Sarah Adler - Ilya Melinkov - December 2011
Sarah Adler. Photo by Ilya Melinkov
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Actress Sarah Adler went to this year's Cannes Film Festival to help promote the French film "Pourquoi tu pleures" ("Bachelor Days Are Over" ) in which she appears. "There is excitement there. A sort of high point," she acknowledges. Nevertheless, she refused to be swept up into making any special preparations for the walk down the red carpet: She borrowed an '80s-style dress from her aunt, wore shoes she bought at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, did her own makeup, and her hair ... "What hair? I didn't do anything. I don't feel like creating an image at times like that. Instead, I want to be myself, as much as possible." It was Adler's third visit to the festival, after being there with the cast of "Notre musique," the Jean-Luc Godard film in which she starred, and with the crew from the Israeli film "Meduzot" ("Jellyfish" ), directed by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, in which she played the lead. It was there, on the red carpet in Cannes, that Adler began to have some troubling thoughts about her career.

"My crisis moments can take place simultaneously with the seemingly good, successful times," she says, analyzing herself while sipping cauliflower soup at a coffee shop near her home in the heart of Tel Aviv. "In point of fact, at the time I didn't have any work or any idea what I was going to do next. When I arrived in Cannes with 'Jellyfish,' I was already in the middle of shooting something else, but during the more recent visit to Cannes I didn't know what the next project might be. But I know that everything passes, both the glam times and the downtimes."

Do you find yourself on the red carpet troubled that all of this is phony? Thinking, "What do all these celebrations have to do with me now, when I am out of work"?

"Correct. I value the event that I am taking part in and don't downplay it, but neither do I forget my place. I don't think I've become something that I'm not."

To Israeli filmgoers, Adler appeared out of nowhere. After years of living in France and New York, her roles in "Shnat Efes" ("Year Zero" ) in 2005, directed by Joseph Pitchhadze, and two years later in "Jellyfish," made her a sort of pleasant local surprise - a secret destined to be discovered, to burst out at any moment. Previously, she had appeared in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" in a nonspeaking role ("It was absurd - I had my own trailer" ), and later on in two Israeli productions, the low-budget film "Aveidot Umetziot" ("Lost and Found" ) and TV's "Parashat Hashavua" ("Portion of the Week" ).

But over the next few years Adler marked time between minor roles and fringe productions. When she did finally play a lead role, it was in "Andante," the artistic and esoteric film by Assaf Tager. She has been a serial nominee for prestigious awards, including the European and French equivalent of Oscars for "Notre musique," and a French Cesar for "La maison de Nina" - but she has never won. "I didn't deserve it," she says. "I always went to the ceremonies, but did not bother to prepare a speech. I was happy enough to be nominated."

You became the almost-winner.

"There is something to that. There's a sort of missed opportunity. There are people with whom I should have been working, and it didn't happen. I don't initiate. The actor does not initiate, he serves a larger picture and creates within a very specific realm that is given to him. I understand what you're saying. Why didn't it happen? I don't know. I would be happy [if it would], too."

She nearly starred, for example, in the second season of the television series "Betipul" ("In Treatment" ). "There was a period during which we thought she would be the psychologist," says Ori Sivan, one of the creators of the show. "It was a fight between me and Hagai Levi. I wanted Sarah very much, but in the end we left Assi Dayan in that role."

"I did some of the auditions while I was pregnant, and it was interesting, as well as successful," Adler recalls. "We continued after I gave birth, but I was no longer in a condition to do it, and we felt it wasn't working. In the end, they didn't change [Dayan ], out of their own considerations."

'A touch, a presence'

The circle with Sivan was closed when he cast her in his new miniseries "Yahefim" ("Barefoot" ), which premiered this week on HOT (Mondays, 22:30 ). It takes place against the backdrop of the early days of kibbutz life in Israel. Here, too, Adler was assigned a supporting role - but Sivan, who is highly complimentary about her, says this is only a preliminary round: "I very much want to make a movie with her, I just love her. She 'grabs' a film in a phenomenal way. She has a touch, a presence, a magic. Her effect from the screen isn't anything you can put into words. It's a combination of how she looks and of presence."

So why did you only give her a supporting role?

Sivan: "Everyone is suited to a different role, and this is also a significant one, maybe with less screen time. I am certain she has an incredible future, she will yet be 'the' actress."

Shira Geffen, who worked with Adler on "Jellyfish," takes a slightly more analytical tone in speaking about her, but voices no less enthusiasm.

