Shira Haas wants to thank Mark Zuckerberg.
The Israeli actress, now 24, was 16 and a student at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Giv’ atayim, Israel, when she received a message on the social media platform that kicked off her film career.
“I got this message on my Facebook from a very well-known casting director — and I didn’t have an agent; I didn’t have anything back then — she wrote me like, ‘Hi, I’m sorry for approaching you here, anyway — we’re looking for an actress for a movie, can you come and audition? I see you’re a theater major, I’m not a weirdo, this is my work.’ This is how it happened.” Haas raises her eyebrows from inside her room at the Gramercy Park Hotel; even she realizes that it sounds awfully fortuitous.
That audition was for the lead role in the 2014 Israeli film “Princess,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and led to an agent and more projects for the young actress, including her first English-language film in 2017, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” with Jessica Chastain.
“And things just started to roll, in a way,” adds Haas. “I worked really hard and I got a lot of ‘no’ along the way — you only hear the sexy things — but this is basically the journey: It started with Sundance and Mark Zuckerberg.”
Haas is the lead of the forthcoming Netflix limited series “Unorthodox,” loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same title about her exit from the Hasidic community.
“Sometimes you have as an actor an inner feeling of something that’s really right and you want to do it, almost like you need to do it, if there is such thing,” she says.
While there are parallels between Feldman’s book and the show, the actual story arc diverges from the memoir, taking place between Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Berlin. Haas’ character, Esty, leaves her community and husband behind in New York, without notice, to pursue music and a new lifestyle in Berlin.
The petite actress is upbeat and speaks enthusiastically about the various aspects of her job — the nomadic lifestyle, post-screening Q&A’s, role preparation that often involves needing to learn a new language. At the moment, her hair is short and curly, the aftermath of shaving her head for filming.
“I have the chance to have it all different lengths, so it’s a good opportunity actually if you think about it like that,” she says, adding that the head shaving scene was filmed on the first day of shooting. Her character’s long hair is shaved after her wedding, a custom in the Hasidic community.
“Esty’s proud that she’s getting married, but she’s also excited, scared, and has questions,” says Haas. “So from a very different place, I could relate to that. And then after that it was such an amazing thing, so liberating, so empowering. It was raining in Berlin and feeling rain on your bald head is just…” she trails off. “I recommend it.”
“Unorthodox” also required Haas and her costar, Amit Rahav, to learn Yiddish — although she didn’t know a word beforehand, it’s the primary language of the show. The series also required dialect, piano, and singing lessons — her character’s story arc is dependent on a promising musical talent. “I love learning new languages for roles,” says Haas; a previous one required her to learn Russian. “Learning a new language is like tabula rasa: You’re a blank page, whatever you bring me, I will learn.”
“Unorthodox” proves the growing demand and accessibility of foreign language projects (just look at the success of “Parasite.”) “More doors are open for everyone; as long as it’s good, then it should have its place. I feel it in the last year or two especially the fact that it’s happening but it’s through the year something happened to people and they are very curious.”
Haas didn’t meet her real-life counterpart Feldman until the second week of shooting. Since finishing the series, the pair have kept in touch, and Haas was relieved after Feldman watched the show’s final cut.
She woke up one morning recently to a message from Feldman. “It said ‘I watched the episodes’ and I was like” — Haas takes an audible gulp — “I was panicked.” Her fears were assuaged; Feldman loved the series. “And it meant the world to me,” says the actress.
After a week in New York, Haas was headed back to her home of Tel Aviv before a trip to Berlin later that month for the show’s premiere; at the time, she was planning to return to New York in April for the Tribeca Film Festival (which has since been postponed due to the coronavirus) for the premiere of her next film, “Asia.”
“It’s a story about a mother and a daughter and their relationship with the illness of the daughter. It’s kind of a story about a goodbye, in a way, but how the goodbye really makes us connect,” says Haas, describing the movie’s premise. “And how you can take the people you have and everything for granted.”
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