Featured Film & TV

Shira Haas Talks About Shooting Unorthodox’s Most Pivotal Scenes.

A part of this interview originally appeared on Deadline. I thought I’d share the full one here.

The day Shira Haas auditioned for the role of Esty Shapiro on Netflix’s Unorthodox — the role that would catapult her to international stardom she got drenched in the rain. Her car got stuck and she was almost late to the audition. When she arrived at the venue, she went to the bathroom, cleaned herself up, took a few deep breaths and walked into the audition where she sang Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah. “If I could go back and say something to me then, it would be “trust yourself, put the doubt aside,” she tells Deadline. “Everything will come to its place.”

A year and a half after the Israeli actress nailed the audition, everything has indeed come to its place. She’s received praise and acclaim for her arresting performance in Unorthodox, playing a young woman who leaves the Hasidic Satmar community in Brooklyn to make her own way in Berlin. She spoke to Deadline, by phone from Tel Aviv, where she’s been hunkered down during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Nadia:

Unorthodox was released in March right when the pandemic kept people at home with time to watch Netflix. You’ve also had a lot of time to process the response to the show since it first came out. What has stood out to you about the way that it’s been received?

Shira Haas:

I was not expecting it; the amount of love and support it’s received is enormous and it’s amazing. I always believed in the show and for me, when I first read it, I really loved the fact that it is a specific story about a specific community. But at the same time, me reading it as a secular person, I wasn’t familiar with the community as much as I am now. When I read it back then, I certainly thought it’s a very universal story. I really felt connected to it. And I really felt like I could see myself as Esty and relate to her, even though she’s coming from a different world. So I only could have hoped that other people will feel the same way, but I never expected it to be like that. We are getting comments from people from Argentina and Arab countries, and the UK, and the States, [both] secular and religious. It touches so many peoples’ hearts, and so many different people, from different ages as well. That was really beyond what I expected. And that was the goal, basically, so I’m so happy that so many people felt connected to it and could relate to it. Mostly very supportive and amazing comments, really.

Nadia: 

For some, this is your breakout role and the first time really getting to see you onscreen. But you’ve been building your career, both in Israel and abroad, from Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness to The Zookeeper’s Wife in 2017. How do you feel your career up until Unorthodox prepared you to play Esty?

Shira Haas:

Yeah, this project is basically the biggest job that I’ve done, especially for an international audience. I have been acting for something like eight and a half, almost nine years, but I feel like every project in a way prepared me for the next one. It’s almost kind of like a ladder actually in a strange way. I took so much experience, for example, from the Natalie Portman movie, the first international role that I did, which was a very small role. But it gave me a hunger, and wanting to understand more. And then The Zookeeper’s Wife came among other Israeli projects that I did. So I really felt like, first of all, I really did grow up, right? I was really a teenager when I started acting, so I really grew up with all these parts. But also for experience and meeting people, and meeting directors, and playing in different languages. It really gave me a lot of tools, especially The Zookeeper’s Wife, and doing the accent there, and working with Jessica Chastain. So it did help me to have a lot of experience, a lot of confidence, when I approached Unorthodox. And hopefully now Unorthodox will prepare me also for the next show. But yes, I definitely feel like it’s a journey. For sure.

Nadia:

It’s a physically and emotionally challenging role — linguistically too, with you learning to speak Yiddish. Why did you want to take it on? What was it about Esty?

Shira Haas:

I remember I read in the beginning, even before it was official that I’m going to do it, it had a shaving scene, and it had a nudity scene, and there’s going to be singing. I knew all this stuff before I was approached, and then I got the script and it was so obvious to me. It was obvious to me, for example the shaving scene, why it’s so crucial, why it’s so needed. Also the other scenes — it was obvious to me that they’re such an important part of the role. To be honest, for me, if I really believe in a story and in a character, and I want to tell something, and I want to share a story, if I feel it’s justified and it needs to be there, then there will be a lot of things that I’m willing to do in order to tell it, if I find it very important and appropriate. So it never scared me. Of course, when I got to specific scenes like the shaving scene and other stuff, I had my butterflies and I was also nervous. I think it will be a lie if any actor would say that he felt nothing. Even though it’s a character, it’s still happening to you in a way, any way you look at it. So of course, I was also nervous and scared. But I really believed in what I’m doing and I was really excited and willing to do it. I wasn’t questioning it at any point.

