America needs to be 'in treatment'
Acting is still her first love, but Noa Tishby is also branching out these days and trying to market Israeli-made TV series in the United States
"P ress PLAY, just press PLAY!" Those were the only words that crosse Noa Tishby's mind when she presented the television program "Betipul" ("In Treatment") to Stephen Levinson, her agent in Los Angeles. "Stephen is not a spiritual person. Psychology is not one of the things that interests him," she says, early one evening in a Tel Aviv restaurant, as she describes the deal she negotiated for selling the Israeli series to America's HBO channel.
After she gave Levinson a two-line description of the series, he looked at her, wrinkled up his nose and said - here she imitates his broad American accent - "Yeah... I'm not really into therapy." Tishby believed that the moment he started watching the episodes, his reservations would disappear. And so it was.
"He began to watch, and I sat on the floor. I looked at him, and I saw that he was beginning to get drawn into it. I whispered in the background: 'You can't stop watching it.' It was clear to me that the moment I was able to get them hooked on the idea of making the series in the United States, it would all work out."
That is indeed the first step in the decision to interest the prestigious television channel to purchase the rights to the Israeli series, created by Hagai Levy, Uri Sivan and Nir Bergman. It represented an unprecedented local success - in fact, a great success by any standards. Levinson heads the Leverage Management agency, which represents, among others, the cast of the series "Entourage" (aired in Israel on YES-Plus). That series is based on the life of actor Mark Wahlberg, who is also the executive producer of the U.S. production of "In Treatment."
Next Monday they will begin shooting the series in Hollywood. Levy and Tishby are co-executive producers with Levinson, Wahlberg and Rodrigo Garcia, who will also direct. Garcia directed some episodes of HBO's "Six Feet Under," and the first episode of "Big Love" (which deals with polygamy); he is the son of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Gabriel Byrne ("The Usual Suspects") has been cast as the psychologist Paul ("Reuven" in Israel, played by Assi Dayan); Dianne Wiest ("The Purple Rose of Cairo"; "Hannah and Her Sisters") plays Gina, his psychologist-counselor (Gila Almagor in the Israeli version); Blair Underwood ("LA Law"; "Sex and the City") plays the pilot, named Alex (played here by Lior Ashkenazi); Melissa George ("Mulholland Dr.") is cast as Laura, a patient who is an intern at Johns Hopkins Hospital (in the Israeli series, this was the role of Na'ama, played by Ayelet Zurer). The other actors are less well known. Tishby decided not to make the series dependent on her own participation.
It all began a year and a half ago, Tishby relates. She was at the house of a girlfriend in Los Angeles, where she read an article in Yedioth Ahronoth about the gallery of Amalya Dayan. "The article included a sentence in parentheses: 'Amalya is the daughter of Assi Dayan, who is currently involved in shooting the television series, "In Treatment," in which he plays a psychologist. It will be broadcast daily, with a different patient every day.' I looked at my friend and said: 'I can't believe I never thought of that idea.' It's simply the most brilliant idea I've ever heard of for a TV series. Haven't I been in therapy? Who hasn't been in therapy? It stuck in my mind.
"At the beginning of November, I was in Israel for just 48 hours for my niece's bat mitzvah. I was hardly off the plane when four different people already asked me if I'd seen 'In Treatment.' After the fourth person, I turned to Zohar [Yakobson, her agent - R.K.], and said: 'Get me Hagai Levy's phone number.' Just like that. Without even seeing it. I called him and said: 'Shalom. This is Noa Tishby. I want to meet with you, and not about what you think. I'm leaving for the United States tonight. It's urgent. It has to be today.'"
What did you think he was thinking?
Tishby: "As an actress, you know. We met at a restaurant. I was just beginning to work with my new managers in Los Angeles. I have a huge number of contacts there, at the level of personal cell phones and agents' Blackberries. There is something about 'Israeliness,' about the genuineness of people, that captivates them. Many times I stayed in touch with the producers and creators of productions I'd taken part in, people who were far older and more professional than me, rather than with other actresses who maybe couldn't stand me."
Before the meeting with Levy, she fast-forwarded through a DVD of the series. "I saw some frames of each episode," she says. "I am a compulsive reader, so I can tell if a story is good from a single sentence. Whatever time I get home, I have to read. Right now I'm reading 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' in English. I first read it in Hebrew in 11th grade, in one night, until six in the morning. But now, because of Rodrigo Garcia, I'm reading it in English. Before we met, I didn't know he was Marquez's son. Just as well, because I would have been stuck for words."
