Israeli actress Mili Avital is back on Hollywood's radar
A genuine overnight success, this 40-year-old actress from Jerusalem found out stardom carried a hefty price.
NEW YORK − Two days before Rosh Hashanah, Mili Avital serves superb seafood pasta − prepared by her children’s nanny − and outlines her plans for the holidays. New Year’s Eve will include a family dinner, with kiddush recited by her American husband, Charles Randolph, as every year. On Yom Kippur she will take the family to synagogue and fast, as she does every year. Charles also usually builds a sukkah in their yard in the West Village, she tells me later, but this year he won’t have time because of his workload. So she will take their two children to the synagogue to see a sukkah so they don’t miss the spirit of the festival.
A week earlier, in our first meeting, held at a luxury sushi restaurant of Avital’s choosing (the bill came to $100 after the proprietor − a friend of friends of hers − insisted that the drinks, coffees, hors d’oeuvres and desserts were on the house), not an hour passed before she was, at her initiative, dissecting the elements of her identity into ultra-thin particles, alongside a mound of raw fish.
“It took me many years to understand that my identity is more Israeli than Jewish,” sums up the pioneer of local actors who have made it in Hollywood. “My children listen to [iconic singer] Arik Einstein and speak Hebrew. I transmit my memories to them.”
Nineteen years after immigrating to the United States, spitting blood to get rid of her Israeli accent, forging an impressive international acting career and establishing a magnificent family − Mili Avital, 40, still wants to talk about Arik Einstein and the songs of the prestate Palmach. So ardent is she about this that the suspicion arises that she feels the need to apologize for, or at least justify, the life she has created across the sea.
This week, after recurrent delays spanning almost a year due to the sorry state of the local advertising market, the second season of Israeli TV drama series “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”) finally began, starring Avital as the partner of one of the released captives. The producers are imploring everyone involved to keep mum about the new episodes; indeed, the links to them, sent by the series creator, Gideon Raff, were protected by a personal password and self-destructed within three days. Even if the plot in the new season starts to twist and turn like a somewhat reflective soap opera, Avital’s fragile, anguished performance remains impressive.
The first season of “Hatufim” did well in Israel and was broadcast in the United States and Britain with English subtitles. Subsequently, the American remake of the series, “Homeland,” was embraced by the media and recently swept the board at the Emmy Awards (“I watched the ceremony broadcast and texted Gidi that his suit was fabulous”), after also winning the Golden Globe award for best drama. Avital, by the way, tried to get herself cast in “Homeland,” but, she says, “the role of the journalist, for which I auditioned, was based on [renowned TV journalist] Christiane Amanpour, and they wanted someone with an Iranian connection so I wasn’t suitable.”
Two years ago, when the Channel 2 franchisee Keshet broadcast the first season, Gilad Shalit was still in captivity and questions were asked about whether the series was cynically exploiting public sensitivity on the issue. The series won the Israeli Academy of Film and Television’s best drama award in 2010, but the local critics were less appreciative. “A drama cannot be created on the basis of a cliché,” Alon Idan wrote in Haaretz; “baseless slices of reality ... attached to laconic dialogues that would not pass muster in a telenovela,” Ariana Melamed asserted on Ynet.
An interview that Avital gave ahead of the show’s first season unleashed a firestorm of web comments. It was alleged that the only reason she was appearing in an Israeli series was that her career abroad was stalled. And when insinuations about insufficient patriotism were thrown in, too, it almost began to seem that Avital’s lack of success in recent years was being taken as a blow to Israel’s national honor.
“If Hollywood thought highly of her, you wouldn’t see her in a single movie in Israel,” one commenter wrote, adding, “She evaded army service and invested her best years there, and now suddenly she’s a patriotic Israeli.” Or: “Israel is the only place that lets this unemployed actress work.”
“They are projecting something onto me, I don’t know exactly what,” Avital says between slices of fish, displaying a robust appetite for a woman with such a slim figure. “Maybe it reflects the lack of confidence about Israel’s international status. Being here in New York, I don’t feel that attitude directly. In any event, I am not an ambassador, I am an actress. I have nothing against national honor, but my job is to tell a story.”
