Ayelet Zurer | The Backlot | New York Film Academy

Hi! I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you an actress who went from Israeli television to playing several iconic roles in Hollywood. Ayelet Zurer.

Today you guys have so much power to not wait for a casting director to go into a video store and pick up a movie from Israel. You actually have way more control. Your creativity that’s all you need. Just make sure it’s out there.

His name. Is Kal son of El

I know you’re a dangerous man. That’s why I brought a gun. To a dinner date.

You’re not going to offer to buy every painting in here so I can close up early. A guy actually tried that once.

I am guilty of all I have confessed to. However, I do not believe they constituted any wrongdoing.

I want to believe that evil will be punished.

She’s portrayed the mother of Superman and Ben-Hur. The wife of the villainous kingpin on Netflix’s Daredevil and has acted for no less than Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg. You can also see her in Netflix’s Shtisel the surprise international hit. That feels like if the show This Is Us was set in an Israeli Orthodox neighborhood. But before all that her career got two unexpected boosts. In one case by not having to audition and the other by being so good in a not so good film.

I got a break. By entering theater school not auditioning. Which was really up my alley. Because that factor was not something I could handle. And so I studied for three years and I totally fell in love with it. I did a commercial and the guy who had the schools came by because he was also doing casting and he said listen you got to come to the school I mean you don’t have to audition just come and study and I was like OK. And so I started doing theater and did some Shakespeare and. Off Off Broadway and then got a really great job back home in Israel I thought OK. Do Off-Off Broadway for seven bucks and walk dogs in New York or be on a one of the greatest shows on television in my own country in my own language and I went back home and stayed there for a very long time with a really beautiful career. Movies and TV and theater one of the things I’ve done was in treatment you should watch out because it’s really great for writing and acting because it’s two people in one room talking so you can imagine 30 pages every week to learn by heart. That was outstanding and we all thought nobody’s gonna watch that nobody’s gonna watch two people in the room talking to each other and each day is a different patient going to a shrink and then you know I had I had my child and I thought OK great. This is my life this is my career it’s not going to go more than that or less than that it’s great. I was happy and I got a call from a casting director saying you should come and read for a director that I can’t tell you his name for a movie that I can tell you what the name of the movie is very alluring. And she said how why don’t you come and read and I said there’s no way my brain is not working I’m learning 30 pages a week I have a baby. No way. And she said well maybe I’ll give you a hint. And then she said Steven Spielberg. So I was like All right let me me organize some. And I auditioned. Apparently, there was only two actresses he read for these roles. And I got the part. And then the door kind of opened for me to do an international work. And this is the lesson for all of you if you’re acting or anything really in life just say yes to things you know I’ve done a very mediocre movie and the actors were OK. Everything was just fine. Apparently, my role was somehow shining through and it wasn’t even in treatment where you know I was awarded for that or Nina’s tragedies. You know again an award it was just that tiny movie that somehow got to England to a video store that shows how old I am and and the casting director went to look for an Israeli actress and she found that video and she put that in. And I was shining because the whole thing was kind of eh. But I was shining apparently and so that was good for me. And that’s what they saw.

Her TV show in treatment known by its Hebrew name B’Tepul is like homeland a show that started in Israel and then was adapted for an American audience. Her show Shtisel is also currently getting an American makeover. And similarly, Ayelet Zurer herself jumped back and forth from Israeli productions to Hollywood. Sometimes she’s working on massive blockbusters and other times she’s looking for work.

I feel choosing to come here killed for me the love for theater for sure because I could live in New York maybe do that. But in L.A. less. Then on top of that. I am not a person that is easy on leaving the family behind and going to you know a different city to have a great career while my husband and my child are somewhere that was not so television was off. The table for a very long time for me and only starting to become something that I’m OK with. Because it does take you away for a very long time and the contracts that you have you’ll see if you’re fortunate enough they are sometimes draconian you know you can sign up for like seven years. You know it’s like Hey take my kidney. You know. You know it’s crazy I think I think from from like the roles aspect I was able to sort of do many things. The big ones sort of land in the same place but the small things less familiar things are different. The Garcias different and Milada is very different and also the work I’ve done in Israel is very different. So. If I’m lucky enough there’s some years that are great and some years I go OK I’ll have to take what I you know and some years you can actually choose a career the things that are different.