"She had a sort of stoic equanimity about her," Geffen says, explaining why she chose Adler for "Jellyfish." "When she walked into the room we didn't notice it, nor when we looked at her from outside the viewfinder, but she has a powerful charisma that was well suited to a heroine. Much of what takes place in the film is psychological, internal - and Sarah contained all this powerfully; she conveyed her emotional situation through her eyes, her face. There is something hypnotic about her, which does not emerge immediately. You want to know what she's thinking, what is happening there, what she feels. She is a whole person. On the screen, this is magnetic."

In the past few months, Adler has been working nonstop, but has not yet become a household name. For her role in this summer's "Boker Tov Adon Fidelman" ("Restoration" ), directed by Yossi Madmoni, she was nominated for best supporting actress at the Ophir Awards, but as usual did not win.

This month, a new disc is being released by the psychedelic rock band Energya Psychotronics, in which she is a graceful, charming soloist - another esoteric project that one wonders how many people will be exposed to. Meanwhile "Pourquoi tu Pleures" failed commercially in France and was not distributed in many markets. A series of future projects await, however.

Do you feel opportunities are passing you by?

"I can look at it in different ways; it depends on my mood. This morning I was happy; there is a lot of work to do. Yesterday I didn't think about it at all, and when I am pessimistic, in the bad moments, I say 'c'est dommage' [it's too bad]."

"C'est dommage" or "I must find a different profession"?

"I am hoping my future is linked to this profession."

What else could you do?

"I'd be some sort of therapist. If I knew exactly what, perhaps I would already be doing it. Or something else in the creative field. I talk about it with the people who are close to me. It's not only a conversation held between me and myself, it does have some relation to reality. Everything is possible, nothing is a given."

It may be that Adler has simply fallen victim to typecasting. Although she has a rolling laugh and killer smile, based on the more prominent roles she has played to date it's easy to see her as the melancholy, sad young woman, and maybe also as someone in a state of emotional distress.

"I am not a typecast-type actress," Adler protests, "and the film I made in France this summer was not at all like that, although it hasn't made its way here. It is hard to reinvent yourself in Israel, because it is a small place. Unlike other big cities, in which you are anonymous, swallowed up, here people are watching one another, and it is very unhealthy for an actor to be restricted. There is an inter-personal suspiciousness here, a sort of conventionality. I need some sort of new facet to enter the frame."

Why don't you appear in comedies?

"I haven't had the opportunity, it's as simple as that. I don't think that is such different work."

Maybe they're saying: This one is sensitive, fragile, she probably doesn't know how to make people laugh or make people frightened.

"I understand them. There is a lightness about me, but I am a person with a complex, complicated weight, who is all about racking her brains over life, truth and infinity. When you come right down to it, that is primarily what I want to talk about."

Let's talk about it.

"I'll certainly do that when I'm 50. I'll engage in the abstract sciences of life."

Later on in the conversation, she adds: "Maybe I'm a bit of a strange bird. It's not a decision I've made. I am by essence an anti-establishment person. When it interested me, I made a experimental film ("Andante" ), but I didn't make any less money from it than from a mainstream film, so perhaps it was not such a major gamble."

It is a gamble when you compare it to impact. Very few people watched that film.

"That isn't my problem."

Paris is jazz

Adler describes her personal and professional biography in terms of physical settings and geography, which in her case have changed every few years. She was born in Paris in 1978, and is surprised to hear that Wikipedia puts her year of birth at 1976 ("It's a mistake, 33 sounds to me older than my age" ). She moved to Israel at age 10, left high school and returned to France at age 17; from there she went straight to New York, where she began to take her acting career seriously. She returned to France seven years later and then settled in Israel. For the meantime, that is.

"I grew up in a lively place, in a lower-class neighborhood, in the 10th district of Paris, among Asians, Arabs and blacks, in a very cultural, intellectual, bohemian home, with lots of people from all over the world," Adler recalls. "My father was an actor and director, and also a painter. My school was at the far edge of the city, so from age 8 I would take the Metro alone or with a girlfriend. I was an only child, so I kept myself busy on my own, reading, among other things. However, there were also a lot of guests in the house. My mother worked at a jazz club and she had friends from all over the world who came to stay; there were parties and costumes. I didn't have to break any rules; I enjoyed a great deal of flexibility, but there were also boundaries. All of this was anchored by a sense of stability."