But you find it important for people to know that you feel yourself to be an Israeli.
“No. I have no sentiments for nationality or for soil. But I grew up in Israel, so those things are in my blood, and I want to be part of Israeli culture. I don’t need legitimization to take part in Israeli productions; I am a good actress. To work in Israel is a financial investment for me. I do it for emotional, not artistic reasons. I arrive with the whole clan, with the kids and my husband, who makes the sacrifice and joins us. My agents do not like my choice to work only in New York and Israel − it’s not a good career move.
“We are also an impatient nation,” she continues. “People aren’t able to take the long view of a career. Or maybe they expect me not to have any needs other than winning an Oscar. I saw the top of the hill when I was 25: I had the lead in a movie with David Schwimmer [“Kissing a Fool”], I kissed Johnny Depp in a movie [“Dead Man”]. I may not be Meryl Streep, but I am not untalented. If that were my only commitment, I would probably be working all the time. But my life is a little more complicated than that. I had a hard time being a stranger in New York. I felt alone and something in my body awoke. I wanted a home-home-home, a family, children, not only to serve a professional dream. Look at Renée Zellweger and Cameron Diaz. They are about my age, and they are alone. There are plenty like that. Maybe they are pleased. But they won’t have children.”
Avital has devoted the last decade to perfecting a new role: wife and mother. After meeting the man who would become her husband, Charles Randolph − a TV and movie screenwriter and producer − she says she did not take parts that demanded location shooting in faraway locales, fearing someone would steal him while she was away. Her career was further slowed by fertility treatments she underwent.
“It took almost four years until I became pregnant for the first time, and the treatments became more and more intensive. It was demanding: Every day there were medical tests, hormones, checking to see how things were developing. It was a real journey. For a long time I couldn’t work. And when Benjamin was born, five years ago, I just wanted to be with him.”
Fanny, Benjamin’s younger sister, who is named after Avital’s Moroccan grandmother, is also a product of fertility treatments. She was born on the day Gilad Shalit was freed by Hamas. Avital says she was glued to the mobile phone in the delivery room in Manhattan, not wanting to miss a second of the live broadcast: “I had an epidural and saw the whole thing. Charles said, ‘Maybe at least in the delivery room we can dispense with Israeli politics?’ But I screamed and cried and was thrilled, and not only from the hormones. I am moved by such events.”
But why? Is Gilad Shalit relevant to your present comfortable life in Manhattan?
“It’s not actually a decision that I have made consciously.”
‘Auntie from America’
Mili Avital is beautiful, as expected; jumpy almost to the point of restlessness, and knows how to suit the height of her stilettos and hairdo to the character of a meal (pulled back in the evening, loose at brunch). She is also amazingly friendly and has no problem taking a long, hard look at her career and analyzing why it has been in the doldrums of late. Possibly she is buoyed somewhat by the fact that in addition to the new season of “Hatufim” she has parts in two American television series. The first is “666 Park Avenue,” a new supernatural drama, which premiered in September. In its first episode Avital played one of the tenants in the apartment building (“a tragic figure, of course; lonely, looking for love, with a dark side I am not allowed to reveal”). She also has the lead role in the 300th episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” in whose pilot she appeared 13 years ago.
“If the series has been going for so many years, the actors in the pilot must have done something right, and Mili was terrific,” says Warren Leight, chief scriptwriter for the series, explaining the decision to cast actors who appeared in the pilot. “In the new episode she plays a divorcée from a rich man whose child is missing. She is tremendous; you see the tension and pressure on her.”
The episode was shot between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur − the outside parts in The Bronx and the interior shoots in a large hangar on the Hudson River, which houses the set and the production offices. Leight’s office, on the second floor, overlooks the river and has a balcony to die for.
“Mili is a secret weapon that people don’t appreciate enough,” he says. “You don’t expect someone so attractive to be so deep. She is an intelligent, talented actress. She works with good directors and all the casting directors know her. She could have worked more frequently, but chose not to. Her time will come.”