Even if her career has had its ups and downs. Mr Zurer’s approach to auditioning remains consistent.

If I prepare for an addition I prepare as much as I can. The thing is for you guys things have changed dramatically because when I started you used to go into a room with a director. And actually bothered sitting with you and telling you what to do. Now they’re getting tapes. And tapes are being sent all over the world. So sometimes you’ll go to a casting director and that’s great. And sometimes you have to self-tape. So you have to find someone who you are comfortable working with that can get you to the best performance you can have on your tape. You know the good news is that you don’t have so much anxiety walking into a room and having to perform in one or two takes you can do 10 20 and then choose the one that you like right. The other side of this is that you don’t have director to tell you actually I’m looking for something else. Can you do this for me. So again because your responsibility has grown since everything changed. You better expand. You better try this try that and see what works for you and look at the tape and ask yourself what is real. What’s the more natural. Where do I not tried so hard.

Each role requires its own level of preparation. None more so than when she’s trying to capture the essence of a character from another time or another place.

It’s different from each and every role but I’ll choose one because this was for me the hardest one. That was Milada. It’s a. Very long historical story about a woman who actually lived. Around World War 2. I had to study an accent for that I had to study one hundred and twenty pages cause most of the movie I’m in. And I had to find who she was. And why am I telling. So I usually start with the lines. I dig in I dig and dig in and I study them by heart. And then I do the most technical work which is how I sound. If I need a speech coach then I’ll go to her or him and I worked with them and through that voice the placement of the voice I’ll discover a lot of things and make decisions. I usually go from scene to scene and ask myself what this is about. You know what’s the character’s aiming at what is she not seeing. What she thinks she’s going for. But actually it’s not happening I ask all the questions that I can ask about that specific situation and I usually try to find the way in for myself into that world. I mean how do you play a scene where you say goodbye to your family and you never see them again.

I still remember the day you were born. Mother was so sick that father had to run. And get a doctor. Then he placed two in my arms. When I held you you were my first daughter. So much has changed. And now. I’m so sorry. I will never be able to repay you. When you think of me. Know that I am always always with you.

What drives this person. Why do they do that. How can you be so driven to do something like that. So you have to go into history and say OK. I live in a period where I can look at my phone and buy an Amazon dress and not even wear it. But these people actually saw the world in a different way and perceived relationship in a different way. So I have to go back to that. So wherever you go there’s so much to learn and to dig deep that I think for me this is what’s interesting because human nature is endless. It’s like an endless labyrinth. You know you just go down one end and into another and keep asking questions then you get the set and everything you learned and thought you got you got to drop or you’re in trouble because you’ve got to work with the other person and what they give you and hopefully they give you something good and if it is good. Then you really have to trust everything that you have already within you and just be in the moment.

And another thing that helps being in the moment is of course knowing your lines which Missouri explains is far easier for some projects than others.

I discovered that when it’s well-written it’s really easy to learn. It’s almost like one of the ways for me to understand if the material is good. So if something is not working something is not right. Or I’m not getting to the essence of it or. But usually it’s just not right when the material is really really good. You kind of subconsciously. Get it. And then you practice like you practice a song or the guitar just do it again and then you do it again. I find it really helpful to get a friend. Run the lines take a walk. Then come back run the lines again and realize that you know it and then before I go to bed I do the lines and when I wake up I do the lines again because the mind our brain has a very beautiful ability to learn something then stack it somewhere. So when you let it sit. And you don’t panic and run it again and again and again and again endlessly you work for an hour or two hours and then you leave it. And you come back to that. Thing in the evening and then the next morning you’ll know it. Usually. For me. And friends. I sometimes have to pay people to work with me because it’s so boring. You know. I have to I like would you come help me I’ll pay you 10 bucks 15. And so sometimes that’s the way it works because. I learn lines really well when I hear the other person say the line and I understand why I’m saying the lines to him why I’m saying what I’m saying. You know for me that’s how it works.

Ms Zurer explained that she needs to remain focused and present on set. Otherwise she might remember she actually gets stage fright.