Adler's parents divorced when she was little, and she went to live with her mother. The two of them traveled a great deal. When Adler was four-years-old, she had already been to Brazil (she remembers a boy selling ice pops on the beach, "and even then I had a hard time seeing such a little child having to work" ). When she was eight they traveled to New York, where they were mugged in front of their apartment in Brooklyn: "I think I screamed, and that my mother tried to calm me down so that they wouldn't do anything to us because of me. Afterward there was a period of time in which I felt I was not necessarily safe in the world."

At first her mother considered moving to Brazil with her, she adds: "She has friends there, and she wanted a place with a lot of sun, and the French mindset was a bit too square and static for her."

But after two vacations in Israel, Adler's mother declared a "trial year" in Jerusalem, although she kept her options open in France vis-a-vis work and the apartment. "The year in Jerusalem was not simple," says Adler now, but they nevertheless decided to stay after that year. Just to be sure, they moved to Tel Aviv.

"My mother felt that if we remained in France, I would be completely assimilated there. It was important for her to give me something from Jewish history. She sent me to Hashomer Hatzair in France, but it didn't seem meaningful enough to her. She is totally secular and knew that here I would grow into the Hebrew language."

Adler's father remained in Paris, meanwhile. "We stayed in contact as much as possible, through letters and faxes. It was hard."

Both parents now live in France, her mother having returned after some 10 years in Israel. "It's something I miss, but I have become accustomed to living far from people for years at a time," Adler explains.

Nine years ago, her father had a daughter from his second marriage, but Adler does not stay in close contact with this sister. "I also had an aunt who was my age, my father's sister. I don't see her very much, either."

Since she grew up with art all around her, the stage and the camera were never foreign to her: "When I was eight I was with my father at rehearsals for a play, in which I was supposed to play the son of [a character played by actress] Juliette Binoche," she relates, "but in the end the play did not get off the ground."

According to the cinema and television database IMDb, Adler appeared at age 12 in the Israeli television series "Kryat Kivun." "A friend of mine decided to add my personal data to the site. She was herself an actress at the time, and took me with her one day when they were filming, but I don't remember anything about it."

Adler was a good pupil, and even skipped a grade in France. "I loved mathematics and logic. In high school, they were the subjects that came easy to me. And language, too - things you have to be exact about."

In Tel Aviv, she attended the municipal Aleph High School of the Arts, at first in the theater track and subsequently in cinema: "I didn't feel that I was an actress. When you are 13 you don't necessarily know what you're going to do in another 10 years. It is a time for searching and experiencing, and theater really wasn't that suited to me. I wanted to be a child psychologist or an international mediator."

Adler started smoking in high school, and still does (How many a day? "What - am I in the doctor's office?" ). Her scholastic performance also began to deteriorate, from "good" to "acceptable" - until she ultimately bade farewell to the school system.

"[It was a matter of] the urgency of adolescence," she explains. "I cut out in order to travel. I went off to France for a few months, I wanted to complete my matriculation there via correspondence and to start adulthood. I lived alone in a sweet, cheap apartment in the 14th district. My grandparents paid the rent. But then I decided to travel, in order to study."

Adler moved to New York, studied for three years with Lee Strasberg, and simultaneously worked for about a year with "a group of Russians, with all sorts of more experimental techniques."

The Israeli army never called to ask how you were doing?

"I got out of it, through some administrative finagling."

You got married?

"I don't want you to write that, does anyone have to know how or why? It's private. I don't have any guilt feelings. I didn't want to be here anymore, and I went to New York. I knew that I needed a change - to see the world and expand horizons. I always planned to return to France after finishing high school and go to university there, but then I was bitten by the acting bug. In Israel I felt there was a bit of a closed circuit; I wasn't able to dream here about my future."

And in New York?

"You take your problems with you in the suitcase. All the wanderings don't solve the things inside. But the environment does have a strong effect on a person, and New York opened my mind and my heart, and enabled me to search."

It was in New York that Adler also got her first part in a film: the 1998 independent film "Afraid of Everything," which was followed by an appearance as Frances McDormand's au pair in a short film called "Upheaval." In those years, Adler made ends meet mainly through other jobs: "I was a director's assistant on a play in France, in which I eventually also acted, and I taught theater in a school. In the United States I made a living mainly from waitressing, although in the last couple of years there I cared for an elderly woman. I slept at her house, and in the middle of the night got up with her."

