It’s been 17 years since she had a minor role in the Rob Reiner film “The American President,” but Efrat Lavie hasn’t forgotten the scene in which she played the French first lady. Her role in the Hollywood movie starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening was a supposed to be a nonspeaking one.

“I think they chose me for the look − it suited them,” she says with some measure of pride. “I came to the set and prepared a complete French character, even though I only had to behave that way. I told myself, ‘It’s not your first role, don’t be scared, go with it.’ And then, during the rehearsal before the shooting, I said one word that wasn’t written in the script, because it seemed necessary to me. The word was ‘absolument.’ Everyone on the set looked at me, wondering how I could have dared, and the script girl ran up to me and shouted, ‘That’s not in the script!’ but I didn’t get scared; I was completely calm, because that’s what happens when you know what needs to be done. And then the director, Rob Reiner, liked it and it stayed in.”

How did you feel when you managed to slip a word into the script?

“I didn’t only manage to slip a word into the film; I also managed to change a hairdo. The makeup artist did an awful hairdo for me. I told her it wouldn’t do and she looked at me wondering, ‘How does she have the nerve?’ But in the end she styled my hair the way I wanted. When you know what you want, you go with it. I was happy to get the part and I treated it as a serious role. Two-hundred actresses were trying out for it.”

Why is it so hard to succeed in the American film industry?

“Do you know how few actresses make it?! I’m a member of the American actors organization, the Actors Studio. All my friends are excellent actors but they work in small theaters without earning any money. I have a friend who got four scenes on ‘The Sopranos’ after three years of nothing. She made a living working as a flight attendant. All the actors have a second profession. There are millions of out-of-work actors. I have a friend who takes care of children, another works in a clothing store. Everyone wants to succeed. Only a few do.”

Efrat Lavie was once a film star in Israel. She also performed in the theater, including under the direction of Omri Nitzan at Habima in the 1970s, but did not make a strong impression on the stage. Almost four decades have passed since then and Lavie did not tread the boards in Israel during that time. Now she is appearing with the Herzliya Theater Ensemble in the play “Fima,” directed by Nola Chilton, based on the Amos Oz book.

The comeback was orchestrated by Oded Kotler, the director of the Herzliya Ensemble and Lavie’s costar in the 1976 film “My Michael,” which was also based on an Oz book. “A few months ago during a visit to Israel he suddenly phoned me and offered me the part in the play,” Lavie relates. “Suddenly someone says to me, ‘I have a part for you.’ Wow. And everyone told me, ‘You have to do it.’”

Bespectacled and smart

Thirty-six years ago, Lavie went to New York to study and has been in the United States ever since. She lives in Los Angeles and for years visited Israel every summer. Recently she has spent quite a lot of time in Israel, mainly due to her mother’s illness. “She died in June last year at the age of 87,” says Lavie.
In the Herzliya play, she is Yael, the ex-wife of Fima ‏(played by Dovaleh Glickman‏) and appears onstage in the scenes where he recalls his past. “It was hard to go onstage and speak Hebrew,” she says. “Unlike Hannah Gonen in ‘My Michael,’ who is notable for her silence, Yael says everything that’s on her mind, and it was hard for me to do that in Hebrew. But Nola Chilton, the director, with whom it’s a privilege to work, supported me and all of us and helped us to find the human touches.”

Lavie was born 62 years ago in Hadera and grew up in Tel Aviv. Her father, who immigrated here from Lithuania as teenager, was a member of the Egged bus cooperative and served as an Israeli emissary in various places. Her mother, who was born in Germany and came here when she was 9, worked at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. She learned her polished Hebrew from her father, “who made sure we spoke nicely, and that’s why they also made fun of me in school.” She credits her mother “who dragged me to concerts and plays” for her decision to study music, theater and art.

At home she was not encouraged to go into acting. “They wanted me to have a profession, with a degree, to study at university. I learned to work hard ... My motto was that everything comes from hard work, from diligence.”

In the world of Israeli film of the 1970s Lavie represented the ultimate Ashkenazi. She describes her role in those films as the perfect Polish woman who falls for men no one would have expected her to fall for. In “Kazablan,” “Only Today” and “My Michael” she plays a student, and in “Katz and Carasso” she works in her father’s office, bespectacled and smart. “The link between all these female roles is the status of the woman: One is an intellectual student who dares to make her own choices; who tells her parents, ‘This is what I want.’”

My Michael” is a defining moment in Israeli film, different from the other films you mentioned.

“I consider this film one of the first films of women’s liberation. Hannah Gonen does not settle for being a mother; she wants to do more, but she doesn’t dare to and therefore withdraws into herself. Michael works outside the home, students come to study with him and she is stuck at home. She expresses her protest by cutting her hair short. She is also not sexually satisfied and chooses to fantasize about the Arab children she used to play with freely and happily in her youth.”

“My Michael” made an impression. In this film, Lavie plays a silenced character with tremendous power and presence. Without words, she manages to convey the deep pain she feels, the loneliness, the despair.

How did you work on the role?

