ART Etc. / 'I'm My Own Biggest Critic'

Daniela Kertesz didn't mean to become a television star before the age of 20, and is now appearing in the Barbash brothers' new series. How does this make her feel? Mostly, like switching to theater.

At five in the evening, she comes down to the street wearing a white skirt and silk blouse. "I see myself more as a lost child," she declares after taking a seat on a long wooden bench. She wants to get this point out there right off the bat. Then she lights a cigarette and smokes it slowly. "I feel very fortunate with all that's happened to me," she adds in an apologetic tone, "but I don't feel like I'm an actress. I feel more like a lost 19-year-old girl who got caught up in all this. I have no idea what makes me keep going to auditions."

In the shadow of the surrounding buildings, amid the noise of motorbikes zooming by, after four intensive and successful years in which she acted in the drama series "Adumot" ("Reds"), "Mishmoret" ("Custody"), "Masakhim" ("Masks") and "Le'ehov et anna" ("Loving Anna") - Daniela Kertesz is searching for some order in her fast-paced life. She looks at herself and isn't sure where she's rushing to, since she has yet to figure out the right direction. Despite her meteoric rise, she is full of doubts and disbelief.

A few weeks ago, Channel 10 started airing the series "Haemet ha'aroma" ("The Naked Truth"), created by brothers Uri and Benny Barbash. Kertesz, who stars alongside Lior Ashkenazi, Yoram Hattab and Yevgenya Dodina, plays a beautiful 17-year-old who vanishes suddenly from her home. The role spoke to her, naturally: She, too, wants to disappear sometimes.

"After 'Loving Anna,' which was filmed a year ago, I decided to stop, I didn't want to keep on working in television. It's not fun for me to act on television. I can't stand to see myself. I know that I could have done each thing differently, better. Anytime I watch myself in shows that I'm in, it's an occasion for me to put myself down. My self-esteem is very low. I'm my own biggest critic. Every time I watch myself, I ask: 'Just what were you doing in this series?'"

Not to make light of her misgivings, but at her age Kertesz apparently can't really stop. Not many recent high-school graduates receive a phone call from the Barbashes. "I really wanted to work with the Barbash brothers," she says, taking a sip of the ice coffee she's brought along. "I think it's important to work with people you admire, and now that we've been filming I know it was the right thing to do, that I was right not to give it up. Working with them was different."

How?

Kertesz: "For example, I wasn't given a monologue to rehearse for the audition. They asked me to prepare a monologue that was like the blog of a missing girl. I thought a lot about what to do so I wouldn't come up with something awful. I started going through blogs on the Internet. When I was browsing I came upon a blog by this girl who called herself an alien. I read everything she wrote. It felt close to me. Her anonymity spoke to me, her desire not to be exposed, her hope that people would not talk about or react to her. Gradually, I created my character, partly from me and partly from her. When I came to the audition, I sat down in front of the camera and said: 'I am an alien, if you go into my blog, you can hear about my parents, about sex and about my double life.' Benny and Uri got it, and apparently it grabbed them."

Kertesz always wanted to be an actress. By age 10, she could feel that desire stirring within her. "I went on a trip to Paris with my mom then," she can't help smiling as she recalls the story. "We went to see 'Maria Callas,' about the legendary opera singer, and the presence and charisma of the actress completely fascinated me. It was a spectacular artistic presentation: a single actress on the stage with a very bare-bones set. I remember the feeling I had there in the big, fancy theater. I didn't like the idea of sitting in the audience, among the crowd. I wanted to be the one that people were looking at, the one on stage."

Through a series of supporting roles, she managed to establish herself as a dramatic actress. Despite her tough self-criticism, she created intelligent and sensitive portraits of adolescent girls. Uri Barbash says he was immediately captivated by Kertesz, and that it couldn't have been any other way. "Casting is always a matter of alchemy," he says. "I saw a lot of candidates for the part, dozens, but for me the choice is almost always about falling in love."

