Steven Spielberg selected her to star in Munich, and she calls one of her co-stars, Tom Hanks, “kind and funny.” Our multitalented covergirl, Israeli-born Ayelet Zurer, enjoys a flourishing career in films and in television. Her star is glowing internationally and her performances are getting rave reviews.
Travelgirl: Shalom, we are delighted to have you aboard! Let’s start in Tel Aviv, where you were born. When you were growing up what were your aspirations? Did you envision becoming an actress?
Ayelet Zurer: I never dreamed of being an actress. I came from a working-class family. There were no performers. My dad worked for the government, and my mom taught cooking twice a week. I was a shy girl, but a clown when I was with my close friends. A group of my friends decided to audition one day for a youth performance group, and I came along — not thinking much of the audition. To everyone’s surprise, including mine, I was the only one who got in. I had played the piano for two years, and apparently because of the piano, I could carry a tune and sing.
Like most girls my age, I took ballet. I was a dancer. I guess the performance group saw something in me that I didn’t know was there, and that was the beginning. Years later, once I had made it and gotten my first lead in a film, my grandma grabbed my arm and proudly whispered, “Your talent came from me.” She dreamed of becoming an actress, but her father refused, saying over his “dead body.” My family was from Slovakia, and being an actress in Slovakia at the beginning of the 20th century was not an honorable profession.
TG: You served, as most Israelis do, in the Israel Defense Forces. You were a member of the Northern Command’s entertainment troupe. Will you talk about your experiences?AZ: After short mandatory training in the Israel Defense Forces, we were divided into troops. I was in the entertainment division, and after a rehearsal period, I performed almost every night all over the country. This lasted for two years. All the performers were between the ages of 18 to 20. We met and served with young people from all walks of life, which is, to me, the essence of serving. The opportunity to meet people who came from all walks of life while also being responsible for yourself and the show you are performing in is a great way to learn about yourself and the world. After my service, I decided not to pursue show business. I wanted to try something else, but I booked a job right after my release, and thankfully, I was sucked back in.
TG: You studied acting in Israel at the Yoram Loewenstein Acting School, and when you moved to the U.S., you studied at the famed New Actors Workshop in New York City. Do you have any mentors who inspired and helped you?
AZ: I studied there for three years and then went to George Morrison’s professional evening classes, which you had to audition to get into. I was admitted, and it was the most effective teaching for me. It spoke to me on a different level. George Morrison used physiotherapy, neuroscience and psychology to support everything he taught; he spoke to my intellect, and it all clicked. Living in the big city, seeing shows on Broadway, his teachings, acting in a different language — suddenly I realized that you have to really want it in order to make it. It made me hungry to learn and become better.
TG: You’ve worked with legendary, incredibly well-known and immensely talented actors. Noted director Steven Spielberg gave you your first English-speaking role when he cast you opposite Eric Bana in his Oscar-nominated film Munich. I’ve read your mother was hidden in a convent in Slovakia during World War II, which saved her life during the Holocaust. She immigrated to Israel when she was 16. You have a powerful heritage, and I know the story of Munich meant a great deal to you. Would you please talk about this experience? What did it mean to you, and how did you prepare for it?
AZ: I was a child when the horrendous event took place and when the movie came out, a lot of pain surfaced evoking emotional conversations. Only then did I realize that even though more than 20 years had passed, the effects of the massacre still existed. Meeting Steven Spielberg was amazing. I auditioned for him for Schindler’s List when I lived in New York, and although I didn’t get the part I thought: Well, that was it; my one chance to work with him. You can imagine the joy I felt when I got the call that the part in Munich was mine. I had given birth to my son a few months prior and was not expecting that call. We all flew to Malta, and after a day of hair, makeup and wardrobe, I was escorted to the set to meet Steven. He was incredibly warm, and later on, when we rehearsed, he asked me what I thought about one of the scenes. I hesitated but then decided to say what was on my mind. He listened and then said to me, “Yes, I think you are right. I think we can do better.” He changed a fundamental moment in the film. I was in awe of his openness and inclusiveness. He is a joy to work with, a mensch. He is also one of the most intelligent people I know. He’s a fair and responsible human being who understands that stories affect us as a society. He truly cares. He is the only director I’ve worked with who called me to explain why he took a scene of mine out of his final cut. He explained how hard he tried and how much he loved it, but the scene just couldn’t fit in. When the call was over, I was impressed by his expression of kindness and humanity.
TG: You’ve starred opposite screen legends with Tom Hanks in Angels and Demons and with Russell Crowe where you played Superman’s mother in Man of Steel. You worked with Vincent D’Onofrio on Marvel’s Daredevil. You’ve acted in dozens of films both in Israel and in the U.S. What’s the most memorable experience you had working in these films?
