For the 2020 Power of Young Hollywood Issue, Variety profiled three young stars making an impact in the entertainment industry. For more, click here.
Long before Shira Haas drew universal acclaim and an Emmy nomination this year for her portrayal of the daring Esty Shapiro in Netflix’s “Unorthodox,” she co-starred in the Israeli drama “Shtisel,” about a sprawling Orthodox family in Jerusalem. As Ruchami Weiss, the oldest daughter in a family of six kids, Haas plays the character as steadfast and kind, with an undercurrent of anger that can ripen into rebelliousness. In December 2018, Netflix started streaming the two seasons of “Shtisel” that ran on Israeli television in 2013 and 2015-16, making the show an international phenomenon. As a consequence of that popularity, “Shtisel” began filming its long-delayed third season this summer.
“To be Ruchami again is amazing,” Haas says during a recent conversation from her home in Tel Aviv. “I gave up the idea of a third season, and suddenly it came back.” The series is being filmed on a set in Jerusalem according to COVID-19 protocols. Behind-the-scenes images posted by Yes Studios, the producer of “Shtisel,” show the crew and cast in masks, befitting the arduous demands of production in the time of coronavirus. “You’re seeing all the people you know, but you can’t hug them,” Haas says. “There aren’t a lot of people on set, and everyone is very careful. Definitely weird; it’s definitely different. But yeah, you know, the things we do for art!”
This turbulent, upside-down year has seen Haas’ global breakout with “Unorthodox,” the captivating Netflix limited series based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, and created by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski. Released on Netflix on March 26, early in the COVID-imposed stay-at-home orders, the show was a gripping, inspiring must-see — and a life-affirming antidote to the streaming service’s other zeitgeist hit of that moment, the pestilential “Tiger King.” The show received eight Emmy nominations, including for limited series, writing, directing, casting, costumes and music (two of those) — all in addition to Haas’ for lead actress.
But even if “Unorthodox” stans had not seen Haas before, she was no newcomer. The 25-year-old actor has been doing things for art since she was 16, when a casting director discovered her — a theater student at the elite Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts — on Facebook, and invited her to audition for the lead in the movie “Princess.” Haas’ next on-screen role was “Shtisel,” and she’s worked continuously since, in Israeli (“Broken Mirrors,” “Asia”) and international movies (“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” “Mary Magdalene”) and on Israeli television.
In conversation, Haas is thoughtful, but quick. She wants to write and direct, and speaks admiringly about women she’s worked with, among them “Zookeeper’s” Jessica Chastain and Natalie Portman (who directed her in “A Tale of Love and Darkness”). For now, there’s “Broken Mirrors,” the 2019 film for which she was nominated for an Israeli Academy Award for best actress, which comes to VOD in the U.S. on Sept. 22. She’s also the star of “Asia,” a mother-daughter drama that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, which Menemsha Films bought for theatrical distribution. “But who knows what will happen with cinema?” Haas says.
To cast Esther Shapiro — the character around which all of “Unorthodox” revolves — Winger, Karolinski and director Maria Schrader looked all over the world. The actor not only would need to bewitch audiences (as all leads should, ideally), but would have to sing, play piano, know English — and, most daunting of all, learn Yiddish, the primary language of the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which 19-year-old Esty abandons to start a new life in Germany. The project was on an accelerated turnaround. Winger — who met memoirist Feldman at the school their kids attend in Berlin — and Karolinski began writing in November 2018, and Netflix wanted the show delivered by the end of the next year. They needed the perfect Esty. “We felt at a certain point, if we don’t find this person, we’re going to have to postpone production,” Winger says.
Having looked in Europe and the U.S., they turned to Israeli casting director Esther Kling — the same person who first discovered Haas on Facebook. “Shira was one of a whole bunch of young women who tried out for the role there,” Winger says. “And it was unanimous. Practically all of us jumped up and started crying.”
Haas had been told by her agent that she was auditioning for a German TV series called “The Orchestra.” After her first audition, the agent called her. “‘So are you sitting?’ And I was like, ‘Yes?’” she remembers. “She told me, ‘So this is not “The Orchestra” — it’s “Unorthodox,” and it’s for Netflix. It’s a lead role. And they really, really loved you.’”