Why hasn’t it come yet?
Leight: “For a while she was in Los Angeles, which is a kind of black hole. There is a lot of television now in New York. And the fact that she is working in Israel and leading a double life complicates the situation. I think she will take off when the kids grow up and the right part comes along. I am waiting to tell people, ‘I told you so.’”
Avital adds that, in addition to “my lack of interest in acting for a few years, because other than fertility and eggs I didn’t think about anything else,” she also fell between two stools. In her twenties she was cast mainly in leading-lady roles as a love interest, “roles with a soft, romantic angle. I wanted to move to more mature and complex parts, but because I looked young for my age, they didn’t know where to put me. I still get offers to play romantic and neurotic parts, but lately there have been offers for parts with greater emotional heft. In ‘Park Avenue’ I had to come apart emotionally on the first day of shooting, and the same in ‘Law and Order’: to play a mother whose son goes missing, God help us.”
What elements in a part would make a casting director think of you?
Avital: “At the age of 30-40, maybe someone who is slightly in a different world. In Israel I think I have the image of an ‘Ashkenazi woman’ as a stereotype. Someone once told me that I look like a deodorant commercial. But my appearance is misleading; I can be emotionally aggressive, too, and in ‘Law and Order’ I once played a murderer. I see no limitations. I see both my toughness and the softness.”
Mili Avital was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Ra’anana. Her father is Moroccan-born, her mother of Turkish descent; both are designers. “They are an adventurous couple who paved my way with their approach that the world is open,” Avital says. “They just spent a few years teaching in India, and moved back to Israel in July, when my younger brother, Yoni, had a son. Now I am the auntie from America.”
She was drawn to acting from childhood: “I loved putting on stories as plays when I was just six. I was the director, the actress and the set designer; I cast my girlfriends in parts and I suggested to the local kindergarten teachers that we do free performances for the children. I also wanted to perform in the Children’s Song Festival, but in the final stage of the auditions I sang ‘Eli, Eli’ [a song with Holocaust overtones] − which I heard at home − and was told I was too serious.”
She stood out at the prestigious Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts. “She was the prettiest and most opinionated kid in the class, charismatic and charming,” says the novelist and screenwriter Shiri Artzi, Avital’s classmate and good friend in high school, who made a documentary titled “The Kids from My Class.”
“I have a video that we shot one afternoon in my house during our high school years,” Artzi says. “At one point I went to a different room and Mili was alone with the camera. She filmed herself asking − as though dialoguing with the future − ‘What would it be like to see this face on a huge movie screen?’”
But, even then, Avital was ambivalent about acting. For two years she refused to attend the acting class in high school, “because it’s a superficial, dumb thing and I didn’t like the teacher. I was also accepted into the art track, so I spent most of my time painting and doing other things ... I smoked two packs a day for 10 years, from the age of 15,” she adds, “and I would sit there and think about my place in the world and how I could buck the system.”
They also cut classes, Artzi recalls. “We would put on lipstick, slip out of school and go try our luck in town: romances, experiments, experiences.”
Despite her rebellious attitude, Avital was chosen to play the lead in the annual 11th-grade play. “A director was brought in from outside, who didn’t care whether people attended classes or not. He held auditions and chose me,” Avital recalls. “In my senior year I performed in the Cameri Theater’s production of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’; I got the part thanks to a recommendation from a teacher at the school.”
She followed this up with roles in the television film “Yael’s Friends” and with her first feature, “Beyond the Sea,” for which she won the Israeli Film Academy Award as best supporting actress. “It all happened terribly fast,” she says. “It’s said that you don’t become a star overnight, but only after you work all your life until the right opportunity arrives. But in my case it really was overnight.”
Avital was accepted to the Israeli army’s theater troupe but her call-up was postponed for six months to allow her to continue performing at the Cameri. “When the time came, they exempted a group of girls, of whom I was one. I did not evade service, but I was happy that things worked out as they did. I was afraid of army service, I was afraid of violence.”
