Israeli Actress Shines as Sex Surrogate in Acclaimed Film

In her first major leading movie role, Lana Ettinger plays a sex surrogate and exposes both her body and her emotions.

In the most powerful scene in "Surrogate," currently being screened at cinematheques around the country, the two leads - Lana Ettinger and Amir Wolf, who play the sex surrogate of the title and a patient, respectively - stand naked before a large mirror, examining their exposed bodies and commenting on them to each other.

"Clearly it's not the easiest thing, Ettinger says regarding the challenging scene, "but when I read the script it seemed to me to be totally part of the story. It's a film about two people and the intimacy between them, about drawing closer, about the body and problems with the body, and I was completely okay with it."

"Surrogate," by the young director Tali Shalom-Ezer, won the award for best film at the 2008 International Women's Film Festival in Rehovot. For Ettinger, it is the first film in which she plays a lead role to achieve commercial distribution. She met Shalom-Ezer at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival

"Tali told me that when she wrote the screenply she had me in mind for the surrogate," Ettinger relates. "I really believed in Tali and still do. I think she has a brilliant future ahead of her in the industry. I have an earnest request for her: Please write more roles for me. I would be very happy to work with her again."

Ettinger, 32 was born in England and moved to Israel with her family when she was two. Three years later the family moved to France. At the age of 17 she returned to Israel for military service and university studies. For a long time she divided her time between Israel and France, but now she leaves Tel Aviv only to work on special projects. Even though her Hebrew is flawless, occasionally a word takes on a clearly French accent.

"When I came to Israel, people were always telling me that I'm too polite and that you don't have to say please and thank you so much," she says. "There are quite a few differences of culture and mentality between the French and the Israelis, but I believe that you remain the same no matter where you are."

Ettinger's mother is the theoretician, psychoanalyst and artist Bracha Ettinger, who was for a time the life partner of Paris-based news correspondent Yoav Toker.

"Undoubtedly the fact that I had at home a role model of a woman who is fulfilling herself, who works in what she loves and is good at what she does, heavily influenced my choices," Ettinger relates. "It was a home where there was always talk about reading books and seeing films, they tried very hard to convey the message that culture is an important thing. I didn't get my love of acting from home, that was my choice. Even though they always complimented me and encouraged me. When I was a girl in France, for many years I played the younger sister in Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid" and I grew up together with her - her character was always adjusted to my age and at one point I even played her with braces on my teeth."

Ettinger completed her acting studies at Nissan Nativ Acting Studio and earned an undergraduate degree with distinction in film and translation studies. Immediately after completing her studies she auditioned as a presenter. She reached the final stages, but Becky Griffin was given the job.

On translation

"It was right after I appeared in 'Henry's Dream' and a few television ads. Had I been picked I would have done it happily, but I don't think it was meant for me. I got to where I did. In the end, I wasn't disappointed because I had no expectations, and it also gave me the exposure that led me to presenting Zap Lerishon [a Channel 1 children's program]."

In the last few years Ettinger has acted in films and plays in Israel and in France. She had supporting roles in Eitan Green's "Henry's Dream"; Eran Riklis' "The Syrian Bride"; Oscar-winning director Regis Wargnier's "Pars vite et reviens plus tard" and most recently in Guy Nattiv's "Mabul" and Alain Tasma's "Sous un autre jour."

"It's a big-budget detective movie," Ettinger says of the latter film. "I play a dancer who is eventually murdered by an injection of poison. There's a little of the cliche about Israeli actors abroad: 200 people auditioned for the role. I had a monologue, written especially for the audition, about someone who goes to a police station to report about something that was done to her. But it had many words with multiple meanings, so it could also be taken in a comic direction, and that's what I did. Apparently they liked it, because they casted me. But the amazing thing was that even though it was a supporting role, they gave me two months of dance lessons. Every day I went to dance with a professional company."

Apart from her work on stage and before the cameras, Ettinger also translates from French to Hebrew. Among other works, she translated Michel Houellebecq's "The Possibility of an Island." She also works occasionally as a Hebrew-French or French-Hebrew simultaneous interpreter on the sets of documentary films. Among others, she worked with Mazarine Pingeot, Francois Mitterrand's out-of-wedlock daughter, and on Nili Tal's film on the Rose Pizem case. It is hard to imagine someone further away than Ettinger from the stereotype of the superficial starlet who claws her way into the glamorous life or worships her body excessively.

On the differences between acting and translation, which on the surface appear to be polar opposites, says Ettinger: "In French 'interprete' is both translation and interpretation, and when you act you in effect provide an interpretation of someone's creation or idea. Contrary to the prevailing view of actors, I'm actually a fairly introverted person, I don't like to let my emotions go to extremes."

Sense of mission

"Surrogate" is about a young man with emotional problems who turns to a sex therapist for help. Ettinger's preparations for the role were very intensive, and included a kind of "rehearsal lab" with costar Amir Wolf and with Shalom-Ezer. She also met with a real surrogate in order to get a deeper insight into the role.

"She told me what she went through and her feelings; it was very interesting. She said she felt a very great sense of mission in this work, that she really wants to help people who need her help. She also taught me specific exercises, such as one called 'sense focus' in which you concentrate on one limb, touch it and get to know it. We used it in the film."

The work on the film was a long, complex and interesting process, Ettinger relates. "The three of us would sit in a room and build the world of the characters and the story that is woven among them. There is something in acting that is very similar to a patient going to a surrogate. A man and a woman who don't know each other need to create intimacy for a limited period of time. During rehearsals the real and the imaginary intermingled and nurtured each other; it wasn't always possible to say what was what."

A few weeks ago the scheduled screening of "Surrogate" at the Edinburgh International Film Festival later this month became the focus of a dispute. Director Ken Loach called for a boycott of the festival if it agreed to accept an Israeli donation - a small sum intended to cover the cost of flying Shalom-Ezer in for the festival.

"I think that art has to break boundaries and that a boycott doesn't solve anything," says Ettinger. "I have a hard time with the concept of boycotting a work of art, it can only cause greater alienation and more hatred. I believe that it is through dialogue that there is a chance of achieving something good and that for all our sakes it is best to separate art from politics. But at least it generated a lot of interest in the film and whatever generates interest is welcome in any event."