Winger, Karolinski and Schrader came to Tel Aviv to see Haas, and to audition actors for other roles as well. “Here comes Shira, who’s just a superstar,” Winger remembers. “We only showed one actress to Netflix for the part of Esty.” When executives asked if they could see other actors, the team offered none. “We’re like, ‘No, there are no backup choices! She’s the one,’” Winger says.
One reason for Haas’ singularity is her ability to express complicated, subtle emotions. “We always say that she always has two things going on on her face at the same time,” Winger says. Haas, citing “Unorthodox” and “Asia” as examples, describes the urgency she feels when she connects to a role: “When I just read a few scenes — I had this inner feeling of need. I need to tell it, you know?”
“This is a story about a woman trying to find her own home, and has struggles finding it — and eventually finding it within herself.”
Haas is friends with Amit Rahav, who plays Esty’s weak, childish (but ultimately good-hearted) husband, Yanky. They met through mutual friends 10 years ago, and always discussed working together. They talked on the phone the night before he was auditioning for Yanky, a process that required a chemistry test with her. “We did our lines together, you know? I don’t think Anna knows it!” Haas says. (Recently, Rahav posted an Instagram video of the two of them watching the Emmy nominations. Haas flinches in frustration when the similarly named “Unbelievable” is read out, but they then jump up and down in exultant, screaming delight at “Unorthodox” being nominated.)
For Haas, her work on the role was just starting. She moved to Berlin in March 2019 to begin her transformation into Esty, which included learning how to play the piano, singing lessons, trying on wigs and rehearsing. She worked with costume designer Justine Seymour on the wardrobe, which ranged from Esty’s head-to-toe coverings in Williamsburg to the modern clothes she begins to embrace after falling in with an eclectic group of music students at a Berlin school who show her what her life could be like. (In one of Haas’ favorite scenes, Esty tries on jeans in a store, and likes what she sees — then leaves in a long skirt. “She is fascinated by it,” Haas says. “But wait! Not there yet.”)
Eli Rosen, who plays the family’s rabbi on “Unorthodox,” was also the show’s cultural consultant. Haas learned Yiddish from him — “from scratch,” she says — in Berlin. She listened to tapes they made of the dialogue over and over. She wanted to learn Yiddish so well “that on set, if I want to emphasize a different word, or I want to change something, I’ll be able to do it,” she says. There were times she doubted she’d achieve that goal. “I remember I was sitting with Amit, and we were like, ‘How are we gonna do it?’” she says with a groan. “There were a few days of, ‘Oh, my God, this is not going to happen.’” But by the end of the process, she was exploring Yiddish poetry. “You come to it very, very open, you know? Tabula rasa, if you know this phrase,” Haas says.
Esty is only starting her new life at the end of the four episodes of “Unorthodox.” We don’t even know if she gets into school after her transcendent audition for a scholarship, when she throws her whole body into singing — the song is played earlier in the series, during her wedding to Yanky, and is a powerful reclamation. Because of the number of actors watching Esty’s audition, as well as the number of cameras, “it was a big day,” Haas says. “I remember the first take, my voice was even shaking a little bit — in a good way. I mean, I was stressed. It was probably the scene I was most excited and nervous about.
“This is a story about a woman trying to find her own home, and has struggles finding it — and eventually finding it within herself,” she continues.
This past spring should have been a series of public coronations for Haas, with the worldwide debut of “Unorthodox,” followed by the premiere of her movie “Asia” at the Tribeca Film Festival. She was supposed to travel to Berlin and Lille, France, to fete “Unorthodox,” then to New York for Tribeca and then on to Los Angeles for meetings — none of which happened. Haas even won the award for best actress in an international narrative feature for “Asia” at Tribeca — virtually.
During those chaotic days in March, before the scope of the pandemic became clear, “I had, like, one second that I was upset — maybe a few minutes, even,” Haas says. She then snapped out of it, and now feels like experiencing the reception for “Unorthodox” from home has been a good thing: “I want to believe it also kind of helped me to process it, you know? To take it in, to appreciate it — not to be in sort of like a race.”
There will be plenty of time for all of those things, as Haas — whose earliest memories are of being treated for the kidney cancer she had between ages 2 and 5 — knows well. This is only the beginning of her career.
“She’s just a very deep, intelligent young woman,” Winger says. “She deserves everything that’s going to come her way from this.”