They’re beautiful, talented, famous, and Israeli. ISRAEL21c brings you the top 10 Israelis working in Hollywood.
Once upon a time, as they say in Hollywood films, the only Israeli names you’d see connected to the film industry were producers like Arnon Milchan, Avi Lerner and Menachem Golan and his partner Yoram Globus. And, of course, actor Topol in his role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.
But things have sure changed. Whereas once, ‘ethnic’ actors were seen as only bit part or villain roles, the diversification that’s taken place in Hollywood over the last couple of decades has opened windows of opportunity for Israelis.
Like never before, Hollywood is embracing Israel in a multi-faceted way. American TV networks have been gobbling up Israeli series format, with B’tipul becoming HBO’s In Treatment, Mythological X becoming CBS’s The Ex List and most recently, the Adir Miller comedy Ramzor being picked up by FOX.
Israeli-made films have also made a big splash in the last decade, with movies like The Band’s Visit, Waltz with Bashir, Beaufort and Ajami all receiving critical acclaim and for the last three, Oscar nominations.
So it was logical that Israeli actors, directors and behind the scenes makers of all types would be the next natural import for Hollywood. With their exotic good looks, a Middle Eastern mystique and a full canister of talent, the Israeli imports to Hollywood have made an indelible mark on the industry.
“Hollywood loves the next cool thing,” Danny Sussman, a talent manager at the LA-based Brillstein Entertainment Partners, told Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot recently. “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.”
ISRAEL21c introduces you to some of the 10 coolest.
1. Ayelet Zurer
Ayelet Zurer is securing her position as the most successful Israeli actress in Hollywood. After starring alongside Tom Hanks and Ewan McGregor in Angels & Demons, which earned $500 million across the world, 41-year-old Zurer has now filmed the leading female role in director Chris Eyre’s 2011 film A Year in Mooring, along with Josh Lucas (A Beautiful Mind).
In 2003, she graduated from small supporting roles in Israeli films and won the Ophir (the Israeli Oscar), for her starring role in Savi Gavison’s Nina’s Tragedies. Zurer played the title role, a woman who has to remake her life after her husband’s sudden death.
Zurer’s Hollywood breakthrough began in 2005 when she was cast in Steven Speilberg’s Munich. In 2008, she appeared in the thriller Vantage Point alongside Dennis Quaid and Sigourney Weaver. She also appeared as a nurse in Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected, who gets involved with a disturbed Holocaust survivor played by Jeff Goldblum, “She’s an actress whose abilities are so soft and warm,” Schrader said of Zurer when the film was screened at the Haifa Film Festival.
In 2009, The Independent Film Critics Association crowned Zurer one of Hollywood’s most beautiful women, and ranked her ninth – after Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley and before Scarlett Johansson and Nicole Kidman.
2. Meital Dohan
Fans of the popular US dark comedy TV series Weeds won’t soon forget Meital Dohan’s role in season two as Yael Hoffman, the naughty director of a rabbinical academy who ends up as a seductive dominatrix. But from yeshivot to zombies to the stage, the 33-year-old actress’s range is exemplified by a number of roles both in the US and Israel that have branded her as gifted actress.
Raised in a small community just outside Ra’anana, Dohan attended the Nissan Nativ School of Acting, one of Israel’s most prestigious theater academies, and was signed to a contract by the Cameri Theater. In 2000, she was voted most promising newcomer for her role in the Cameri’s Best Friends. In 2001 and 2002 Dohan was nominated for Best Actress Ophir Awards for her roles in Giraffes and God’s Sandbox, respectively.
Following her stint on Weeds, Dohan starred as Aurora on Woke Up Dead, an online “zombie comedy thriller” produced by and starring Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite).
She also played a prominent role along with Chris Messina in Rashida Jones in this year’s Monogamy by director Dana Adam Shapiro (Murderball), which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and won an award for Best Narrative Feature.
Dohan has just completed filming a role in Foreclosure, a Richard Eddes horror thriller starring Michael Imperlioli and Bill Raymond. She’s also acted extensively on stage, most recently in 2008 in the American premiere of the play Stitching by British playwright Anthony Neilson.
This year, Dohan became the official spokesperson for Artists 4 Israel and Artists 4 Israel’s Murality Mission, which brought over young US graffiti artists to paint bomb shelters in Sderot and show their solidarity.
