Unorthodox's Shira Haas Is the New Face of Israeli Cinema

CUL_PS_Shira Haas
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for CHANEL

"I sometimes felt mature for my age. I'm not saying it to compliment myself, but that's why I was drawn to acting."

In the past few years, Israeli actress Shira Haas has delivered career-defining performances in a number of projects, including her Emmy-nominated performance in Unorthodox and the international hit series Shtisel (both available on Netflix). The kicker is, she's only 25. "I sometimes felt mature for my age. I'm not saying it to compliment myself, but that's why I was drawn to acting. I could show stuff within me that I couldn't necessarily show in my daily life." Now she's showing even more range in the film Asia. Haas plays Vika, a teen facing her own mortality because of an illness while also finding a connection with her mother, Asia (played by Alena Yiv), before it's too late. "I'm excited to finally talk about Asia, because it's one of the projects—if not the most—that I felt very emotionally connected to." The connection paid off: the film took home nine Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, including one for Haas as Best Supporting Actress. In the end though, part of why Haas' characters have had such impact is because of one thing: soul. "When something has soul, it doesn't matter that the character is different from you."

How did Asia come your way?

I remember I got the description of the movie and there was this feeling, this spark. This one was especially meaningful for me. It felt like fate. And I had this chemistry test with Alena. I was blown away by how much we look alike. There was this feeling like it was meant to be the two of us together. I'm very excited to finally talk about this project, because it's really one of the projects—if not the most—that I felt very emotionally connected to.

With Asia and other new voices coming in Israeli cinema, are more stories being told from groups not historically represented?

There is a lot more. What I've found amazing in Asia is that, of course, it's Israeli. There's no question that it happens in Jerusalem. You also have a picture of Israel now with Russian immigrants and with Gabi, the Arab nurse. At the same time, it's very universal. We have the Ophir Awards, the Israeli Oscars, and it was the year with the most number of women nominated. Something is changing, and I think Asia is proof that it is changing and getting better. There are a lot of new voices and a lot of new directors and new cinema.

Vika is added to the list of characters you've portrayed who, against the odds, boldly forge their own paths. Is this a quality you respond to in a character?

It's about bringing complex characters, sometimes vulnerable, or fragile to the screen. Whether it's a physical condition like Vika or an emotional condition, you try to show its complexity and how they're trying to overcome it. I could show stuff within me that I couldn't necessarily show in my daily life. I guess these things that I see in them I also see within me. Maybe that's why I'm attracted to these characters, besides the fact that they're awesome characters. [laughs]

Did you expect Unorthodox to become as big of an international hit as it became?

I remember the first time I understood it was a big thing. During COVID, I went out to my balcony here in Tel Aviv and looked outside and I saw from other buildings my face on several TV screens. That's how I realized it exploded. But I did not expect that. I always believed in the show and in the character, and I felt the magic, but it's still a show that's mostly in German, and a lot of it is in Yiddish. I'm also concentrated while I'm working, so I'm not even thinking about the day that it will be out there for people. Unorthodox exploded in the most beautiful way, and I think it's beautiful proof that when something has soul and shows a complex picture, then it doesn't matter that the character is different from you, because you still manage to see yourself within this person, which I think is even more interesting.

Shtisel has legions of fans, with Jews and non-Jews alike. What do you think it is about the series that makes it so popular?

There are so many great shows from all over the world! I don't want to turn on my TV and see only what's familiar, or what I can immediately relate to, or to see myself in. I think it's way more powerful to see what you don't necessarily know a lot about. We are curious in our heart, and I can relate to this and that and we all have dreams and hopes and failures and disappointments. You see people you know—religious people in the case of Shtisel— you read the news and you know the stereotypes, the conflict, and then you see it on the screen and suddenly your heart grows and there's more empathy. I think Shtisel is such a well-written show by two people that also came from this world. I was like 17 when I started Shtisel; who would have thought that this beautiful show would become such a worldwide hit? I'm very proud of Shtisel.