November 4, 2008, Updated September 19, 2012

Ayelet Zurer in Fugitive Pieces, by director Jeremy Podeswa.The recently concluded 24th Haifa International Film Festival marked the start of a new era in the Israeli film industry: The most hotly anticipated star, who arrived only at the conclusion of the festival, was not a foreigner but Tel Aviv-born actress Ayelet Zurer. Zurer, there to attend the local premiere of her film Fugitive Pieces, was introduced by the director Jeremy Podeswa, who said: “The nicest thing I have to do here tonight is to introduce not just your Ayelet Zurer, but the world’s Ayelet Zurer.”

But the audience didn’t need Podeswa to point out that Zurer is leading a vanguard of Israeli actresses who are winning acclaim both for movies they make here and their work abroad. She spoke only briefly before the film, about a boy who survives the Holocaust in Greece and winds up a troubled young adult who falls in love with her character.

While her porcelain skin glowed, she looked tired. She had just flown in from Los Angeles, where she has a starring role in the most high-profile film any Israeli actress has had to date: playing opposite Tom Hanks in Angels and Demons, the sequel to the megahit The Da Vinci Code. The film, which is being directed by Ron Howard, is still shooting and is set to be released in May. Rumor has it that Zurer beat out a number of A-list actresses (including Naomi Watts) who were considered for the part of Vittoria Vetra, a young woman who meets Hanks’ character, Robert Langdon, after her father is found dead and helps him uncover a terrorist plot.

The news that Zurer won the role may have surprised some in Hollywood, where she is not a household name. Not yet, at least. But even before this role, when Steven Spielberg cast her as Eric Bana’s wife in Munich (2005), it confirmed Zurer’s star status. She also appeared in the American thriller Vantage Point last winter, playing an exotic terrorist whose nationality is never specified, a film that also starred Dennis Quaid, William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver.

Her next international role was in Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected, which also had its local premiere at the Haifa Film Festival. In that, she plays Gina Grey, an icily efficient nurse who shows her more vulnerable side in her romance with the title character, a disturbed Holocaust survivor played by Jeff Goldblum, who gets her to pretend to be a dog in order to excite him. At a press conference, Schrader, the film’s director, said of Zurer, “She’s an actress whose abilities are so soft and warm, and the character is so hard. But she and Jeff were wonderful together.” The film is set to be released internationally (as well as locally) this winter.

Finding time to do it all

The demands of Hollywood filmmaking, which she tries to juggle with raising her young son, were clearly taking their toll on the slender actress at her brief Haifa appearance. Although many journalists were eager to speak to her about her work with Tom Hanks, she declined the requests and fled the festival as soon as the Fugitive Pieces screening started.

“I guess everything is a trade-off,” she told the Jewish Journal earlier this year, when asked how she finds time to do it all. The 38-year-old Zurer, who speaks English with the faintest of accents, also said, “I would like a dual career in Israel and America, but it is not always easy to manage.”

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. Although Nina’s Tragedies is a dramatic story, its comic overtones gave it a moving, offbeat quality, and suddenly Zurer was not simply another gifted actress, but one who could move effortlessly back and forth between comedy and tragedy, in a way that brought to mind Julia Roberts. While this was a serious film, even in fluff like Something Sweet, an amiable comedy the following year in which she played a baker who falls in love with her sister’s fiancé, she showed that with her intelligent, angular beauty, she could hold the screen and make anything she played in worth watching.

Around the time that Munich, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, was playing around the world, Zurer captivated Israeli audiences in the television series B’tipul, the wildly popular drama about a psychiatrist and his patients, starring Assi Dayan. Zurer made an indelible impression as Na’ama, a seductive patient who initiates a romance with the doctor. The series, which won Zurer a Best Actress award from the Israeli Television Academy, was remade as a hit HBO series, In Treatment, which won several Emmys. It’s no coincidence that Noa Tishby, an Israeli actress who became famous here in the telenovela Ramat Aviv Gimmel, and now works in Los Angeles, brought B’tipul to the attention of American movie executives and became an executive producer of In Treatment (and recently had a featured role on another HBO series, Big Love).