From 2004 on, after her appearance in the Godard film, she was able to earn a living from acting alone. However, she says today that she still does not have financial security: "An actor has to have additional sources of livelihood. It's not at all fun and it is wrong that the search for work has to be so strongly connected to making a living. I am not at all the 'businesswoman,' but I think that over the years I will develop more sources [of income]."

You never took a role simply for the money?

"No, that is truly something I would not be willing to do. I prefer to be in deep financial straits."

Adler says she is fairly "spiritual" in nature, "but I don't feel like talking about it." Her spiritualism includes "searching, reading, mainly on my own," and a belief in energies. "Between the thought and the action, you don't see an objective. That is energy. I am engaged in thinking about what makes the forces of the world happen. I have no unequivocal answer to it. I read - from the philosophy of the East to New Age to Judaism."

'Like Elijah'

The numerous transitions Adler has experienced in her life make her feel that her situation is unstable. Even in Israel she is still trying to feel at home. "I don't yet feel that I completely belong," she admits.

Adler has meanwhile built herself a French bubble in the heart of the Levant. She is married to Rafael Najari, a French director she met after returning to France from New York. Najari followed her to Tel Aviv, without knowing Hebrew ("I didn't choose him because of his nationality" ). With their only daughter Elia (pronounced "Like Elijah, but in female form - we simply liked the name" ), born five years ago, she and Najari speak mainly French, the language in which Adler also dreams and counts.

"Elia's strongest language is Hebrew, but when we spend a few weeks in France, her French improves; it is a dynamic thing. It is my mother language, and Elia is also French. I want her options to be open ... I don't see myself not speaking French to her. It's not some sort of bonus, it comes naturally. Her whole family is in France, her grandparents speak French."

Do you plan to stay here?

"I hope so, but I don't know. I have French and Israeli citizenship, and I spent seven years in the United States on a special visa. But on the face of it, I was more alien there than here. That also has to do with the fact that there were a lot of foreigners there. Most of my friends there were not Americans."

Is Israel xenophobic?

"It is a closed country, a country that is growing up. When you are growing up, you don't feel comfortable with the 'other.'"

Usually the Arabs fill the role of "the other" in the national ethos.

"There are also others. Three months after I immigrated I spoke Hebrew, I don't remember that it restricted me ... but the foreignness does exist. It isn't easy to leave everything that you know at age 10, to completely disconnect from the family and the language."

What do you miss most about France?

"Something about the compassion and the people."

Do you feel that you may have missed out on a big career there while you were moving the center of your life to a country with a relatively weak film and television industry?

"No. I work on things that interest me."

Don't actors in France make a better living than they do here?

"That is true, and it is a consideration. In the meantime, I am somehow dancing at the two weddings, as it were, with a foot and a half here and half a foot there. I have an agent there, but a lot of things slip past me because I am not there. It's not always so simple to get on a plane in the middle of life, when you have a daughter and financial constraints as well. I try not to rush things. It is not an ambition of mine to work in France, or to work in general. Every project is its own thing. If it challenges me in terms of the acting, if it is a story I am fond of - if one of these things is present, that is enough for me."

What keeps you here?

"A combination of all sorts of things, it is an ongoing conversation with us. There is potential here, interesting people, and it is a beautiful place. Israelis don't appreciate it enough. I also love Bauhaus very much, and the fact that there are trees everywhere and that the buildings are low."

To what extent can you control the heaviness of your accent? In "Notre musique" you speak Hebrew with a heavy French accent, in "Restoration" it is barely perceptible.

"To a certain extent, not completely. I don't hear it. It apparently stems from the decisions I have made about the characters."

What do you aspire to accomplish in your work as an actress?

"I frequently ask myself what I have to give. One of the things is to develop empathy. To tell stories about different people and to impart a humanity to them."

What are the obstacles standing in your way from becoming a sort of Meryl Streep?

"Nothing, I am still growing up. Sometimes you become set in your ways, you find comfort zones and you avoid choices that will allow you to move ahead. I don't promote myself enough. Maybe I'm lazy. It slows down the process of my development and my creative oeuvre. But it's not as if I want to conquer the world."

What did you feel when they removed you from the posters for "Restoration" in Jerusalem (because they featured photos of women )?

"It is sad, but I only found out about it after the fact. I always find things out afterward. Where would I hear about it?"

Do you read reviews of your work?

"I don't read newspapers that much."

Carla Bruni gave birth, did you hear about that?

"Really?"

You're joking, right?

"No. I live in my own cloud. But I did know she was pregnant." W