AZ: Vince [Vincent D’Onofrio] is a beautiful talent who should win an Oscar one day, and he is a very good friend. And, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks; he’s one of my favorite actors. He was in a few of my all-time favorite films. So, it was phenomenal to get the part, but then to work with him meant I had to be as fast as he was. Tom Hanks is kind and funny, as everyone knows, but he is also undeniably one of the sharpest of knives. You have to up your game when you work with him. It was a crash course on how to behave on set. One moment, in particular, is forever engraved in my memory. He told me the story of how Forrest Gump became the movie it is. The story is his to tell, but I can share that it shaped the way I think about waiting for the call to come versus creating your own path.
TG: What a career you’ve had thus far. I loved Shtisel; you played Elisheva in the hit Netflix series about an ultra-Orthodox Israeli family. I’m anxiously awaiting season three. Please talk about this role. It’s a Netflix favorite.
AZ: Ha! Elisheva. She was a pure poetic character who has a very interesting relationship with love and death. [She lost two husbands.] She was a person whose tantalizing allure perhaps comes from being a muse. I loved the writing on that show. The ultra-Orthodox part was a stretch for me. In fact, while working on that show, I traveled for the first time to Me’a She’arim in Jerusalem, which is a very, very closed ultra-religious neighborhood where Yiddish is spoken more than Hebrew. The experience was eye-opening. I was able to meet people that modern secular Israelis usually don’t usually come into contact with. The success of the show is that even though it tells the story of people from that ultra-orthodox society, it tells their story with no judgment and a lot of poetic humor.
TG: Please talk about your role on the highly acclaimed Apple TV+ limited series Losing Alice. Critics have called your performance brilliant and a work of art.
AZ: Thank you! That’s always great to hear. Alice is an artist, a mother and a wife who has everything but is unaware of the stagnation in her life. One evening on the train back home from work, she meets a young writer who is about to shake up everything she thinks and sends her into the rabbit hole of passion, creation and destruction. It’s an eight-episode, limited-series thriller on Apple TV+. I love the comments people say to me after watching Losing Alice; the discussion is always intriguing.
TG: You are multitalented. You are also a writer, an illustrator and a producer. Which role best defines you?
AZ: I am a person who has to be expressive in one way or another. I love art. I love storytelling. One day, I hope to combine the two.
TG: Travelgirl readers want to know, do you have a favorite travel destination, and what’s on your bucket list?
AZ: Madagascar is one of my much-loved places, and I hope to go back one day. I love the place, the environment and the people. I want to travel to Alaska and hope to see the icebergs — praying they are still there. I also hope to travel to Peru and Brazil.
TG: Is there one item you never leave home without when you pack for a trip?
AZ: Yes. Sunscreen, my notebook and a black ink pen.
TG: What’s been your biggest obstacle since moving to America to star in films?
AZ: There are many obstacles, but I always like to look at the glass as half full, not half empty. I can say that traveling out of your comfort zone is the best way to live a full life. Life in motion — it has absolutely taught me so much about myself via failure, success, love, self-love and freedom of thought.
I really think regardless of the surroundings I’m in or what’s in vogue, the ability to work with people who are different than I am and [who] might think differently has expanded my horizons. These are just some of the wonderful things that have happened with the challenges. In fact, one of the things I cherish and try to teach my son is to take thoughtful risks. I think it’s a growth enhancer.
TG: How do you balance your busy career with raising your son and making time to be home with your family?
AZ: Like every woman who has both a career and a family, I juggle and I am fortunate to have a great support system. We have the 10-day rule. If we travel, we try to meet every two weeks. My son used to travel with me everywhere when he was younger, but now that’s starting to change. And unfortunately, I’ve passed on some job opportunities that meant being away for a long period to a place that didn’t work for the family.
TG: Is there a particular charity you would like to mention?
AZ: I am an advocate of Jordan River Village. It’s an Israeli overnight camp for children living with chronic, genetic, life-threatening diseases and children with special needs. There is no charge. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Bedouins, wealthy, poor, religious, secular, regardless of their religion — this is one thing that makes them the same — a specific disease or disability. There’s a network of 30 similar camps around the globe associated with Paul Newman’s The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and SeriousFun Children’s Network.
TG: Last, do you have any sage advice for those hopefuls around the world who aspire to walk one day in your famous footsteps?
AZ: Follow your passion. Study something new, and challenge yourself. Surround yourself with people who make you feel loved no matter what, and love them just the same. Listen to your gut feeling. If you stay present, you will know what is right for you and what is wrong. Meditate (it helps clear the noise) and limit your social media intake. Say thank you every morning.