When Art Imitates Army Service

Thirteen years after her demobilization, Nelly Tagar is starring in a film about secretaries in the Israeli army. A candid interview.

Nelly Tagar and I are wandering through the business and software district of Tel Aviv’s upscale Ramat Hahayal neighborhood at midday. Our only aim is to find a quiet, air-conditioned place. Tagar’s firm refusal to sit in restaurants that exude “bad energy” immediately disqualifies 90 percent of the eateries. Finally, we spot an exclusive boutique hotel, the kind that’s frequented by suited guests carrying black briefcases. “Come on,” she says, dragging me toward the bored hostesses in the lobby, “it’s all a matter of self-confidence.”

We spend the next two hours lounging in black leather armchairs, enjoying a buffet meal accompanied by soft jazz. “I told you it would work,” she tells me. “You just have to pretend you belong and they’ll believe you.”

Barely 1.60 meters tall (5 ft. 2 in.), Tagar is also thin and quick-talking. She’s been appearing in local television series – both drama and comedy – for a few years, and theatergoers will know her from well-received productions such as “Romeo and Juliet” and Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” (both mounted by Habima). On the big screen, viewers can now fall in love with her as Daffi, an appallingly spoiled soldier, in Talya Lavie’s just-released film “Zero Motivation.” She’s part of an ensemble cast that also includes Dana Ivgy and Shani Klein.

“I did seven auditions for the part,” Tagar recalls. “We started with a general audition in which 300 girls took part. Everyone was tested in the scene between Daffi and the personnel officer. We were divided into two groups: the good soldiers and the bad soldiers. Then came more auditions and rehearsals, and finally the phone call informing me that the part was mine.”

Her husband, Eitan Sarid, is a film director, she notes, “but he doesn’t 
create parts for me. The movies he makes aren’t suitable for his wife. But, hey man, how about a little favoritism?” she laughs.

Tagar is fully aware that “Zero Motivation” is a quantum leap for her career, though she says the production wasn’t easy: “A movie like this in Israel is something of a miracle. At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, we were known as the lowest-budget competitor [the film won the best narrative feature award at the New York festival]. We had no time or money to waste on laughs during the shoot. We came to do battle, to defeat time and the sun, too. Gung ho!”

What was your own army experience like?

“I had a lot of hassles in the army. I went in late – suddenly girls just a few months older than me are telling me to salute them. On top of that, my father died two months before the start of my service. It felt like I was being inducted from a parallel universe. I didn’t understand the connection to my life.”

Didn’t you want to wait a few months to try and get over your father’s death?

“On the contrary: serving in the army helped me to get away. Not to be in a family zone as the big sister. It was an escape to a place where no one knew anything about me, and I had all kinds of possibilities. It took me seven years to acknowledge the crisis of my father’s death and recover from it. You have to acknowledge the difficulty, the suffering, and treat it. I didn’t want that. I wanted to disappear.”

Were you a rebellious soldier, like Zohar – the character played by Dana Ivgy in the film – or were you spoiled, like Daffi?

“A combination of the two. I remember that I wore a black blouse under my uniform, and when someone told me to take it off, I just laughed in her face. I was made to wait hours before being let out on furlough, and was punished in other ways too. After having been a Girl Scout-type, I decided to play the role of the girl who doesn’t give a damn. ”

Tagar is one of the new crop of young Israeli female actors: Fewer gossip column appearances, more theater matinees and television dramas. She agrees that something is happening locally, but at too slow a pace for her. “It’s hard to be a young person in Israel these days,” she says. “Everyone who was born in the late 1970s or early 1980s feels the lack of opportunities. The pie is very small, the 
people are very talented, and being a woman doesn’t make things any easier. These days, most of the lead roles go to men. I’ve acted in a great many projects, and I’m always someone’s girlfriend. Enough! Let them be my boyfriend for once.”

Is the rise of women’s cinema in Israel having a trickle-down effect, such as the availability of roles?

“That subject comes up a lot in conversations with Talya [Lavie]. A lot of people tell her, ‘Hey, you waited a long time for this movie.’ But she didn’t wait. If she had been a man and had a screenplay and was a graduate of Sam Spiegel [Film and Television School in Jerusalem], it would have been a lot easier to give her 3.5 million shekels [just over $1 million] to make the film. I remember that in 2009 Tzipi Livni said in an interview that as a girl, you can’t allow yourself to be less than marvelous, whereas guys don’t feel that way. We have to be an integral part of the industry, because we are part of the society. We’re not there yet, but yes, there is a change.”

Have you had thoughts about a career abroad?

“That’s a dream, but at 31 you’re
already an old lady in Hollywood. I have European citizenship, but if that were my goal I would already be there. I feel that my ace in the hole as an actor is the use of language and the ability to express myself, so why give that up?”

What’s the goal, then?

“My dream is to do stand-up comedy. I literally drool when I see Adi Ashkenazi. She is incredibly funny, her stuff knocks me out.”