What is it exactly that attracted you to her?

Barbash: "Daniela touched my heart. She belongs to a generation that has a bunch of very talented people. When I was searching for the actress to play her character, I was looking for someone in whom I could recognize the types of qualities possessed by poet Yona Wallach in her youth. There was something very rich and unexpected about Wallach, a type of character that's both an angel and a devil. She was thrilling, one of those young women who make your pulse race. I felt that I found those qualities in Daniela. She's mesmerizing, spellbinding. In certain emotional situations, with the right lighting in filming, she just tears up the screen."

Daniela Kertesz spent her childhood in Jerusalem, the youngest child of well-to-do parents who gave her everything. "I grew up in Yemin Moshe - a self-contained neighborhood, without streets," she explains. "There was lots of greenery and stone steps. I mostly remember myself going around barefoot, collecting pine nuts, roaming about, looking for hiding places."

She studied dance from age three, and attended the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, but was wary of acting. "I was a shy kid for whom acting was a very well-suppressed dream."

The summer before Daniela was to enter ninth grade, her family moved to Tel Aviv. Her father is architect Gabriel Kertesz, known for his work on the development and preservation of neighborhoods such as Yemin Moshe and Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem, Hameyasdim Street in Zichron Yaakov, and the aqueduct in Caesarea. Her mother, Dorothy, was the owner of the Ariel art gallery in Jerusalem in the 1980s, and comes from a family of diamond dealers and Holocaust survivors.

"Both of my parents are artists," Kertesz emphasizes. "My father came to Israel at age nine from Transylvania, and my mother was born in Belgium and came to Israel at age 20. I think my mother has had a big influence on the artistic direction I've taken, on my artistic loves. My mother tongue is French because my mother spoke French with me until I was pretty big. Our home was full of pictures and paintings from her gallery. Even now it looks more like a museum, crammed with art books and editions of Shakespeare and Jean-Paul Sartre that were printed many years ago."

Perhaps this explains the slightly foreign air she projects. "Actually, I don't watch Israeli movies very much," Kertesz admits carefully, opening her green eyes wide. "I don't really relate to Israeli culture. Or music. Songs in Hebrew seem strange to me. European culture speaks to me a lot more. I love films like 'Jules et Jim.' I've seen that Truffaut movie hundreds of times. I think Jeanne Moreau is a phenomenal actress. She has that magic an actress has to have. Audrey Hepburn, too, especially in 'Paris When it Sizzles,' is a marvelous actress that I love to watch on the screen."

Her arrival on our screens happened almost by chance. "It was a stroke of luck," she says. "My sudden entry into the world of acting began one day when I was visiting my brother in Tel Aviv. In the stairwell of the building, I met Esther Kling, the casting director for the series 'Reds' that was going to be shown on the Children's Channel. Esther was just on her way down from visiting her parents. We had a brief conversation and she suggested that I come to the auditions. I agreed. I thought: What have I got to lose?"

Kertesz was just 14 at the time. She came to the audition prepared to try out for a supporting role, only to be informed that she was wanted for the main role - of a 15-year-old soccer player who's kicked off the boys team and decides to start an all-girls' team. "Reds," which aired for two seasons and in 2005 won an award for the best children's TV program, exposed the bashful girl from Jerusalem to the Tel Aviv showbiz industry.

Kertesz: "Most of the actors were kids, I felt like I was in summer camp. I really enjoyed it. I wasn't aware then of what was going on around me. I didn't think about what I was doing as work. I was a girl who came in and recited lines. I didn't even feel that I was fulfilling a dream."

With the move to Tel Aviv, her parents wanted her to attend the Alliance School in Ramat Aviv, but Kertesz refused. "They wanted to me to study languages, that was very important in our house." She convinced her parents to let her attend the Ironi Aleph School for the Arts. But it wasn't as easy there for her as she'd expected.

