To be a strong woman, one has to know how to kick butt with the high kick of a Vegas dancer, wisecrack menacingly and wriggle seductively with the look-at-me panache of a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.
That would be the wisdom espoused by the Hollywood blockbuster -- movies of the “Charlie’s Angels” and “Transformers” variety.
Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer subscribes to a more complicated, multidimensional vision of female strength, which the actress is bringing to her first Hollywood would-be blockbuster, Ron Howard’s “Angels & Demons,” opening Friday.
The 39-year-old, sometimes referred to in the press as the Julia Roberts of Israel, first burst into American consciousness four years ago as the luminously beautiful pregnant wife of the Israeli terrorist-hunter portrayed by Eric Bana in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” then turned around to play a fierce, seductive terrorist herself in the fun “Rashomon"-type thriller “Vantage Point.”
Now Zurer steps up as Tom Hanks’ brainy cohort in the follow-up to Howard’s “The Da Vinci Code.” This ruthlessly efficient, beautifully designed film could also be called “24, the Papal Edition,” down to the time-stamps that appear on-screen every 10 minutes or so. Again, Hanks dons the role as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, albeit with fewer pounds and better hair than last time.
Zurer takes on the truth-seeking Italian physicist Vittoria Vetra. The plot revolves around a secret society of vengeful intellectuals, the Illuminati, who want to get back at the science-scorning Catholic Church of history by killing cardinals every hour on the hour and planting under Vatican City an explosive canister of anti-matter, which Langdon must find and dispose of within 24 hours with Vetra’s help.
According to Howard, Zurer beat out eight other actresses who also had screen-tested with Hanks. “There’s something very unself-conscious and honest and earthy about Ayelet,” says Howard, “and yet she has the capacity to deal with the scientific jargon in a way that felt honest and she felt comfortable with it.”
Trying to explain the exact nature of anti-matter -- a real phenomenon produced in CERN, a laboratory in Switzerland -- is not for the physics-challenged. “Don’t read about it,” Zurer offers helpfully. “There are certain people like me who can’t read and understand at the same time. If you go to YouTube and see it online, you’d understand. It’s somehow easier to understand when you have a painting.” Make that “a visual,” but English is not Zurer’s first language.
But then, everything sounds a little more exotic and self-deprecating in Zurer’s throaty, accented lilt. Earlier this week, the actress was sipping latte in a Venice coffeehouse, not far from the beach-side home she shares with her husband and 4-year-old son. Dressed in black jeans and a black leather jacket, with a fall of dark hair and pale skin, Zurer has the giddy air of someone jet-setting around the world for the first time, which she is, hopping from Rome to Tokyo for the film’s premieres and then on to New York literally within hours for a spate of media interviews.
Zurer, who now lives in the United States, actually did read extensively about anti-matter and even spent two days trolling the hallways of CERN to prepare for the role. She also interviewed the head of the astronomy department at UCLA, a female scientist who divides women in the science into two types -- those who behave like men to get along in the male-dominated field and those who are “highly feminine, and would wear high heels, and who would like to be the center of attention as one of the only women in the lecture room.” Her character descends from the more womanly tradition. “I think driven would be the right term for Vittoria. She’s used to saying what’s on her mind,” Zurer says.
“I knew from Ron, he wanted a very realistic sense of the character rather than that brave superhero from the book with long legs, great skin and great intelligence, but at the same time, I don’t know how real she’d feel if you saw her on-screen running in shorts. He said the realer, the better.”
Despite her lightheartedness, Zurer seems to possess a kind of subtle stoic quality, which might be genetic or simply the product of growing up in the Middle East. She is a child of the Holocaust -- her mother, then just a 5-year- old in Czechoslovakia, lived through the war by hiding out in a convent, and later reunited with her family for only a year in the forest. In the ‘50s, she immigrated to Israel, and ultimately married Zurer’s father, a government worker who painted on the side.
There were oil paints in Zurer’s Tel Aviv home, and “everybody expected me to do something with painting,” but then genes overtook her, she explains. “What happened was I became this pretty girl from a non-pretty girl and was dragged into doing all kinds of things on stage. I found it to be really fun, but never thought I’d pursue it, because I was too shy.”
She did her required army stint -- singing for the troops as part of a special arts division. She admits that whenever she’s asked about her army experience, “I always get this redness in my skin and face. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t carry a gun, thank you very much.”
At 21, she went to Japan to try her hand at modeling, a stint that lasted only a month because she hated sushi and ate only hamburgers and grew two dress sizes. She spent a lot of that time in the bathrooms of clubs, listening to the sad life story of one of her fellow models, a woman she describes as “a street cat,” and when she returned to Israel and drama school, she used almost everything she learned from her for a similarly distraught model character in a theatrical version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.” “I used her to play that character,” Zurer recalls. “I suddenly completely utterly forgot myself when I was on stage. I realized [acting] is not about showing off yourself but something totally different but quite profound.”
She went on to study acting in New York before ultimately returning to Israel, where she won the 2003 Israeli Oscar equivalent for her performance as a woman who lost her husband in a terrorist attack in the dramedy “Nina’s Tragedies,” and later starred in the TV series “Be’Tipul,” the original Israeli version of HBO’s “In Treatment” that was a sensation in her homeland, particularly Zurer’s story line. She played a troubled, highly sexualized young woman who believes she is in love with her therapist (the Melissa George story line in the American remake).
Zurer was a bleary-eyed new mother when she got a cryptic call out of the blue from a casting director who wanted her to come the very next day to audition on tape for a very famous American director. Exhausted, and doubtful of her ability to prepare, Zurer declined until the casting director finally revealed that the director was Spielberg and the project was “Munich.”
The controversial film tells the story of a group of Israeli agents who methodically hunt down and kill the terrorists responsible for the massacre of Israel’s 1972 Olympic team in Munich.
Her character embodies the vitality of life -- a reason to go on living when the cost of what he has done begins to weigh on the hero played by Bana.
“My feeling, it was an homage to [Spielberg’s wife, actress Kate Capshaw]. He truly loves her, and he wanted a woman who would be real but also supportive of her husband, not a woman who just stays behind and cries and nags him to come back,” Zurer says. “I thought she was a very happy, contented person who could survive on her own.”
Spoken like an optimistic stoic.