Fri. Jul 3rd, 2020

Interview: Shira Haas on ‘Unorthodox,’ Music, and Working with Women Directors

Israeli actress Shira Haas has shot to stardom in the midst of our world’s unusual circumstances. From supporting roles in the Holocaust drama The Zookeeper’s Wife and Natalie Portman’s directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness, Haas found herself starring in a miniseries that gained popularity at the beginning of worldwide lockdown. In March, as we hunkered down for months of social distancing, many tuned in to Netflix’s four-part series Unorthodox, loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir of the same name. In the series, Haas plays Esty Shapiro, a nineteen-year-old woman with a penchant for piano who covertly leaves the Satmar community, a sect of Orthodox Judaism, without telling her husband or family. Haas was quickly hailed as a wunderkind whose international star has only continued to rise: Last month, she won the Tribeca Film Festival’s award for best actress in an international feature for Ruthy Pribar’s drama Asia. Haas, a likely candidate for an Emmy nomination for outstanding actress in a limited series, would surely be walking red carpets all over the world if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t derailed this year’s film festival calendar. 

I talked to Haas from her home in Tel Aviv about what she’s most looking forward to this year, what attracts her to different—and difficult—characters, and who’s on her dream list of collaborators.  

Unorthodox premiered at the beginning of a worldwide lockdown, which was sort of a blessing in disguise. What has it been like to navigate the publicity and your career from inside your home?

I was supposed to be in the U.S. right now, but I’m in Tel Aviv in lockdown. I think watching Unorthodox was an escape from the reality of the pandemic for a lot of people, even though it’s showing someone else’s escape from something difficult. It’s about freedom, so it’s interesting that we were all watching it in lockdown. 

You won Tribeca’s award for best actress in an international feature for Asia, even as the festival went digital this year. How did you find out you won?

Because of the time difference between New York and Israel, I woke up to all these texts and I thought, “Either something really good or something really bad just happened.” And it turned out it was something good! I’m honored to have won the award. 

Your characters in Unorthodox and Asia both deal with trauma of the body, whether that’s related to sex or disability and debilitation. What drew you to these characters with very different but similarly high-stakes journeys?

I think both Esty and Vika go on a journey of choice. They’re in such different cultures, with Vika being a Russian-speaking Israeli and Esty being from Brooklyn. And Vika feels trapped in her body, but I think Esty does too, in a way. Both stories are about taking control of your body and your life.

Both Asia and Unorthodox were directed by women (Ruthy Pribar and Maria Schrader, respectively). What does it mean to you to work with women directors in the male-dominated film industry?

It’s amazing. Looking back, the majority of the playwrights and theatre directors I’ve worked with are men, but almost half of the filmmakers I’ve worked with are women. I’ve worked with some great men, but with women directors, there’s a sensitivity to their work and their directing. It’s inspiring, now I’m thinking maybe I’ll direct—one day. And even though they’re both women, Ruthy and Maria are very different directors, and it’s been amazing to learn from their different approaches, their touch, their sensitivity. For stories like these, something about working with women directors just feels right. And even with the crew, most of the crew on Unorthodox were women, and unfortunately that’s so rare. They’re not there because they’re women, they’re there because they’re talented. 

Music plays such an important role in Unorthodox that isn’t present in the memoir. Going into production, were you a very musical person?

I always loved singing and I had sung in my work before; I sang in The Zookeeper’s Wife. It’s always been a big passion and love of mine to sing. I did take piano lessons, I couldn’t play the piano, and I did take vocal lessons to make sure my pronunciation was right. Music in Unorthodox shows how you can free yourself. Esty doesn’t leave her community because she wants to be an artist. She leaves and then she finds herself through music. For me, that’s something I can relate to, because acting helps me find myself as a person. Esty finds that she has a voice and then she literally finds that she has a voice. 

You just celebrated a birthday, in lockdown, no less. What are you most looking forward to this year?

I turned 25—that’s halfway to 50. I’m really looking forward to this pandemic being over so I can see my grandmother. That’s what I really want. Of course I want to be back on set, and we’re going to be shooting the third season of Shtisel, and I have some projects coming up that haven’t been announced yet. I’m excited to work on different stories in different languages with different people. So Grandma and acting!

Talking about the Israeli series Shtisel, you’ve now portrayed two very different Orthodox women on Netflix. Do you see any similarities between Ruchama and Esty?

Comparing Ruchama and Esty is difficult. Comparing the world of Shtisel to Unorthodox—yes, they’re both Orthodox, but it’s important to remember that there are many communities, and the two of them are in very different communities. I don’t know if they’d get along. But they are two young, very curious characters. Ruchama is trying to find herself within the community, and Esty is trying to find herself outside the community.

Now that you’ve become a household name in a matter of months, who are some actors and filmmakers you’d love to work with?

For a wish list? I have so many people I’d love to work with, especially actors. I love Sofia Coppola, I’d love to act with Elisabeth Moss. What inspires me most is the production, though. My goal is to work with people who inspire me—not just stories I’m drawn to, but people who can inspire my work and my acting. 

All episodes of Unorthodox are currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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