One of the things I’ve learned is to be very present because that’s the number one most important absolutely most important thing for an actor. Between the action and the cut so in those moments I was able to eliminate everything that’s out there. The sound the fear the self-doubt the guy who didn’t treat me well you know anything really. The lights. The audience. You know all that stuff. I am not great and talking in front of people. I get better with age but I was really shy. You know if I didn’t have a mask I was not able to have a conversation on a stage with people. There’s no way. So that’s one thing that I’ve learned. And then the other thing is to tell a story what’s the beginning where I’m coming. What do I want to say what the story wants to say. What’s my job in that story. What is my role. What kind of like device am I. And then pull that device and say I’m the one who’s like because of this. It has to be this you know. And once I was able to specify my job in the piece I was having less and less ego about it and questions about it I could just go in and in and in hone in on what it is.

Despite her love of the theater Ms Zurer like many actors still gets nervous in front of crowds which is surprising considering what kind of material she’s performed.

For like two years I ran with vagina monologues. It’s. It used to be shocking 10 years ago. You know. Oh my God. She says. She says vagina you know but it was really about feminism and womanhood and all that stuff. This show ran for three years and I had monologues there were tears every night and laughter every night. I had to find what works for me on a regular basis. This was hard work. This was not just like Oh the camera’s on and let’s just pretend to be and then tomorrow something completely different was really. So that brings something very specific to your professional life I think. And also just the ability to go in and in and in and look for something new and new and new and something else and ask yourself is that it. Is that all I have. Maybe there’s something else. Let’s go in and in deeper and deeper and not be afraid to say dropping this I’m going into a different direction you know because sometimes I feel like as human beings if we find something that makes us happy what people say to you Oh that’s really good. You want to keep doing that same thing just because you’re loved because we all wants to be you want. We want to be loved.

Ayelet Zurer performed in the Vagina Monologues because well she was drawn to the challenging material but other times she has chosen projects based solely on who’s attached. So when certain directors like I don’t know Steven Spielberg ask her to be in a project. She said yes.

Well I said yes to Steven before even reading obviously I had to fly to London to read the script. They didn’t even send it to me. They were so you know and I said yes to Zack Snyder because I wanted to work with him and I thought oh wow Superman’s mom that’s kind of cool. I mean how bad can it be but the material is what I respond to. And it’s also my responsibility really because I read the thing and I know what to do with it or I don’t. And if I don’t know what to do with it I should probably meet with the director and tell them I don’t know what to do with it. If you want we could try. But I mean I can come out of a room and say This one is not for me. And sometimes I go out of a room and say they’re stupid if they don’t take me and they don’t. So you know life is very weird that way you get surprised many times people approach you and say this is for you like Milada a director called me from a guy I never met before said Hey do you want to play this hero. She’s Czech. You’ll have to play English because it’s for Netflix but with a Czech accent and I’m thinking why me of all people why did you get to me. You know. And then I thought maybe because my mom’s Czechoslovakian so he knew. So I met with him. I read the script and it was not good. And I said to him you know I think you need work. You know it’s not ready. And he said No no I know and please help me and we actually worked on it and then I became a producer on it just to it was a whole thing. But I learned from it. But you know he was a first time director I could not I didn’t see his work. He didn’t have any work. He didn’t even have a short I mean he had like other things to show. I had to trust my guts and say this role is actually interesting for me it’s not well written but I feel like I can do something with it and so I went for it and you know so it depends. You’ve got to listen to your gut but gut knows.

Ms Zurer got to see up close. What makes Steven Spielberg Steven Spielberg.

The directors who are phenomenal give you space. They give you space but in the right time they’ll always come to you and help you try something else or advise you with a different approach. I remember in Munich the first scene Steven said this this and this and then also she’s not crier she’s not like a woman nagging and I was like Oh I didn’t think about that.

I tried not to think about you but I couldn’t.

I have the world’s most boring job. What’s going to happen to me.

Well they were just athletes. They went to the Olympics look what happened to them. What now.

Now we’re going to have a baby.