"I didn't find my place there," she remembers. "In the first year, in ninth grade, I had a big problem with being absent. The theater class was like a circus; every kid there was dreaming of being an actor. I don't have a theatrical personality and I didn't like being there. I always sat in the back and got lost in my own thoughts. During that year, 'Reds' was broadcast, too, and that created an awkward feeling. I didn't want people to be jealous of me, but that's what happened. It was very uncomfortable. My teacher even told me that I was being condescending. She didn't understand that it was hard for me to find my place in this very tight-knit group. The next year, I switched to a different track."

Instead of theater lessons at school, Kertesz attended the acting workshop of veteran actress Dina Doron, where she began to blossom.

"She came to me as a little girl, very shy," Doron recalls in a phone call from Budapest. "From the moment I saw her, I recognized her huge talent. It just erupted from her. She entered a group of students that were older than her and fit in very well; she wasn't frightened. There's something very mature about her that apparently influences the way she acts. Daniela always understood what I wanted from her and kept on progressing. She was always looking for what was credible. She was sensitive, not giving either too much or too little in her acting. I found that she had a great deal of sensitivity, intelligence and the ambition to work hard. This is not so common with girls her age."

Kertesz has fond memories of Doron. "She taught me the basis, the Stanislavski acting method. She got me to ask questions, to understand how to read a play the right way, to understand the role of the character I'm playing. I loved going to Dina's lessons, even if I was always a little nervous, with butterflies in my stomach. There, for the first time, I really felt the sensation of acting. I remember that after a dialogue from 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' I felt like I was in a daze. After I sat down, I didn't remember exactly what I'd done; it was like something had been erased. But then I knew that that's how it feels when I do good work - I don't remember exactly what happened to me. Since then, that's a feeling that I aim for. If everything's under control when I'm acting, then apparently I did something wrong."

After "Reds," new and tempting offers started coming in, but Kertesz wasn't in any hurry to get carried away, and carefully chose her next roles. "I always made the professional decisions myself," she says as a group of Jerusalem yeshiva students crosses the street, blowing shofars. "I never tell anybody when I have an audition. I don't consult with my parents about parts. I do it alone. I was offered the chance to be a host on the Children's Channel, and to take part in a new production of 'Sesame Street,' but I turned it down. I didn't want to get sucked into the world of children's entertainment."

In the course of two years of going to auditions, there were also things she wanted, but missed out on. "There were some shows where they were ready to cast me, but I didn't want to do it, like the telenovela 'Bubot' ['Dolls' - about the modeling world]. And in other auditions, I just didn't make it, like for the show 'Betipul' ['In Treatment']. That was the first time I really cried over a part that I didn't get. I practiced a lot for it, I was called back twice, I felt like I was really close to getting it, and in the end, the answer was a resounding no."

The 2006 series "Custody," created by Irit Linur, was just her cup of tea. "I felt like I moved up a level. Suddenly I was acting alongside Orly Zilberschatz, Miriam Zohar, Hila Feldman, Nathan Dattner, Sarit Vino-Elad. It was scary. I played Tamar, the young daughter of a twice-divorced father, but here, too, I wasn't so aware of everything going on around me. I didn't think about it too much. It sounds really weird, but I just got all caught up in the text. It was a very clever script by Irit Linur. I was hooked on the script; it was fun to work with."

Right after "Custody," Kertesz was cast in "Masks," a drama series on the Yes satellite network about relationships that occur in a video chat room. She was an 11th-grader at the time, deeply involved in studying for her first matriculation exams. "Masks" turned out to be a breakthrough for her: She played a soldier involved in a destructive, drug-addled love affair with a Russian student living in New York. But after this part, people were ready to typecast her as a moody, melancholy and irresistible teen.