She took a course in psychology at the Open University and applied for literature and philosophy studies at Tel Aviv University. “While I was waiting for an answer, I enrolled in Nissan Nativ Acting Studio. I was 18, engaged in a quest. I wanted to be a director, a psychologist, a set designer. All my friends were in the army and I was giving interviews, but what did I have to talk about? At that time, after a year and a half of intense exposure, I was more famous in Israel than I am now. But I had a moment of reason when I realized it was all hype, that I was just the new kid on the block. And I also didn’t want everything to be based on my charm. I had an offer to play Desdemona at Habima [the national theater company]. I didn’t have the appropriate toolkit, the experience or a clue about life, and they wanted me to do Shakespeare every evening in front of 2,000 people. I panicked. I hadn’t felt liberated enough in the acting school, either. I was aware of myself, of what was being written about me in the press, and I had constant offers of parts. That is no way to learn and develop. So I said no to Nissan Nativ, no to Habima and I came here.”
Avital moved to New York in 1993 and enrolled in Circle in the Square Theater School. Originally she considered going to London, due to the lure of Shakespeare, “but London was expensive and I didn’t have anyone there, and my mother refused to send me alone at the age of 20. In New York I had a distant aunt on my mother’s side, whom I had never met, and for the first three months, until I found an apartment, I lived with her.”
The story of how the Cinderella from Ra’anana became a Hollywood princess has already been told at length. When her savings ran out, she worked as a waitress. An actors’ agent who met her was captivated by her and hooked her up with the director Ronald Emmerich, who happened to be looking for the female lead for his film “Stargate.” That same week Avital was flown to Los Angeles and then for shooting in Utah. “The day after I arrived was Yom Kippur, so my first conversation with the producers on the set was about how I wasn’t working, because I was fasting.”
“Stargate” opened the door to a series of films, including a fine performance involving making out with Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” and the lead in “Kissing a Fool,” alongside David Schwimmer of “Friends” renown (and who became her boyfriend for a few years). In 1997, she moved to Los Angeles, “because my brother was studying electronic engineering at UCLA and I was happy to suddenly have family in the United States. I was also going out with David, so there was a double excuse for the move, but it was more because of my brother.”
At 25 Avital had an admired boyfriend, a successful career and an overwhelming feeling of loneliness. She spent her money on diction lessons and invested in therapy “all through my twenties.” Until now she hasn’t spoken about this publicly. It might be the feeling of stability generated by her family life that now makes it possible for her to look back on that period with compassion.
We are in the den on the second floor of her home. On one wall is a series of 19th-century maps bought in a market (“because we are globalists and because they are gorgeous”); opposite are densely packed bookshelves, with many works on psychology. It’s a subject that has always occupied her, she notes, sitting barefoot on the sofa. Freud crops up often in her conversation.
“I remember the feeling of confusion and fear I had in those years,” she says. “I wanted to understand who I was, what mattered to me, how to safeguard myself and remain authentic in a culture with foreign codes. Life seemed to have moved faster than my awareness of it. The only emotional stability I had at the time came from my therapist. Think of a young actress who comes on the set and every whim of hers ... if it rains, someone holds the umbrella for me. And then I go home and I am alone. Truly alone. I needed perspective. The experience on the set is powerful, but the day after shooting ends, you wake up and there is no crew, no director, no story. It was hard for me to get up on my feet, to create a daily schedule. I learned how to balance it all through my therapist.
She also had some unpleasant experiences on the job: “I suffered mental abuse on the set of ‘Invasion of Privacy.’ On the second day of shooting I was filmed in cold water, without a protective suit. I went into hypothermia, and when I woke up, in the ambulance, the director and the producer told me, ‘Get up, we have to finish the shot.’”
That was more than 15 years ago, but her evocation of the memories is passionate and vivid: “It was after ‘Stargate’ and before ‘Dead Man.’ At the time, I was also offered a part I badly wanted in a low-budget indie movie, ‘I’m Not Rappaport,’ but because I had spent my earnings from the earlier movies on diction lessons and therapy, I needed money. I was offered a lot of money and the best hotel in Los Angeles for ‘Invasion of Privacy,’ so I had no choice. It was a horror.”
