For Israeli actress Shira Haas, starring in ‘Unorthodox’ has been ‘a gift for me’
Just after she’d arrived in Berlin to start filming the Netflix series “Unorthodox,” Shira Haas went out for drinks with director Maria Schrader.
After a few glasses of wine, Schrader broke the news: The first day of production on the series — which follows a young woman raised in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn — was going to be intense. In the morning, she’d have to get partially nude for a scene in a mikveh, or ritual bath. In the afternoon, she’d have to shave her head on camera.
“I was like, ‘Nooooooo!’ Maybe she felt like she needed to give me wine,” Haas recalled with a laugh during a recent Zoom call from her home in Tel Aviv. “I was really shocked in the beginning. But now that I look at it I can see how helpful it was. It got me into character like that,” she says, snapping her fingers.
Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same name, “Unorthodox” tells the story of Esty Shapiro, a teenager who flees a miserable arranged marriage to pursue a dream of studying music in Berlin. The four-part limited series was released in late March, as the coronavirus pandemic was forcing much of the world indoors. Suddenly, people everywhere could relate to a story about a woman feeling impossibly isolated.
Netflix’s “Unorthodox” recreates the customs of the Hasidic Jewish community in painstaking detail. We went behind the scenes to find out how they did it.
Featuring Yiddish dialogue and careful re-creations of Satmar Jewish rituals, it became an unlikely sleeper hit, and Haas’ mesmerizing performance as Esty, a quiet character with a wildly expressive face that nearly rendered subtitles unnecessary, was integral to its success.
Although Haas and Esty share a certain steely determination, the actress, 25, is more animated than her onscreen counterpart. Over the course of a nearly hourlong chat, she uses an array of colorful gestures — conveying the brain-melting difficulty of learning Yiddish by dragging a finger down her face and the pleasure of playing such a rich and complicated character with an enthusiastic chef’s kiss.
“Etsy is very stubborn but also very flexible. She wants to fit in but she wants to break out. She is strong but she is soft. You have to bring this complexity not only to every scene, but to every sentence. So this was very attractive to me. I found it amazing, this combination.”
As a toddler in her hometown about 30 minutes outside Tel Aviv, Haas was diagnosed with kidney cancer and spent several years undergoing treatment. Her earliest memories involve hospital visits and chemotherapy. The experience made her something of an old soul. “When I was 7 or 8, I was in a lot of ways like a 40-year-old.” She also suspects it enabled her, as an actress, to “go to some deep places.”
Haas was certain she’d go to college to study psychology but enrolled at an arts high school. A casting director reached out to her on Facebook about an Israeli film called “Princess.” She got the part, playing a 12-year-old with a sexually abusive stepfather. “That was the moment where I was like, ‘OK, this is what I want to do. I always say it was like Narnia. I open the door and [she sings a heavenly note].”
She gained even wider notice in the Israeli series “Shtisel,” which follows a strictly religious Haredi family in Jerusalem. A hit at home in Israel, it was eventually picked up by Netflix.
When she got the call to audition for “Unorthodox,” she was told only that it was for a German series called “The Orchestra” and was asked to perform Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” (Esty sings during a pivotal scene in “Unorthodox.”) Once she was cast, she devoured Feldman’s memoir and the scripts by Alexa Karolinski and Anna Winger.
“You read something that’s supposed to be very different from you, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m very curious to see those people.’ And then you read it, and you’re like, ‘That’s actually me,’” Haas says, noting that, like Esty, she grew up asking a lot of questions. “Questions about life, about meaning, about who I am, what I am. For me it was a blessing. For Esty, and maybe also for Deborah, it was a curse. Asking questions was not the best thing to do.”
Haas spent weeks memorizing dialogue in Yiddish, a language the native Hebrew speaker had heard only fleetingly before, and mastering a new accent in English. Eli Rosen, a translator and consultant on the series, “saw the darkest side of me,” she says. “You know that you learn something so much that your brain is melting and you’re not you anymore? I was a monster sometimes. Well, not like a cruel one. A very sympathetic monster.”
But Haas says Esty really only came to life at her first costume fitting, when she put on her modest clothing and wig. “I put it on and”— she makes a sound like a vacuum sucking up air —“immediately, physically I was suddenly Esty.”
Haas has followed an unusual professional journey the last three months, having a breakout moment while barely leaving her apartment. She’s used the downtime to write scripts — she says she would love to direct one day — and create collages. “I really love staying at home. But I wish it was different circumstances.”
Once production can safely begin, she is scheduled to film Season 3 of “Shtisel,” and the acclaim she’s received for “Unorthodox” will almost certainly lead to more work. But for now she’s grateful to hear from the people who’ve been touched by “Unorthodox” — including formerly Hasidic men and women who’ve left the strict religious upbringing.
“So many people said, ‘I’m Esty, this is my story.’ It’s an unbelievable privilege. There is nothing you can say except thank you for sharing.”
It has also strengthened Haas’ bond with her 86-year-old grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who spontaneously gave her the ring off her finger when she heard about the project. “She was really emotional and excited about the fact I would be playing an Orthodox girl in a show in Yiddish for Netflix. It’s amazing. The fact that I can take part in this series — that’s a gift for me.”
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