"'Masks' made waves. It was a strong concept," she says. "But afterward all I kept getting were offers to play the part of an unstable girl, the kind who likes to undress and do drugs. It didn't suit me. I didn't want to get stuck doing that. It's important to me to find a balance in the roles I play, mainly because I want to do new things, and not keep doing the same thing. I stopped myself from following this direction that was being set out for me. The problem is that from all my not wanting to go down the dark and dirty path, I ended up going over to the other side. In 'Loving Anna,' I went back to playing the innocent, virginal-type girl. A girl with a questioning look who doesn't know anything."

Between "Masks" and "Loving Anna," Kertesz decided to pass on military service. "It was a dramatic decision that went counter to the spirit in which I was raised," she says, visibly uncomfortable. "It created a problem because it was always taken for granted that I would enlist. But I chose an alternative, nonstandard path, not like everyone else and not what I was supposed to do. My father served in an anti-aircraft unit, my brother is a Cobra pilot and my sister served as an instructor for volunteers from abroad. At the time when my enlistment process started, I thought I'd be able to get a position writing for [the army magazine] Bamahaneh or for the air force's bulletin. When I wasn't accepted, I decided not to enlist in the general Israel Defense Forces track, even though my father expected me to."

You sound embarrassed.

"Because I know it sounds spoiled. I know it. I have no specific explanation for my decision. But I felt that dealing with a hierarchical framework and submitting to authority would be hard for me. Of course, I would have become a clerk who makes coffee and answers the phone. I thought it would be a shame. I didn't enlist because I didn't see myself spending two years in khaki, in a job where I wasn't really doing anything to contribute to the country's security. It seemed like a waste. But I plan to contribute in my own way."

What do you plan to do?

"In the winter I want to start National Service or else volunteer in a human rights organization like B'Tselem, or in the Vertigo dance troupe that works with the disabled. But it's not finalized yet. What is for certain is that I'm in a big conflict because it's important to me to be involved, and I know that being an actress doesn't exempt me from basic duties. It also seems pretty absurd to me that I should sit in cafes all day while my friends are serving in the Nahal [brigade]."

What do you think about all the fuss that's made about entertainers who don't serve in the army, like the whole Bar Refaeli story, for instance?

"I don't think they should be pounced upon this way. Everyone makes his or her own choices. [Model] Bar Refaeli is not a representative of the state; she only represents herself. To me, human liberty is paramount. But that's how it is here, people like to follow other people."

Meanwhile, Kertesz admits, she's looking for other work: "I have a problem with working in television. It's a process that leaves me isolated," she says as she lights another cigarette. "I learn the script at home and the filming process is very brief. I'm looking for work that's collaborative and ongoing. That's what I like. I feel like, without meaning to, I've moved farther away from what I really want to do, which is theater. Despite my success so far, I want to remain loyal to myself, to return to the path I originally wanted to follow. Ever since 'Maria Callas,' I've been stuck on the idea that I want to study acting in Paris. Not because I want to have an international career. Even if I end up working in a fringe theater in Paris, on some tiny stage, I'll be happy."

Meanwhile, Kertesz has just moved back to Jerusalem, to a rented studio apartment in the Talbieh neighborhood. "This is where I want to do my volunteering," she explains. She says she does not have a boyfriend. In Tel Aviv, she enjoyed going to neighborhood bars and hearing "good music," but she wasn't big on the nightlife. In her free time she likes to read books on anthropology and sociology. The last one she read was "Male Domination" by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Since finishing high school and her matriculation exams, she's had a lot more time on her hands; between one job and another, she feels a little lost.

"When I'm between productions, I'm tossed into a big void," Kertesz admits. "It doesn't seem normal to be in between productions. I don't like this empty void. I want to get up in the morning and do rehearsals for a play, act in the evening and come home at night exhausted. I'm envious of actors who are older than me and are busy all the time, who run from doing one show to rehearsing for another, whose schedules are completely packed. With television productions I don't have that. I come in for a month of filming, and then it's over. The editing process begins and I just wait around. It kills me to wait. I think it's different with a play, where the actor receives applause at the end. I'd like to feel that, the applause after a long day of work."