She’s actually you know just a person who puts a mirror to his face. She’s not like oh don’t go. You know that kind of. Because he said he doesn’t like that. He doesn’t. He has that kind of a wife at home and he likes to portray beautiful strong women you know. So I was like OK. That’s great. When a director doesn’t give you what you want. They usually it’s their own anxiety that you need to be able to block yourself from. If they don’t really know what they want or they’re trying to manipulate you in a certain way. I think the best way to go is just go with the flow give them what they want and always know what is the thing that you feel was right for you where you felt the role you felt the truth of it. Sometimes it’s also hard to find the truth. You know there’s. I remember I’ve done Ben Hur and The director came to me and said which take did you like and I said number three and he said no four. I was like really. Why is that because three you were in control. And I said really what happened in four and he said in four you got confused or something happened I don’t know but it was so real that I really liked it. So but he was really supportive to give safe space for your actor is the best possible way to work.

It might not come as a surprise but she loved working with Ron Howard and Tom Hanks on angels and demons. But the pressure of actually getting that role made the audition a little more stressful than most.

The day of that audition you can imagine how stressful this is. I used to walk on the beach and repeatedly say my lines because that’s kind of how I let it sink and sink and sink and sink become really really automatic. I don’t need to think about it so I can see and everything else that’s happening. Then a little seal baby seal was on the beach strangled. Poor thing was almost dying because there was a whole thing you know I did not work. You know the lines were not studied and we called the wildlife and then they came and I went to the theater and they asked me So how was your day. And I told him I saved a seal. So they noticed me you know. I didn’t do that. I didn’t save the seal to you know tell a story but maybe in the back of my mind I kind of did. But we saved the seal and then I went off to a small theater in Santa Monica and the first thing I stumble upon was Tom Hanks and he’s a very tall man very like really charming and very charismatic it was like Hello Mr. Hanks and yes please you know. And we read together and I don’t know what happened but it was really magical. I was not nervous. And. So again there was a struggle apparently. Some people chose me some didn’t. And eventually the people will chose me won and that’s how it goes you know. And of course the shoot was incredible because working with Tom was really something I’ve learned a lot from him. If he has an idea he will save it for the last last minute before the cameras rolling and he will say to the director Hey I thought he wouldn’t like me come in the morning. Knock knock knock. Can I talk to you. You know. No. That’s because the director what I learned has so much on his mind that the last thing he wants is an actress with a great idea. No no no it’s a terrible thing and you know sometimes you in your own space you think oh your little decision or your little creativity is the most important thing it’s not you know. So I learned that from him. That was shocking to me that you have to have patience because patience is not something I have at all. So I used to look at him with awe like the way he would just right in the right place. It was like pretty incredible. And he’s also intelligence his choices are intelligent he’s so funny wise and generous. You know he’s a very he’s a leader you know. So he kind of sets the tone and it’s really interesting to see that if you have a leader the person who sets the tone at the top of the pyramid is how this pyramid is operating. So you want to have solid people around you you know because I have other experiences where it wasn’t that way. And it’s always from the top of the pyramid person there. You know it trickles down and it trickles down light for sure.

Ms Zurer’s journey as an actress brought her to another geektactic adaptation. The Netflix series Daredevil. As the wife of famed Marvel baddie kingpin. She needed to find the humanity in a less than humane character.

The first season she’s a gallery owner who stumbles upon this man who came to buy a painting and it so happens that this painting is called a rabbit in a snowstorm. That represents pretty much the emptiness of both their lives.

People always ask me how can we charge so much what amounts to gradations of white. I tell them it’s not about the artist’s name or. The. Skill required. Not even about the art itself. All. That matters is.

She asks him how does he make him feel to see that painting. And he says lonely.

It makes me feel alone.

And. They fall in love. So when I got this I’m not a genre person. It’s really strange because I’ve done man of steel and you know Superman stuff. But it’s not my thing. I mean I grew up on on European movies with you know small stories and phenomenal photography and definitely no action but I looked at the illustrations the very very old daredevil and I saw where she ends up she ends up in a very very dark place and this is the beginning. So I thought to myself this is kind of like Lady Macbeth where does she start. You know she doesn’t start in the dark place. You know something happened. So for me that’s kind of the journey I took I said we started in the very full of light plays naive happy. I think that’s why he falls in love also. Cause he sees the outside of that. And then. But they both kind of attract each other from the emptiness the void.

In TV a show can go through a number of changes behind the scenes that can completely change the creative direction of the show. So in Daredevil Season 2 Ms Zurer was nowhere to be seen but when she returned to season 3 she actually used this chaos behind the scenes to help fuel her performance.