The best deal
Tishby, who came to our meeting straight from a day of shooting a new series called "Lo hivtachti lach" ("I never Promised You"), for the Israeli YES channel, speaks excitedly, almost leaping from her chair. She constantly uses superlatives ("the most brilliant thing I've ever seen in my life"; "amazing, amazing, amazing"). In the course of conversation, she realizes that her use of that word is a bit over the top and swears not to use it any more, but is unable to make good on her promise.
She talks about her meeting with Levy in a Sheinkin Street coffee shop. She sat opposite him and told him that he simply had to take his series to HBO or FX (the Fox channel that broadcasts, among others, "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck"), and immediately added: "I'll do it for you, I'll take it there." She relates that he was surprised, even a bit put off, by her ardent assault. "I told him I'd get him the best deal," she adds, and says she began working on it as soon as she returned to the West Coast. "I knew how to sell it. The cleverness of this series is that it is very cheap to produce, and that all the scripts already exist. Little work, big profits. The amazing thing about the Americans is their religion of money. 'In Treatment' is both brilliant and low budget. There was no reason not to take it."
Marketing the series also roused patriotic feelings in her. "I told my agent, who is Jewish and got very excited about this, that it's important to me that people who see the series say 'What? This is from Israel?' It's important to send stuff abroad that has nothing to do with war or terrorism."
This is not just an excellent public relations opportunity, however; it is a new professional option as well. "I understood that an opportunity had opened up for me to put together Israeli art and creativity with my connections abroad," Tishby explains. "I opened a conduit, and that's important."
At this stage, she does not want to discuss other Israeli series about which she is trying to spark interest in the United States; she will only say that there are some.
Noa Tishby's years in Los Angeles have left their mark - in the English syntax that creeps into her Hebrew, and in the choice of decaf coffee with soy milk, as well as in the way in which she apologizes for it: "It's the only poison I allow myself since I quit smoking."
Her off-screen life is tumultuous. In the past, she and Julian McMahon, who plays the sexy plastic surgeon in "Nip/Tuck," were an item. For a while now she has been seeing Andrew G, the presenter of "Australian Idol." The trans-oceanic relationship has her flying to Sidney, where she met Melissa George, whom she persuaded to join the cast of "In Treatment." This is in addition to Tishby's three or four trips a year home to Israel, to participate in original productions, to visit her four sisters, her brother and her mother.
To date, Tishby, 29, has played only small parts in a string of popular American TV series, like "Coupling," "Nip/Tuck," "Las Vegas," "CSI," "Charmed," "The 4400," and in the feature movie "The Island."
"I've got used to acting in English," she says. "I play in Warner series and everything's just fine, and then suddenly here, in 'Lo hivtachti lach,' I forget my lines. I look at the director without confidence. I'm out of my comfort zone."
Despite the new opening in forging ties between Hollywood and Israel, Tishby emphasizes that she is "first and foremost an actress." When she is asked about her work in Los Angeles, the level of excitement drops. "A stranger cannot understand what happens in Los Angeles," she says. "Here they look cynically at all the Israelis who live there. In L.A., people look at my resume and are impressed, but here they are fixated on the fact that I played a corpse in 'CSI,' and whatever [else] I have done makes no difference. They keep coming back to that. I'm not hurting, I'm just sick of it."
Even without the critics, Tishby does not always have it easy over there. She goes to a lot of auditions. "It can be two a day. It's hard and it can break you. Often there is a feeling that everything is happening through glass." She points out some imaginary thing through the window of the Tel Aviv restaurant. "So near and yet so far," she says in English.
Her most recent disappointment was over the film "The Notorious Bettie Page." Director Mary Harron called her agent, says Tishby, and told him that she was right for the part. "But in the end they chose Gretchen Mol ["Finding Graceland"; "Donnie Brasco"; "Girl 6"] because the producers wanted a known name. You pass 10 stages of auditions, and in the end only two remain, you and she, and they choose her. You can go mental from it."
But she tries to keep her sanity. "The common expression in Hollywood is: 'If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much room," she explains. "There is no party without cocaine. There are no clubs in Hollywood without Ecstasy pills. Crystal-meth is an epidemic. Everybody goes to the restrooms in pairs. Today, there are guards in the restrooms of Beverly Hills restaurants and bars that tell patrons to go in 'one at a time.' I avoid that scene like the plague."
Which brings the conversation back to Tishby's initial reaction to the series "In Treatment." "I was in therapy for a year and a half," she says. "I am a great believer in self-examination. Through that, I took my biggest step forward. I never realized how much I wanted to please. It's because I began acting very young. My first commercial was at age 8. At the grand age of 10, I hung out in Nahalat Binyamin, in Tel Aviv, because I'd been told that talent scouts spent time there. My mother didn't want to be a 'stage mom,' so I did it without her. Therapy helped me to overcome the need to please people all the time."
Tishby also hopes that the series "In Treatment" will be as successful.