The day Shira Haas auditioned for the role of Esty Shapiro on Unorthodox, she got drenched in the rain. When she arrived at the venue, she cleaned herself up, took a few deep breaths, walked into the audition and sang Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah. A year and-a-half after the Israeli actress nailed the audition, she’s received praise and acclaim for her arresting performance as a young woman who leaves the Hasidic Satmar community in Brooklyn to make her own way in Berlin. Speaking by phone from Tel Aviv, Haas discusses the experience of shooting the Netflix hit series and what she learned in the process.
DEADLINE: What has stood out to you about the way Unorthodox has been received?
SHIRA HAAS: I was not expecting it; the amount of love and support it’s received is enormous and it’s amazing. I always believed in the show, and for me, when I first read it, I really loved the fact that it is a specific story about a specific community. But at the same time, me reading it as a secular person, I wasn’t familiar with the community as much as I am now. When I read it back then, I certainly thought it’s a very universal story. I really felt connected to it. And I really felt like I could see myself as Esty and relate to her, even though she’s coming from a different world. I only could have hoped that other people will feel the same way, but I never expected it to be like that. We are getting comments from people from Argentina and Arab countries, and the UK, and the States, [both] secular and religious. It touches so many peoples’ hearts, and so many different people, and different ages as well.
DEADLINE: You’ve been building your career, both in Israel and abroad, from Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness to The Zookeeper’s Wife in 2017. How did your career up until Unorthodox prepare you to play Esty?
HAAS: Yeah, this project is basically the biggest job that I’ve done, especially for an international audience. I have been acting for something like eight and-a-half, almost nine years, but I feel like every project in a way prepared me for the next one. It’s almost kind of like a ladder actually in a strange way. I took so much experience, for example, from the Natalie Portman movie, the first international role that I did, which was a very small role. But it gave me a hunger, and wanting to understand more. And then The Zookeeper’s Wife came among other Israeli projects that I did. I was really a teenager when I started acting, so I really grew up with all these parts. But also, for experience and meeting people, and meeting directors, and playing in different languages, it really gave me a lot of tools, especially The Zookeeper’s Wife, doing the accent there, and working with Jessica Chastain. It did help me to have a lot of experience, a lot of confidence, when I approached Unorthodox. And hopefully now Unorthodox will prepare me for the next show.
DEADLINE: Esty has to shave her head and there was some nudity too. Did those things give you pause?
HAAS: I remember I read in the beginning, even before it was official that I was going to do it, it had a [head] shaving scene, and it had a nudity scene, and there was going to be singing. I knew all this stuff before I was approached, and then I got the script and it was so obvious to me, for example the shaving scene, why it’s so crucial, why it’s so needed. Also, the other scenes — it was obvious to me that they’re such an important part of the role. To be honest, for me, if I really believe in a story and in a character, and I want to tell something, and I want to share a story, if I feel it’s justified and it needs to be there, then there will be a lot of things that I’m willing to do in order to tell it, if I find it very important and appropriate. So, it never scared me. Of course, when I got to specific scenes like the shaving scene and other stuff, I had my butterflies and I was also nervous. I think it will be a lie if any actor would say that he felt nothing. Even though it’s a character, it’s still happening to you in a way, any way you look at it. So of course, I was also nervous and scared. But I really believed in what I’m doing and I was really excited and willing to do it. I wasn’t questioning it at any point.
DEADLINE: You also learned Yiddish.
SHIRA HAAS: If you will tell me to have a conversation in Yiddish, I won’t, unfortunately know how to do it. But I will understand a lot of it. It was really important for me, first of all, to know all my lines. But not just to know all my lines, but to know really what each word means. I read a lot of Yiddish poetry, and I had an amazing teacher, Eli Rosen. He also played the rabbi in the show and he was our religious consultant. He really helped me so much, with my lines, and also with understanding this language. I recorded him and I recorded myself, and I wrote my lines, and I listened to it, because I wanted to be really like Esty. I wanted to be free to be the character.
DEADLINE: The series is based on the 2012 book by Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, but there are some liberties taken as well. How did you and the director work on creating a true story that you’re also fictionalizing in some parts?
HAAS: It was the first time doing a character that is really based on or inspired by a real person. We’re talking about a lady not that much older than me. She came to set a few times, and I met her, only while shooting, not before. It was a big responsibility. Of course, I’ve read the book a million times, and I took a lot from it. But at the same time, because the story was different, and only inspired by [the book], it was important for me to do it differently. It was a conversation also with the creators and the director, that we wanted to be inspired by Deborah’s story and life, but at the same time, we never wanted to try to imitate, or to be her. It was really important to bring a new person to life, to bring Esty, which is a person on her own, to life.
DEADLINE: When Esty walks into the lake in Berlin and takes off her wig, how did you prepare for that amazing scene?
HAAS: It was a very important scene for me. All of these scenes were very, very symbolic, especially the time in Berlin. I think it really shows Esty’s emotional point of view, what she’s going through there. It’s like her first real step of stepping into her new future. I had the most amazing DP [Wolfgang Thaler], and it was already the last shooting day so we had such a good connection and really felt each other. We talked about it, the director [Maria Schrader] and I, but I didn’t know what would happen, if I would toss the wig, if I would put it aside. Then I just walked in the water, and it was freezing, and I remember just taking it off. For a second, I thought about tossing it away strongly, but then I was like “No,” and I just gently put it aside, like saying “Thank you for making me who I am. I’ll take some of it, but now I’m going to my own way,” and went into the water. It was really such an important moment for me. I was really excited to do it. And I remember the scream of “cut” from the shore. It was also the end of the shooting. She ran into the water and we hugged. So, it was not only on screen, but also offscreen, a very emotional shooting day.
DEADLINE: Unorthodox doesn’t vilify Amit Rahav’s character, Esty’s husband Yanky. You also knew Amit before, how did that help you?
HAAS: I’ve known Amit for, like, 10 years. It’s so funny, today I went out with my mask on and I just was just walking down the street and I saw Amit, and we actually took a selfie. I swear. It’s on my Instagram.
DEADLINE: I saw that!
HAAS: He’s a neighbor of mine and he’s a really good friend of mine. We met at a party, and we immediately bonded. Amit is the funniest person alive. We always said, “Someday, we will act together on a project,” and then it happened, 10 years later. I definitely feel like our relationship in real life helped us on the screen. We are actors— even if you give me someone that I don’t know, we can make it work. But the fact that we do know each other and trust each other so much, and with a lot of things that are very sensitive when we didn’t have much rehearsals, it just really helps to have such a good friend, and also an amazing actor. I think the fact that Yanky is so lovely and lovable is also because it was very important for everyone to not try to make him ‘bad’ or ‘good’. And also Amit is so lovable, and he has such a nice energy as well, and we know that he also brought this to the character.