Her close female friend in the movie was played by Naomi Campbell, the supermodel known for her hot temper: “In one scene I was supposed to cry and Naomi was supposed to comfort me. But she kept lowering her head, as though not wanting to participate. After 10 takes the director said something to her and she flew into a rage: ‘After last night? Fuck you!’ Who knows what went on at night? I left before shooting ended. On the last day they were going to film me from a helicopter as I climbed a hill. But after the incident on the second day I didn’t trust them anymore. My Moroccan blood was fired up. ‘Get my driver right now, I’m going to the airport,’ I said. They threatened to sue me for breach of contract.”
Avital had no one to share such experiences with in real time. Not only were most of her friends back in Israel; some also spurned her as her career took off.
“Already in high school, when the cast for the 11th grade play was posted on the bulletin board, I remember seeing my girlfriends just walk away from me,” she recalls. “At the high-school graduation party, I had to leave after half an hour because I was performing at the Cameri. I left the social circle. At acting school I was looked on as ‘the TV girl,’ and my new friends in New York also cut me out when I got the ‘Stargate’ part. It was hard for them, because it’s nearly impossible to fulfill dreams in showbiz here. I was sharing a place with a close friend at the time, and when I told him about ‘Stargate’ even he said, ‘Fine, I hope we stay in touch,’ as though we were separating.”
Maybe he thought you would dump him for your new glittering colleagues
“I didn’t see it like that. On the contrary − you open the door and there’s a bigger party.”
Shiri Artzi admits that on the evening when “Yael’s Friends” was broadcast on television, she went out to a movie. “Mili was hurt,” she says now. “I envied her for many years and it was hard for me to say good things about her. I put her to the test and she put me to the test, too, though not deliberately, by virtue of her success. To be a winner projects power, but it comes with loneliness and vulnerability, because you have to deal with the responses of the losers. It’s not easy when people close to you move on. Happily, we were able to talk about the feelings of abandonment that we experienced, and I realized that she felt somewhat neglected.”
“It was hard for me without friends,” Avital adds, “but deep inside I understood them. My need to be creative has always been stronger than any social need. Despite my doubts about acting as essentially being a way of life, it is the place where I realize myself. Before I had a family, that was where I felt most comfortable ... I’m not such a sociable person anyway, so I felt I would survive even without my friends from high school. There weren’t many of them to begin with. It just made the journey lonely.”
So maybe dating David Schwimmer was the right move in the circumstances? He certainly couldn’t envy you for getting acting jobs.
“True. It’s just logical for actors to get friendly on the set. I needed friends from the new world and from the old, and I felt alone.”
Why did you break up?
“David is super-intelligent and very sharp, but we didn’t want the same things. I wanted a home; he wasn’t yet ready for that. We lived together in Los Angeles, but I kept my place in New York and we were apart a lot, each in his own world. We were a couple, but not the kind that shares everything. Not on my part, at least. And there was friction ... But he lives a few blocks from here, and when I see him I immediately give him a hug.”
What is more helpful for a career in the United States: to act alongside David Schwimmer or to go out with him?
“I didn’t want to mix with David in the world of public relations. I didn’t enjoy that. I wanted parts, not a photo in the paper. He was at the height of ‘Friends’ fame at the time, but my ego is too big to want to be in someone’s shadow. He was also a TV actor, which at the time I found oh-so-very lowbrow. But it was true love.”
Many painful moments surfaced during therapy, Avital says. “I had to learn how to accept life, the past, my place, my parents and friends, my dreams, the place I came from. I am deliberately leaving things vague here; pain is the lot of every person ... All of life is a trauma, but I wasn’t made out of chocolate and I decided to fight for happiness − I decided that the sun shines in the morning.”
Is it that easy? What happens on cloudy days?
“Life consists of cycle and flow, and you have to put your faith in them.”
Her 40th birthday celebration in March was a staid affair: dinner at home with a few close friends and no present from her husband (“We decided not to get each other presents, but to put the money aside”). The transition into the previous decade had been more fraught: A few months before her 30th birthday, Avital had a panic-and-depression attack. “I had no home and no children, and I had the feeling that life was about to end,” she recalls.
