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‘Unorthodox’ star Shira Haas on her unconventional road to fame

‘Unorthodox’ star Shira Haas on her unconventional road to fame

Shira Haas has catapulted herself into the zeitgeist with her moving performance as Esther “Esty” Shapiro on Netflix’s Unorthodox.

‘Unorthodox’ star Shira Haas on her unconventional road to fame

The series sees Esty married off to a man whom she barely knows (played by Haas’ real-life friend Amit Rahav) and forced to shave her head as Satmar tradition dictates. Haas recalled shooting that emotional haircut scene on the very first day on set, describing it as “one heck of a beginning”.

“You see 20 seconds of this scene in the episode, but it took eight minutes nonstop, two cameras, one take, that’s it,” Haas said. “I just had the rollercoaster of emotions and, of course, it was also real.”

In an interview from her home in Tel Aviv, Haas talks about her unconventional path into acting, how close she feels to her character of Esty, and the importance of the series covering the Hasidic community with authenticity.

When do you decide that you wanted to be an actor?

Pretty late. I was a very shy child, believe it or not. I was into writing, and I loved watching movies, and I love theatre, but I never thought I would be in this professional life, being the centre of attention. Going on stage seemed like an awful thing for me. But then, I went to a theatre major in high school. I really loved it, but it was more of a hobby, not something like that. Then, a casting director approached me on Facebook, actually. That’s not a good message, maybe, but that’s the truth. I Googled her, so it’s safe. She was casting a movie, and I didn’t have agent, I didn’t have anything, but she just told me that she’d seen that I studied this major, and she thinks that I can work out. I went there, and it was my first movie, it was Princess.

When you auditioned, did you know it was for Unorthodox? Had you read Deborah Feldman’s book? 

I didn’t know. They told me this is for a TV series called The Orchestra for a German network platform. I was like okay, cool. I read the scenes, and I thought it’s amazing. I went there and I did it, and I felt good, and I thought the dialogues were amazing, and I enjoyed playing it, and then a few days later, I got the phone call from my agent, and she was like, “Okay, so they loved you. They’re coming to Israel in a few days, and it’s for Netflix. It’s called Unorthodox.”

What do you like about Esty as a character?

Every time someone asks me if I’m similar to her, I always answer that I hope. I really think that even though she comes from difficult circumstances…she’s very, very present. She’s really in the here and now, which we know about it, we talk about it, and we read books about it, and we go to psychologists and think, but she’s — without knowing it — really aware of her feelings. She really knows what she feels. She really knows what she wants. She really knows when she doesn’t want something, and that’s also her curse in a way…I also love the fact that she’s so complex, because even when I got one scene or two scenes in the beginning of the audition, I felt she’s both very strong and tough, but also so vulnerable, and she also wants to fit in, but she doesn’t want to be there. She’s very gentle.

How much responsibility did you feel in depicting this community?

A lot. It was a never-ending discussion in the production, in me, that I shared also with the creators and the director. You need to root for the lead character in a series, you need to understand her struggles, but at the same time, you need to understand, to see the whole picture, to have empathy to this place that she’s coming from. It’s more interesting as a story when something is not black and white…As a Jew, as an Israeli person, I felt responsibility to have something to say, because we’re doing art, and that’s part of it, and it’s important not to be scared…You need to have a moral sensitivity because it’s real people…I think that there are beautiful sides to show, and that there is complexity, and that there are both sides of the coin.

Talk about your bedroom scenes with Amit, what was shooting those like?

I’m an actress, I’ve had intimacy scenes before. It’s not the first one that I had, but every time, even if you know the person before, even if you don’t know, it’s kind of like a stage that you need to go through to feel comfortable, to talk about things, or not to talk, but just to feel comfortable, to be you and to say stuff and to act without thinking too much. I think the fact that I knew Amit was really, really helpful…We always laugh that we kind of had like our secret language. We talk Hebrew, no one understood, they know German and some Yiddish, but no one understands us. We always had this, we had our laughs together. But it was also very professional.

I know you’ve talked about it a lot, but I do have to ask you about the head shaving.  Your face during that was so real. How much did you sit there and grieve while it was happening?

When I start a new production, I’m very excited, and I want it to be good, and I’m happy to do these things. I was ready for it. I knew about it a long time before, even in the audition process. At the same time, I’ve always had the longest hair. I never cut my hair. …I love my hair. It was scary. How does my head, shaved, look? Even before we started filming, I really felt nervous and scared alongside excited, just like Esty in a way. Then, when we arrive on action, I remember [director] Maria Schrader told me, I think it was few hours before, or a day before, she was like, “I know that you love to be prepared for scenes”, which I do, but she was like, “don’t be prepared for it too much, because there’s no right and wrong in that scene. All of the emotions that will come are correct”. She’s right. You see 20 seconds of this scene in the episode, but it took eight minutes nonstop, two cameras, one take, that’s it. I just had the rollercoaster of emotions and, of course, it was also real.

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