Although Zurer has made the biggest splash abroad, she isn’t the only Israeli actress to move back and forth between here and America. In 1994, Mili Avital starred opposite Kurt Russell in Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi extravaganza Stargate. She went on to play opposite David Schwimmer in the romantic comedy Kissing a Fool, and the two reportedly had a romance. Now married to American screenwriter Charles Randolph, she lives in New York but has returned here often to star in such films as the popular Noodle and Colombian Love.

While Avital, like Zurer, divides her working life between this country and America, several Israeli actresses prefer to work in France. Ronit Elkabetz, an extraordinary beauty the camera loves, is one of the country’s most successful actresses, and her strong personality and over-the-top outfits at awards ceremonies have earned her a reputation as a diva. Her latest film is Seven Days, a semi-autobiographical film she co-wrote and co-directed with her brother, Shlomi, about tensions in a Moroccan family. She has appeared in several films in France and is currently filming Cendres et Sang, the directorial debut of actress Fanny Ardant (who has made several films here in recent years, showing that the trend goes both ways).

A renaissance in Israeli movies

But given the renaissance in Israeli movies in recent years, it’s not surprising that Elkabetz has won just as much recognition for her roles in local films, particularly her performances as a prostitute in Or, which won the Camera d’Or Prize at Cannes, and The Band’s Visit, which received an enormous number of awards around the world.

Sarah Adler and Yael Abecassis are two others who move back and forth between France and Israel. A low-key but serious dramatic actress, Adler received raves for her work with the celebrated French director Jean-Luc Godard, for whom she starred in Notre Musique, as well as for her roles in such local films as Jellyfish (which, not coincidentally, won the Camera d’Or Prize at Cannes in 2007). Adler is married to French director Raphael Nadjari (who has made two films here, Stones and Tehilim).

Former model Abecassis, whose most recent local film is Ronit Elkabetz’s Seven Days and who supplements her acting income hawking cosmetics and clothes, has appeared in a number of films in France and Italy. In 2000, this Moroccan-born actress played Mary, mother of Jesus, in the 2000 Italian film Maria, figlia del suo figlio. Her next film will be the French gangster drama, Comme ton père.

Although Hanna Laszlo, the telenovela and comedic actress (she hosted the local version of the game show The Weakest Link) who has moved into serious film acting, has never acted abroad, they do love her in France. In 2005, she became the first Israeli actress to win the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, for her performance as an earth mother in Amos Gitai’s Free Zone, opposite Natalie Portman. Laszlo will be seen next in Adam Resurrected with Jeff Goldblum and Ayelet Zurer, as one of Goldblum’s fellow mental patients. In her acceptance speech at Cannes, she dedicated the award to the memory of her mother, a Holocaust survivor.

Another of Laszlo’s co-stars in Free Zone, Israeli-Arab actress Hiam Abbass, lives in France and has long enjoyed an international career. This year, she picked up the Ophir Best Actress award for her performance in Eran Ricklis’s Lemon Tree, in which she plays a Palestinian widow, ordered by the Defense Ministry to cut down her lemon trees, who fights the decree all the way up to the Supreme Court. Her most recent film in English, The Visitor, in which she plays a Middle-Eastern woman who has a romance with a lonely American college professor in New York, just received a Gotham Independent Film Award for its ensemble cast.

Where are all the Israeli actors in movies abroad? Well, as long as they keep making movies about terrorism, Israeli guys will always have the opportunity to play Arab terrorists and Mossad agents. But for whatever reason, Hollywood and European cinema have not been as welcoming in recent years to the males. Local hunk Aki Avni just had a featured role in the comedy My Mom’s New Boyfriend with Antonio Banderas and Meg Ryan, and will also appear with Jeremy London in the anti-war drama The Divided. It may be unfair, but apparently beautiful women with accents can find work in Hollywood more easily than their male counterparts.

As the movie business becomes more globalized, with multinational casts and coproductions, look for more Israeli actresses to charm audiences abroad. Ayelet Zurer, who soon heads back to Hollywood where the cameras will roll again on Angels and Demons, is just leading this trend.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

More on Culture

Read more: