Can Israeli actress Moran Atias take Hollywood?

July 2, 2014

As soon as she arrives — beautifully made-up in shades of dark and light, her hair chocolate brown, her dress bridal white, asymmetrical at the thigh and firm at the bust — there’s the distinct feeling in the air that this could be the last lunch Israeli actress Moran Atias might enjoy in relative obscurity. 

A week later would mark the release of “Third Person,” the film she inspired and co-developed with Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis, in which she plays a wild Albanian Gypsy, her highest-profile role to date. Four days after that, she would saturate TV screens as the sly, smoldering wife of a Middle Eastern dictator in the series premiere of “Tyrant,” the highly anticipated FX drama from the creators of “Homeland.” All at once, her world could change, though she’s been headed this way for 16 years.

“You think about [fame], but you don’t really believe that it’s ever gonna be there,” she says, slicing an heirloom tomato and topping it with buratta. 

Since the age of 17, Atias has been propelled by her ambition. After a start in Israeli television in her teens, she moved to Italy to pursue modeling, hoping she’d make enough money to return to Israel and put herself through school for psychiatry. She quickly rose to prominence as a variety-show television host after designers Roberto Cavalli and Domenico Dolce (of Dolce & Gabbana) made her the face of international fashion campaigns. Among her skills, Atias has a gift for enchanting powerful people; former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi reportedly sang her praises to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (“We have a wonderful Israeli girl working on our television,” Berlusconi reportedly said), and filmmaker Haggis liked her so much, he let her pitch him a film idea without any screenwriting experience — and proceeded to write and direct it.

“I didn’t really think it was gonna happen,” she admits of her collaboration with Haggis. She makes no bones about being dogged in getting attention. “I was just an annoying Israeli girl, relentlessly trying to get his interest in doing something together. I just wanted to give myself the opportunity to work.”

She first pitched Haggis an idea while starring in the TV series “Crash,” based on his Oscar-winning film of the same name, about triangulated relationships. “I wanted to understand why it’s so hard to have a relationship and why we’re so afraid of love,” she said. “Because we really are never just pure with each other and clean. There’s always a third person in the relationship — your past, your ego, your demons or another human being.” 

Atias’ third person may well be her drive: Although Haggis essentially wrote the film for her, Atias claims she still had to fight for the role of Monika, a scheming gypsy who manipulates an American corporate spy (played by Adrien Brody) into helping her. “I had a really bad audition,” Atias said, explaining that she was competing against Spanish actress Penelope Cruz for the part. “I said, ‘Look, I can’t portray this character without living her life. This is a character piece. I really need to grow her hair.’ ”

Borrowing techniques from method acting, Atias flew to Rome, one of three cities where the movie takes place, to absorb herself in the Gypsy culture there. She rented an apartment in an elegant, but semi-deserted building in Trastevere and claims that in order to filth up, she didn’t shower for months. “My objective was to go from an object of attraction to an object of disgust,” she said. “To get to that sweat that certain people have? It’s greasier. It takes a journey to look dirty, feel dirty and be dirty.”

The cast of the new FX drama “Tyrant,” including, from left above, Nasser Faris, Alice Krige, Ashraf Barhom, Atias as the Gypsy Leila, Adam Rayner, Anne Winters, Jennifer Finnegan and Noah Silver. Photo by Patrick Harbron/Courtesy of FX

Atias also found other ways to immerse herself. She paid a Gypsy named Buscana 100 euros so she could follow her around and film her routine. “She was the best liar I’ve ever met,” Atias said of a tactic she adopted for the role. She also trained with a local acting coach to perfect her character’s Albanian-accented Italian, even though she’s been fluent in the language since living there in her teens.

Atias takes storytelling seriously, a trait she acquired from her late grandfather, a religious man who regaled her with biblical tales while she was growing up in Haifa. “Every time he’d come back from synagogue, whether on Shabbat or a big holiday, I would try to sit next to him and ask for a story from parashat hashavua,” she recalled. In addition to the endless stories, holidays in her Moroccan-Jewish family were always lavish affairs — “deadly,” Atias said of the food — though it was her grandfather’s presence that imbued the occasions with a sense of holiness. 

“My grandfather had this special ability to allow us to be as religious as we wanted without demanding respect,” she said. “He was so graceful and serene in his belief that it just attracted me. He knew we were coming with our cars on Shabbat and probably smoking a cigarette outside, but he didn’t force us to think his way. He just was himself, and [for] whoever wanted to join, the door was always open.” 

Atias is an anomaly among Hollywood actresses in how at ease she seems in her Jewish skin. And yet, her image is also being built on baring that skin. Her Facebook page includes dozens of photographs of Atias languishing in bed, clad in lingerie, followed by messages wishing her fans “chag sameach,” or showing hashtags with the phrase #madeinIsrael. The prolific nudity can seem jarring in light of the actress’ aspiration to an “intellectually provocative, deeply emotional and extremely profound” film career. “That is not my choice, at all,” she said, in protest of the photos. “I don’t operate the Facebook page. My Instagram is me.”

It is in her choice of roles that Atias may be most calculating. On “Tyrant,” she plays Leila Al-Fayeed, a dictator’s “stunning wife with laser-sharp intellect,” according to the show’s website, “who rules with an iron fist encased in a couture glove,” as W Magazine described it. She is drawn to guarded, seductive women who fiercely disguise their vulnerability. And yet, in the pilot episode of “Tyrant” that aired June 24, her character was quiet, passive, even melancholy — and eventually beaten by her brutish, unfaithful husband.

But perhaps Atias has a thing or two up that couture sleeve. After all, she modeled her character on the real lives of powerful and often ruthless political leaders like Leila Trabelsi, the former first lady of Tunisia, whom the Guardian declared “the Lady Macbeth” of that country. She also read the autobiographies of Hillary Clinton and Queen Noor of Jordan. Getting a handle on these enigmatic figures was difficult; she combed hundreds of pages of Clinton’s “Living History” for even “one intimate, vulnerable detail.”  

“You don’t really meet these women, intimately one on one,” Atias said. “You can read a book or see an image, but most people have no idea what it’s like to be them, or what they’re thinking.” What emerged was a very boundaried character. “Experience has taught [these women] to be much more careful, more watchful of what they say or do. And what they wear.”

It’s a fine lesson for an ascendant actress who could soon find herself in a position of increased public interest and influence.

The day after “Tyrant” premiered, a Jerusalem Post headline declared: “2.1 million Americans tuned in to Moran Atias’ new show” — apparently less interested in the show’s Israeli creator, Gideon Raff, who is also the brain behind “Hatufim,” which inspired “Homeland.”

How swiftly the wiles of a woman can upend the position of power. As goes the character, so goes the star.

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