Shira Haas (‘Unorthodox’) on ‘what freedom means’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Shira Haas just broke through with her first Emmy nomination for her acclaimed performance as Esty Shapiro in Netflix’s “Unorthodox.” The series also earned nominations for Best Limited Series, directing and writing.

Haas spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Riley Chow about how she got involved with “Unorthodox,” performing in different languages and where she sees Esty going next. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Let’s assume that people who are watching this are fans of the show and your revelatory performance. So I want to start at the end and kind of give the people what they want. We only got four episodes with Esty. We don’t know if she finds out about her grandmother, if she stays with Robert and generally what she goes on to do after the finale. So what do you think happens to Esty? 

Shira Haas: Wow, that’s a good question, and it’s the first time I get it, so it’s interesting to think about it. I mean, I think she has a lot of challenges to go through right now. It’s not like it’s over because she has kind of a happy ending. It’s a never-ending challenge to find yourself. I don’t know what will happen. I want to believe that she got into the conservatory and to be honest, as for love interests, I don’t think she’ll be either with Robert or Yanky. The teams right now, like, Team Robert, Team Yanky, I’m Team Esty (laughs). I think she needs to go through a lot more in order to choose this. But she’s definitely stronger and I definitely have faith in her, that’s for sure.

GD: Take me back in the story a bit, because when Esty arrives in Berlin, she doesn’t contact her mother. She doesn’t really have a place to stay. So what’s her plan there? 

SH: It’s so hard to leave a place, especially when it’s the only thing she knows. Those are the only people that she also loves. And I mean, a lot of things she missed. I talked once with a woman who also left a religious community and I remember asking her, “Why did you want to leave?” And I remember she just looked at me and she said, “Shira, no one wants to leave.” You really only leave when you have no other choice. It’s kind of like she’s a survivor, Esty, and everyone that leaves any place like that, not necessarily Hasidic, it’s really about surviving. I think she’s leaving because she needs to leave. She needs to find herself. She has a plan in her head, but she doesn’t leave in, like, “I’ll leave my mother and I’ll be fine.” She needs to leave because she needs to. She has the urge. She has the need to it. So I think it’s really about that. It’s a plan, but it’s also an instinct of a true survivor. She will get through it. What will come will come. I mean, she went through a lot in Williamsburg but also in Berlin she has a lot of challenges that she’s going through. She’s going with it with all of her heart, I think.

GD: Can you talk about the kind of dichotomy of the character where she seems quite repressed but then when she gets to Berlin, then she’s socializing and she’s meeting all these new friends. So on the one hand, she’s this woman who uprooted her whole life. But then, on the other hand, she’s quite reserved. 

SH: Yeah, I mean, also when she’s moving to Berlin, it’s very hard for her to communicate. I mean, everything is so different. She’s being told that she’s different in Williamsburg but she also feels very different in Berlin. She also feels so different and unusual in Berlin and she gets that from people. Even speaking with them in the car, it’s hard for her to be around men in the car and trying on jeans. Not only leaving the past but also processing so many things in the present and in this life, that she’s even using a computer or basic things are so new to her. I hope that answered your question, but please feel free to ask more, if not (laughs). 

GD: No, that’s great. I did want to ask about her fashion choices because I find them quite bold, actually, when she gets to Berlin and she’s not just getting solids and neutrals, she’s got a scarf that is clearly just fashion. It’s very colorful. So where does that come from? 

SH: We had an amazing costume designer, Justine [Seymour]. I remember even before we started the rehearsals and I flew to Berlin, she wrote me this very nice email that she’s really, really into hearing my opinion and to give her what I think. It’s not only an emotional journey in the script and in this character, but, it’s always, but especially here, it’s in the outfits as well. She’s going through a lot with it and also in Brooklyn, she’s wearing very closed outfits. But sometimes we wanted to give a colorful coat, for example, or something that shows that she’s different, that she had this urge to live, and when she’s coming to Berlin, she finally has this opportunity. So even though it’s four episodes and it happens kind of fast, it still takes time. She tries the jeans, for example in the store, but she doesn’t go out with the jeans. She goes out with a skirt. It’s still too early. Only in the next episode when she’s going out into the world more and after what’s happening with Robert, she’s allowing herself the jeans. But it was important for us to show even in Brooklyn, I remember her blue coat that she wore that was so bold compared to other women and then in Berlin as well and she sees also the other musicians. She sees Dasia, for example. So she tries to be like her with the scarf and the things that she sees. She takes it in and she wants to experience it all, but also in her timing, in her process of things, that’s what Justine did brilliantly and we talked about these things a lot.

GD: I’m wondering about your talks with the writers and producers. What kind of initial discussions did you have about the role and the show?

SH: A lot of it. I met them the first time when they came to meet me in Israel and it was kind of like an immediate bonding with the producers that came but also with Maria [Schrader], our director. We really have this bonding that we can talk without talking. She could tell me a word or I could tell her a word and we understand each other. When it was official that I got the role, I remember reading only two episodes and then I got the other two because it was in the process of writing. We talked about those things a lot and some things also changed as we did it. What was really, really special in “Unorthodox” was not only the writing, which I really, really love, but it was also the open conversation. I really felt like my opinion is valued and it was important also for Maria, the director, but also for Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, the producers and the writers and the creators, to hear your voice. It was really, really open.

Also, the rehearsals, we didn’t have a lot of rehearsals of reading and standing and stuff like that, but I had a lot of rehearsals in meetings with producers and with director Maria about how we see the character, what’s happening in that scene, about the journey, and especially the fact that there’s so much scenes in the present days, of course, but also in the past days, and it’s mixed together. You need to have it very arranged in your head what comes before what. For example, I had two scripts. I split into two scripts. I did one of the scenes in Williamsburg and one of the scenes in Berlin. And of course, it’s the same character but I wanted to have that chronological way that the character was going through because you can have, suddenly, a scene from when she was like 17 and then back to the present days. So we really talked about it to understand her actions and what drives her from one way to another. It was really never-ending conversations and they were really, really open and it was very amazing as an actor, of course. 