Shortly afterward she met Charles Randolph, who bought her a horse as a birthday present. “Every time I came to [a ranch in] Texas I rode him, until he threw me off.” She gave up the horse but kept the guy − and also said good-bye to her therapist.
So all the therapy was just to get married?
“No, it was to stay sane. And to find a good husband. I was my own master and rebellious and all, but I was not a mother or ‘the-wife-of.’ I enjoy being ‘the little woman.’ I manage a house and do big things; I am not someone’s wife who has to ask her husband’s permission. But I want to be able to say that I am weak and vulnerable.”
In New York Avital also had to cope with professional rejections for the first time. “At first I didn’t understand why I had to audition,” she says. “When I didn’t get a part I took it personally. ‘What, you don’t love me? I’m not good?’ Today it no longer feels like an insult.”
She decided “to go for broke” and try to assimilate − “to pass” as an American. She enrolled for a course in American history, but spent most of her energy and money trying to eradicate her Israeli accent. “I took private [elocution] lessons three times a week and afterward I practiced. I trained the tip of the tongue and hidden muscles. I never got roles of Israelis anyway – and I auditioned for all them, including ‘Munich’ – but I was told that I don’t look Israeli. Not to look Israeli and not to sound American − that’s very limiting. Now I play American women.”
Do you still go out to audition?
“Not too much. I limit myself to what is being shot in New York or Israel, and to parts that really turn me on − one or two a month, on average. When I needed to [make money to] survive, I worked all the time. Maybe I would have fulfilled myself more as an actress if I had worked more, but I don’t know if I would have been happy.”
A few months after the end of her much-publicized romance with Schwimmer in 2001, Avital met Randolph, who is nine years her senior. Their meeting, which could fit neatly into a romantic comedy, was made possible by the intervention of two people: actress Amanda Peet and Osama bin Laden.
“I had already decided to go back to New York,” Avital relates. “I packed my bags and bought a ticket for September 13.” But events two days before the flight − on September 11 − disrupted her plans. She stayed in Los Angeles, and rented an apartment. Two months later, Peet, whom she knew from New York, invited her to a dinner at Randolph’s place. “He had moved from Vienna a year before. He was invited to give a scriptwriting workshop in Los Angeles, and in the meantime shooting began in the United States on his script for ‘The Life of David Gale.’ To enlarge his social circle, he occasionally gave dinners, inviting someone he knew and asking that person to invite someone he didn’t know. Amanda brought me.”
It was love at first sight, at least for her. “I was turned on by his looks and he also astonished me with his knowledge, charm and wit. I saw him looking at me, too, but he is a bit shy.” Three obstacles stood in the way of happiness: “I knew I wanted to get married and have a family, but it was important that my husband be a Jew; I didn’t want to have to explain what Hanukkah is. And he didn’t ask me out. And I also thought at first that he was gay: a hunk, well dressed, with a stylish home and carefully arranged books, plus he had all kinds of tea.”
Peet held a birthday party in January and invited Avital. “I talked about Charles all the time, and about how much I didn’t want to date him, until finally Amanda’s manager, who is also our friend and knew Charles from work, mentioned that Charles had just finished a relationship. I realized that he hadn’t called me after the dinner because he wasn’t yet ready to date someone else. Anyway, Amanda’s manager called Charles’ manager.”
So dates in Hollywood also go through personal managers?
“That happened completely by chance. The next day Charles called to ask me out. We had dinner. I thought he was really sexy and brilliant. He told stories of things from all over the world. At that time he didn’t know Hanukkah songs, but he knows history and is intelligent, and he had a religious upbringing, because his parents are missionaries. When I got home after the first date I sat motionless on the sofa for half an hour.”
If it was so great, why didn’t you go home with him?
“Don’t think it didn’t cross my mind. I never balked at rashness, certainly not when it comes to being physical − but with him I had a feeling of having to prepare myself, like before a storm. We started to date, I moved to Los Angeles, we became engaged that year and were married a year later. When Charles said he had no problem with the children being Jews, all the fears of my inner, grandmotherly self vanished. All I want is for my son to give me grandchildren.”
