Not Just Gal Gadot: This Israeli Actress Is Making Her American Dream Come True

With a leading role in 'Imposters' alongside Uma Thurman and a part in 'Prison Break,' Inbar Lavi talks about making it in Hollywood while staying obscure in Israel

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Inbar Lavi in 'Imposters.'
Inbar Lavi in 'Imposters.'Credit: Ed Araquel/Bravo
Maya Benita, City Mouse
Maya Benita, City Mouse

She’s among the most successful Israeli actresses in Hollywood, but here in her own country, she isn’t that well known. Her anonymity in Israel may at one time have annoyed Inbar Lavi, but now she actually sees it as an advantage.

“I came on a visit to Israel and went to a cosmetician in Bat Yam, who used ingredients that burned my face. Had I been abroad, the paparazzi would have filmed me. In Israel it’s much more relaxed.”

With a leading role in the American TV series “Imposters” (broadcast on HOT and Cellcom TV) alongside Uma Thurman, she also appears in “Prison Break: Resurrection” (Yes VOD). So it’s not surprising that paparazzi and fans wanting a selfie pursue her in the City of Angels. At 30, Lavi is fulfilling her dreams, but the beginning was not easy.

She was born in Holon to divorced parents, and as long as she can remember she wanted to be an actress. “On every holiday I would put on plays for my parents. I played Moses and Pharoah during the Exodus, I prepared costumes and I forced my father to film everything,” she says. “I was embarrassingly exhausting.”

She studied dance at the Herzog High School for Science and the Arts in Holon, although dance wasn’t her field. “I always wanted to be an actress, but I was embarrassed to say so, and somehow I found myself in the dance track. I’m very competitive and I wanted to be the best in that field too, although it didn’t really speak to me.”

She watched American TV series religiously and worked in video libraries. “There were lots of cinema nerds who to this day are good friends and who taught me a lot,” she says. “I would absorb every piece of information from them.”

Lavi wanted to join the IDF theater group, but was disappointed to discover that the army had designated her to be a VIP driver. “That was a real downer that I didn’t know how to take, especially because I’m such a perfectionist and that’s the last thing I wanted to do,” she admits. In the end she didn’t join the IDF.

Why didn’t you join the army?

“The army decided not to draft me for health reasons, because I had a low profile. I was relatively fit and didn’t expect that. Maybe it was because of knee problems, or because I smoked, maybe because of the situation at home when my parents divorced.”

Do you regret it?

“Regret is a waste of time and energy and doesn’t do a thing for me.” And so at the age of 17, when she finished school, Lavi boarded a plane to New York to try to break into the U.S. entertainment industry.

How did you dare take that step? Weren’t your parents opposed?

“I worked very hard to get good grades and I didn’t ask for anything except for them to trust me and wish me well. If they were nervous they hid it, and when I was nervous they knew how to strengthen and support me. Because it’s such a dramatic step it spurred me on and I wasn’t willing to let myself off the hook.”

As soon as she landed in the Big Apple, Lavi found work as a waitress, in order to save money and study drama.

How did you feel when you arrived in New York for the first time?

'I hung onto Hollywood by the skin of my teeth and at first I fought over every piece of bread.'

“I felt very small. It was freezing cold. You don’t see light, only the snow, the darkness, the aloneness and the homesickness. The tomatoes tasted different, and nobody understood my jokes. I freaked out and it was very hard for me.”

In New York she lived in an apartment with roommates, until she was asked to leave and moved to a hostel. There she had to share a shower and a bathroom, which were infested with mice. “After standing on your feet all day long, you have to wait your turn for the shower. Everyone there was from different cultures. I didn’t know how to digest it.” Then the restaurant where she was working went bankrupt and she didn’t have money to pay for the room. She had to leave the hostel, and even spent a freezing night on the New York subway.

“All around me homeless people were sleeping, and I tried not to fall asleep because I didn’t know what would happen to me if I did. It felt like a kind of test. I knew that if I could climb out of that situation, anything was possible.”

Inbar Lavi attends the Los Angeles special screening of 'Prison Break' Season Five March 29, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif.Credit: Richard Shotwell/AP

After that night Lavi found a new waitressing job, and a co-worker told her about an Israeli commune in Brooklyn. Lavi immediately decided to join it. “We were eight people in a basement, we all came from the dumps and did hardscrabble jobs,” she recalls. “We spread mattresses in the living room and collected furniture from the street. But it was a dream. Good company, a guitar, schnitzel on Friday – what more do you need?”

Proving herself

After two months, she packed a suitcase and moved to Los Angeles. There she applied for and received a full scholarship for the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute. “I worked hard there, maybe the hardest I’ve ever worked,” she says. ‘I didn’t even know if I’d be good at acting and it was important to me to prove myself.”

Two years later, having finished her studies, she was accepted in a theater production of “King Lear,” where she played the part of Cordelia. She also met her agent and a period of auditions began. “I hung onto Hollywood by the skin of my teeth and at first I fought over every piece of bread. Later I got very small parts.”

In between there were appearances on TV series like “La Familia,” “CSI: Miami” and “Sons of Anarchy.” But her big breakthrough came this year, when she won the lead role in “Imposters,” a series on Bravo, a U.S. TV network. The series has just been renewed for a second season, and the network submitted her name as a possible candidate for an Emmy award for best actress.

“With ‘Imposters’ I finally felt I had gotten something I could sink my teeth into,” she declares. “It’s a dream come true and I couldn’t ask for a more fulfilling and challenging experience. It was something I didn’t expect. A real surprise.”

In the series she plays Maddie, a beautiful, mysterious con artist who puts on an act and deceives the unfortunate men (and women) who fall in love with her.

Uma Thurman also stars in the series. How was it to act alongside her?

“It was amazing. I’m a fan of hers. She’s one-of-a-kind and she’s always reinventing herself, even after over 20 years in the field. She’s an admirable woman and she wasn’t a diva on the set at all. ”

Aside from actresses of Thurman’s stature, Lavi also became friendly with the lead actors on the set of “Prison Break: Resurrection.” In its new season, returning to the small screen after eight years, she plays Sheba, a Yemenite woman.

She says she took the part mainly to go to Morocco, where it was shot. “I’m half Moroccan and I’ve always wanted to go there. This was an opportunity to work there and an experience I’ll never forget,” she says. Lavi has been living in the U.S. for 13 years, and comes to Israel for short visits only. Despite missing her family, she prefers life in L.A. at the moment. “I have a house, a pastoral landscape, I have good friends. Everything is much more convenient. They are no battles over parking, no traffic jams. It’s much simpler.”

And if you are offered work in Israel?

“I’ve been offered jobs in Israel and I’m conflicted – on the one hand my heart wants to go to Mom, and on the other I’m very busy in the U.S. and the schedules clash. But I don’t rule out work in Israel. At the moment I don’t have a partner, and tomorrow I may fall in love with a guy who lives in Israel and decide that I want to return.”