Hollywood’s Spring Fling With Blooming Israeli Actresses

By Rebecca Spence

Published April 08, 2009, issue of April 17, 2009.
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In Hollywood, Israeli actresses are stealing the show.

No fewer than three Israeli starlets will be appearing in major American studio releases over the next month, while others are scooping up roles on television shows and in theater productions. Ayelet Zurer plays the female lead in the forthcoming “Da Vinci Code” sequel, “Angels & Demons,” while Noa Tishby has a smaller part in the romantic comedy “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” A former Miss Israel, Gal Gadot, is appearing in the fourth installment of Vin Diesel’s cars and babes franchise, “Fast & Furious,” and onstage, Meital Dohan, known for her role in the Showtime series “Weeds,” recently appeared in the Los Angeles run of the play “Stitching.”

The phenomenon, which also includes the newfound fascination with Israeli models — think Bar Refaeli on the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and Esti Ginzburg on the issue’s inside pages — is part of a wider trend of Hollywood embracing the Jewish state as a land of business opportunity. Last year, American networks began buying up Israeli sitcom formats in droves, beginning with the HBO show “In Treatment,” which Tishby, in the role of co-executive producer, successfully brought across the Atlantic. Another example is “Mythological X,” which became CBS’s “The Ex List,” before it was canceled last fall. More shows are on their way.

At the same time, Israeli films are making a splash in America, with movies like “The Band’s Visit” and the animated feature “Waltz With Bashir” receiving critical acclaim — and, in the case of “Waltz With Bashir,” an Oscar nomination. The impending stardom of Israel’s leading ladies may simply be the natural next step.

“Hollywood loves the next cool thing,” said Danny Sussman, a talent manager at the L.A.-based Brillstein Entertainment Partners. “And because of all of the series and all of the films from Israel, artists coming here and crossing over is now the next cool thing.”

Sussman, who serves as vice chairman of the entertainment division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has been taking entertainment industry professionals to Israel for the past decade, in an effort to build bridges between Hollywood and the Jewish state. All that work, he said, is finally paying off.

It’s no secret that Israel is full of drop-dead gorgeous women, and in a business dominated by sex appeal, that can’t hurt. But the success of Israeli actresses, Hollywood insiders say, is about more than their exotic good looks.

Sussman pointed out that in Israel, where theater has as much prestige as it does in places like New York and London — unlike in Los Angeles — actors often get their training on the stage. Dohan started her career as part of Tel Aviv’s renowned Cameri Theatre, and Tishby, an A-list star in Israel, first made a name for herself at age 16, when she toured with the musical “David.”

Another factor is the increasing Americanization of Israeli culture in recent decades. “They’re brought up on American television,” said Howard Rosenman, a veteran Hollywood producer, referring to Israelis. Moreover, said Rosenman, who for seven years taught a master class in film production at Tel Aviv University, Israeli actors often have little or no trace of a detectable accent. Tishby, in particular, is known in Hollywood circles for having no accent whatsoever.

Indeed, the increasingly globalized marketplace and the changing face of America’s ethnic composition may also have something to do with why Israeli actresses are taking Tinseltown by storm. Ethnic beauty is far more prevalent in today’s Hollywood than even a decade ago, with stars like Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez reflecting those changing norms. Israeli women, with their often dark, ethnic features, fit neatly into that paradigm.

Tishby, a classic Israeli beauty with olive skin and green eyes, started coming to L.A. nine years ago to make it in American show biz. She was already a megawatt star in Israel, known for her role on the hit Israeli soap opera “Ramat Aviv Gimmel.” But at that time, few Israeli actors had attempted to make it in Hollywood — and even fewer had made it big. Mili Avital, another Israeli star, who, like Dohan, cut her teeth at the Cameri Theatre, found some success in Hollywood in the mid-1990s, but she never became a household name.

In an interview with the Forward, Tishby said that the transition from Israeli superstardom to being an unknown in Hollywood had its challenges. “At first it was hard for me to get an agent or a manager,” she said. “People weren’t open to the possibility of working with an Israeli actress.”

Tishby’s first stateside success came in the music business, around 2001, when she signed a record deal with MCA Records. But after she cut the album, Geffen Records absorbed the label, leaving Tishby back at square one. At that time, she said, casting directors didn’t want to see Israeli actresses, because they assumed they had accents. But Tishby stuck it out, and now she’s lining up enviable roles. Tishby recently landed a recurring role on the HBO show “Big Love,” playing the wife of an American Indian chief, and a part in “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” starring Matthew McConaughey, scheduled for release May 1. “Slowly but surely you start getting the confidence of the casting directors up, because they know you deliver and do a good job,” she said.

Zurer’s Hollywood break came when Steven Spielberg cast her as the wife of Eric Bana’s character in the Academy Award-nominated film “Munich.” Zurer, a Tel Aviv native who studied acting in New York, went on to land roles in the films “Vantage Point” and “Adam Resurrected.” In “Angels & Demons,” Ron Howard’s adaptation of the Dan Brown novel, Zurer reportedly beat out better-known stars, including Naomi Watts, for the role of Vittoria Vetra, the daughter of an Italian physicist. The film opens May 15.

Other Israeli actresses gaining traction in Hollywood include Alona Tal, who played the role of Meg Manning on the now defunct UPN/CW show “Veronica Mars.”

Dohan, who gained something of a cult following in her role as Israeli rabbinic school administrator Yael Hoffman on “Weeds,” said that it’s about time her home country’s actresses are making it in Hollywood. “I think it’s great,” she said, “and hopefully, the American market will get to see more and more of Israeli talent.”

Contact Rebecca Spence at Spence@forward.com.

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