Your son is five.
“Yes, he can marry whoever he wants, but I want to him to have children.”
Ahead of the wedding, Randolph began a process of conversion to Judaism, but it remained incomplete. “He went into it with good intentions, but when we realized what the process involves, we let it go. We stopped at the point where it went from a spiritual journey to the petty matters of religious observance.”
The wedding preparations also included couples therapy. “Charles tried to escape from me about eight times, but I fought for him,” Avital says. “He is not only an American, he is a southerner with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, who never raises his voice and thinks that what others want is more important than what he wants. And who did he find himself with? An Israeli woman who thinks that, firstly, she is more important than he, and if she doesn’t like something it bursts out of her. And I can also be domineering.
“It was important to understand that it wasn’t because I am not nice or am stubborn, but that it comes from cultural differences. Where I come from we talk about everything and erupt if needed − because it’s ‘authentic.’ I learned that the urgency with which I have to give vent to emotions means having the other person prepared for it.”
They saw their therapist again after their treatment had ended − on TV, in a “Seinfeld” episode: “He played a dentist who gives prescriptions for massage. It was a kind of symbolic moment, another trigger for moving to New York, because it’s an example of the bullshit of Los Angeles, where everyone wants to be an actor. Even the guy who cleaned the pool at Charles’ place kept trying to feed him scripts.”
The couple’s wedding ceremony was held in Jerusalem, in the presence of a Conservative rabbi. They then moved to New York and for the past four years have been renting a spacious, pampering apartment. Photos of the children are scattered everywhere. Standing on a kitchen shelf is a copy of a famous bust of Nefertiti, which Avital took from the “Stargate” set. A poster of Israel hangs on the ground floor, where the living room is situated. The lowest floor, which contains the kitchen and a children’s room, is decorated with a poster of Manhattan: one example − of many − of Avital’s split “Isramerican” identity.
Indeed, while her Israeli colleagues are trying to conquer Hollywood, Avital has been moving in the other direction in the past few years, trying to get back into the Israeli film and television industry. Before “Hatufim,” she appeared in the fourth season of the local TV drama series “Sabbaths and Holidays,” and also played the lead in two Israeli features, “Colombian Love” (2004) and “Noodle” (2007).
“When we started to become closer,” says Ayelet Menahemi, the director of “Noodle,” “I saw that she had an unresolved thing with her Israeliness − longings and a need to do work in Israel in order to find herself as an Israeli. She was missing a piece of the puzzle.”
Avital gets scripts from Israel all the time, “and I always read them, even if I don’t always consider dropping everything and going [there].”
This emotional attachment often exacts a price on her career, she admits. “Let me give you an example. I got two offers simultaneously: to play a permanent part in the television series ‘24’ − no one knew at the time what a big hit it would be, but everyone knew the pilot was good and was creating a buzz − and an offer to appear in an American TV film called ‘Uprising’ , about the Warsaw Ghetto revolt – and not even the lead, because they thought I looked too soft to play a resistance fighter.” She opted for the miniseries about the Warsaw Ghetto, because “I wanted to experience a series about the Holocaust, I felt more connected to that. Professionally it was a dumb decision, but emotionally it was crucial, and the journey I am on is not only professional.”
People in the Israeli film industry talk about Avital as a “work machine.” “She doesn’t have the mannerisms of a diva but the professionalism of a star,” says Reshef Levy, who cowrote “Colombian Love.” “She is a good kid from Ra’anana, she wasn’t born in Beverly Hills.”
To which Menahemi adds, “She is almost pathologically industrious and thorough. You won’t find many actors who will do a 10-day Vipassana course only so they will know their next director better.”
Says “Hatufim” serious creator Gideon Raff: “She lacks ego, is businesslike, trusting and not condescending.”
Avital says she liked the “Hatufim” script straight off. Originally she wanted to play Talia, a character who vowed to lead a life of acetism until her husband returns from captivity. “But they said I looked too young for that and offered me the part of Nurit,” who marries her [abducted] husband’s brother.
