'Bimbo Roles Don't Appeal to Me'

Fashion icon-turned-actress Melanie Peres is at a crossroads, after the recent premiere of her latest movie, 'Naomi.' She'd rather hang out with horses than go to auditions

What interests Melanie Peres these days is horses. Don't talk to her about modeling. When she talks about horses, her eyes light up. Let her spend time in their presence, curry their coats, pet them, touch them, look at them and communicate with them. This, she says, is all she wants now. For more than 20 years Peres was a star in the world of modeling, someone who became a local fashion icon and - to the delight of the paparazzi - had love affairs with a series of male celebrities.

Vered Adir

The conversation with her is being held on the occasion of the release of a new film in which she stars, called "Naomi" ("Hitpartzut X" - "Outbreak X" - in Hebrew ).

Just days after she turned 39, and after more than two decades of work in the field of modeling, that chapter in her life has come to an end, she declares: "For a year now I haven't modeled. Enough. How much can one do? There's a limit. Clearly, now and then, I might agree to model, if they offer me something interesting or particularly lucrative. It's all a question of money. But in general, I had enough; it's boring. I've been doing it since the age of 16 or 17. It's wearing."

Peres was born Melanie Mariam Thanee Frasch in 1971 in Berlin. Her mother left home when she was 3 years old, and she remained behind with her father. In the wake of tensions between them, she left home at 14 and after that she immigrated to Israel to join her mother. They lived at an absorption center in Upper Nazareth, in difficult conditions. Two years later Peres moved to Tel Aviv, where she stayed even after her mother left the country. Traces of a foreign accent still accompany her Hebrew.

Over the years Peres achieved fame as a model, and in the past decade she has also tried her hand at singing and acting. She participated in Sagi Tzoref and Elad Cohen's Project 30, in which she sang with Eviatar Banai, Assaf Amdursky and Yaheli Sobol (her partner in the hit single "Running Fast" ). Two years ago she and Amdursky issued a cover version of the song "Mad World," which was part of the soundtrack of the local hit film "Lost Islands."

She also appeared in the television series "Abbaleh," "Case Closed," "Telenovela Ltd." and "Noah's Ark," made a cameo appearance in Eran Riklis' film "The Syrian Bride," and played a leading role in Ariel Talpalar's film "A Different Sky." Now she plays the title role in "Naomi" - the debut feature by director Eitan Zur (creator of "The Cameri Quintet" and "The Bourgeoisie" shows ), based on a book by Edna Mazya.

The plot follows Ilan (Yossi Pollak ), a 58-year-old professor of astrophysics at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, who is married to the young and beautiful Naomi, and keeps track of her obsessively. One day he begins to suspect she is having an affair behind his back. He follows her, observes that she indeed is in a relationship with another man (Rami Heuberger ) and is driven to do a terrible deed.

While the complex character of Ilan, his uncertainties, thoughts, anxieties and actions are the focal point of the movie and set forth before the spectators, Naomi's character remains cryptic, says Peres.

"In the book, everything is narrated by Ilan, via his obsessive mind, and the pace is pressured. Naomi serves as an object, a muse," she explains. "This is also the case in the film. There is mystery in the air, but the story is ultimately Ilan's, about what happens to him. Naomi remains an enigma, and everyone can project his fantasies or desires onto her."

Says Mazya, who wrote the screenplay: "Sometimes they say about someone that she's so beautiful, how is it possible she can be so intelligent and mature? But Melanie is like that. We were together in Venice ['Naomi' was screened as part of Critics' Week at the film festival there in September], and though I'm 61 and she's much younger, I felt as if she was really my friend. There's a secret in her. She doesn't give herself all away and this leaves something intriguing. I think that's also her strength as an actress."

In one of the film's scenes, when the two main characters go away to celebrate Ilan's birthday, his good friend Anton (Suheil Haddad ), a police detective, comes to visit them at their bed-and-breakfast. Before he leaves, Anton goes over to give Naomi a kiss: "I am simply stunned - it's impossible to get accustomed to your beauty," he says, gazing at her in wonder. She looks back and smiles an embarrassed little smile. "Tell me," he asks. "What's it like to be such a beautiful person? What do you feel?"

Asked about this scene, Peres smiles. "This morning I imagined you would ask a question like that, and I said to myself that beauty, as far as I am concerned at least, becomes something professional. From an early age people said to me, 'You'd be great in modeling,' and then I started working at that. Working means automatically that you don't enjoy it, you don't enjoy the way you look ... [and] if someone else doesn't like the way you look, they don't hire you; you aren't worth anything and there isn't much you can do to change the situation. You could of course have plastic surgery, but let's not get carried away.

"A model is always developing complexes - whether it's about her nose, or blemishes, or endless other things ... When you're young, you want to look more like a woman and then, when you mature, the wrinkles start so there's not a moment when you are in fact comfortable with who you are."

What if you had engaged in some other profession all those years?

"Probably I would have felt much better about myself. Listen, I see the difference in attitude between the modeling world and film. In the world of cinema it's a lot easier. In modeling you're an object, a piece of meat, there will always be someone more interesting than you, more beautiful or more symmetrical. There will always be those who make you feel you aren't beautiful enough. It's insane, and also cruel. An ugly world."