So what happened with Daredevil is that they had a show runner on the first season and then he got a great job that he wanted to do and he left and they got a different showrunner who wrote something completely different. And then another show runner who I love Eric who wrote that specific season. So. In that time I was actually doing some other things not even thinking about the show. You know I’ve done one season. I was not called for the second one because there was you know I wasn’t in the storyline and then they approached me for the third. So I can’t say anything about the middle part but the third part coming back to the character and trying to create something new with Vince that makes sense and still moves slightly forward for me as a character and what he’s gone through. Was what I was looking for. And so when I met with Eric he said what happened to her where where do you think she’s at. And I gave him some answers you know where from my imagination. He liked it. It was kind of combined into that world. So. When I came back I came back really heavy. You know it’s very strange you know when you have a role that you played in one period of your life then you took some time off. Things happen in life. A lot of things happened to me in those year and a half or so. So a lot of stuff personal stuff you know I was ready to come back and do something else with the same role. So I just brought in you know the weight of being away of questioning and being alone of coming back to a city. You don’t really know what you expect from you know I’ve made I made it personal in a way that’s personal but not because I didn’t come back to the city I don’t like you know like L.A.. But I do hate New York you know. So I sort of used that energy of coming back to the city and into that world and then coming back to Vince who’s a friend of mine by now you know and we work really well together. We don’t need to do much. It’s like I know what he’s doing and what he’s thinking you know. So actually to try to push him away from our friendship was that that was the struggle. You know how to stay cold and reserved and.

Even as daredevil went through multiple show runners. One thing unfortunately remained the same. A lack of diversity behind the camera.

I think sometimes in order to make a change you have to take three steps forward to go back to one step where it kind of you need to be. And so that happened or happening with diversity. A lot of roles are being divided now. Lots of roles that I used to get. Now they’re saying no you’re white I’m like but I’m right for the role. But no you know. So that should happen. You know that’s it’s long due I think. And with women women writers women directors because I mean I don’t think a man can play a woman. So that’s not a problem here. So we’re talking like those very specific jobs right. You can criticize someone because they’re weak or because you don’t like them or because they’re women. These are just words just words. Sometimes it’s envy sometimes it’s just fear. The truth of the matter is that yes I never worked with a female director ever. I’ve been an actress for no once in vagina monologue. I mean can you imagine with a man. Come on. But yeah on movies on television. No. So obviously it’s time. And yes it’s going to take some jobs from men. But what can you do. I mean I love men. I worked with great men. I love women. I think it’s just it’s not fair it’s not balanced. I mean a woman can direct a daredevil. There was no woman on that set.

Ayelet Zurer’s career has taken her all over the world. She’s been part of amazing projects like Munich in part of projects and might have been less than perfect. And through it all she’s made sure never to lose sight of what matters most.

You got to do what he got to do you have to find the balance in life. I feel like that’s the struggle really. I mean most of you are really young and it doesn’t get any better now. It just doesn’t. It just changes. You have to find balance all the time. If your girlfriend is wanting to go to a movie but you have to learn your lines you gotta find the balance because she might drop you you know. But you got to learn the lines because that. So you have to find you know the voice in yourself saying okay what do I do to create a positive life experience where I do what I have to do for myself and for my life and to advance but still have a life you know. So that thing and how do you keep yourself sane in a very competitive reality where you know people who were in school with you now are getting this amazing role and Jeremy Renner who was in this tiny little movie is nominated for the Oscars. You know it’s great for him. Then your turn will come. It’s all about balance and keeping yourself sane and loved and creative.

I have to say that is great advice for everyone. Actor or not we want to thank Ayelet Zurer for entertaining audiences all around the world and for chatting with our students here in Los Angeles. And thanks of course to all of you for listening. She’s got a ton of work over on Netflix whether you prefer to see her in a superhero show a drama set in an Orthodox neighborhood in Israel or in a political drama like Milada. Definitely check it out. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As. Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube dot com slash New York Film Academy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden. Creative Director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Tova Laiter Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYU if they eat you be sure to subscribe an Apple podcast or wherever you listen. You next on.

 

New York Film Academy
New York Film Academy film and acting school offers the best hands-on degrees, accelerated courses, and intensive workshops. Call +1 (212) 674-4300 for more info.
New York Film Academy