Nadia:

And you believed in telling Esty’s story. It was a role you wanted to play?

Shira Haas:

Yes. First of all, I think it’s such a rare character to have, as a lead female part. If I’m looking at from an actress’ point of view, it’s really a gift. All of these scenes, all of these moments, it’s really — I don’t want to say once in a lifetime because I don’t want to believe in that — but it’s such a unique and rare gift to have. Also, in the general story and the message of the story, yes. It was really, really important for me. It was kind of like burning me from the inside. I had really this urge to tell this story, and even when I first read for the role, I remember just reading a few scenes, and I had this feeling inside of me which, I don’t have it much in my life, but I felt like I needed to do this role. And thank God I wasn’t the only one who thought like that.

Nadia:

You also learned Yiddish. What helped you grasp an understanding of the language, and how crucial it was for your role?

Shira Haas:

If you will tell me to have a conversation in Yiddish, I won’t, unfortunately know how to do it. But I will understand a lot of it. It was really important for me, first of all, to know all my lines. But not just to know all my lines, but to know really what each word means. If I say “ikh vil aheym geyn,” I don’t want to just understand that I say, “I want to go home.” I want to understand what “ikh” means, what “geyn” is, you know? Every word for me. It was important for me to understand the basics of Yiddish, what made it what it is. I read a lot of Yiddish poetry, and I had an amazing teacher, Eli Rosen. He also played the rabbi in the show and he was our religious consultant. He really helped me so much, also with my lines, and also with understanding this language, which is basically the basis of so many other languages that we don’t even know. I recorded him and I recorded myself, and I wrote my lines, and I listened to it, also because I wanted to be fluent with my lines. But also because I wanted to be really like Esty. I didn’t want, I wanted to be free to actually, and to be the character once the director screamed “Action.” 

Nadia: 

The series is based on the 2012 book by Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, but there are some liberties taken as well. How did you and the director work on creating a true story that you’re fictionalizing in some parts as well? How do you balance that as an actress — trying to play a person who really exists, but at the same time fictionalize some of her?

Shira Haas:

It was the first time doing a character that is really based on or inspired by a real person. Usually most of the stories that are based, or inspired, on, are either really, really old stories, so the people are already deceased, or [they are] very old people. Here, we’re talking about a lady not that much older than me. She came to set a few times, and I met her, only while shooting, not before. So it was a big responsibility. Of course, I’ve read the book a million times, with my markers, and I took a lot from it. But at the same time, because the story was different, and only inspired by, it was important for me to do it differently. It was a conversation also with the creators and the director, that we want to be inspired by Deborah’s story and life, but at the same time, we never wanted to try to imitate or to be her. It was really important to bring a new person to life, to bring Esty, which is a person on her own, to life. So it was a process for me of reading the book, and reading the script, and really marking and circling a lot of it, and taking a lot from it, and then putting it aside, and taking what I can and forget it and creating a new character, which will always be inspired by, but it’s still very different. 

Nadia:

The closing scene of the first episode, when Esty walks into Lake Wannsee in Berlin and takes off her wig, is one of the most powerful moments in TV this year. How did you prepare for that? What was the buildup for that scene?

Shira Haas:

So, this is a fun fact. We shot the ‘mikvah’ and the shaving scene on the first shooting day, and the Wannsee scene was on the last shooting day. It was really amazing to do on the first shooting day the shaving scene and the ‘mikvah’ which involves hair and water. And then at the end of the shooting, to get into the water and to take that wig off. I think I just now understand that so I’m sharing it with you. I think it’s such a symbolic day. Anyway, to your question, yes. It was a very important scene for me. All of these scenes were very, very symbolic, especially the time in Berlin. I think it really shows Esty’s emotional point of view, what she’s going through there. It’s kind of like her first real step of stepping into her new future, which she will have a lot to go through, right? But this is kind of the like the big first step. And like the shaving scene, this scene was also only done in one take because we couldn’t dry my clothes and we had one wig. So it was a lot of responsibility to do it.