3. Gal Gadot
Even before an ISRAEL21c-organized 2007 Maxim magazine photo spread introduced her to the American public, Israelis were well aware of Gal Gadot’s charms. The 26-year-old native of Rosh Ha’ayin won the Miss Israel title in 2004 and went on to represent Israel at the 2004 Miss Universe beauty pageant.
But her acting career took off in 2008 when she featured in the Israeli dram Bubot, which led to her being cast opposite action star Vin Diesel in his film Fast & Furious.
Last year, Gadot appeared in episodes of the series Entourage and The Beautiful Life, and this year, she’s back on the silver screen, playing the role of “Netanya” in the Steve Carrell/Tina Fey comedy Date Night.
Her next role will be even more high-profile, with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in the upcoming Knight and Day, directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, Girl, Interrupted). In the film about a couple of secret agents who begin a romance while on assignment, Gadot plays Naomi, one of the women Tom Cruise’s character encounters on his globe-encompassing assignment.
“It’s fun playing the bad girl, since I’m always the good girl in real life,” Gadot told an interviewer.
4. Noa Tishby
Whether in front of the screen or in the Hollywood front offices, Noa Tishby has become a mover and shaker in the US entertainment scene.
An actress, producer, model and singer, the 34-year-old Tishby divides her time between Los Angeles, Tel Aviv and Australia, where her husband Andrew Günsberg, an Australian media personality, resides.
She became a household name in Israel while still a teenager, due to her starring role in the TV drama Ramat Aviv Gimmel, and a successful career as a recording artist with Nona topping the charts. She also won praise for her stage role in the Hebrew production of West Side Story.
Using her credits as a jumping off point for roles in the US, Tishby appeared in Michael Bay’s The Island with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson and won leading roles in the indie films Fatwa and Connecting Dots. She also starred opposite Matthew McConaughey in The Ghost of Girlfriends Past. Tishby’s TV credits include NCIS, Leverage, CSI:Miami, CSI:NY, Nip/Tuck, The 4400, Las Vegas, and Star Trek: Enterprise., as well as recurring roles on HBO’s Big Love and ABC’s The Deep End.
If that was the extent of Tishby’s work in the US, it would be enough to include her on this list. But, as a producer, Tishby made history with the sale of In Treatment (B’Tipul) to HBO; the first Israeli television show to become an American series.
Tishby serves as co-executive producer of the program alongside Mark Wahlberg. Tishby set up three additional television projects in the US: Screenz and A Touch Away for HBO and a comedy for MTV. Tishby’s production company, Noa’s Arc, owns the rights to the programs and is developing numerous television, film and theater projects from Israel and other parts of the world.
5. Aki Avni
Probably the most well known Israeli actor to international audiences, veteran Aki Avni has enjoyed a diverse career in Israel and abroad. The 44-year-old native of Rehovot and former husband of model/actress Sandy Bar got his start as a youth TV host on Israel Television but soon graduated to an acting career.
In the early ‘90s, he appeared in a string of films and stage shows without garnering great reaction. But he achieved critical acclaim for his 2002 performance in Time of Favor, writer-director Joseph Cedar’s debut film, a psychologically complex love triangle in the middle of terror in the West Bank.
The role led to a Hollywood career for Avni, including landing the role of Mohsen in the 2003 second season of the hit series 24. In 2006, he starred with Natalie Portman in Amos Gitai’s Israeli romance drama Free Zone, and the year after appeared in Homeland Security with Antonio Banderas and Meg Ryan.
Avni, who divides his time between the US and Israel, appeared last year in the Jean Claude Van-Damme action film Universal Soldier, and he’s completed filming in two upcoming movies: The Divided, with Jeremy London in which an Iraq war hero matches wits with an anti-war radical over the heart of a woman, and the Israeli film Black Light, a psychological drama involving the second generation of a Holocaust survivor.
6. Mili Avital
Only Ayelet Zurer is close to reaching the status that Mili Avital enjoys as the most famous Israeli in Hollywood. The 39-year-old native of Jerusalem has managed to build a diversified career in film, television and stage in both the US and Israel.
Only a year after arriving in New York in 1993 to study acting, she was cast as the female lead in the film Stargate. This led to roles in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man opposite Johnny Depp, Doug Ellin’s Kissing a Fool, Polish Wedding, Robert Benton’s The Human Stain and When Do We Eat? Her television work includes portraying Scheherazade in the Emmy-nominated ABC miniseries Arabian Nights, and theater, Avital played Cordelia in King Lear at Venice, California’s Electric Lodge in 2006. Avital even directed a short documentary – I Think Myself I am All the Time Younger - which premiered at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Last year, Avital, who lives in New York with her husband, screenwriter Charles Randolph and their son, appeared in the FX TV show Damages, in a recurring role as the mistress to Patty Hewes’ (Glen Close) husband.
