out to be the only fluent Russian speaker on set. He soon found himself advising Keitel himself. “He would ask, ‘Ari, is it vodka shot then eat the caviar on the bread, or is it bread and caviar, then vodka?'” Barkan related, laughing. (For the record, Barkan says it’s definitely vodka first, then caviar and bread).
While the actor said it was great to be “one of one” on the set as a Russian, it isn’t uncommon for there to be many other ethnicities putting on Russian accents for a role. “It’s not that there’s a lack of Russian actors,” he said. “Casting directors just have the people they know, or cast based on their resumes, where they’ve been.”
Barkan said as much as he loved the Keanu Reeves action movie John Wick, in which the titular character takes on the Russian mob, “I don’t think there were more than one or two actual Russians in it—the main [Russian] roles went to British actors!”
Recently, Barkan filmed a major role in a TV show called “Big Dogs,” in which he plays a Chechen killer. Though many of Barkan’s credits are playing variations of organized crime figures, he doesn’t mind too much. “I personally don’t have any problems with it if the story is accurate,” he said.
“People want more of these films,” he said, pointing to the great successes of Italian mafia movies like Goodfellas. “The Russian Mafia existed 20 years ago, but now it’s hush-hush. It’s a factual, historical thing, and it’s telling that story… It’s material that draws you in.”
With eight hour-long episodes of “Big Dogs” filmed, the show is being shopped around to networks, and Barkan hopes it’ll be out next year. But even with some major projects behind him, he hasn’t stopped working.
“I’m auditioning every week, looking for what’s next,” says the actor, who has appeared on shows like “Law & Order: SVU,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Gotham,” “Madam Secretary” and “The Blacklist.”
Even with all those credits to his name, it hasn’t always been easy. “I was really contemplating [quitting] last year,” he said. Auditions had dried up, there was nothing coming, plus Barkan had fallen ill with pneumonia for most of January. “I was thinking, ‘I have to do something else,'” he said. But as he drove to Boston to see his brother, who had graduated from college, Barkan got the call back from his audition for “Big Dogs”—he’d landed his biggest role yet.
“I planted seeds that are coming to fruition,” he said. “It’s really great having them blossom.”
Currently, Barkan is filming Sarah Q alongside a host of former “Sopranos” actors, many of whom are playing against type in the story of a young actress trying to make it in New York. And Barkan is too, stepping out of his crime roles for something new alongside his friend and fellow First We Take Brooklyn alum George Andreakos. Though some things will stay the same: he’s also playing a classic Mafia cleaner in the upcoming Clover, where he acts alongside Chazz Palminteri and Ron Perlman.
But for now, he’s focused locally: in one week, he’ll be sitting at his childhood theater in Sheepshead Bay, staring up at himself on the big screen. For a Brooklyn boy with big dreams, that’s gotta be a pretty great reality.