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Why ‘Unorthodox’ scared Shira Haas — and how she got over it

Shira Haas in "Unorthodox."
(Anika Molnar / Netflix)

Hello! I’m Yvonne Villarreal. Welcome to another edition of the companion newsletter to our recently launched “The Envelope: The Podcast,” where my cohost Mark Olsen and I bring you highlights from each week’s episode throughout awards season.

The Golden Globes drew criticism last week when it was reported that Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” one of this year’s most acclaimed American films, would be classified as a foreign-language film because its dialogue is primarily in Korean. The move means the film, a festival darling that tells the story of a Korean American family that moves to an Arkansas farm in the 1980s, will not compete in best picture categories. Stars Steven Yeun and Yeri Han will still be eligible in the leading drama actor categories.

You might remember a similar outcry erupted last year when Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” which features mostly Mandarin dialogue, faced the same classification, igniting conversations about language and American-ness.

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“I have not seen a more American film than #Minari this year,” Wang tweeted. “It’s a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterizes American as only English-speaking.”

According to the Golden Globes website, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. stipulates that contenders in the best drama, comedy or musical categories must feature at least 50% English dialogue.

On this week’s podcast, I spoke with the star of another celebrated project filmed largely in a language other than English, but with a foot firmly planted in the U.S.: Shira Haas, Emmy nominated for her role in Netflix’s largely Yiddish-language limited series “Unorthodox.”

In the four-part series, Haas plays Esty Shapiro, a young woman raised in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn who flees an unfulfilling arranged marriage and her strict religious community to pursue a life in Berlin. Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same name, “Unorthodox” was released in late March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking its hold.

“When I first got the script, I was so scared,” Haas said. “I thought to myself: How can I — will I — relate to a character and to a woman who is very different from me? I come from a different background, I’m different from her. How will it be? And then I started reading it, and I suddenly forgot in a way where she’s coming from … It is a story about a specific community and about rituals and you can’t ignore it, of course, but it is a universal story. I totally saw myself within Esty. This urge of finding yourself. We’re all aiming to do that.”

Alena Yiv and Shira Haas in the film "Asia."
Alena Yiv, left, and Shira Haas in the film “Asia.”
(Gum Films)

“Unorthodox” wasn’t the only performance from Haas that had folks talking this year. She also starred in the Israeli mother/daughter drama “Asia,” as a teenager living with a degenerative motor disease. The film had an online premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, where Haas won best actress in an international narrative feature.

Thanks for reading/listening/subscribing. We have lots more to come. Upcoming guests include Kemp Powers for “One Night In Miami” and “Soul,” Radha Blank for “The Forty-Year-Old Version” and Hugh Grant for “The Undoing.”

Listen to the podcast here, and subscribe to “The Envelope: The Podcast” on Apple Podcasts or your podcast app of choice.

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Feedback? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at awards@latimes.com.


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