But I had the most amazing DOP [Wolfgang Thaler], and it was already the last shooting day so we had such a good connection and really felt each other. We talked about it, the director [Maria Schrader] and I, but I didn’t know what will happen — if I will toss the wig, if I will put it aside. Then I just walked in the water, and it was freezing, and I remember just taking it off. For a second, I thought about tossing it away strongly, but then I was like “No,” and I just gently put it aside, like saying “Thank you for making me who I am. I’ll take some of it, but now I’m going to my own way,” and went into the water. So it was really such an important moment for me. I was really excited to do it. And I remember the scream of “cut” from the shore that the director screamed. It was also the end of the shooting. She ran into the water and we hugged. So it was not only on screen, but also off screen, a very emotional shooting day. 

Nadia

In the series Shtisel, you portray an Israeli girl from a Haredi family, where there are also strict traditions but it’s still very different. Did anything really surprise you about the research you did into these communities? 

Shira Haas:

Like you said, it’s such different characters. Yes, they are both religious but the communities are so different. I always laugh when I say that I think that Esty and Ami [from Shtisel]  won’t get along. They’re so different, and it’s an important thing to say because I don’t like generalizing a community of people. Everyone is so different from one another in every community. I think the fact that I did Shtisel, and the fact that I’m from Israel, I’m a little bit familiar, not with the exact world, but a little bit with the Orthodox world, did help me to approach the character. But at the same time I didn’t have any clue about this, about the Satmar community, about the community in Unorthodox. So I did a lot of research. I arrived actually two months before the shooting in Berlin, in order to do a lot of a practice and rehearsals and music and singing and everything. But before that, I did my homework in reading and doing a lot of research, with interviews that I saw and read about the Satmar community. And I learned a lot of new stuff even if we’re talking about practical stuff. I didn’t know about this ritual of shaving your hair before the wedding because it’s very rare. I don’t think there is, maybe there is one, but most of, if not almost all of the communities, they don’t do that. So it’s very specific and I was shocked to figure it out.

And also a lot of things about the wedding. So many rituals that I didn’t know there. And the room, where they sit together for seven minutes, or this dance with the rabbi, a lot of things. And you know what, I didn’t even know the amount of importance of Yiddish. I knew that they know Yiddish, but I didn’t know that this is actually the language that they are speaking. So, yes. There’s a lot of things that I’ve learned, and I had to learn. And I’m also kind of like a nerd and I also just love doing research, so it was fun to learn and to get to know everything. 

Nadia:

Unorthodox is it doesn’t vilify Amit Rahav’s character, Esty’s husband Yanky. A lot of the film is made by your relationship with him onscreen — how did knowing him before help this?

Shira Haas:

I’ve known Amit for, like, 10 years. It’s so funny. Today I went out with my mask and I just was just walking down the street and I saw Amit, and we actually took a selfie. I swear. It’s on my Instagram.

Nadia:

I saw!

Shira Haas:

He’s a neighbor of mine. He’s a really good friend of mine. We met at this party thing, and we immediately bonded. Amit is the funniest person alive. That’s also a fun fact. We always said, “Someday, we will act together on a project,” And then it happened 10 years later, like big time. I definitely feel like our relationship in real life helped us on the screen. We are actors — even if you give me someone that I don’t know, we can make it work. But the fact that we do know each other and trust each other so much, and with a lot of things that are very sensitive when we didn’t have much rehearsals, it just really helps to have such a good friend, and also an amazing actor. I think the fact that Yanky is so lovely and lovable is also because it was very important for everyone to not try to make him “bad” or “good” or something like that. And also Amit is so lovable, and he has such a nice energy as well, and we know that he also brought this to the character. But also, it was everyone’s intentions to this world, in general.