She also starred in the Israeli prime time drama Prisoners of War (Hatufim). Her other recent Israeli work includes the cult comedy Ahava Colombianit (Colombian Love), as well as Noodle, for which she received the 2007 Israel’s Critics’ Circle Award for Best Actress, the Israeli Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and Israel’s Person of the Year nomination.
7. Oren Peli
An unknown computer games programmer two years ago, Israeli-born filmmaker Oren Peli can practically write his own ticket in Hollywood today thanks to the supernatural success of his film Paranormal Activity.
The ‘home made’ movie, made with an alleged budget of $15,000 earned over $100 million in the US alone.
Peli got the idea for the film when he moved into a new home and found the sudden quiet of suburbia disturbing. The house was new and still settling, and at night he could hear the house shifting and groaning.
He wrote a script with his friend, fellow Israeli Amir Zbedo, fixed up his house a bit, held a casting session in Hollywood, and shot the movie right in the house. He edited it on his own home PC, and then submitted it to Screamfest – a boutique festival for cult horror in LA.
The cult film gathered buzz and was eventually acquired by Dreamworks for mass release. The 39-year-old Peli is currently working on another horror film, Area 51, slated for release before the end of the year.
8. Piny Benzaken
He may not appear in front of the screen, but a slew of Hollywood A-listers owe their appearance to Pini Benzaken, the celebrated Israeli-born hair stylist for the stars.
Whether it was designing the pop culture-defining styles for John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or his makeovers for everyone ranging from, Dolly Parton and Charlie Sheen to Cher and Shirley McLaine, Benzaken has been at the forefront of hair styling for decades as a leader in the hair extension and replacement industry.
A former professional soccer player in Israel, Benzaken moved to California in 1975 and launched a career at a salon in Beverly Hills, where his client list soon included the likes of Farrah Fawcett and Liberace. His first job in a movie was to work on Tom Cruise’s hair for the film Rain Man.
Today, Benzaken is the hair extension, weave, wig maker and male hair replacement guru to the stars.
“I’m the most expensive,” he told ISRAEL21c last year. “But if you want the best you will get it from me, if you want something not so good, you should go somewhere else.”
9. Ali Suliman
Perhaps the most well-known Israeli Arab actor outside of Israel, Ali Suliman has built a successful career branching out beyond the Hollywood stereotype of a Middle Eastern villain.
The 33-year-old native of Nazareth studied at the prestigious Yoram Levinstein Acting School in Tel Aviv, where he graduated in the year 2000. He then joined the Commedia Dell’Arte Masks Theater group in London, before taking a position as an acting teacher back in Israel.
His big break came in 2005 when he portrayed the lead character in the acclaimed terrorist-themed drama Paradise Now, which won a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film. His harrowing portrayal of Khaled, a young Palestinian man who drifts casually into a suicide-bombing mission, helped Suliman land a role in Peter Berg’s counter-terrorism thriller The Kingdom (2007) alongside Jamie Foxx. In addition to key roles in Israeli films The Syrian Bride and The Lemon Tree, Suliman is scheduled to appear in Ridley Scott’s upcoming political thriller Body of Lies.
10. Guy Oseary
The manager to the stars, Guy Oseary is the definition of a Hollywood insider. The 39-year-old Jerusalem native got his start in Los Angeles at age 17, working in the music industry and launching his own label Maverick Records.
Among the artists he piloted to stardom are The Prodigy, Alanis Morissette, and Paul Oakenfold.
As a partner in the management firm Untitled Entertainment, Oseary’s stable of film clients include Hilary Swank, David Caruso, Penelope Cruz, Naomi Watts, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, and Lucy Liu.
But the main claim to fame for Oseary, who’s touted to replace Simon Cowell on American Idol next season, is his longtime relationship with Madonna. Both her business partner and manager, Oseary is the singer’s closest confidant. Together, they partnered in Live Nation, the leading touring company in the world. Oseary also manages magician David Blaine and New York Yankees baseball star Alex Rodriguez.
Among the films Oseary has produced through Maverick Films are the Twilight series. And to complete his mastery of the entertainment world, Oseary has frequently appeared in cameos in movies such as Charlie’s Angels and You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.