One night, after her son Benjamin was asleep, she filmed herself and sent the clip in by email: “I thought the audition wasn’t good enough, but I sent it because I was afraid someone else would get the part.”
Servant of children
“Nurit is not an easy character to empathize with,” Raff says. “It’s hard to identify with someone who leaves her husband and goes to live with his brother. She does something that is not accepted in Israeli society, in not waiting [for the abductee to return]. Mili simply succeeded in doing the part with delicacy, sensitivity and nuance, because she has openness, vulnerability, over-sensitivity and plenty of heart.”
“At first I didn’t understand the character,” Avital admits. “How can you play someone who has to choose whether to be a mother to her child or to go back to her youthful love, because that is her truth? When there is a child, your truth is irrelevant. You need to go home and make schnitzel.”
Is there nothing that could justify the breakup of a family?
“If I have a violent husband I will get a divorce, but I feel I am the servant of my children. When you have a child you understand that you are not alone, that you have a cause: to raise them to be good citizens. And don’t get me wrong: I am a tough mother. They eat properly, are polite, ask permission to leave the table. When they are 25 they will have to compete for work with Chinese and Indians who come from generations of hard work, not to mention realizing their dreams, and I need them to have the right tools: industriousness, discipline, courtesy, respect for the other and humility along with a healthy ego.”
Did you learn that from your parents?
“My children are getting it in a slightly different way than I did, because my parents were 21 when I was born, hippies out of art school. My mother wanted to pursue her studies, so she took me to class and I grew up there. I want to be very much a parent ... and to live what I see in front of me. I don’t have an aunt here to come over and have coffee with me, or grandparents I can call on for help. I need to do everything alone, and I am not willing to have anyone other than me tuck the kids in. I fought so hard physically and mentally to get to this stage, so I certainly don’t want to miss it. Motherhood is a need; you need to caress them and make them hot chocolate.”
Doesn’t Charles have a similar need? Why aren’t you sharing the burden, and why are you the one who has to neglect your career for a time?
“Because he earns more money and he can’t get pregnant, and it was also clear that this is the most important thing in my life. If I hadn’t found a husband, I probably would have done it alone. So the peak of my career will not come now, when I am raising two small children. Women mature at a different pace, and when I am 50 I will do what I want. So far I have experienced a sort of warm-up, which went well. Now the path begins.”
In the meantime, Randolph’s career has taken off. HBO acquired the rights to produce the pilot for “The Missionary,” an espionage series he wrote. The series, which according to Internet reports (Avital is leery of divulging details) is about an American missionary in Berlin during the Cold War, is expected to start shooting in Europe at the beginning of next year; the whole family will move to that location for a few months.
Why doesn’t Charles write parts tailor-made for you?
“There was a stage when we thought about developing something, but to make a living he has to write for others. And maybe I will have a part in the series. It’s reasonable to assume that that will come up at some point.”
Aren’t you afraid that people will say you got the part only because of him?
“I have chosen to serve him, so shall I not serve him in this?”
For the shooting of the second season of “Hatufim,” Avital came to Israel without her husband, accompanied only by her son. “Charles had to complete a script and start casting the pilot, but that will never happen again. It was very difficult for me emotionally to be here six weeks without him. I wanted a family, and that is part of it.”
The emotional heft of the series didn’t make things any easier. “You cannot play something painful without feeling pain,” she says. “The emotion you express in acting is always real, even if what’s around is imaginary. And in the case of ‘Hatufim,’ the real things were also around us. As a creative person, I have no beginning and no end. I surrender myself. An acting role is not a box that you enter and come out of. I wish it were. But it’s work, and actors learn how to switch the ‘on’ button and the ‘off’ button, and go home and function.
“Even if it was all hard − I have responsibility in life. I am a professional actress and also a professional mother. If I did not have a home I really might have been swept up in the whirlpool and gone into depression, but now I have solid ground for landing. That is sanity. When I wasn’t working, it’s not that I wasn’t doing anything. I was preparing this ground, the organic fertilizer, which I can now stand on.”
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