Do you think modeling has harmed you?

"I assume every profession has pluses and minuses. It enabled me to live and to live well - it gave me a good career, a lot of confidence in certain things, and it opened doors for me. But psychologically, it's left me with scars. This might sound awful, like a cliche, but you are simply never good enough. When I was younger or modeling abroad, they weren't interested at all in who or what you are. Girls who start working in this world are like soldiers. It's possible to shape them completely, their personality. At that age they go through the abuse and they're molded. ... It's terrible."

'A second chance'

Peres said she enjoyed attending the screening of "Naomi" in Venice, but she was disappointed with the premiere in Israel ("Here someone stands in shorts and an undershirt, presents the film and then there are a few commercials. Commercials at a festival!" ). Moreover, local critics have not been enthusiastic about the movie.

"One can give relevant, constructive criticism ... [but] somehow in this country they are quick to tear down everything," says Peres. "There's no regard for creative people. There is something very unpleasant here in releasing a film, releasing a song or modeling. Something cruel in the reaction you get. There's a feeling that people are standing by with a hatchet, killing everything that passes by. If I could make one film a year and only go to festivals abroad, I would be very happy."

So what is the solution?

"I don't have a solution at the moment. I'm enjoying myself an awful lot [at a horse farm] in Rishpon. All of a sudden I want to get out of the city; I don't want to encounter paparazzi the moment I leave the house. I've got some kind of anxiety that I need to work on. It isn't healthy."

Is that new?

"I've always been a bit misanthropic and agoraphobic. But this year, ever since I stopped modeling, it's become more extreme. I want a good vibe. If you want to tell me something that isn't good, say it with the intention of helping me improve the situation or myself. There's a sort of lack of good will, a sort of unkind, very belligerent reality. People hate one another here and it's only getting worse."

Peres is married to stage, film and television actor Itay Tiran, 30, who in recent years has found himself at the heart of political discourse in the country. He has been attacked for acting in the films "Beaufort" and "Lebanon" even though he himself didn't serve in the army, and for having signed the petition of leading theater people declaring they will refuse to perform at the new culture center in Ariel.

Peres: "I stand behind my husband 100 percent. I think we don't need to perform there. Not me - I am not a theater actress. But I think everything on the other side of the Green Line is not Israel; we have no reason to be there. Clearly, it's every person's right to say where he is prepared to perform. He isn't the theater's slave."

Itay has also been attacked in connection with not doing military service.

"That is something I can't go into. You'll have to ask him."

But you didn't do military service either. How do you see the attacks on actors with respect to this issue?

"I never heard anything so ridiculous anywhere else. It's simply totally ridiculous. An actor can't play a soldier because he has never been a soldier? And what about all the Hollywood actors? Were they in the army? What is this nonsense? It's just an attempt to move the focus to something irrelevant. Young people today don't want do the army, not because of actors, but rather because the army isn't protecting them. Period. What about Gilad Shalit? Where is he? Some sort of right-wing and extremist thing has arisen here; I can't understand where this fascist thinking and stupidity has come from."

And if we've already mentioned Itay, isn't it hard to turn to acting when you live beside such an admired actor?

"No. Yes. He is very generous. He is very supportive of me. And it's surprising, but he is even proud of me for my role in this film. He really came out of the screening very proud. His criticism is important to me, but working with him on roles - that, no. Because the simplest thing - for example, going over a script together with him - embarrasses me. I feel like a terrible actress, so I don't do this with him. I realize it doesn't bring the best out of me. At least until now. But as far as other sorts of help - it's wonderful having a person like that in the house."

In the meantime, Peres is taking advantage of the hiatus in her career in order to rest, but she knows this won't last indefinitely. "I am at a crossroads at the moment. I am giving myself time, but at some point I will have to make a decision, because right now I am not doing anything to advance my career. I am not going to auditions or talking to my agents. What they are offering me - auditions for bimbo roles - doesn't appeal to me. And generally, because of the fear I have of auditions, I simply try to avoid them."

She says she would like to act in more movies, but isn't counting on it. "They don't make many films here and in the ones they do make, there aren't many roles for women. And the fact that I'm not Israeli - and you can see and hear and feel this - means [many roles aren't] suitable. But I feel that as I mature and become a woman, the chances increase. This isn't the first time I've been at a junction like this, and for sure I will reach a point where I get assertive and decide to go in a certain direction."

At the moment, Peres asserts, "I'm totally into horses. Nothing else interests me ... A friend of mine works on a ranch in Rishpon and invited me there. As a girl I rode, jumping in competitions; it was my sport. My whole childhood in Germany centered around horses. So when my friend and the owner of that ranch invited me to work with them, I agreed immediately. Twice a week I work there, taking care of horses. This is really therapeutic for me. I feel I'm going back to where I should have been, to the thing I chose as a child, but which was impossible because I came here, and because of the circumstances at home then. Now I feel I've been given a second chance."

In her bag she carries a book in English about training horses; in the meantime she isn't even riding. "Let me clean stables, I have no problem with that. The farm has a wall around it. There are horses, there are only women and no one cares how you look. What's important is how the horses look," she laughs. "There's something in this animal that amazes me. And just to be close to it, to develop communication with it, for me it's heaven. Really."