“I started with the body, her hunched shoulders. Hannah Gonen does not walk tall, her eyes are cast downward. Because she is pregnant in the film, they fed me well and I gained weight, so that she’d look rounder. My nails were cut short. The voice was soft. There weren’t a lot of words, just a lot of expressions, pain.
“I really wanted this role and in a meeting with [the director] Dan Wolman, I told him, ‘I have it in me, deep inside, the pain of Hannah Gonen.’ And I really did have a lot of pain in me at the time, because it was just after the Yom Kippur War. An actor brings his inner world to a role; otherwise the character is not alive.”

Toward the end of the war, Lavie says, “I was a student at Tel Aviv University and they called me up to do reserve duty in an army musical group. It was a trauma. We performed under fire; they shelled us in the middle of performances at the Chinese Farm [in the Sinai, where a battle was fought in 1973]. We saw burnt tanks. We traveled in Zeldas [armored personnel carriers] from outpost to outpost. We saw casualties; we saw people suffering and we were so young. I couldn’t sleep for two years after the war.

The city of movies

Many of the 1970s films Lavie appeared in were hits. “I assume they brought hope, romance,” she says. “There wasn’t so much cynicism then.” She describes the conditions on set in those days as the “height of professionalism. The physical conditions were tough, the cameras were big and clunky, but in terms of professionalism they didn’t skimp on anything. These were mega-productions. “In ‘Kazablan’ there were dozens of people involved, the best actors and dancers around. They didn’t skimp on quality. The acting was important to all of us. We thought it was a great privilege. That’s also why the films have endured.”

Did you get paid?

“Small sums, but I was young and anything I earned seemed wonderful to me. With the money I made from ‘Kazablan’ I bought an old Fiat 600. To start it, I had to open the door and run with it, but I was happy.”

Did you have star status then?

“I didn’t think about it. Maybe if I had thought about it I wouldn’t have gone to the U.S. There was no issue then of being a celeb. If someone came over to me and said he liked the film, it made all the effort worthwhile: getting up at 4 A.M., working in difficult conditions. The prize was when someone would say, ‘I remember you.’”

When Lavie went to New York she had already been named best actress for her role in “My Michael” and earned a degree in English literature from Tel Aviv University. A short time earlier “My Michael” had been screened at the Filmax festival in Los Angeles. “At the screening Walter Kohner, Liv Ullmann’s agent, approached me and said he wanted to represent me. The film and I got great reviews. But I didn’t have a work permit.”

In New York, Lavie studied with acting teachers Stella Adler and Uta Hagen and did a master’s degree in dance and movement. While there she also met her spouse, Eli Gang, a Haifa native. When they met, Lavie recalls, “he was the physician for the New York City Opera. At every opera performance there is a physician in attendance. I was then a seamstress and I used to gatecrash the performance. If I bought a ticket it was for the standing-room section. We went to see ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ and it was terrific.”

When their first child, Adam, was born in 1982 the small New York apartment was no longer big enough and the couple decided to move to Los Angeles.

Why there?

“Because it’s the city of movies and I remembered the agent, Walter Kohner, who promised to represent me when I came to Los Angeles, and also because my husband, Eli, found a job there.”

In LA, Lavie got some small television roles. In the 1987 film “Who’s that Girl,” starring Madonna, she played a jewelry seller. “For two scenes, there was a week of filming − and in the end only one scene was left in,” Lavie says.

Are you planning a more permanent return to Israel at some point?

“It’s impossible because my son is there and he says, ‘Now you’ll have to spend half your time here and half there because we want you near us.’ We really love seeing Lakers’ basketball games together. When I’m here in Israel I really miss it.”

Is there a big difference between the life of a 1970s film star and what came afterwards?

“I don’t feel that way. I never felt like a star. I did things that interested me, even if they were less glamorous.”

When her son Adam was 10, the family adopted a baby girl, Danielle, who is now 20 and serving in the Israel Defense Forces. “From the time I was 17 I said I want to adopt a child,” says Lavie, “and it happened. I adopted Danielle in Los Angeles. I knew the woman who gave birth to her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to raise the child. When we met she said, ‘This is your girl.’ There is only one mother; the one who raises the child.”

Lavie’s other occupation is yoga. “The test to become certified is harder than any audition,” she says. “My yoga instructor in Israel is Rina Tawili, who is 84. I am an instructor of Iyengar yoga, which combines art and contact.”

In the Tel Aviv cafe where we meet, a young waiter recognizes her: “You’re Rachel from the movie ‘Kazablan.’” I raise an eyebrow: “That film was made before you were born.” He responds, “I watch it almost every weekend. It’s a cult classic.” Lavie says she is used to such reactions. The taxi driver also recognized her as Rachel from “Kazablan.” “People recognize me all the time,” she adds. “And it makes me happy. It’s a nice feeling; the feeling that you touched someone thanks to something you did.”

Honestly speaking, do you feel any frustration that, in the end, you didn’t make a career out of this?

“No. I’m grateful for what I did. Everything was hard to achieve there, and if someone here has any idea or suggestion, I would very much like to act now. Very much.”