Gideon Raff is emerging as one of Hollywood's most sought-after idea men, but you wouldn't know it from his office on Sunset Boulevard, which is almost barren, save for a fold-out map of Jerusalem's Old City hanging on the wall. If Raff hasn't invested in decor, it's because the 41-year-old Israeli is rarely in this office for long: He ping-pongs between Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, where he writes and directs the groundbreaking series Prisoners of War, about Israeli soldiers returning after years in captivity to families that have moved on without them and a government deeply suspicious of them. Sound familiar? The show was adapted into Homeland—for which Raff, who cowrote the pilot, won two Emmys—and he's been riding a wave of momentum ever since. One hotly anticipated series, Tyrant, premieres this month on FX, and another, Dig, airs on the USA Network this fall. "I'm very proud," Raff says. "We're shooting two shows in Israel. Big shows. American shows."
Already a bestselling novelist when he arrived in the U.S. in 2001 to study at Los Angeles' American Film Institute, Raff got his first taste of Hollywood assisting director Doug Liman on Mr. and Mrs. Smith. "A delegation of 10 Israeli diplomats came to the set one day," Liman recalls. "And they were like, 'Oh my God! That's Gideon Raff!' They were fawning more over Gideon than they were over Brad and Angie." Raff, a vegan and an animal-rights activist, enjoyed the L.A. lifestyle, but despite a few minor successes (including a movie backed by Liman), he couldn't shake the sense that he didn't belong. He moved back to Israel in 2009, only to find himself a stranger there, too. "When you spend so much time away from home," he says, "you have a childish sense that the place froze in time. It's heartbreaking." After channeling his feelings of displacement into Prisoners, Raff now has a foot firmly planted in each world—and suitors in both. In addition to the two U.S. series and the much-anticipated third season of Prisoners, he has a feature film in the works. In each project, Raff mines universality from a specific sense of place. "The more local you are, the more global you are—because you tap into a human truth that translates across cultures," he says.
Referred to by insiders as "reverse Homeland," Tyrant revolves around Bassam Al Fayeed, the son of a Middle Eastern dictator, who fled to L.A., changed his name to Barry, and married a beautiful blonde. But after 20 years of self-imposed exile, a family wedding draws Bassam home, where he unwillingly becomes embroiled in a power struggle to take up his father's mantle. Raff describes the show—which FX snatched up after a bidding war—as "palace intrigue; a little bit soapy, a little bit Shakespeare" and says he was influenced by everything from the Arab Spring to The Godfather.
Raff has since relinquished showrunner duties and is now focusing on Dig, an Indiana Jones–meets–Da Vinci Code archaeological thriller that he writes and co-runs. "The industry sees Gideon as this incredible idea machine, bringing buzzy, controversial, complex shows," says Jackie de Crinis, USA's executive vice president of original programming, who green-lighted the show because of "the authenticity of the storytelling." That didn't come easy. Raff had to persuade Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat to let him shoot in never-before-seen tunnels beneath the Old City, a move that drew the ire of some Palestinians. "Everything to do with filming in Israel is a PR war," Raff says of the controversy, which is responsible for his one piece of decoration: the Old City map. "I never look at it," he says, laughing. "I grew up there. I kind of know the place."