Voted by Vanity Fair in 1998 as one of the five most promising young actresses in Hollywood, Mili Avital has experienced the ups and downs of dream city.
But the difficulties of being an Israeli in one of the most influential Jewish communities on the globe can be just as rocky.
“I feel that people here [Jews in Los Angeles] are more critical towards Israel now,” says the Jerusalem-born Hollywood star. “It’s not just a homeland anymore but a problematic place and a problematic idea.”
Avital, 30, and her boyfriend, hot-shot Hollywood screenwriter Charles Randolph (whose upcoming The Life of David Gale stars Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet) were in Israel earlier this month as guest lecturers at the Holon Academic Institute of Technology, where Avital’s father, Iko Avital, is an associate professor of design.
Growing up right outside Tel Aviv, Avital started acting early. At 15 she was starring on the Cameri Theater stage and then went on to play in Israeli films and TV, earning applause and recognition.
After winning an Israeli Film Academy award for her supporting role in Over the Ocean (1992) and a Best Actress nomination for Groupie (1993), the future looked rosy for the 20-year-old actress.
“I was young and felt it was too early for me to host television talk shows or play in Othello. I wanted to learn,” recalls Avital who, after contemplating what could be ahead, packed her bags, took the $6,000 salary she had earned from Groupie and moved to New York where she enrolled in the Circle in the Square Theater School. The big metropolitan melting pot was an overwhelming experience for Avital, who had rarely been outside Israel.
“I met non-Jewish people for the first time in my life; talked to African Americans and Japanese people for the first time ever.”
The young sabra quickly discovered the obstacles of language.
For actors, words are a primary tool, like color for painters, their emotional resonance used to portray and to move. But for Avital, who had failed her English matriculation exam, the verses of Shakespeare sounded hollow. So equipped with a dictionary, the ambitious but unknown actress started from scratch.
“I felt humiliated; I felt low class,” she says. “My teacher told me that as I didn’t have a green card and was never going to work here in the US anyway, I might as well take Fridays off and learn some English.”
With her money running out faster than expected, Avital used her Fridays to waitress at a Greek diner across the street from her apartment building. Then one day (this is the fairy-tale part) she was spotted by talent agent Myrna Jaccobi, who was having lunch in the diner.
Two weeks later Avital was starring in the big budget sci-fi Stargate alongside Kurt Russell and James Spader. After that, with her face plastered all over the magazines, Avital’s phone was ringing nonstop. Everyone wanted a taste of the newcomer.
Avital worked hard on her diction and went on to play different roles in films and on television, ranging from art-house independents such as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man with Johnny Depp, to Hollywood mainstream such as her lead in Kissing a Fool alongside former boyfriend David Schwimmer (Friends).
After a while the hype slowly faded (as it usually does) and Avital found herself having to battle for roles. She realized that although her English was now fluent and Americanized, she had been typecast as a foreign actress.
“Everyone has something they’re fighting against,” she says. “If it wasn’t that, it would be about being too short, too tall or too fat.”
With perseverance and determination, Avital continued her way to stardom, which was mostly paved with small roles – but roles nonetheless.
One day, a perfect part came along: Avital was to play a young Israeli woman in a big-budget production. But ironically she didn’t get the part and was told she didn’t look Israeli enough on account of her light complexion.
After that came another small role alongside Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. But after the film was shot Avital discovered her part had been almost entirely cut in the editing. “All you can see is my shoulder,” she says with a big smile.
While battling many obstacles, Avital finds alternative outlets for her creative energies and is now directing, shooting, and editing a personal documentary about a lonely 84-year-old Jewish woman in New York.
“At least there I get to choose the music,” she says, humorously referring to the utter dependence of actors.
On her way to fame and fortune or just plain artistic fulfillment, Avital strives to keep in touch with her Israeli and Jewish roots. She had a part in the Israeli TV drama series Saturdays and Holidays and tries to be active in Los Angeles Jewish community life.
(Originally published in the Jerusalem Post)