GD: I understand that you only got a few scenes when you found out about the role initially. Do you remember what they were? 

SH: Of course, I will never forget (laughs). First of all, it’s not only that. In the beginning, I’d been told that I’m going to be in this role for a series called “The Orchestra,” for a German streaming network. No one told me it was Netflix. “Unorthodox” is such a bestseller and only after a while they told me, “OK, it’s Netflix, and it’s ‘Unorthodox,’” and I got really excited. The two scenes that I got, the first one is the first meeting with Yanky in the first episode when we meet each other the first time. The second scene that I got, which was after that, it was a big one. It was written for the audition a bit differently but it was the scene that we’re in the room, Yanky and I, and I scream at him with this monologue about his mother and sister and all of his family always getting into our business and he’s just not listening. So it was those two scenes, which I think is really brilliant choices because it’s good scenes but it’s also to show how it’s just crashed and it’s not working and it’s very different positions of Esty in the script. 

GD: You’ve been on Israeli television for years and in Israeli films. What’s different about shooting and producing American film and television? 

SH: The language (laughs). I mean, people ask me that. Of course, learning new stuff. Here it was English and Yiddish, and in Israel mostly it’s really in Hebrew. Although I did get a chance to also play, for example, in Russian in the last movie that I did and sometimes the budget is different. But to be honest, people usually don’t believe me but it’s kind of different but it’s also the same, in a way, because people are people eventually. I think that’s what our TV series is also saying and if the script is working, it really doesn’t matter what language it is. The fact that this TV series is in Yiddish, like 40 percent of it, “Shtisel,” for example, that I did, is in Hebrew and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is in English, for example, and the fact that these three projects that are so different and shot differently in different countries and different languages, it’s touched so many people hearts. So I mean, that just makes my opinion stronger, that it’s about if the story is working or not. That’s what really, as an actress, drives me the most, telling interesting stories and it doesn’t matter to me where the character is coming from or what language it is or accent. It’s just people and stories. So, of course, it’s different, but you’ll be surprised how not so different it is.

GD: This is largely your introduction to a lot of international audiences. I understand you went to theater school but did you always plan on becoming an actress or did you ever dream of a different career path? 

SH: Oh, no, I did not dream of being an actress. I mean, I always loved theater and I always loved movies since a very, very young age. I was into art. I wrote a lot. I still am. But even as an eight-year-old, I was writing. I loved it. But I was very, very shy as a child, believe it or not. I was shy. I mean, I love to sing. That’s the most brave thing that I did. But I didn’t think of being the center of attention like sometimes actors do. And then I tried to go to high school arts and to go to theater major because I always loved acting and I went to this school and suddenly I was 15 when I started it and suddenly I was like, “Oh, wow.” I mean, that’s how you feel when you find something that you love, you know?

And then, the funny story is that a casting director, which is the same casting director of “Unorthodox,” approached me on Facebook, she asked me to come to an audition. And I was like, “What’s an audition?” (Laughs.) I didn’t know anything. But then I went there and it was “Princess.” It was the first project that I did and I really fell in love with it. Also acting even more, but also specifically with cinema acting, I remember suddenly understanding how you can say so much saying nothing at all. I mean, that project and the director that I had there really taught me that. And maybe kind of like Esty, I found myself suddenly through art. That’s really what I felt like. I mean, I really felt like I found what I wanted to do and that was basically there in this project. And then after that, I got my agents and I started to do it the normal way, and with all the “Yes” that I got, I got a lot of “Nos.” But that was the beginning. It was kind of like a Cinderella story. But it happened like this. 

GD: So now that people have seen “Unorthodox,” what do you think they should be doing next? What do you hope they take away from it and maybe move on to do now?

SH: That’s a very good question. I always said that if someone, some girl or a boy, or any age, whatever, will see this project, this TV series, and will think that they can do differently, that they’re feeling different or even in the small steps, like if I can change something in my life, if I can change relationships, to do something that takes courage, but I can do it for myself. At the same time, if people will see this show and will see this community or people that they did not know before or just had stereotypes in their heads, they will see that we are all people, even though we’re different. I can relate to someone that is so different for me and I can understand her and I can understand also the other characters and they can see that people are people. It sounds like a conflict, but it’s really not. I mean, this character and this story really made me question a lot about what freedom means and the value of freedom. I mean, we see so many people that are so free-spirited and liberated and modern and we might think that they are free. But it’s not necessarily true. I think freedom is kind of like an inner feeling and we need to ask ourselves all the time if we feel that and I think it’s a never-ending journey. So, I mean, if it will make people question that and to get stuff like that on the table and to talk with people about that, if it will stay with them, then I’m very, very happy about that. 

GD: And finally, I wanted to ask about another project of yours. You just had a film at the Tribeca Film Festival online, and it actually picked up three awards, including Best Actress for yourself. So you weren’t able to accept it in person, but I’m wondering how you would have expressed yourself. 

SH: When they gave the awards, I was sleeping because of the time differences and then I woke up with the greatest news. It’s very exciting. I love this project so much. And also, for Daniella [Nowitz], our cinematographer and also for Ruthy [Pribar], the director, it’s so well-deserved. Hopefully, it will come out in this year or so. This movie and this project is also something that’s very, very close to my heart. And it also, in a way, talks about relationships and how we cannot take things for granted from a very different aspect. It’s also about that and I cannot wait for people to see it. I’m very, very, also, thankful for this award.

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