Dizengoff Square in the heart of Tel Aviv received a heaping dose of Hollywood glam when a wide red carpet was put down and posters featuring the sweating muscles of Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson were displayed as part of the Israeli premiere of "Pain and Gain."
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The cameras and flashes were all turned on a beautiful blonde – tan, tall and very thin – wearing a clingy dress in deep beige and a satisfied smile. Bar Paly, the Israeli model-turned-actress, with her back to a huge photo featuring her likeness, was there for the recent premiere of “Pain and Gain,” which opens in Israeli cinemas on Thursday, and in which she plays the female lead, Paly’s first significant role on the big screen.
“Pain and Gain” is the latest movie by Michael Bay, the producer and director behind mega box office hits such as “Transformers,” “Armageddon” and “Bad Boys,” and one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. The dark comedy, being distributed here by the Globus Group and coming out this week on Blue Ray in the United States, is based on a real-life story about steroid-crazed bodybuilders in Miami who, in the 1990s, kidnapped a Jewish businessman in order to seize control of his assets. In this frenetic, violent film, Paly plays the femme fatale Sorina Luminita, an East European stripper recruited by the gang that’s determined to pursue the American dream in a particularly unpleasant way.
Eight years ago, Paly left Tel Aviv to try to break into the movies in Hollywood. After a long waiting period, she is now having her big breakthrough. This past year has been especially eventful: Besides playing the female lead in “Pain and Gain,” she filmed two other movies, “Non-Stop” and “Million Dollar Arm,” playing alongside actors such as John Hamm, Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore. She continues to represent Oliver Peoples luxury eyeglasses together with actor Ray Liotta, and has also become well-known in men’s magazines, which include her on their lists of the world’s most beautiful women.
She joins the company of other Israeli women who have in recent years done well in Hollywood, such as Ayelet Zurer (“Angels and Demons,” “Man of Steel”), Gal Gadot (“Fast and Furious”) and Moran Atias (“Third Person”), who all seem to have alluring good looks and feminine strength in common.
“I think the attraction to Israeli women stems from the fact that we’re exotic and the fact that there are many talented and beautiful women in Israel,” says Paly, in Hebrew, on the phone, which she answers in a high-pitched, somewhat childlike voice, and an accent combining an Israeli foundation layered with Russian inflections and some American grace notes. "I think that there is also greater awareness of Israel than before in the movie industry."
She is speaking from her parents’ place in Tel Aviv, where she grew up as an only child. “My parents have always given me whatever I wanted," she exclaims. “Took me to the ballet, the opera, museum exhibitions. I was always surrounded by art. It’s their fault I’ve become an actress.”
Bar was born Barbara in Russia, and moved to Israel with her parents when she was seven. When asked where she was born, she’ll only say that she comes from the Ural Mountains – a 2,500-kilometer-long mountain range - and burnishes her aura of exotic mystery a little more.
In the roles Paly has played to date she has succeeded in creating comic characters that combine her obvious beauty with an appealing sort of clumsiness. She says she has never tried to project any sort of identifying image or brand. “I just like doing comedies, and think that my timing and love for the genre set me apart from other young women who look like me. The actresses I most admire are Cameron Diaz and Sofia Vergara. They’re amazing comedic actresses and also gorgeous. That’s the direction I’d like my career to go in.”
To what extent do you feel you have control over that direction?
“When you’re Julia Roberts you get to choose and say no as often as you like. While I only audition for roles that I like, I have also taken whatever I was offered and was happy for the work. But working with Michael Bay was beyond a dream come true. I jumped at the chance and also really loved the script. Its message is very relevant to what’s going on now".
What do you mean?
“There are no shortcuts in life and materialism in general is bad. The world needs to wake up a little. We’re seeing the results of that materialism in the economic crises. It’s something people need to understand: Greed is bad. The protagonists only want a house and a car; it’s not as if they want private jets or anything. But even so, there are no shortcuts. It’s all about hard work".
What can you tell us about working with Michael Bay?
“He works really fast, and especially in a dark comedy like this one it works really well. He doesn’t give you a chance to become over-rehearsed. You do a couple of takes and then move on to the next scene. He’s very hands-on. From his perspective, this was a low-budget film. We had a scene that had to be shot in the desert with a crew of just 10, and I did my own makeup. Michael wasn’t sitting on some chair far away giving directions. He’s very much a team player."
What other directors do you like?
“Spielberg! Tarantino! Scorsese! And Michael. I’ve always been a huge fan of his. These directors create enormous universes that epitomize the charm of escapism. I also love Tim Burton for the same reason."
How hard is it to make a living as a young actress in Hollywood?
“I have it good. I haven’t bought any yachts lately, and you have to be smart about your money no matter what. The career involves a lot of expenses. It’s a business like any other, just a little crazier. Sometimes, the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t understand why I list many of my expenses as business-related, such as manicures and pedicures …” she says laughingly. “And I really can’t stand mani-pedis!”
How does your identity as an Israeli affect your career?
“I don’t really know how to answer that, because I’ve never been anything else. I’m an Israeli who was born in Russia. My accent certainly doesn’t help. There are some roles that are a no-go for me for that reason. But I don’t think I’m treated differently. I don’t think people say, ‘We’ll give her or we won’t give her the part because of where she comes from.’
“Sometimes people are surprised by the fact that I’m Israeli, and I explain to them that it’s a country of immigrants representing virtually every country under the sun.”
One of Paly’s most striking features – which certainly sets her apart from the run of successful actresses – is her unmediated accessibility. She maintains conversations with people who follow her in the social media (she has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram), is not worried about “liking” or responding to posts, and freely shares the names of her clothes designers, hair stylists and makeup artists. “I try,” she says, “especially when people write such nice and supportive comments. There isn’t that much to hide, and on Instragram people often want to feel that they’re part of a happening.”